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Baudelaire on the Political and Humanitarian Power of Art: An Open Letter to Those in Power and of Privilege

“Art is an infinitely precious possession, a refreshing and warming drink that restores the stomach and the mind to the natural balance of the ideal.”

Baudelaire on the Political and Humanitarian Power of Art: An Open Letter to Those in Power and of Privilege

A generation before Walt Whitman wrote about why the humanities are essential to democracy, the great French poet, essayist, and critic Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821–August 31, 1867) made what remains the most elegant and increasingly timely case for why those in power and those of privilege should use their resources to support art and embrace it as an invaluable political and humanitarian tool.

In “The Salon of 1846” — the sequel to “The Salon of 1845,” the critical debut that launched 24-year-old Baudelaire’s career as an art reviewer — there appeared a piece titled “To the Bourgeois,” later included in the indispensable 1972 Penguin anthology Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature (public library). Baudelaire, whose father was a civil servant and self-taught artist, issued what was essentially an open letter to the ruling class — he defined the bourgeois as “king, law-giver or merchant” — urging the privileged and the powerful to acknowledge and advance the project of art as essential to a healthy society.

Portrait of Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844
Portrait of Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844

Baudelaire begins with a clear awareness of the power of flattery in persuasion:

You are the majority, in number and intelligence; therefore you are power; and power is justice.

Some of you are “learned”; others are the “haves.” A glorious day will dawn when the learned will be “haves,” and the “haves” will be learned. Then your power will be complete and nobody will challenge it.

Until such time as this supreme harmony is ours, it is just that the mere “haves” should aspire to become learned; for knowledge is a form of enjoyment no less than ownership.

The governance of the state is yours, and that is as it should be, because you have the power. But you must also be capable of feeling beauty, for just as not one of you today has the right to forgo power, equally not one of you has the right to forgo poetry. You can live three days without bread; without poetry, never; and those of you that maintain the contrary are mistaken; they do not know themselves.

[…]

Enjoyment is a science, and the exercise of the five senses demands a special initiation that can be achieved only by willingness to learn and by need.

And you need art, make no mistake.

Art is an infinitely precious possession, a refreshing and warming drink that restores the stomach and the mind to the natural balance of the ideal.

Aware that lofty ideals may remain an unpersuasive abstraction, Baudelaire appeals to the self-serving tendencies of the powerful, pointing out art’s concrete usefulness in their daily lives and casting it is a domain of knowledge and experience that is rightfully theirs. Enlisting a sort of reverse psychology, he tickles the power-hungry impulses of the bourgeois and rallies them to reclaim art from the “monopoly” of the artists in order to reap its benefits in their own lives:

A keener desire, a more active reverie, will at such moments prove a relaxation from your daily strivings. But the monopolists have tried to keep you away from the fruits of knowledge, because knowledge is their counter and their shop, to be guarded jealously. If they had denied you the power of creating works of art or of understanding the techniques used in their creation, they would have been proclaiming a truth that you would not have taken offense at, because public business and trade absorb three quarters of your day. As for the leisure hours, they must therefore be used for enjoyment and pleasure.

But the monopolists have decreed that you shall not have the right to enjoyment, because you lack the technical knowledge of the arts, although possessing that of the law and business.

Yet it is only right, if two thirds of your time is taken up by techniques, that the other third should belong to feeling, and it is by feeling alone that you are to understand art; — and that is how the balance of your spiritual forces will be built up… Just as you have extended men’s rights and benefits in your political life, so you have stablished in the arts a greater and more abundant communion.

Having appealed to how art will serve them, he ends by appealing to their altruism in how they can serve art:

You are the natural friends of the arts, because some of you are rich and the others learned.

Having given society your knowledge, your industry, your work, your money, you demand payment in the form of bodily, intellectual and imaginative enjoyment. If you recover the quantity of enjoyment necessary to restore the balance of all parts of your being, you will be well filled, happy and kindly, just as society will be well filled, happy and kindly when it has found its general and absolute equilibrium.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly excellent Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature with Ursula K. Le Guin on power, freedom, and how literature expands our scope of the possible and Alain de Botton on the seven psychological functions of art.

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The Wolves of Currumpaw: The Illustrated True Story of the Tragic and Redemptive Fate of Wolves in North America

“Each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.”

The Wolves of Currumpaw: The Illustrated True Story of the Tragic and Redemptive Fate of Wolves in North America

The Old West was an era obsessed with “the annihilation of space and time.” In a world where nature’s most fundamental dimensions were the target of a manic quest for mechanical domination, no aspect of nature was safe from such forcible subversion. The wilderness and its creatures became symbolic of what needed to be conquered to prove man’s power and progress, and no wild creature represented the whole of nature more thoroughly than the wolf.

In The Wolves of Currumpaw (public library), London-based illustrator William Grill — who has previously brought to visual life the adventures of pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton — tells the most famous and fabled wolf-hunting story of the Old West, a story both disquieting and redemptive, emblematic of the era’s problematic relationship with the natural world and central to the evolution of the wildlife conservation movement over the century that followed it.

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Half a million wolves roamed freely across North America, but with the arrival of European settlers the habits of the animals began to change.

These were the dying days of the old west and the fate of wolves was sealed in it.

A few, however, still roamed the vast and changing landscape.

Dominating this vanishing world was Old Lobo, the enormous leader of a pack of grey wolves, reverently referred to by the natives of Currumpaw valley as the King.

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Old Lobo was a giant among wolves who commanded a sleek and well-conditioned pack: each of them was a wolf of renown. Lobo’s band was a small one, but fiercely loyal to their leader. At night his deep howl struck fear through the hearts of the ranchmen and farmers, as they knew it meant yet another raid on their cattle.

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So formidable was Old Lobo that local legend soon cast him as a magical and uncatchable creature. Eventually, the terrorized cattle barons and cowboys assembled a bounty of $1,000 for Lobo’s head — an unprecedented amount for any wanted person, much less beast. A roster of renowned wolf-hunters come from near and far to try their hand at capturing and killing Old Lobo, but each failed and went home in shame.

Grill tells the story without a sentimental gloss over the jarring cruelty that was a matter of course in the Old West. But what emerges is an essential reminder that we can’t reasonably judge one era by the moral standards of another; that, above all, so many of our ethical principles have emerged from the disquietude of their opposite — a sentiment echoed in the contrast between Grill’s soft, sensitive illustrations and the brutality of the killings, both by the wolves and of the wolves.

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At last, in 1893, a man by the name of Ernest Thompson Seton — a British naturalist living in New York — hears of the hunt for Old Lobo. This was an era when being a naturalist and being a hunter weren’t oxymoronic, and by the age of thirty-three, Seton had established a reputation of being excellent at both. Like Leonardo’s anatomical drawing, Seton used the cadavers of the animals he killed to produce more accurate and detailed illustrations. He had a particular expertise in wolves and even bragged to come from the lineage of Scotsmen who had exterminated Britain’s last wolves.

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Seton set out for the Old West and spent days studiously acquainting himself with Old Lobo’s territory and habits. After a series of increasingly inventive and elaborate attempts at a capture, each of which Old Lobo outsmarted with his extraordinary intelligence and shrewdness, Seton noticed something seemingly small, yet enormous — one January morning in 1894, he saw smaller tracks in the dirt ahead of Old Lobo’s.

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Seton realized that Old Lobo was letting a female wolf run ahead of him — he was in love. A local cowboy who had been observing the pack named Lobo’s beloved Blanca, for she was an exceptional all-white creature.

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And so Seton devised the cruelest plan of all — he would capture Blanca in order to lure her notorious mate.

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Blanca was the most beautiful wolf Seton had ever seen. She turned to face him and let out a rallying cry, her howl reverberating across the canyon. From all over the mesa replied the deep call of Lobo, but he was too far away.

She made her last cry as they closed in. With a heavy heart, Seton loaded her carefully onto his horse.

Lobo’s howl echoed throughout the distant land as he desperately searched for Blanca. He hadn’t really deserted her, but seeing the men’s guns he knew he could not save her.

All day long Seton and the ranchmen heard him calling… Finding the spot where Blanca had taken her last breath, his wailing rolled far over the canyon. Even the ever stoic cowboys turned their heads.

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Knowing how vulnerable the great wolf was in grieving his beloved, Seton doubled his efforts, hoping to derail Old Lobo’s usual cunning. On the fateful last day of January of 1894, he succeeded — each of Old Lobo’s four paws was caught in one of Seton’s 130 traps.

But as Seton approached the King of Currumpaw, something kept him from the kill. He commanded his men to capture Old Lobo alive.

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They brought him back to the ranch-house and fit him with a chained collar. Alive though he may be, Old Lobo was a broken being. He refused water and food, silently staring at the plains that had been his dominion and the landscape of his love. Seton would later reflect on his captive’s fate:

A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; and who will avert that this grim bandit could bear the three-fold brunt, heart-whole?

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Old Lobo did not bear it. By the time the sun rose the following morning, his spirit had succumbed to the triple heartbreak. Old Lobo was dead. But as Seton lifted the lifeless body of his nemesis, he was overcome by pain and shame so profound that his entire character was reoriented in an instant.

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Seton was a deeply conflicted man, torn between his love of nature and his cunning ability as a hunter. However, after the death of Lobo, something in him changed.

“This proved to be one of the turning points of my life…” he reflected, and immediately wrote Lobo: The King of Currumpaw, where he cast himself as the villain and Lobo as the hero. Seton devoted the rest of his life to protecting the wolf species, and to the conservation of American wildlife that was so heavily under threat.

He never killed a wolf again.

In 1902 Seton founded the Woodcraft Indians. He believed that “through the promotion of interest in outdoor life and woodcraft lies the preservation of wildlife and landscape.”

Seton himself would later write:

Ever since Lobo, my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.

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We are left to wonder whether human nature is such that we are incapable of rising from our darkest primal impulses until they have plummeted us to rock bottom. Perhaps we only grow and better ourselves after we’ve been thoroughly heartbroken by our own foibles. Still, the question remains: Does one being’s moral reformation justify another’s death? Perhaps the tale of Old Lobo, rendered in Grill’s sensitive illustrations, stands as the eternally wistful sigh of “no,” steering us toward a more bloodless path to betterment.

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The Wolves of Currumpaw comes from independent British children’s book press Flying Eye Books, makers of such imaginative and sensitive treasures as The Little Gardener, Wild, Hug Me, and Monsters & Legends. Complement it with this heartening children’s book about the conservation of Puerto Rico’s parrots.

Illustrations courtesy of William Grill / Flying Eye Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Ted Hughes on How to Be a Writer: A Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Daughter

“The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.”

“Read good books, have good sentences in your ears,” the poet Jane Kenyon counseled in what remains some of the sagest advice to write and live by. But if literature is essential to our moral development, as Walt Whitman believed, and reading enlarges our humanity, as Neil Gaiman asserted, then attunement to good sentences is vital not only to our writing style but to our core sensibility of character.

So suggests the poet Ted Hughes (August 17, 1930–October 28, 1998) in a wonderful letter of advice to his teenage daughter, Frieda, found in Letters of Ted Hughes (public library) — the same volume that gave us Hughes’s immensely moving letter to his son about nurturing the universal inner child.

Frieda had been half-orphaned at the age of three when her mother, Sylvia Plath, died by suicide. Hughes was left to raise the couple’s two children, for whom Plath had written her only children’s books. Shortly after Frieda’s eighteenth birthday, as she stood on the precipice of her own literary career, her father shared with her the most important thing he had learned — from T.S. Eliot, no less — about what it takes to become a poet.

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Hughes writes:

T.S. Eliot said to me “There’s only one way a poet can develop his actual writing — apart from self-criticism & continual practice. And that is by reading other poetry aloud — and it doesn’t matter whether he understands it or not (i.e. even if it is in another language.) What matters, above all, is educating the ear.”

What matters, is to connect your own voice within an infinite range of verbal cadences & sequences — and only endless actual experience of your ear can store all that is in your nervous system. The rest can be left to your life & your character.

In a lengthy letter penned three years later, discussing Plath’s posthumously published Ariel poems, Hughes revisits the subject of character as the wellspring of writing:

The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.

Frieda Hughes went on to become a celebrated poet, painter, and children’s book author herself. She later resurrected her mother’s little-known art and spent much of her adult life defending her father’s character against the hubristic pseudo-analysis of onlookers who have blamed him for Plath’s death. In fact, few private relationships have been the subject of more merciless and cynical public intrusion than Hughes and Plath’s, which began in a tempest of passion and ended in tragedy. Like the relationship between Albert Einstein and his first wife, the nuanced truth of which has been drowned out by a chorus of readily offered yet ill-informed judgments, the relationship between Hughes and Plath became the target of ceaseless malevolent speculation after Plath’s death. Hughes himself lamented how critics used her poetry as “a general licence for ransacking the lives of her family” with “malice & pseudo-psychologising.” Both critics and the so-called public seemed, and still seem, to forget that no one ever knows what goes on between two people, much less inside a person, and that any right to interpretation belongs solely to those who inhabit that intimate interiority.

Complement this particular portion of the richly rewarding Letters of Ted Hughes with other great writers’ advice to their own daughters — Robert Frost on how to read intelligently and write a great essay and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing — then revisit this rare BBC recording of Hughes and Plath discussing literature, love, and life and these beautiful modern illustrations for Hughes’s 1968 classic The Iron Giant.

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