Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 5

Rachel Carson’s Brave and Prescient 1953 Letter Against the Government’s Assault on Science and Nature

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”

Rachel Carson’s Brave and Prescient 1953 Letter Against the Government’s Assault on Science and Nature

In 1953, nearly a decade before she catalyzed the environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring, trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) found herself with no choice but to embody the ethos that would come to animate her life: “To sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men.”

After Eisenhower took office, the Republican administration swiftly began instituting policies that effected the destruction of nature in the name of business. The Fish and Wildlife Service — of which Carson was editor in chief — was atop their target list. (Remember, there was no Environmental Protection Agency at the time; the EPA was created in 1970, largely on the wings of Carson’s work — a triumph tragic in its timing, for cancer took her life before she could savor its fruits.)

Since its inception in 1938, the Fish and Wildlife Service had been the government agency responsible for the protection and preservation of nature. Albert M. Day — a trained field scientist and a passionate conservationist — had been with the agency since the very beginning and became its visionary director in 1946. After appointing a businessman as Secretary of the Interior, the Republican government removed Day and replaced him with a nonscientist political pawn, who would sign off on removing hard-won environmental protections in order to turn natural resources into a profitable commodity — a decision Carson believed “should be deeply disturbing to every thoughtful citizen.” She poured her splendidly sobering rhetoric into a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which was picked up by the wire of the Associated Press, syndicated widely across the country, and reprinted in Reader’s Digest — the era’s equivalent of going wildly viral. By that point, Carson had already surmounted the towering cultural odds against her gender and her underprivileged background to become the most respected science writer in the country. Her voice was a booming clarion call for resistance.

Rachel Carson

Later included in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library), the letter emanates astonishing pertinence to our present predicament as we are reminded of history’s cycles in the face of another administration ready to exploit the fragility of nature and the precious finitude of its resources for ruthless commercial and political gain.

With an eye to what it would really take to make America great again, as it were, Carson writes:

The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.

By long tradition, the agencies responsible for these resources have been directed by men of professional stature and experience, who have understood, respected, and been guided by the findings of their scientists.


For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.

A century after Walt Whitman remarked in his abiding treatise on democracy that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Carson adds a remark of searing prescience:

It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.

Although Carson’s courageous outcry made little political difference in the immediate term, it adrenalized and awakened the public consciousness in a powerful way — a germinal wakefulness she would further fertilize a decade later with Silent Spring, which became a catalyst not only for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency but for the modern environmental conscience that is our only hope for the long-term survival of our Pale Blue Dot. Carson’s legacy is a reminder that the payoffs of courage and resistance aren’t always immediately obvious, but they work as a mighty tectonic force that can shift the future in fundamental ways.

There is an indispensable trove of Carson’s timeless, timely wisdom collected in Lost Woods. Complement it with the courageous story of why and how Carson wrote Silent Spring, the powerful 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to speak inconvenient truth to power, and her touching, deeply humane farewell to her dearest friend, then revisit Carl Sagan on science as an invaluable tool of democracy.


The Joy of Suffering Overcome: Young Beethoven’s Stirring Letter to His Brothers About the Loneliness of Living with Deafness and How Music Saved His Life

“Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”

The Joy of Suffering Overcome: Young Beethoven’s Stirring Letter to His Brothers About the Loneliness of Living with Deafness and How Music Saved His Life

“Blessed and blessing, this music is in some sort the equivalent of the night, of the deep and living darkness,” Aldous Huxley wrote of Beethoven’s Benedictus in his exquisite meditation on why music enchants us so. But he could have well been writing about Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) himself — a creator suffused with darkness yet animated by the benediction of light.

Like Frida Kahlo, Beethoven sublimated a lifetime of unbearable bodily suffering to the irrepressible vitality of his creative spirit. Bedeviled by debilitating physical illness all his life — the anguishing pinnacle of which was his loss of hearing at the age of twenty-eight — he nonetheless became a servant of joy. Even Helen Keller, herself deaf and blind, conveyed the timeless transcendence of his music in her moving account of “hearing” his Ode to Joy.

The source of Beethoven’s deafness remains an enigma. Some biographers have speculated lead poisoning and others auto-immune disease, while Beethoven himself attributed it to a mysterious accident induced by rage — according to a second-hand account reported to his first serious biographer, a tenor interrupted Beethoven’s creative flow during a fit a fervent composition, which sent him into fury so violent that he, upon leaping from his desk, sustained a seizure, collapsed to the floor, and was deaf by the time he rose.

Given the mysterious onset of his hearing loss and the rudimentary state of medicine at the time, Beethoven worried that his sudden deafness might be the symptom of a fatal disease. A brilliant and ambitious young man just beginning to blossom into his genius, he was uncertain whether he would live or die — ambiguity enough to hurl even the stablest of minds into maddening anxiety.

Beethoven by Christian Hornemann, 1803

But despite his constant struggle with physical pain and the torment of his deafness — particularly painful since until its loss his exceptional hearing had been a point of pride for him — Beethoven experienced as his greatest malady his bone-deep melancholy and its sharpest flavor of loneliness. He found his deafness “less distressing when playing and composing, and most so in intercourse with others.” Loneliness, indeed, was his basic condition from a young age, only amplified by his deafness. But it was also, as for Blake, inseparable from his genius. The feat of becoming an artist who continues to stir the human heart centuries after his own has ceased beating is all the grander against the backdrop of what Beethoven had to overcome as a creature of flesh and blood in order to serve the creative spirit.

Nowhere does that singular spirit come to life more vibrantly than in the 1927 masterwork Beethoven the Creator (public library) by the great French dramatist, novelist, essayist, and art historian Romain Rolland — not so much a standard biography but a passionately poetic portrait of the great composer and his inner world.

Beethoven in 1805 by the French painter and portraitist Louis Letronne

Adding to literature’s most beautiful writings on the power of music, Rolland channels Beethoven’s singular transcendence:

Music develops in its own elect that power of concentration on an idea, that form of yoga, that is purely European, having the traits of action and domination that are characteristic of the West: for music is an edifice in motion, all the parts of which have to be sensed simultaneously. It demands of the soul a vertiginous movement in the immobile, the eye clear, the will taut, the spirit flying high and free over the whole field of dreams. In no other musician has the embrace of thought been more violent, more continuous, more superhuman.

Rolland — who some years earlier had rallied the world’s greatest intellectuals, from Albert Einstein to Bertrand Russell to Jane Addams, to co-sign the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — considers the independence of mind and spirit at the heart of Beethoven’s superhuman genius:

In painting his portrait, I paint that of his stock — our century, our dream, ourselves and our companion with the bleeding feet: Joy. Not the gross joy of the soul that gorges itself in its stable, but the joy of ordeal, of pain, of battle, of suffering overcome, of victory over one’s self, the joy of destiny subdued, espoused, fecundated… And the great bull with its fierce eye, its head raised, its four hooves planted on the summit, at the edge of the abyss, whose roar is heard above the time.


Beethoven belongs to the first generation of those young German Goethes … those Columbuses who, launched in the night on the stormy sea of the Revolution, discovered their own Ego and eagerly subdued it. Conquerors abuse their power: they are hungry for possession: each of these free Egos wishes to command. If he cannot do this in the world of facts, he wills it in the world of art; everything becomes for him a field on which to deploy the battalions of his thoughts, his desires, his regrets, his furies, his melancholies.


The prime condition for the free man is strength. Beethoven exalts it; he is even inclined to over-esteem it. Kraft über alles! [Power over everything!] There is something in him of Nietzsche’s superman, long before Nietzsche.

That superhuman ability to rise above malady and misfortune comes alive in a spectacular letter to Beethoven’s brothers Carl and Johann, whom he had practically raised after their father succumbed to alcoholism. Found in Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations (public library), the missive — known as the Heiligenstadt Testament — was written in early October of 1802 but intended to be read and fulfilled after his death. Thirty-two-year-old Beethoven — who, in a testament to elemental hardships of the era the absence of which we now take for granted, didn’t know his own date of birth at the time and believed he was twenty-eight — writes shortly after the completion of his Second Symphony:

Oh! ye who think or declare me to be hostile, morose, and misanthropical, how unjust you are, and how little you know the secret cause of what appears thus to you! My heart and mind were ever from childhood prone to the most tender feelings of affection, and I was always disposed to accomplish something great. But you must remember that six years ago I was attacked by an incurable malady, aggravated by unskilful physicians, deluded from year to year, too, by the hope of relief, and at length forced to the conviction of a lasting affliction (the cure of which may go on for years, and perhaps after all prove impracticable).

Born with a passionate and excitable temperament, keenly susceptible to the pleasures of society, I was yet obliged early in life to isolate myself, and to pass my existence in solitude. If I at any time resolved to surmount all this, oh! how cruelly was I again repelled by the experience, sadder than ever, of my defective hearing! — and yet I found it impossible to say to others: Speak louder; shout! for I am deaf! Alas! how could I proclaim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men,–a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, to an extent, indeed, that few of my profession ever enjoyed! Alas, I cannot do this! Forgive me therefore when you see me withdraw from you with whom I would so gladly mingle. My misfortune is doubly severe from causing me to be misunderstood. No longer can I enjoy recreation in social intercourse, refined conversation, or mutual outpourings of thought. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like an exile. In company I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions, from the dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed… What humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and wellnigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone, deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?

The original Heiligenstadt Testament in Beethoven’s hand

In a passage that calls to mind the wisdom of Galway Kinnell’s beautiful and life-giving poem “Wait,” written for a young friend contemplating suicide, Beethoven adds:

It is decreed that I must now choose Patience for my guide! This I have done. I hope the resolve will not fail me, steadfastly to persevere till it may please the inexorable Fates to cut the thread of my life. Perhaps I may get better, perhaps not. I am prepared for either. Constrained to become a philosopher in my twenty-eighth year! This is no slight trial, and more severe on an artist than on any one else… Oh! ye who may one day read this, think that you have done me injustice, and let any one similarly afflicted be consoled, by finding one like himself, who, in defiance of all the obstacles of Nature, has done all in his power to be included in the ranks of estimable artists and men.

After beseeching his brothers to enlist, after his death, an army surgeon of their acquaintance in describing the nature of his malady, he ends:

It was Virtue alone which sustained me in my misery; I have to thank her and Art for not having ended my life by suicide. Farewell! Love each other.


I joyfully hasten to meet Death. If he comes before I have had the opportunity of developing all my artistic powers, then, notwithstanding my cruel fate, he will come too early for me, and I should wish for him at a more distant period; but even then I shall be content, for his advent will release me from a state of endless suffering. Come when he may, I shall meet him with courage. Farewell! Do not quite forget me, even in death.

When Beethoven wrote this impassioned and anguished letter to his brothers, his greatest work was ahead of him. It would unfold over the decades to come, culminating in his crowning achievement — his ninth and final symphony, known for reasons one feels in one’s bones as the “Ode to Joy,” which gives musical form to what Rolland so memorably called “the joy of suffering overcome.”

That rebellious refusal of Beethoven’s to resign himself to his fate is what Rolland celebrates over and over in his intensely lyrical more-than-biography. In a passage that may or may not deliberately invoke the tiny bone in the ear known as the anvil — perhaps a clever play on the composer’s deafness and perhaps linguistic happenstance aided by translation — Rolland captures Beethoven’s strength of character:

The hammer is not all: the anvil also is necessary. Had destiny descended only upon some weakling, or on an imitation great man, and bent his back under this burden, there would have been no tragedy in it, only an everyday affair. But here destiny meets one of its own stature, who “seizes it by the throat,” who is at savage grips with it all the night till the dawn — the last dawn of all — and who, dead at last, lies with his two shoulders touching the earth, but in his death is carried victorious on his shield; one who out of his wretchedness has created a richness, out of his infirmity the magic wand that opens the rock.

Complement Rolland’s altogether magnificent Beethoven the Creator with Alfred Kazin on Blake, Beethoven, and the tragic genius of outsiderdom, then revisit Rolland’s contemporary and compatriot Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering.


The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt on the Normalization of Human Wickedness and Our Only Effective Antidote to It

“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt on the Normalization of Human Wickedness and Our Only Effective Antidote to It

“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” the great French philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote in 1933 as she contemplated how to make use of our suffering amid a world that seemed to be falling apart. But modern life is no fairy tale and one of its most disorienting perplexities is that evil isn’t always as easily recognizable as a Grimm stepmother. Maya Angelou captured this in her 1982 conversation with Bill Moyers about courage and facing evil, in which she observed: “Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good.” Joseph Brodsky echoed the sentiment five years later in his spectacular speech on our 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.”

A core cause of this perplexity lies in the fact that while acts of evil can mushroom into monumental tragedies, the individual human perpetrators of those acts are often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute mundanity.

This was the revolutionary and, like every revolutionary idea, at the time controversial point that Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) made in 1962, when The New Yorker commissioned her, a Jew of who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany herself, to travel to Jerusalem and report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann — one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. In 1963, her writings about the trial were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (public library) — a sobering reflection on “the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Hannah Arendt

A decade after Arendt established herself as a formidable thinker with her incisive inquiry into how totalitarian tyrants take hold of a people, she writes:

The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

It is through this lens of bureaucracy (which she calls “the rule of Nobody”) as a weapon of totalitarianism that Arendt arrives at her notion of “the banality of evil” — a banality reflected in Eichmann himself, who embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” In a passage that applies to Donald Trump with astonishing accuracy — except the part about lying, of course; that aspect Arendt addressed with equal prescience elsewhere — she describes Eichmann:

What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

The Nazis, Arendt argues, furnished this deliberate disconnect from reality with what she calls “holes of oblivion.” (Today, we call them “alternative facts.”) In a searing testament to the power of speaking up, she considers what the story of the Holocaust — a story irrepressibly told by its survivors — has taught us:

The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.


The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

Arendt took great care to differentiate between the banal and the commonplace, but some reviewers — as those pre-bent on a reflexive rebuttal are always apt to do — accused her of suggesting that the atrocity of the Holocaust had been commonplace, which of course was the very opposite of her point. Among those who misunderstood her notion of the “banality” of evil to mean a trivialization of the outcome of evil rather than an insight into the commonplace motives of its perpetrators was the scholar Gerhard Scholem, with whom Arendt had corresponded warmly for decades. At the end of a six-page letter to Scholem from early December of 1964, she crystallizes her point and dispels all grounds for confusion with the elegant precision of her rhetoric:

You are quite right, I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil.” … It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

Eichmann in Jerusalem remains, unfortunately, an increasingly relevant masterwork as we face a world seized by banal tyrants capable of perpetrating enormous evil with their small hands. But perhaps John Steinbeck put it best in his superb letter written months before Arendt arrived in New York as a refugee from Nazi Germany: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Complement it with Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and Mary McCarthy — Arendt’s longtime friend and correspondent — on how we decide whether evil is forgivable, then revisit Arendt on lying in politics, the meaning of “refugee,” how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.


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