Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 50

Charles Darwin’s Touching Letter of Appreciation to His Best Friend and Greatest Champion

“You are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy… I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you.”

Charles Darwin’s Touching Letter of Appreciation to His Best Friend and Greatest Champion

“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves,” teenage James Joyce wrote in his beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero. This habitual withholding of gratitude is a perennial tragedy of human relationships, and this interpersonal tragedy has broader cultural reverberations. The more I live, the more convinced I become that great friendships are the heartstrings of creative culture, the wings that lift artists, scientists, and dogma-disruptors above the cesspool of criticism, contention, and indifference with which every groundbreaking creative act is first met.

Without Emerson’s generous letter to Whitman, we might not have Leaves of Grass. Without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support, Maurice Sendak wouldn’t have blossomed into the Maurice Sendak. Without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job as a postal worker, Bukowski may have never become a full-time writer. Without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters, Hermann Hesse may have succumbed to self-doubt. And what of the young amateur meteorologist who may have never classified the clouds as we know them without Goethe’s support?

hooker_darwin

Among the most spirit-sustaining friendships in the history of humanity’s intellectual evolution was that between Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) and his closest friend, the botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (June 30, 1817–December 10, 1911), recounted beautifully in the 1944 gem British Botanists (public library) — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books.

From the dawn of Darwin’s career, when 22-year-old Hooker slept with the proofs of The Voyage of the Beagle under his pillow in order to read them as soon as he awoke, to the day he accompanied Darwin’s coffin to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey, Hooker was Darwin’s dearest confidante and staunchest champion. It was in a letter to Hooker that Darwin first intimated the seed of his natural selection theory in 1844, and it was under Hooker’s encouragement that he set it down in writing fourteen years later, shortly before coming upon an essay by Alfred Russell Wallace that outlined a nearly identical theory before Darwin had published his. When he was overcome with despair — a malady that bedeviled him frequently — it was once again Hooker who bolstered his spirit and persuaded him not to give up the work.

Darwin's first diagram of an evolutionary tree , sketched in his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)
Darwin’s first diagram of an evolutionary tree , sketched in his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

In 1909, when some of the world’s greatest scientists converged in Cambridge to celebrate Darwin’s centennial, 92-year-old Hooker stood tall among them, paying homage to the friend he had outlived by nearly two decades and helped for more than five.

The deep humanity of the friendship comes alive in Darwin’s correspondence with Hooker, collected in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Volume 1 (public library | free ebook). Shortly after Hooker encouraged him to synthesize his theory of natural selection in an abstract, Darwin writes in a letter from October 6, 1858:

I am working most steadily at my Abstract, but it grows to an inordinate length; yet fully to make my view clear (and never giving briefly more than a fact or two, and slurring over difficulties), I cannot make it shorter. It will yet take me three or four months; so slow do I work, though never idle. You cannot imagine what a service you have done me in making me make this Abstract; for though I thought I had got all clear, it has clarified my brains very much, by making me weigh the relative importance of the several elements.

Having not yet mastered his brilliant strategy for preempting criticism, Darwin urges his friend in a letter penned six days later:

I pray you not to pronounce too strongly against Natural Selection, till you have read my abstract, for though I daresay you will strike out many difficulties, which have never occurred to me; yet you cannot have thought so fully on subject as I have.

But after sending the letter, Darwin is seized by his chronic anxiety and finds himself dwelling on whether he offended Hooker, his greatest champion, by implying that he might be hurtfully critical or not knowledgeable enough to comment adequately. In another letter penned the following day, Darwin articulates the central paradox that bedevils every creative person’s friendships — the parallel and conflicting desires for honest feedback from one’s friends and for their unconditional approval of one’s work and character (the two being deeply integrated for the creative person).

A self-conscious Darwin writes to Hooker:

I have been a little vexed at myself at having asked you not “to pronounce too strongly against natural selection.” I am sorry to have bothered you, though I have been much interested by your note in answer. I wrote the sentence without reflexion. But the truth is that I have so accustomed myself, partly from being quizzed by my non-naturalist relations, to expect opposition & even contempt, that I forgot for the moment that you are the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy. Believe [me] that I never forget for even a minute how much assistance I have received from you. — You are quite correct that I never even suspected that my speculations were a “jam-pot” to you: indeed I thought, until quite lately, that my [manuscript] had produced no effect on you & this has often staggered me. Nor did I know that you had spoken in general terms about my work to our friends, excepting to dear old Falconer, who some few years ago once told me that I should do more mischief than any ten other naturalists would do good, & that I had half-spoiled you already! All this is stupid egotistical stuff, & I write it only because you may think me ungrateful for not having valued & understood your sympathy; which God knows is not the case. It is an accursed evil to a man to become so absorbed in any subject as I am in mine.

Hooker did not judge his friend’s work or character harshly — to the contrary, he stood by him and became crucial in the formal advancement of his theory. Later that year, it was he who presented Darwin’s ideas on natural selection at the annual meeting of the Linnean Society, which became the first public presentation of evolutionary theory. The following year, On the Origin of Species was published and the world changed forever.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly fascinating Life and Letters of Charles Darwin with Darwin on family, work, and happiness, the pros and cons of marriage, and his daily routine, then revisit the touching letter of gratitude Albert Camus wrote to his childhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize.

BP

The Life of the Mind: Oliver Sacks’s 121 Formative and Favorite Books from a Lifetime of Reading

From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.

A Galileo of the mind and a Goethe of medicine, Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) considered his patients “more instructive than any book.” And yet he enchanted the world with their stories and turned the case study into a poetic form precisely because of his abiding love of books, the indelible exoskeleton that bolstered his enormous spirit. He read widely and voraciously since childhood, reaching for literature spanning an incredible range of eras, subjects, and sensibilities — the true mark of the prepared mind. Some he read in the course of specific research related to his own work, others through the sheer centrifugal force of unbridled curiosity radiating into the everythingness of everything.

Science was his constant companion — from its granular esoterica, particularly related to his obsessions with minerals, cephalopods, and ferns, to its masterworks on consciousness and the brain, to its meeting point with art in science fiction. As I recently learned from Kate Edgar, Dr. Sacks’s friend, assistant, and editorial collaborator of thirty years, he especially loved biographies of great scientists. But he also cherished philosophy and poetry. The slim, poignant autobiography Scottish philosopher David Hume penned in the last year of his life inspired Dr. Sacks’s own poignant farewell to the world. His friendship with the poet Thom Gunn deeply informed his understanding of creativity and his own magnificent autobiography — which crowned the best books of 2015 and remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — borrows its title from a Gunn verse.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

In his autobiography, Dr. Sacks traces his lifelong love of books to his childhood home:

Another sacred room was the library, which, in the evenings at least, was especially my father’s domain. One section of the library wall was covered with his Hebrew books, but there were books on every subject — my mother’s books (she was fond of novels and biographies), my brothers’ books, and books inherited from grandparents. One bookcase was entirely devoted to plays — my parents, who had met as fellow enthusiasts in a medical students’ Ibsen society, still went to the theater every Thursday.

In many ways, his uncommonly wide lens on the world reflected the fundamentally different animating motives of his parents — his father, the humanist; his mother, the scientist. Dr. Sacks writes in his autobiography:

My father’s quiet hours were all spent with books, in the library, surrounded by biblical commentaries or occasionally his favorite First World War poets. Human beings, human behavior, human myths and societies, human language and religions occupied his entire attention — he had little interest in the nonhuman, in “nature,” as my mother had. I think my father was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society, and that he saw himself in an essentially social and ritual role. I think my mother, though, was drawn to medicine because for her it was part of natural history and biology. She could not look at human anatomy or physiology without thinking of parallels and precursors in other primates, other vertebrates. This did not compromise her concern and feeling for the individual — but placed it, always, in a wider context, that of biology and science in general.

Outside the home, young Oliver found refuge in another sanctuary of books:

The Willesden Public Library was an odd triangular building set at an angle to Willesden Lane, a short walk from our house. It was deceptively small outside, but vast inside, with dozens of alcoves and bays full of books, more books than I had ever seen in my life. Once the librarian was assured I could handle the books and use the card index, she gave me the run of the library and allowed me to order books from the central library and even sometimes to take rare books out. My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed, as I wished…

In my years of devouring his writing, I was always fascinated by Dr. Sacks’s reading range — his voracious and unsystematic hoverings, which stayed with him for life. I kept extensive notes on the books he mentioned — some sentimentally, with the tenderness of one paying due homage to a formative influence, and some scholarly, as scientific beacons that lit the way for his own work with patients.

Having previously compiled similar lifelong reading lists for Patti Smith and Gabriel Garcia Márquez based on their respective autobiographical writings, I set out to do the same for Dr. Sacks — an undertaking much more labor-intensive by comparison, on account of his impressive body of work, and months in the making.

Gathered here for the first time are the books that informed, inspired, and invigorated one of the most radiant and unrepeatable minds of our time, culled from his own many books and including a few of his particularly delightful reflections on some of his favorites. Special thanks to Kate Edgar, who now spearheads the Oliver Sacks Foundation, for helping me fill in any crucial gaps.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)
  1. The Sense of Movement (public library) by Thom Gunn (1957)
  2. Thom Gunn has written powerfully of the “occasions” of poetry. Science has its occasions no less than art: sometimes a dream-metaphor, like Kekulé’s snakes; sometimes an analogy, like Newton’s apple; sometimes a literal event, the thing-in-itself, which suddenly explodes into unimagined significance, like Archimedes’s “Eureka!” in his bath. Every such occasion is a eureka or epiphany.

  3. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (public library) by Stephen Jay Gould (1989)
  4. Speak, Memory (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov (1966)
  5. Childhood’s End (public library) by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  6. Madame Curie (public library) by Eve Curie (1937)
  7. Eve Curie’s biography of her mother—which my own mother gave me when I was ten — was the first portrait of a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply impressed me.1 It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images — Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine; inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming vats and crucibles, stirring them with an iron rod almost as big as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless solutions, more and more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grit continually getting into the solutions and undoing the endless work.

    […]

    I was particularly moved by the description in Eve Curie’s book of how her parents, restless one evening and curious as to how the fractional crystallizations were going, returned to their shed late one night and saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates, and realized for the first time that their element was spontaneously luminous. The luminosity of phosphorus required the presence of oxygen, but the luminosity of radium arose entirely from within, from its own radioactivity. Marie Curie wrote in lyrical terms of this luminosity:

    “One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night when we perceived the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles and capsules containing our products… It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”

    […]

    In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I was talking I became conscious of a very old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t be!” But it was — it was Eve Curie, and she signed her book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it.

  8. The Jungle Book (public library) by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
  9. A gentle founding myth that pleased my romantic side.

  10. The Geological Story Briefly Told (public library) by James Dwight Dana (1875)
  11. Humphry Davy: Science and Power (public library) by David Knight (1998)
  12. Ulysses (public library | free ebook) by James Joyce (1922)
  13. The Mind of the Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (public library) by A.R. Luria (1968)
  14. The greatest neurological treasure of our time, for both thought and case description, is the works of A.R. Luria.

  15. Man with a Shattered World (public library) by A.R. Luria (1972)
  16. The Working Brain (public library) by A.R. Luria (1973)
  17. Higher Cortical Functions in Man (public library) by A.R. Luria (1966)
  18. Restoration of Function After Brain Injury (public library) by A.R. Luria (1963)
  19. The Nature of Human Conflicts; or Emotion, Conflict and Will (public library) by A.R. Luria (1932)
  20. The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (public library) by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910)
  21. On Certainty (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951)
  22. Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love (public library) by Deborah Wearing (2005)
  23. When I asked Deborah whether Clive [Wearing’s amnesiac husband] knew about her memoir, she told me that she had shown it to him twice before, but that he had instantly forgotten. I had my own heavily annotated copy with me, and asked Deborah to show it to him again.

    “You’ve written a book!” he cried, astonished. “Well done! Congratulations!” He peered at the cover. “All by you? Good heavens!” Excited, he jumped for joy. Deborah showed him the dedication page (“For my Clive”). “Dedicated to me?” He hugged her. This scene was repeated several times within a few minutes, with almost exactly the same astonishment, the same expressions of delight and joy each time.

    Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other, despite his amnesia (indeed, the [first edition] subtitle of Deborah’s book is A Memoir of Love and Amnesia). He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.

    […]

    [It is] a remarkable book, so tender, yet so tough-minded and realistic.

  24. Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (public library) by Darold Treffert (1989)
  25. British Botanists (public library) by John Gilmour (1944)
  26. The Discovery of the Elements (public library) by Mary Elvira Weeks (1934)
  27. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (public library) by Wade Davis (1996)
  28. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (public library) by Wade Davis (2011)
  29. Collected Poems (public library) by W.H. Auden (1976)
  30. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799–1804 (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1852)
  31. Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1849)
  32. Humboldt and the Cosmos (public library) by Douglas Botting (1973)
  33. Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein (public library) by Abraham Pais (1982)
  34. Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (public library) by Abraham Pais (1991)
  35. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (public library) by Abraham Pais (2006)
  36. Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2007)
  37. Einstein (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1973)
  38. Three Degrees Above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1984)
  39. Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings in Science (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1993)
  40. Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2004)
  41. Chemical Recreations: A Popular Manual of Experimental Chemistry (public library) by J.J. Griffin (1860)
  42. Practical Chemistry (public library) by William George Valentin (1908)
  43. A workhorse of a book — straight, uninspired, pedestrian in tone, designed as a practical manual, but nevertheless, for me, filled with wonders. Inside its cover, corroded, discolored, and stained (for it had done time in the lab in its day), it bore the words “Best wishes and congratulations 21/1/1 — Mick” — it had been given to my mother on her eighteenth birthday by her twenty-five-year-old brother Mick, already a research chemist himself. Uncle Mick, a younger brother of Dave, had gone to South Africa with his brothers, and then worked in a tin mine on his return. He loved tin, I was told, as much as Uncle Dave loved tungsten, and he was sometimes referred to in the family as Uncle Tin. I never knew Uncle Mick, for he died of a malignancy the year I was born — he was only forty-five — a victim, his family thought, of the high levels of radioactivity in the uranium mines in Africa. But my mother had been very close to him, and his memory and image stayed vividly in her mind. The notion that this was my mother’s own chemistry book, and of the never-known, young chemist uncle who gave it to her, made the book especially precious to me.

  44. The Chemistry of Common Life (public library) by J.F.W. Johnston (1855)
  45. Very different in style and content, though equally designed to awake the sense of wonder (“The common life of man is full of Wonders, Chemical and Physiological. Most of us pass through this life without seeing or being sensible of them …”)

  46. The Chemical Pocket-Book or Memoranda Chemica (public library) by James Parkinson (1803)
  47. Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (public library) by Douglas McKie (1952)
  48. An Autobiographical Sketch (public library) by Justus von Liebig (1891)
  49. The Stars in Their Courses (public library) by James Jeans (1931)
  50. Auntie Len had given me [this book] for my tenth birthday, and I had been intoxicated by the imaginary journey Jeans described into the heart of the sun, and his casual mention that the sun contained platinum and silver and lead, most of the elements we have on earth.

  51. The Interpretation of Radium (public library) by Frederick Soddy (1922)
  52. Soddy’s book The Interpretation of Radium in the last year of the war, and I was enraptured by his vision of endless energy, endless light. Soddy’s heady words gave me a sense of the intoxication, the sense of power and redemption, that had attended the discovery of radium and radioactivity at the start of the century.

    But side by side with this, Soddy voiced the dark possibilities, too. These indeed had been in his mind almost from the start, and, as early as 1903, he had spoken of the earth as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of.” This note was frequently sounded in The Interpretation of Radium, and it was Soddy’s powerful vision that inspired H.G. Wells to go back to his early science-fiction style and publish, in 1914, The World Set Free (Wells actually dedicated his book to The Interpretation of Radium).

  53. Beyond Good and Evil (public library | free ebook) by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886)
  54. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  55. The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) by Israel Rosenfield (1992)
  56. A Collection of Moments: A Study of Involuntary Memories (public library) by Esther Salaman (1970)
  57. Vision: A Computational Investigation of Visual Representation in Man (public library) by David Marr (1982)
  58. Art of Memory (public library) by Francis Yates (1966)
  59. The Great Mental Calculators (public library) by Steven Smith (1983)
  60. Human Personality (public library | free ebook) by F.W.H. Myers (1961)
  61. Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child (public library) by Lorna Selfe (1977)
  62. The Thread of Life (public library) by Richard Wollheim (1984)
  63. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (public library) by Steven Mithen (2006)
  64. Hereditary Genius (public library) by Francis Galton (1869)
  65. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (public library | free ebook) by Francis Galton (1883)
  66. Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing (public library) by John Harrison (2001)
  67. Consciousness Lost and Found (public library) by Lawrence Weiskrantz (1997)
  68. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (public library) by Umberto Eco (2005)
  69. I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (public library) by Rodolfo Llinás (2001)
  70. Sound and Symbol (public library) by Victor Zuckerkandl (1956)
  71. Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr (1992)
  72. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (public library) by Merlin Donald (1991)
  73. Time and the Nervous System (public library) by William Gooddy (1988)
  74. Memoirs of Hector Berlioz: From 1803 to 1865, Comprising His Travels in Germany, Italy, Russia, and England (public library) by Hector Berlioz (1865)
  75. The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (public library) by Theodor Reik (1953)
  76. Room for Doubt (public library) by Wendy Lesser (2007)
  77. The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (public library) by Steve Lopez (2008)
  78. The (Strangest) Song: One Father’s Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice (public library) by Teri Sforza (2006)
  79. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (public library) by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
  80. Elegy for Iris (public library) by John Bayley (1999)
  81. The Anatomy of Melancholy (public library) by Robert Burton (1621)
  82. The Descent of Man (public library | free ebook) by Charles Darwin (1871)
  83. The Dance of Life (public library | free ebook) by Havelock Ellis (1923)
  84. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (public library) by Howard Gardner (1983)
  85. Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Return (public library) by Mary Ellen Geist ()
  86. Drumming at the Edge of Magic (public library) by Mickey Hart (1990)
  87. Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (public library) by John Hull (1990)
  88. Why Birds Sing (public library) by David Rothenberg (2005)
  89. The World as Will and Representation (public library) by Arthur Schopenhauer (1818)
  90. Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons (public library) by Igor Stravinsky (1970)
  91. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (public library) by William Styron (1990)
  92. The Kreutzer Sonata, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1889)
  93. Master and Man, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1895)
  94. The Fountain Overflows (public library) by Rebecca West (1956)
  95. Essays in Biography (public library) by Maynard Keynes (1951)
  96. The Garden of Cyrus (public library) by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  97. The Perception of the Visual World (public library) by James Gibson (1950)
  98. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (public library) by Nora Ellen Groce (1985)
  99. The Complete Short Stories (public library) by H.G. Wells (1966)
  100. Suburban Shaman (public library) by Cecil Helman (2006)
  101. Life Itself (public library) by Francis Crick (1981)
  102. Of Molecules and Men (public library) by Francis Crick (1966)
  103. Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (public library) by Francis Crick (1994)
  104. An Essay on the Shaking Palsy (public library | free ebook) by James Parkinson (1817)
  105. The Lost World (public library | free ebook) by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
  106. Earth Abides (public library) by George Stewart (1976)
  107. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (public library) by Erving Goffman (1961)
  108. Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (public library) by C.M. Parkes (1972)
  109. The Basal Ganglia and Posture (public library) by James Purdon Martin (1967)
  110. From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (public library) by Ilya Prigogine (1980)
  111. The Fractal Geometry of Nature (public library) by Benoit Mandelbrot (1982)
  112. When I first found that my patients’ reactions to L-DOPA were becoming erratic and unpredictable — that what had been clear was clear no longer, that something strange and unintelligible was gradually taking over — I felt fear, guilt, and a sort of revulsion.

    This attitude changed when I first read Prigogine and gained the sense that there could be a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder. A most vivid sense of this new order – new, but also old, because it is the order of trees, of landscapes, of innumerable natural features — was given to me, visually, when I saw Mandelbrot’s book.

  113. The Body in Question (public library) by Jonathan Miller (1978)
  114. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  115. Madness in Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (public library) by Michel Foucault (1965)
  116. The Principles of Psychology (public library) by William James (1890)
  117. The Varieties of Religious Experience (public library) by William James (1902)
  118. The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (public library) by Robert E L Masters and Jean Houston (1966)
  119. Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems (public library) by Virginia Hamilton Adair (1996)
  120. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (public library) by Molly Brinbaum (2011)
  121. Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing — and Discovering — the Primal Sense (public library) by Bonnie Blodgett (2010)
  122. The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance (public library) by Eva Brann (1991)
  123. A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials (public library) by Laurie Winn Carlson (1999)
  124. Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) by René Descartes (1641)
  125. Great Expectations (public library | free ebook) by Charles Dickens (1861)
  126. The Idiot (public library | free ebook) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1869)
  127. Brave New World (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1932)
  128. The Devils of Loudon (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1952)
  129. The Doors of Perception (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1954)
  130. Moby-Dick (public library | free ebook) by Herman Melville (1851)
  131. The Oxford English Dictionary (public library)
  132. My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures and, a couple of years later, had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favorite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider—stronger than most beer and cheaper, too.

    Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize — the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Human Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper.

    There were seven questions to be answered; I pounced on one (“Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?”) and wrote nonstop for two hours on the subject, bringing in whatever zoological and botanical knowledge I could muster to flesh out the discussion. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.

    The results were in The Times that weekend; I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded — how could someone who had come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams prize? I was not entirely surprised, for it was a sort of repetition, in reverse, of what had happened when I took the Oxford prelims. I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but can spread my wings with essays.

    Fifty pounds came with the Theodore Williams prize — £50! I had never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s bookshop (next door to the pub) and bought, for £44, the twelve volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, for me the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf, now and then, for bedtime reading.

Please join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation, whose mission is to extend Dr. Sacks’s legacy by bringing to life his unpublished writings and supporting the work of other writers animated by a shared ethos of illuminating the human mind and brain through narrative nonfiction.

For other notable selections of luminaries’ favorite books, see the reading lists of Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

BP

Art as Experience: John Dewey on Why the Rhythmic Highs and Lows of Life Are Essential to Its Creative Completeness

“In life that is truly life, everything overlaps and merges.”

Art as Experience: John Dewey on Why the Rhythmic Highs and Lows of Life Are Essential to Its Creative Completeness

“Artists have no choice but to express their lives,” Anne Truitt wrote in her penetrating reflection on the crucial difference between being an artist and making art. This creative inevitability is at the center of artistic endeavor and has been articulated by a multitude of humanity’s most celebrated artists. “Every good artist paints what he is,” Jackson Pollock asserted in his final interview.

So why, then, do we so readily reduce works of art to objects and commodities, forgetting that they are at heart transfigurations of lived human experience?

My recent conversation with Amanda Palmer about patronage and the future of art reminded me of Art as Experience (public library) — a terrific little book by the pioneering philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952), based on a series of ten lectures he delivered at Harvard in the winter and spring of 1931, in which he addresses this very question.

In the opening essay, titled “The Live Creature,” Dewey argues that by reducing works of art to material products — paintings, buildings, books, music albums — we forget that “the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience.”

Considering the need to “restore the continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings” of the human experience, he writes:

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance… Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.

[…]

In order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens: the sights that hold the crowd — the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts. The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd; who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants, and the intent interest of her goodman in tending the patch of green in front of the house; the zest of the spectator in poking the wood burning on the hearth and in watching the darting flames and crumbling coals.

[…]

The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.

What severed this intimate relationship between art and experience, Dewey argues, is the rise of capitalism, which removed art from life by making it a commodity of class, status, or taste. He writes:

Objects that were in the past valid and significant because of their place in the life of a community now function in isolation from the conditions of their origin. By that fact they are also set apart from common experience, and serve as insignia of taste and certificates of special culture.

[…]

[This is] deeply affecting the practice of living, driving away esthetic preconceptions that are necessary ingredients of happiness, or reducing them to the level of compensating transient pleasurable excitations.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Art in its proper form, Dewey suggests, transmutes the common activities of human life into matters of aesthetic value. Any theory seeking an understanding of art must therefore be concerned with understanding the larger ecosystem of experience from which art springs. In a sentiment that calls to mind Richard Feynman’s memorable “ode to a flower” — a parallel that exposes the common ground between true science and true art — Dewey observes:

Flowers can be enjoyed without knowing about the interactions of soil, air, moisture, and seeds of which they are the result. But they cannot be understood without taking just these interactions into account — and theory is a matter of understanding.

[…]

It is a commonplace that we cannot direct, save accidentally, the growth and flowering of plants, however lovely and enjoyed, without understanding their causal conditions. It should be just a commonplace that esthetic understanding — as distinct from sheer personal enjoyment — must start with the soil, air, and light out of which things esthetically admirable arise. And these conditions are the conditions and factors that make an ordinary experience complete.

Dewey’s most salient point — a point that applies not only to art but to our deepest sense of ourselves as agents of aliveness — deals precisely with this question of completeness. Life, like art, is never complete without what he so poetically calls “all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living.” Our creaturely destiny is intimately entwined with the realities of nature, and nature is forever oscillating between mutually necessary highs and lows. Echoing Nietzsche’s immortal wisdom on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Dewey writes:

The career and destiny of a living being are bound up with its interchanges with its environment.

[…]

Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives.

These biological commonplaces are something more than that; they reach to the roots of the esthetic in experience. The world is full of things that are indifferent and even hostile to life; the very processes by which life is maintained tend to throw it out of gear with its surroundings. Nevertheless, if life continues and if in continuing it expands, there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher power and more significant life… Here in germ are balance and harmony attained through rhythm. Equilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension… Changes interlock and sustain one another. Wherever there is this coherence there is endurance.

In a sentiment that calls to mind children’s literature patron saint Ursula Nordstrom — “That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist,” she wrote in her beautiful letter of encouragement to a young and insecure Maurice Sendak, “wanting to make order out of chaos.” — Dewey adds:

Order is not imposed from without but is made out of the relations of harmonious interactions that energies bear to one another. Because it is active…order itself develops… Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder.

[…]

For only when an organism shares in the ordered relations of its environment does it secure the stability essential to living. And when the participation comes after a phase of disruption and conflict, it bears within itself the germs of a consummation akin to the esthetic.

Art by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

The artist — that is, the creatively whole human being — is one who embraces this harmonious interplay, with both its positive and negative energies. Dewey writes:

Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, brining to living consciousness and experience that is unified and total.

Speaking to what Alan Lightman would so lyrically term the “creative sympathies” of art and science many decades later, Dewey considers the deep commonalities beneath the surface contrasts between these two modes of understanding human experience:

In contrast with the person whose purpose is esthetic, the [scientist] is interested in problems, in situations wherein tension between the matter of observation and of thought is marked. Of course he cares for their resolution. But he does not rest in it; he passes on to another problem using an attained solution only as a stepping stone from which to set on foot further inquiries.

[…]

The odd notion that an artist does not think and a scientific inquirer does nothing else is the result of converting a difference of tempo and emphasis into a difference in kind. The thinker has his esthetic moment when his ideas case to be mere ideas and become the corporate meanings of objets. The artist has his problems and thinks as he works. But his thought is more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of his end, the scientific worker operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs. The artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it.

With this, Dewey returns to the indelible interchanges between the human animal and its environment, out of which arises the experience that becomes art — experience that encompasses the full spectrum of darkness and light, ever-flowing into one another. He writes:

Direct experience comes from nature and man interacting with each other. In this interaction, human energy gathers, is released, dammed up, frustrated and victorious. There are rhythmic beats of want and fulfillment, pulses of doing and being withheld from doing.

All interactions that effect stability and order in the whirling flux of change are rhythms. There is ebb and flow, systole and diastole: ordered change… Contrast of lack and fullness, of struggle and achievement, of adjustment after consummated irregularity, form the drama in which action, feeling, and meaning are one. The outcome is balance and counterbalance.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli for Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical by Noémie Révah

This dance of balance and counterbalance, Dewey reminds us, is the beauty of life and a function of life’s singular conditions — it is possible neither in a world of frantic flux without rhythm, nor in a static world calcified into immutability:

In a world of mere flux, change would not be cumulative; it would not move toward a close. Stability and rest would have no being. Equally it is true, however, that a world that is finished, ended, would have no traits of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution. Where everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment… The live being recurrently loses and reestablishes equilibrium with his surroundings. The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life. In a finished world, sleep and waking could not be distinguished. In one wholly perturbed, conditions could not even be struggled with. In a world made after the pattern of ours, moments of fulfillment punctuate experience with rhythmically enjoyed intervals.

Inner harmony is attained only when, by some means, terms are made with the environment.

But because the highs of life are so intoxicating — from the scintillating sensory pleasure of the perfect chocolate cake to the deep gratification of professional achievement — we sell ourselves short of completeness, warping this vital rhythm by tipping over into excess, which is invariably deadening to the spirit. A few years before Henry Miller’s timelessly insightful meditation on how the hedonic treadmill of material rewards entraps us, Dewey admonishes against this deadening effect of reaching for further and further highs while running from the lows:

Happiness and delight … come to be through a fulfillment that reaches to the depths of our being — one that is an adjustment of our whole being with the conditions of existence. In the process of living, attainment of a period of equilibrium is at the same time the initiation of a new relation to environment, one that brings with its potency of new adjustments to be made through struggle. The time of consummation is also one of beginning anew. Any attempt to perpetuate beyond its term the enjoyment attending the time of fulfillment and harmony constitutes withdrawal from the world. Hence it marks the lowering and loss of vitality. But, through the phases of perturbation and conflict, there abides the deep-seated memory of an underlying harmony, the sense of which haunts life like the sense of being founded on a rock.

Perhaps this rhythm is what Edith Wharton meant by “unassailable serenity.” Its supreme mastery lies in fully inhabiting the present, which requires learning to befriend the pitfalls of our past and the uncertainties of our future — that is, learning to live with our imperfect and fragile humanity. Dewey captures this beautifully:

The live creature adopts its past; it can make friends with even its stupidities, using them as warnings that increase present wariness… To the being fully alive, the future is not ominous but a promise; it surrounds the present as a halo. It consists of possibilities that are felt as a possession of what is now and here. In life that is truly life, everything overlaps and merges.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau, a picture-book biography of the great artist Paul Gauguin

This merging of experience, Dewey argues in delivering his central point, is the wellspring of art:

The happy periods of an experience that is now complete because it absorbs into itself memories of the past and anticipations of the future, come to constitute the esthetic ideal. Only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturbing is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore fully alive. Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reenforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is.

Art as Experience is a terrific read in its totality, containing ten equally insightful meditations on various aspects of creativity. Complement it with Jeanette Winterson on what art does for the human spirit and Anne Truitt on what sustains the artist, then revisit Dewey’s abiding wisdom on the key to finding a fulfilling vocation, the art of fruitful reflection in the age of information overload, and the true purpose of education.

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