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Immunity, Interdependence, and the Shared Root of Our Safety and Our Sanity: Eula Biss on the Science and Social Dynamics of Health as Communal Trust

“We are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here… Immunity… is a common trust as much as it is a private account.”

Immunity, Interdependence, and the Shared Root of Our Safety and Our Sanity: Eula Biss on the Science and Social Dynamics of Health as Communal Trust

Months after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring awakened humanity to the delicate interdependence of nature, Dr. King awakened humanity to our delicate dependence on each other. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” he wrote from his cell at the Birmingham City Jail.

When Robert Hooke looked at a piece of cork through an early handcrafted leather-and-gold microscope in 1665, he named the strange irregular “pores” of its honeycomb-like tissue structure cells, after the small adjacent spaces in which monks spend their voluntary solitary confinement. It would take another two centuries for scientists to discover that cells are the basic biological units of life, that they are in constant osmotic communication with one another, and that they replicate themselves to become new cells, each a whispered word from the language in which life talks to the future.

Cork structure from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665. (Available as a print.)

Biological and social, our interdependence is a defining feature not only of our civilization, not only of our species and all living species, but of life itself — life the physiological process and life the psychosocial phenomenon. “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman exulted in the golden age of chemistry — the new science he saw as “the elevating, beautiful, study… which involves the essences of creation.” Meanwhile, the development of cell theory was revolutionizing biology, making of this philosophical field as old as Aristotle an even newer science that illuminated the essence of life. Cells became to biology what atoms were to chemistry. Biology ushered in the revelation that every cell belonging to me as good — as healthy, as vital, as fit for replication — belongs to you.

That delicate interdependence of life and lives, with its tangled roots in biology and cultural history, is what Eula Biss explores in On Immunity: An Inoculation (public library) — a book of penetrating and poetic insight, drawn with that rare scholarship capable of correcting the warped cultural hindsight we call history; a book of staggering foresight, conceived in the wake of the H1N1 flu pandemic, yet speaking with astonishing prescience to the complex epidemiological realities and social dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding more than five years after its publication.

For Biss — the daughter of a medical scientist and a poet — even her own biological inheritance as a universal donor with type O negative blood becomes a potent metaphor for the mechanism of vaccination, a lens through which to view the permeable membrane between the biological and social realities of immunity. With an eye to the blood banks that collect her donations to save other lives, she writes:

If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.

It is a rather unfortunate term for an unassailable scientific principle — we humans, especially in this culture of rugged individualism nursed on the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance, bristle at thinking of ourselves as members of a herd. In our long history of thinking with animals, herd animals have been the butt of our derogatory metaphors for mindless conformity.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

And yet inside the unfortunate linguistic container, an unfaltering biological reality resides: On large enough a scale, even a fairy ineffective vaccine that fails to produce immunity in some individuals will slow down the spread of infection in the community; as the virus fails to replicate itself in more and more new hosts, the vaccine will eventually halt it altogether. In consequence, even such a mediocre vaccine will protect all members of the community, even those for whom inoculation has not worked as intended on the individual level. This is why it is more dangerous to be the vaccinated animal amid a largely unvaccinated herd than the other way around. Biss writes:

The unvaccinated person is protected by the bodies around her, bodies through which disease is not circulating. But a vaccinated person surrounded by bodies that host disease is left vulnerable to vaccine failure or fading immunity. We are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here. Donations of blood and organs move between us, exiting one body and entering another, and so too with immunity, which is a common trust as much as it is a private account. Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.

With an eye to the origin of herd immunity theory — a theory developed in the 1840s by a doctor treating smallpox, which has taken manyfold more human lives than any other infectious disease in the history of our species and which has since been eradicated — Biss proposes an alternative, both more poetic and more precise, to the imperfect term that so perfectly describes the biosocial reality:

Herd immunity, an observable phenomenon, now seems implausible only if we think of our bodies as inherently disconnected from other bodies. Which, of course, we do.

The very expression herd immunity suggests that we are cattle, waiting, perhaps, to be sent to slaughter. And it invites an unfortunate association with the term herd mentality, a stampede toward stupidity. The herd, we assume, is foolish. Those of us who eschew the herd mentality tend to prefer a frontier mentality in which we imagine our bodies as isolated homesteads that we tend either well or badly. The health of the homestead next to ours does not affect us, this thinking suggests, so long as ours is well tended.

If we were to exchange the metaphor of the herd for a hive, perhaps the concept of shared immunity might be more appealing. Honeybees are matriarchal, environmental do-gooders who also happen to be entirely interdependent. The health of any individual bee, as we know from the recent epidemic of colony collapse, depends on the health of the hive.

Diagram of bee anatomy by French artist Paul Sougy, 1962. (Available as a print.)

Biss quotes a succinct summation by her father, a doctor:

Vaccination works by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.

No one person has done more to undermine this vital mutuality of protection than Andrew Wakefield — the British gastroenterologist who, in the 1990s, infected the hive mind with his causal claims linking vaccines and autism. Preying on the understandable human impulse toward concretizing blame for amorphous and ambiguous problems, the theory went viral before multiple subsequent studies debunked his results, before it was exposed that Wakefield was paid for his research by a lawyer readying a lawsuit against a vaccine maker, before the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom concluded its investigation with the verdict that Wakefield had been “irresponsible and dishonest” in conducting and publishing his work.

Despite the scientific and ethical denunciation of Wakefield’s study, its ideological meme had already spread beyond retrieval. (Richard Dawkins coined the word meme in 1976 by borrowing from biology — a word that came alive anew a quarter century later in the context of “viral” content on the internet, which has its own roots in epidemiology.) A quarter century later, echoes of Wakefield’s disproven falsehoods bellow with formidable vocality. That group of voices is often referred to as the anti-vaccination movement, but I find the term movement extremely ill-suited — such groupthink is not in movement but static, frozen in time and frozen with fear, petrified in the cultural amber of a time before the Age of Reason and lashed about by the same errors of magical thinking, willful blindness, and confusion of causation and correlation that made our medieval ancestors take comets for indisputable omens of future events and left-handedness for indisputable evidence of possession by the Devil.

Art from The Comet Book, 1587. (Available as a print).

Biss is more generous in her own assessment of anti-vaccination:

Those who went on to use Wakefield’s inconclusive work to support the notion that vaccines cause autism are not guilty of ignorance or science denial so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used — to lend false credibility to an idea that we want to believe for other reasons.

Writing shortly after the birth of the Occupy movement — the self-described “99%” launching “an ongoing global protest of capitalism” — she considers a friend’s half-joke, half-koan about vaccination as a matter of “occupy immune system,” and reflects on the basic moral syllogism of anti-vaccination as a political stance claiming to protest the capitalist forces behind modern medicine:

Immunity is a public space. And it can be occupied by those who choose not to carry immunity. For some… a refusal to vaccinate falls under a broader resistance to capitalism. But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt — a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.

[…]

We are justified in feeling threatened by the unlimited expansion of industry, and we are justified in fearing that our interests are secondary to corporate interests. But refusal of vaccination undermines a system that is not actually typical of capitalism. It is a system in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population. Vaccination allows us to use the products of capitalism for purposes that are counter to the pressures of capital.

Emissary by Maria Popova

In a lovely antidote to the tragic human tendency toward cynicism — that touchingly misguided and ineffective effort at self-protection, that particularly virulent strain of cowardice to which our culture has grown increasingly hospitable as it has grown increasingly impatient with the slow and vulnerable work of nuance — Biss adds:

That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. Capitalism has already impoverished the working people who generate wealth for others. And capitalism has already impoverished us culturally, robbing unmarketable art of its value. But when we begin to see the pressures of capitalism as innate laws of human motivation, when we begin to believe that everyone is owned, then we are truly impoverished.

Complement On Immunity — a redemptive and salutary read in its entirety — with Virginia Woolf on illness as a portal to self-understanding and Bessel van der Kolk on the science of how our minds and our bodies converge in healing, then revisit Adrienne Rich on resisting capitalism through the arts of the possible.

BP

Alan Watts on Love, the Meaning of Freedom, and the Only Real Antidote to Fear

“You cannot think simultaneously about listening to the waves and whether you are enjoying listening to the waves.”

Alan Watts on Love, the Meaning of Freedom, and the Only Real Antidote to Fear

“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb 1929 meditation on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

Half a century before her, Leo Tolstoy — who befriended a Buddhist monk late in life and became deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy — echoed these ancient truths as he contemplated the paradoxical nature of love: “Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only.”

That in love and in life, freedom from fear — like all species of freedom — is only possible within the present moment has long been a core teaching of the most ancient Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions. It is one of the most elemental truths of existence, and one of those most difficult to put into practice as we move through our daily human lives, so habitually inclined toward the next moment and the mentally constructed universe of expected events — the parallel universe where anxiety dwells, where hope and fear for what might be eclipse what is, and where we cease to be free because we are no longer in the direct light of reality.

The relationship between freedom, fear, and love is what Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) explores in one of the most insightful chapters of The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — his altogether revelatory 1951 classic, which introduced Eastern philosophy to the West with its lucid and luminous case for how to live with presence.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Drawing on his admonition against the dangers of the divided mind — the mindset that divides us into interior self-awareness and external reality, into ego and universe, which is the mindset the whole of Western culture has instilled in us — he writes:

The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind. If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, freedom will seem to be the extent to which I can push the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around. But to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world. There is just one process acting, and it does everything that happens. It raises my little finger and it creates earthquakes. Or, if you want to put it that way, I raise my little finger and also make earthquakes. No one fates and no one is being fated.

This model of freedom is orthogonal to our conditioned view that freedom is a matter of bending external reality to our will by the power of our choices — controlling what remains of nature once the “I” is separated out. Watts draws a subtle, crucial distinction between freedom and choice:

What we ordinarily mean by choice is not freedom. Choices are usually decisions motivated by pleasure and pain, and the divided mind acts with the sole purpose of getting “I” into pleasure and out of pain. But the best pleasures are those for which we do not plan, and the worst part of pain is expecting it and trying to get away from it when it has come. You cannot plan to be happy. You can plan to exist, but in themselves existence and non-existence are neither pleasurable nor painful.

Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Stripped of the paraphernalia of circumstance and interpretation, our internal experience of being unfree stems from attempting impossible things — things that resist reality and refuse to accept the present moment on its own terms. Watts writes:

The sense of not being free comes from trying to do things which are impossible and even meaningless. You are not “free” to draw a square circle, to live without a head, or to stop certain reflex actions. These are not obstacles to freedom; they are the conditions of freedom. I am not free to draw a circle if perchance it should turn out to be a square circle. I am not, thank heaven, free to walk out of doors and leave my head at home. Likewise I am not free to live in any moment but this one, or to separate myself from my feelings.

Without the motive forces of pleasure and pain, it might at first appear paradoxical to make any decisions at all — a contradiction that makes it impossible to choose between options as we navigate even the most basic realities of life: Why choose to take the umbrella into the downpour, why choose to eat this piece of mango and not this piece of cardboard? But Watts observes that the only real contradiction is of our own making as we cede the present to an imagined future. More than half a century before psychologists came to study how your present self is sabotaging your future happiness, Watts offers the personal counterpart to Albert Camus’s astute political observation that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” and writes:

I fall straight into contradiction when I try to act and decide in order to be happy, when I make “being pleased” my future goal. For the more my actions are directed towards future pleasures, the more I am incapable of enjoying any pleasures at all. For all pleasures are present, and nothing save complete awareness of the present can even begin to guarantee future happiness.

[…]

You can only live in one moment at a time, and you cannot think simultaneously about listening to the waves and whether you are enjoying listening to the waves. Contradictions of this kind are the only real types of action without freedom.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Only with such a recalibration of our reflexive view of freedom does James Baldwin’s insistence that “people are as free as they want to be” begin to unfold its layered meaning like a Zen koan, to be turned over in the mind until the deceptively simple shape unfolds its origami-folded scroll of deep truth.

In what may be the most elegant refutation of the particular strain of hubris that embraces determinism in order to wring from it the self-permission for living with delirious freedom from responsibility, Watts writes:

There is another theory of determinism which states that all our actions are motivated by “unconscious mental mechanisms,” and that for this reason even the most spontaneous decisions are not free. This is but another example of split-mindedness, for what is the difference between “me” and “mental mechanisms” whether conscious or unconscious? Who is being moved by these processes? The notion that anyone is being motivated comes from the persisting illusion of “I.” The real man*, the organism-in-relation-to-the-universe, is this unconscious motivation. And because he is it, he is not being moved by it.

[…]

Events look inevitable in retrospect because when they have happened, nothing can change them. Yet the fact that I can make safe bets could prove equally well that events are not determined but consistent. In other words, the universal process acts freely and spontaneously at every moment, but tends to throw out events in regular, and so predictable, sequences.

Only by such a misapprehension of freedom, Watts observes, do we ever feel unfree: When we enter a state that causes us psychological pain, our immediate impulse is to get the “I” out of the pain, which is invariably a resistance to the present moment as it is; because we cannot will a different psychological state, we reach for an easy escape: a drink, a drug, a compulsive scroll through an Instagram feed. All the ways in which we try to abate our feelings of abject loneliness and boredom and inadequacy by escaping from the present moment where they unfold are motivated by the fear that those intolerable feelings will subsume us. And yet the instant we become motivated by fear, we become unfree — we are prisoners of fear. We are only free within the bounds of the present moment, with all of its disquieting feelings, because only in that moment can they dissipate into the totality of integrated reality, leaving no divide between us as feelers and the feelings being felt, and therefore no painful contrast between preferred state and actual state. Watts writes:

So long as the mind believes in the possibility of escape from what it is at this moment, there can be no freedom.

[…]

It sounds as if it were the most abject fatalism to have to admit that I am what I am, and that no escape or division is possible. It seems that if I am afraid, then I am “stuck” with fear. But in fact I am chained to the fear only so long as I am trying to get away from it. On the other hand, when I do not try to get away I discover that there is nothing “stuck” or fixed about the reality of the moment. When I am aware of this feeling without naming it, without calling it “fear,” “bad,” “negative,” etc., it changes instantly into something else, and life moves freely ahead. The feeling no longer perpetuates itself by creating the feeler behind it.

Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

To dissolve into this total reality of the moment is the crucible of freedom, which is in turn the crucible of love. In consonance with Toni Morrison’s insistence that the deepest measure of freedom is loving anything and anyone you choose to love and with that classic, exquisite Adrienne Rich sonnet line — “no one’s fated or doomed to love anyone” — Watts considers the ultimate reward of this undivided mind:

The further truth that the undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love… Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole… This, rather than any mere emotion, is the power and principle of free action.

Complement this fragment of the timelessly rewarding The Wisdom of Insecurity with Watts on learning not to think in terms of gain and loss and finding meaning by accepting the meaninglessness of life, then revisit Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and astronomer Rebecca Elson’s almost unbearably beautiful poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

BP

The Decades-Old Classic That Became the Ultimate Pandemic Poem

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

The Decades-Old Classic That Became the Ultimate Pandemic Poem

I will never forget the day I first encountered, in the midst of heartache, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) — a poem I have lived with for years, a poem that has helped me live.

Composed when Bishop was sorrowing after a separation from her partner, Alice Methfessel, it is a staggering poem about love and loneliness, about the feigned fearlessness and forced levity we put on like an armor, like a costume, to cope with the terrifying heaviness of loss. Originally published in The New Yorker on April 24, 1976, twenty years after Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize and six years after she won the National Book Award, the following year it crowned the final book of poems published in Bishop’s lifetime and now lives on in her indispensable posthumously collected Poems (public library).

Alongside classics like Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” “One Art” remains one of the greatest and most influential villanelles in the English language — sculptural masterworks of creative constraint, in which the virtuosity of language meets an exquisite mathematical precision in nineteen measured lines: five three-line stanzas and a final stanza of four lines, with the first and third line of the first stanza forming a refrain of alternating repetition across the remaining stanzas and then coming together into a chorus of a couplet in the closing verse. A haiku in the higher mathematics of meter.

Elizabeth Bishop

It is the only villanelle Bishop ever wrote. She surprised even herself. A spare and careful poet who published very few and very meticulous poems, she composed it with astonishing rapidity, feeling that it was “like writing a letter,” redrafting and retitling it over and over.

“How to Lose Things.”

“The Gift of Losing Things.”

“The Art of Losing Things.”

And finally, fifteen drafts later, “One Art.”

It is always a delight to witness someone you love discover something you have long loved, and so it was with immense delight that I watched my dear friend Amanda Palmer discover “One Art” in real time while we were smiling at each other screen-mediated and pandemic-strewn across opposite corners of the globe, each comforting the other’s recent losses. Having just come upon the poem via one of her patrons and not yet read it, she read it to me extemporaneously while I mouthed the words committed to heart. I watched ripples of deeply personal resonance animate Amanda’s face as she made her way through the poem — a poem universal and timeless, a beautiful and brutal emissary of elemental truth, written half a century ago out of the tumults of the poet’s personal life, out of her very particular time and place and circumstance, suddenly rendered the ultimate pandemic poem for this moment we share and the myriad personal losses within it — a testament to the young Sylvia Plath’s precocious observation that an artist never knows how their work will live in the world and touch other lives, that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

Bridging this bittersweet unbidden moment with our longtime collaboration around poetry, I asked Amanda to record a reading of the poem as it made its way into her veins to live with her as it has lived with, and as it will live with you.

ONE ART
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Bishop died not long after composing “One Art,” having requested the last two lines of another poem of hers as an epitaph:

All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.

Complement with Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one long period of solitude in life and James Gleick reading her monumental poem about the nature of our knowledge, then revisit Amanda Palmer reading “Spell to Be Said Against Hatred” by Jane Hirshfield, “The Big Picture” by Ellen Bass, “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, and “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry.

BP

Einstein on the Political Power of Art

“Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.”

Einstein on the Political Power of Art

“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch wrote in her arresting 1972 address on art as a force of resistance. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin in their superb forgotten conversation at the close of that decade, “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

A generation earlier, in the final years of his life, Albert Einstein sat down at his desk in Princeton, New Jersey, to compose a letter of consonant sentiment — a stirring letter of appreciation and assurance to the Polish Jewish artist Si Lewen (November 8, 1918–July 25, 2016), who had just quietly released a staggering work of art and resistance.

Si Lewen

Born days before Armistice Day, Si was five when he decided to become an artist — or rather (as such elemental self-awarenesses tend to bubble up) when he knew that he was one. In those formative years, his family fled from place to place as the situation for Jews in Europe was darkening by the minute. During a period of refuge in Berlin, while ostracized and bullied at school for being Jewish, he began receiving his first formal art lessons from a disciple of Paul Klee’s. His young imagination and his understanding of the world were being imprinted as much by his refuge in art as by the thickening political atmosphere of animosity that would soon erupt into the world’s grimmest war yet.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

Lewen was still a teenager when his family fled to America as Hitler usurped power. When he arrived in New York, he was at first elated at the prospect of a new life full of art and free of persecution. He began taking drawing classes and going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. But when an antisemitic policeman beat him nearly to death, the terrifying thought that he would never be free from bigoted brutality and that the life of art could never be separate from the troubled life of the world drove him to a suicide attempt. And yet, like Lincoln, Lewen rose above the self-destructive impulse and turned the darkness into a motive force for action, for revising this broken and brutal world with his particular light.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

He enlisted in the American Army, in a secret intelligence unit of German-speaking immigrants who were flown into Germany for the invasion of Normandy that backboned D-Day, the liberation of France, and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. There to do translation work and to illustrate posters and pamphlets rallying the troops, Lewen walked into one of the major concentration camps the day after it was liberated and saw what had happened to countless people who looked like him, who spoke the same language and dreamt kindred dreams — saw the would-be destiny he had narrowly escaped by making it to America as a refugee.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

When he returned to New York with a wounded body and a scarred soul, he spent six months recovering at the VA hospital, then poured his surviving spirit into a stirring narrative suite of fifty-five drawings titled The Parade — a wordless, intensely emotional, consummately illustrated black-and-white charcoal meditation on the grim and abiding paradox of armed antagonism: that every war appeals to some primal part of the human spirit in order to gain its destructive momentum, and every war ends up destroying what is most buoyant and beautiful in that spirit.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

Einstein, who had spent the years between the two wars making an emphatic case for the interconnectedness of our fates and corresponding with Freud about violence and human nature, saw The Parade — unclear how, but very probably through the trailblazing photographer Lotte Jacobi, who was soon to exhibit them in her New York gallery. Einstein had sat for her more than a decade earlier and remained in touch.

Albert Einstein by Lotte Jacobi, 1938. (University of New Hampshire Museum of Art.)

And yet despite how stirred those who saw it were by Lewen’s work, it fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered more than half a century later and resurrected in the final year of Lewen’s life in the stunning accordion volume Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey (public library), envisioned and edited by Art Spiegelman. It opens with the letter Einstein wrote to Lewen on August 13, 1951 — his most direct and impassioned statement on the political power of art:

I find your work The Parade very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. Furthermore, I find it a real merit to counteract the tendencies towards war through the medium of art. Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.

It has often been said that art should not be used to serve any political or otherwise practical goals. But I could never agree with this point of view.

In consonance with his contemporary and fellow humanist Anaïs Nin’s ardent case for the centrality of emotional excess in creativity — “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” she wrote to a seventeen-year-old aspiring author whom she was mentoring — Einstein adds:

It is true that it is utterly wrong and disgusting if some direction of thought and expression is forced upon the artist from the outside. But strong emotional tendencies of the artist himself have often given birth to truly great works of art. One has only to think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daumier’s immortal drawings directed against the corruption in French politics of his time. Our time needs you and your work!

Lewen died days before Spiegelman’s gorgeous resurrection of The Parade was published, in the politically precipitous months leading up to the 2016 American election. He never lived to see the country that had given him refuge crumble into a republic of racism and xenophobia for four years, but also never lived to see the redemption of the republic in the subsequent election of a President who, in another time and another place, would have perished in a concentration camp.

Couple with another Nobel-winning Albert, Camus, on the artist as a voice of resistance and an instrument of freedom, then revisit Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry.

BP

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