Art meets science in a poetic celebration of Earth’s astonishing diversity.
By Maria Popova
“Hope is a thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote, unwitting of how wonderfully this artistic truth conveys a fact of science. More than material for metaphor, feathers are one of evolution’s most hopeful creations — a remarkable multipurpose design, which powers everything from warmth to mating to flight and endures as one of very few tangible links our everyday world has to the dinosaurs that walked it millions of years ago.
While working on a National Geographic story about Darwin, award-winning photographer Robert Clark became enchanted with the role of birds and their feathers in the pioneering scientist’s theory of evolution — from the diversity of finch beaks in the Galapagos, which first gave Darwin the idea that spatial isolation and adaptive change over time could give rise to a new species, to the pigeons he began breeding upon returning to Britain in an experiment to accelerate the process of evolution.
Clark, whose childhood love of birds never left him, grew newly bewitched by a scientific curiosity about the feather, that exquisite masterpiece of nature, and its 200-million-year evolutionary history. To exorcise this obsession, he set out to photograph an astonishing array of feathers, from a 125-year-old Chinese fossil predating the death of the dinosaurs to the understated feathery ferocity of the owl to the stunning plumage of the bird-of-paradise. The result is Feathers: Displays of Brilliant Plumage (public library) — an intensely beautiful visual taxonomy and a photographic love letter to this poetic feat of evolution. Each of Clark’s striking photographs, an intersection of art and science, is accompanied by short text illuminating the role of feathers in the life of that bird species, from hunting and camouflage to flight to mating.
What emerges is a glorious celebration of the diversity of this planet we call home and a gentle, poetic antidote to our arrogant sense of specialness and supremacy — there are, after all, creatures whose beauty stuns us into humility, into realizing that entire dimensions of wondrousness and whimsy exist on which we can’t even begin to compete. Even the way we name these creatures — lest we forget, naming can confer dignity or take it away — says more about our human hubris than about nature’s humbling magnificence: the species we’ve named with words like common are no less beguiling than those whose names contain words like superb.
A bird can use some of its feathers to fly, others to stay warm, and still others to attract a mate. And among the ten thousand species of living birds, evolution has produced a staggering variety of feathers for each of those functions. Penguins, for example, produce tiny, nub-like feathers on their wings that keep them warm in the Antarctic Ocean while also allowing them to, in effect, fly through water. Owls, on the other hand, grow feathers on their wings that muffle the sound of their flight as they swoop in on their victims. The tail feathers of a Lyrebird grow to elegant twisted heights to attract a mate. The Club-winged Manakin has feathers that produce violin-like notes when flapped. The female Club-winged Manakin doesn’t choose a mate based on how his feathers look so much as how they sound.
“The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children… I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds.”
By Maria Popova
“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude,” the great French artist Eugène Delacroix counseled himself in 1824. Just a few years earlier, another timeless patron saint of the creative spirit extolled the rewards of solitude as a supreme conduit to truth and beauty.
Celebrated as one of the greatest poets humanity has ever produced, John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) married an extraordinary capacity for transcendence with an uncommon share of sorrow. His short life was suffused with loss from a young age — his father died after a horseback accident when Keats was eight and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen. And yet even amid his darkest despair, Keats maintained a luminous faith in truth, beauty, and the power of the imagination.
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination — What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not — for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.
For Keats, the sacred road to love and beauty passed through the gates of solitude. With loss as his constant companion since childhood, he had no choice but to seek solace in the only certainty that couldn’t be taken away from him: his own living self.
In his early twenties, Keats found himself warmed for the first time by the fire of romantic love. But just as he was beginning to surrender to the possibility of happiness in communion, his brother Tom began exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms of tuberculosis. In nursing him, the young poet exposed himself to the infection that would eventually take his own life three years later. Watching Tom fade, Keats was faced once again with the impending devastation of having his loved ones taken from him one by one, leaving him even more alone than before — and more determined than ever to use his solitude for creative sustenance.
In a letter from late October of 1818, 23-year-old Keats offers a most magnificent testament to the power of what Bertrand Russell called “fruitful monotony,” that great fertilizer of creative flourishing. The young poet writes to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina:
Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk; though the carpet were of Silk, the Curtains of the morning Clouds; the chairs and Sofa stuffed with Cygnet’s down; the food Manna, the Wine beyond Claret, the Window opening on Winander mere, I should not feel — or rather my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime. Then instead of what I have described, there is a Sublimity to welcome me home — The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children. The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness — an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as a part of that Beauty. But I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart. I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds — No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King’s body guard… I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone… I have written this that you might see I have my share of the highest pleasures and that though I may choose to pass my days alone I shall be no Solitary… I am as happy as a Man can be… with the yearning Passion I have for the beautiful, connected and made one with the ambition of my intellect.
With an eye to the perennial problem of how woefully we misjudge each other’s inner worlds based on outward appearances, Keats adds:
Think of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world — there I am a child — there they do not know me not even my most intimate acquaintance — I give into their feelings as though I were refraining from irritating a little child — Some think me middling, others silly, others foolish — every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will; when in truth it is with my will — I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource.
Tom died five weeks later. The bereavement only intensified Keats’s communion with solitude, and yet he channeled it as a creative force, tapping ever more deeply into that great resource within his own breast. The trying period after Tom’s death marked the beginning of Keats’s annus mirabilis — the yearlong spell of creative vitality under which he produced most of the work for which he is best beloved today, including his “Ode to a Nightingale.”
“I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow.”
By Maria Popova
As artists, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) and Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) each possessed boundless talent bolstered by an unbending will. As partners, they possessed each other with a ferocious love, intense and complicated and all-eclipsing — the kind for which, in Rilke’s immortal words, “all other work is but preparation.” They wed when Kahlo was twenty-two and Rivera forty-two, and remained together until Kahlo’s death twenty-five years later. They had an open marriage long before the term existed as a trend of modern romance — both had multiple affairs, Rivera with women and Kahlo with both men and women, most notably with the American-born French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and with the Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. Still, both insisted that they were the love of each other’s life — a deep conviction crystallized in Kahlo’s passionate love letters and Rivera’s affectionate account of their first encounter.
But nowhere does their uncommon love come more vibrantly alive than in Kahlo’s portrait of Rivera, written twenty years into their marriage for a catalog accompanying one of his major exhibitions and later included as an afterword to his autobiography, My Art, My Life (public library). In just a few wholehearted, wholebodied paragraphs, she captures the enormity of their love. Her sincere humanity radiates a testament to the enormity of all love as a transfiguring force, the ultimate wellspring of beauty and grace.
I warn you that in this picture I am painting of Diego there will be colors which even I am not fully acquainted with. Besides, I love Diego so much I cannot be an objective speculator of him or his life… I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband. I also cannot speak of him as my lover because to me, he transcends by far the domain of sex. And if I attempt to speak of him purely, as a soul, I shall only end up by painting my own emotions. Yet considering these obstacles of sentiment, I shall try to sketch his image to the best of my ability.
Under the wildly affectionate gaze of her sketch, Rivera — a man physically unattractive by our culture’s conventional standards of beauty — is transformed into an exquisite, magical, almost supernatural creature. We are left with a bone-deep awareness that the true splendor of a human being, as Ursula K. Le Guin so elegantly demonstrated a generation later, is something quite different from “beauty.” What emerges is ultimately a portrait less of Rivera than of Kahlo’s own astonishing capacity for love and beauty in the largest possible sense.
Kahlo sketches Rivera:
Growing up from his Asiatic-type head is his fine, thin hair, which somehow gives the impression that it is floating in air. He looks like an immense baby with an amiable but sad-looking face. His wide, dark, and intelligent bulging eyes appear to be barely held in place by his swollen eyelids. They protrude like the eyes of a frog, each separated from the other in a most extraordinary way. They thus seem to enlarge his field of vision beyond that of most persons. It is almost as if they were constructed exclusively for a painter of vast spaces and multitudes. The effect produced by these unusual eyes, situated so far away from each other, encourages one to speculate on the ages-old oriental knowledge contained behind them.
On rare occasions, an ironic yet tender smile appears on his Buddha-like lips. Seeing him in the nude, one is immediately reminded of a young boy-frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish-white, very like that of an aquatic animal. The only dark parts of his whole body are his hands and face, and that is because they are sunburned. His shoulders are like a child’s, narrow and round. They progress without any visible hint of angles, their tapering rotundity making them seem almost feminine. The arms diminish regularly into small, sensitive hands… It is incredible to think that these hands have been capable of achieving such a prodigious number of paintings. Another wonder is that they can still work as indefatigably as they do.
Diego’s chest — of it we have to say, that had he landed on an island governed by Sappho, where male invaders were apt to be executed, Diego would never have been in danger. The sensitivity of his marvelous breasts would have insured his welcome, although his masculine virility, specific and strange, would have made him equally desired in the lands of these queens avidly hungering for masculine love.
His enormous belly, smooth, tightly drawn, and sphere-shaped, is supported by two strong legs which are as beautifully solid as classical columns. They end in feet which point outward at an obtuse angle, as if moulded for a stance wide enough to cover the entire earth.
He sleeps in a foetal position. In his waking hours, he walks with a languorous elegance as if accustomed to living in a liquefied medium. By his movements, one would think that he found air denser to wade through than water.
From this intimate portrait of the man emerges an intimate portrait of the artist as a wholly integrated being, a creature of unselfconscious and uncompromising authenticity:
He is eternally curious and, at the same time, an eternal conversationalist. He can paint for hours and days without resting, talking while he works. He talks and argues about everything, absolutely everything, like Walt Whitman, with all who want to listen to him. His conversation is always interesting. He says phrases that amaze you — sometimes they hurt you, other times they move you, but the person who listens is never left with a feeling of fruitlessness or emptiness. His words make one tremendously uncomfortable because they are live and true. His raw concepts weaken or disorient those who listen to him because they don’t agree with the already established morals; thus, they always break the bark to let new blossoms come out; they wound to let new cells grow.
At the very end of the piece, Kahlo addresses that gruesome yet all too common human tendency to judge other loves from the outside — a violent flattening of the nuance and dimension and enormous richness that exist between two people, perceptible to them alone. She writes:
Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow, nor does the earth suffer because of the rains, nor does the atom suffer for letting its energy escape. To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.
From Blake to Bach, why the ancient text long stripped of fact remains essential to our grasp of poetic truth.
By Maria Popova
In my early twenties, I took up a peculiar practice of cultural insurgency — every time I found a Bible in a hotel night-stand drawer while traveling, I would go to the local bookstore, purchase a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and replace the Bible with it. Although Nietzsche may have winced at this as a manifestation of the haughty rebelliousness youth often mistakes for being a free spirit, it nonetheless sums up my sentiments about the Bible.
But such wholesale dismissal of the Christian classic may be a monumental disservice to our comprehension of poetic myth as a hearth of the human impulse for beauty, morality, and transcendence. So argues Adam Gopnik, one of our few secular rectors of truth and meaning, in his introduction to The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages (public library) — an anthology featuring such celebrated authors as Pico Iyer, Colm Tóibín, Lydia Davis, and Ian Frazier, edited by Andrew Blauner.
How should we read the Bible in a secular age? At a time when this odd, disjointed compilation of ancient Hebrew texts and later Greek texts has lost its claims to historical truth, or to supernatural revelation, it would seem to some that we might simply let it fade, read, until it becomes one more of those texts, like Galen’s medicine or the physics of Aristotle, that everyone knows once mattered but now are left quietly to sit on the shelf and wait for a scholar.
As history and revelation its stories have long ago fallen away; we know that almost nothing that happens in it actually happened, and that its miracles, large and small, are of the same kind and credibility as all the other miracles that crowd the world’s great granary of superstition. Only a handful of fundamentalists — granted that in America that handful is sometimes more like an armful, and at times like a roomful — read it literally, and, though the noes may not always have it in raw numbers, the successive triumphs of critical reason mean that they have it in all educated circles. (Believers may cry elitism at this truth — but the simpler truth is that when the educated elite has rejected an idea it’s usually because there’s something in the idea that resists education.)
And yet. The Bible remains an essential part of the education of what used to be called the well-furnished mind. Not to know it is not to know enough. Most of what we value in our art and architecture, our music and poetry — Bach and Chartres, Shakespeare and Milton, Giotto at the Arena Chapel and Blake’s Job among his friends — is entangled with these old books and ancient texts.
But the Bible’s relevance, Gopnik notes, extends beyond art and into the realm of practical wisdom, offering guidance for our everyday lives — guidance we discern by doing away with the myths and holding onto the moral truth behind them. It’s an argument that parallels the distinction Margaret Mead famously made between “fact” and “poetic truth.”
Modern people are drawn to faith while practicing doubt, as our ancestors confessed their doubts while practicing their faith.
He considers the four ways modern people read the Bible, beginning with the aesthetic:
We read and dissect the books and verses of the Bible because they tell beautiful stories, stirring and shapely. We read the good book because it is a good book. We explore the stories because they are transfixing stories, dense and compelling. The beauty of the Song of Songs, or the nobility of the account of creation in Genesis, or the poetic hum of the Psalms — these things are beautiful as poetic myths alone can be. That they were best translated into our own language in the highest period of English prose and verse, in Shakespeare’s rhythms and vocabulary — conceivably with his hand at work, and certainly with hands near as good as his — only makes them more seductive… These are good tales and great poetry, and we need not worry about their sources any more than we worry about which level at that endless archaeological dig in Turkey is truly Troy. We read them not as “myth” but as fiction — we read them as we read all good stories, for their perplexities as much as for their obvious points.
To say that the Bible’s stories are good stories is to say that they are sustaining stories: tales we tell ourselves in order to live.
Next comes the accommodationist reading of the Bible, done through a moral-metaphorical lens:
It asks us to be stirred by the Bible as enduring moral inquiry — the accommodationist seeks to translate the gnomic knots of the Bible stories into acceptable, contemporary, and even universal ethical truths. It is the kind of reading that shows how, in texts that might otherwise seem obnoxious or alien to a modern mind, enduring moral teaching can still be found.
Then there is the anthropological reading, the kind that animated Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s conversation about religion. Gopnik explains:
This style insists on intellectual detachment, on a sense that the Bible is an extraordinary compilation of truths about how we imagine miracles — that the miracles are imagined does not diminish what they tell us about that imagination, or about mankind. We don’t read scripture to hear good stories or learn good morals. We read to learn about human history, and human nature. How do laws get made? How do dietary restrictions work? Why? How does order come from warfare? Or, looking at the New Testament, the anthropological-minded reader asks: What is the nature of charismatic leadership? Academic in origin, the anthropological view need not be merely academic in practice. By seeking to use the holy text right at hand, it tries to enlarge our views of how we make ideas of holiness.
Lastly, there is the antagonistic reading — the more enlightened version of the blunt antagonism of, say, refusing to read the book at all and replacing it with On the Origin of Species. Gopnik writes:
We read holy books in order to show why we need none. We read to fight back. Nor is this habit merely antagonistic. Without strong oppositional readings, how can we ever make sense of texts at all? Indeed, much classic Talmudic reading, though not heretical, is often best described as antagonistic in this sense: fed up with the stolid apparent meanings of the verse, it searches for a meaning that wiser men can live with.
Any good reading of biblical text, Gopnik points out, includes elements of all four dispositions — the aesthetic, the accommodationist, the anthropological, and the antagonistic. He considers how the book’s non-negligible protagonist, God, amplifies these secular rewards of reading scripture:
Things that defeat logic can often invite imagination, and as a fictional creation the idea of the Deity remains compelling exactly in its — in his — plurality. We need neither believe nor doubt as we read, but remain suspended in that ether of scruples, credulity, and wonder where all good reading really takes place.
A deeper point remains. No moral idea worth preserving has been lost as the idea of God has diminished. Indeed, many moral ideas — of inclusion, tolerance, pluralism, and the equality of man, and the emancipation of women — depend on the diminishment and destruction of a traditional idea of an absolute authority Deity. But nor have moral ideas worth saving been gained simply by diminishing the idea of God. Atheism is a fact about the world, but humanism is a value that we make. Supernaturalism needs the cure of sanity. But humanism needs humility.