Brain Pickings

Search results for “optimism”

American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism

A painted dance in praise of the best we can do.

American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism

In the final years of a long life animated by optimism as a catalyst of democracy and the spring of action toward justice, Walt Whitman’s aged baritone unspools from the only surviving recording of his voice to read a verse from one of his last poems, envisioning America as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons, all, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old, strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.”

The paradox of progress is that the more of it we make, the higher the stakes and standards of justice become, and the more we slip into a kind of pessimistic ahistorical amnesia — we judge people and events of the past by the standards of the present and indict them as ignorant; we judge the deficiencies of the present without the long victory ledger of the past and fall into despair. Overwhelmed by all that remains to be done — which must be every epoch’s focus but not its paralysis — we forget all that has been done, and done at the cost of tremendous toil by generations who fought for the incremental triumphs with the totality of their lives. In the century and a half since Whitman’s day, much of what was to him a brave imagining — women’s suffrage, abolition, the birth of a global ecological conscience, the discovery of new worlds and new galaxies — has become a reality, unlatching larger vistas of possibility far beyond the horizon of even his most optimistic vision.

To raft an awareness of this amid the tragic tide of cynicism engulfing our culture is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance, for as Maya Angelou astutely observed, “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

Numberless half-remembered revolutions after Whitman, after Angelou, David Byrne — a polymathic poet laureate of optimism for our own era — picks up the baton of anticynical humanism in his Broadway musical turned HBO film turned illustrated book American Utopia (public library), featuring the art his longtime friend Maira Kalman originally painted for the Broadway curtain, paired with lyric lines in a series of minimalist visual poems, designed and edited by Maira’s son and frequent collaborator Alex Kalman.

What makes her work such a burst of delight is that whatever extant reality she brings her brush to — be it the alphabet or the weather or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — the elements that have beckoned to her imagination from the immensity of the work become a meta-poem exuding a quiet philosophy of being.

So it is with American Utopia — spare lines from Byrne’s lyrics, spare gestural utterances from the body language of the choreography, spare micro-expressions on the faces of the cast come abloom as painted vignettes, tender and expressive, dancing with their own aliveness.

What emerges is not a recreation of the musical world in book form but a luminous satellite of that world, intimate yet separate, removed by a degree of artistic abstraction yet reflecting the radiance of the same guiding star.

Pair American Utopia with Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love, then revisit David Byrne’s buoyant hymn to optimism and his pencil diagrams of the human condition.

Artwork courtesy of Maira Kalman / Bloomsbury. Photographs by Maria Popova.

BP

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

“The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.”

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

Twenty-four centuries after Pythagoras contemplated the purpose of life and the meaning of wisdom as he coined the word philosopher to mean “lover of wisdom,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) contemplated the meaning of personhood and the measure of wisdom as he revolutionized the word poet to stand for “lover of life.”

Tucked toward the end of his ever-foliating Leaves of Grass is what might be his most musical poem — a sweeping thirteen-page symphony of thought and feeling and rhythm in language, undulating across three distinct thematic movements: the carefree optimism of embarking upon a new path; the transcendent self-discovery in traversing new landscapes of beauty and possibility; and the transcendence of the self in connecting with something larger than oneself: nature, time and space, love. Whitman himself considered it his “mystic and indirect chant of aspiration toward a noble life” and “a vehement demand to reach the very highest point that the human soul is capable of attaining.”

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

For his remaining decades, Whitman lived in it and with it for, changing its title from the humble “Poem of the Road” in the first 1856 edition to the wanderlustful “Song of the Open Road” in 1867, fine-tuning the verses again and again, mapping the poem’s 224 lines into fifteen numbered sections by the final edition in the winter of his life.

The second movement of the lyric symphony peaks at the sixth section, erupting with Whitman’s most direct and life-tested hypothesis about what makes a great person and what wisdom really means. It augurs his hard-earned wisdom on what makes life worth living, at which he would arrive half a lifetime later while recovering from a paralytic stroke. It echoes the famous prose-meditation on the key to a vibrant and rewarding life, with which he introduced Leaves of Grass as a young man. It hums, surefooted and sonorous, as a kind of blessing song for the road of life.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied — he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Complement with Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it takes to be an agent of change, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and women’s centrality to democracy, then revisit a beautiful reading from his furthest-seeing, deepest-feeling poem.

BP

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love… Love is not something to do, but… something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly.”

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But a central paradox of making art and making life is that while uncertainty may be the wellspring of our creative vitality — what is best in life and art often comes into being by “making-not-knowing,” in artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely phrase — we are capable of creating only by hedging against the uncertainty with an arsenal of habits and routines that make it feel containable, controllable, workable. We simply cannot cope with the fundamental precariousness of it all. Every artist’s art is their coping mechanism — their makeshift raft for the slipstream of time and uncertainty that is life.

And so: When some cataclysm in the slipstream capsizes the raft, shatters it, leaves us gasping amid the flotsam, ejected from the familiar flow of time — do we sink or sing?

That is what Zadie Smith explores in one of the six symphonic essays from her Intimations (public library) — a slender, splendid book, all of her royalties from which Smith is donating to the Equal Justice Initiative and New York’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund; a book inspired by her first encounter with Marcus Aurelius’s classic Meditations, on which she leaned to steady herself in these staggering times but which failed to make of her a Stoic, driving her, as the world’s gaps and failings drive us restive makers, to make what meets the unmet need, a contemporary counterpart to these ancient private meditations of timeless public resonance. (We cannot, we must not, after all, expect a white male monarch — however penetrating his insight into human nature, whatever the similitudes of that elemental nature across cultures and civilizations — to speak for and to all of humanity across all of time.)

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

In the third essay, titled “Something to Do,” Smith contemplates the strange and inevitable species of essays in which writers examine their own motives for what they do, that is, examine the pylons of who they are — a genre perhaps not pioneered but popularized by Orwell’s iconic Why I Write and since swelled with specimens by such titans of literature as Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Smith herself. At the bottom of all such self-examination — which spares no maker, whatever the mode and material of their art, be it essays or gardens or equations — is the question of time, the raw material of making, something Marcus Aurelius’s fellow Stoic Seneca took up in his excellent meditation on the existential calculus of time spent, saved, and wasted, concluding that “nothing is ours, except time.”

With an eye to the capitalist commodification of time in a culture of utilitarian busyness, Smith considers how society ordinarily weighs the cultural and temporal responsibility of the artist:

Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do… Out of an expanse of time, you carve a little area — that nobody asked you to carve — and you do “something.” But perhaps the difference between the kind of something that I’m used to, and this new culture of doing something, is the moral anxiety that surrounds it. The something that artists have always done is more usually cordoned off from the rest of society, and by mutual agreement this space is considered a sort of charming but basically useless playpen, in which adults get to behave like children — making up stories and drawing pictures and so on — though at least they provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs… As a consequence, art stands in a dubious relation to necessity — and to time itself. It is something to do, yes, but when it is done, and whether it is done at all, is generally considered a question for artists alone. An attempt to connect the artist’s labor with the work of truly laboring people is frequently made but always strikes me as tenuous, with the fundamental dividing line being this question of the clock. Labor is work done by the clock (and paid by it, too). Art takes time and divides it up as art sees fit. It is something to do.

Art by Christoph Niemann from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Under such a premise, she observes, artists would seem to be most impervious to the cataclysmic disruption of labor that a global pandemic inflicts upon our species. But that is not what her experience — or my experience, or the experience of any creative person I know — has been. One is reminded of James Baldwin, insisting half a century earlier in his superb essay on the creative process that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” Not even time, the artist’s own fulcrum of stability. Smith writes:

It seems it would follow that writers — so familiar with empty time and with being alone — should manage this situation better than most. Instead, in the first week I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life. Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it. Back in the playpen, I carved out meaning by creating artificial deprivations time, the kind usually provided for people by the real limitations of their real jobs. Things like “a firm place to be at nine a.m. every morning” or a “boss who tells you what to do.” In the absence of these fixed elements, I’d make up hard things to do, or things to abstain from. Artificial limits and so on. Running is what I know. Writing is what I know. Conceiving self-implemented schedules: teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat. What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time. The way I’ve done it all my life.

“Artificial limits,” of course, are how we contour and fill our sense of meaning amid the vast, empty boundlessness of being. That is why the artificial limits of those we deem to have meaningful lives — the daily routines of great makers and thinkers — are of such enduring and intoxicating interest to us, why we hunger for the cognitive science of the ideal daily routine.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

But much of our temporal anguish stems precisely from this artificial contouring of selfhood in the sand of time. We are essentially self-referential timekeeping devices. I noticed, for instance — how could one not? — that this book was published on my birthday. We mark up the year with the same artificial timestamps with which we mark up the hour. What we do with our days, how we itemize them into scheduled rhythms, is another twitch of the same ludicrous, helplessly human impulse — to own time, to turn into private property what may be the only truly public good. Eventually — perhaps in the time-warp of a pandemic, perhaps in that of private grief — something stops us up short and we face the absurdity of such artificiality. Smith recounts her own stumbling stop and the disquieting yet strangely life-affirming realization it made her step into:

At the end of April, in a powerful essay by another writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, I read this line about love: “Without it, life is just ‘doing time.’” I don’t think she intended by this only romantic love, or parental love, or familial love or really any kind of love in particular. At least, I read it in the Platonic sense: Love with a capital L, an ideal form and essential part of the universe — like “Beauty” or the color red — from which all particular examples on earth take their nature. Without this element present, in some form, somewhere in our lives, there really is only time, and there will always be too much of it. Busyness will not disguise its lack.

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

Ending where she began, Smith quiets the moral anxiety to make herself at home in that peculiar and inescapable place that makers inhabit by their very nature, the place between compulsion and consecration:

I write because… well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love. The difficulties and complications of love — as they exist on the other side of this wall, away from my laptop — is the task that is before me, although task is a poor word for it, for unlike writing, its terms cannot be scheduled, preplanned or determined by me. Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love. If it weren’t for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world, and very little meaningful pleasure for any of us. Although the most powerful art, it sometimes seems to me, is an experience and a going-through; it is love comprehended by, expressed and enacted through the artwork itself, and for this reason has perhaps been more frequently created by people who feel themselves to be completely alone in this world — and therefore wholly focused on the task at hand — than by those surrounded by “loved ones.” Such art is rare: we can’t all sit cross-legged like Buddhists day and night meditating on ultimate matters. Or I can’t. But I also don’t want to just do time anymore, the way I used to. And yet, in my case, I can’t let it go: old habits die hard. I can’t rid myself of the need to do “something,” to make “something,” to feel that this new expanse of time hasn’t been “wasted.” Still, it’s nice to have company. Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do “something,” that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.

Complement this fragment of Smith’s solacing and vitalizing Intimations with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley on the necessary chaos of creativity, Borges’s timeless refutation of time, and Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, then revisit Smith, writing years ago as if of and to today, on optimism and despair.

BP

The Building Blocks of Moral Revolution: Jacqueline Novogratz on the Art of Accompaniment Along the Path to Justice and the Courage to Defy Cynicism in the Face of Staggering Requisite for Change

“Cynics might point to a system of governments, corporations, and technologies so broken that attempts to change it from the edges are futile. But cynics don’t build the future.”

The Building Blocks of Moral Revolution: Jacqueline Novogratz on the Art of Accompaniment Along the Path to Justice and the Courage to Defy Cynicism in the Face of Staggering Requisite for Change

From the hard-earned platform of his revolutionary life, Frederick Douglass looked back on his youth under the “brutalizing power” of slavery, a bodily brutality lashing at the soul as he watched “men and women, … moral and intellectual beings, in open contempt of their humanity, leveled at a blow with horses, sheep, horned cattle and swine.” This grim reality of “manhood lost in chattelhood,” he argued, would take nothing less than a “moral revolution” to overturn.

A century after Douglass’s death, a nun by the name of Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa — one of Rwanda’s first three women parliamentarians — set out to eradicate the country’s epochs-old “bride price” — a practice of reducing women to chattel by having a prospective husband offer his future father-in-law three cows in exchange for the bride-to-be. Her country was not ready — the law banning the practice was rescinded, backlash erupted, and Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa was murdered.

Not long before her death, she had taken under her wing an idealistic young American woman who over the next decades would carry her torch in an unexampled way, irradiating the world with its light on scales neither of them could have predicted or dared dream of. Twenty-five, disillusioned with the hypocrisies of capitalism and a financial world predicated on an erasure of the lives of the poor, she would devote her life to exposing the deep-rooted, centuries-old systemic corruptions of a global economic system in which humanity is lost to chattelhood. She would come to see that because the systemic assault of poverty impoverishes people of much more than wages, the opposite of poverty is not riches but dignity. She would pioneer a new model of flourishing — flourishing of the body as well as the spirit — modeling a world where dignity is the primary stake to be held and each human being, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, race, or income level, is a sovereign and inalienable stakeholder.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree, 1962.

In the decades since her formative experience in Rwanda, hardly anyone has made a greater or further-reaching difference in the lives of the world’s poor than microfinance pioneer and Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz. In Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World (public library), she looks back on her own life and forward to our shared future to consider the building blocks of robust, lasting change. She writes:

1986. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing in a field on a blue-sky day, surrounded by tall, yellow sunflowers. I am a twenty-five-year-old former banker dressed in a flowy skirt, wearing flat, mud-speckled white shoes, my head filled with dreams of changing the world. Beside me is an apple-cheeked, bespectacled nun in a brown habit smiling broadly. Her name is Felicula, and I adore her for taking me under her wing. Along with a few other Rwandan women, she and I are planning to build the first microfinance bank in the country. Today, we’re visiting a sunflower oil-pressing business, the kind of tiny venture our bank might one day support. We plan to call the microfinance organization Duterimbere meaning “to go forward with enthusiasm.”

All I see is upside.

2016. Kigali, Rwanda. I am standing at an outdoor reception on a starry night, surrounded by men and women in dark suits. I am the fifty-five-year-old CEO of Acumen, a global nonprofit seeking to change the way the world tackles poverty. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, and his top ministers are at the reception to meet potential investors in a new $70 million impact fund Acumen is building to bring solar electricity to more than ten million low-income people in East Africa.

I have become all too familiar with the risks of making and then trying to deliver on big promises. Yet I’m confident Acumen and its partners can launch and implement this fund, and thus prove the power of innovation to help solve one of the continent’s most intractable problems.

Just before I begin to make a formal presentation to the group, a young Rwandan woman wearing a navy suit and low-heeled pumps approaches me.

“Ms. Novogratz,” she says, “I think you knew my auntie.”

“Really?” I ask. “What was her name?” I haven’t a clue to whom she is referring: too many of my friends were murdered in the genocide.

“Her name was Felicula,” she responds brightly.

My eyes well with tears. “I’m sorry,” I stammer. “Would you remind me who you are again?”

“My name is Monique,” the young woman answers with soft-spoken confidence, her eyes holding mine. “I am the deputy secretary-general of Rwanda’s central bank.”

“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion,” Henry David Thoreau had written in Frederick Douglass’s day in contemplating the long timescales of social change. On the timescale of our civilization, thirty years is an astonishingly short span for change so profound, especially if this particular lever has been intercepted by one of the grimmest genocides in the history of the world. In a single generation, Rwandan women had gone from being priced as chattel to charging the country’s financial system.

With an eye to Felicula Nyiramutarambirwa and the women who dared to dream on timescales beyond their own lifetimes, with an eye to her own work with people around the world who are transforming their communities in ways they might not live to see, Jacqueline considers the fulcrum of the lever. With echoes of Theodor Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech about the cowardice of cynicism in advancing change, a generation after the British economist E.F. Schumacher called for prioritizing people over products and creativity over consumption in what he called “Buddhist economics, she writes:

Cynics might point to a system of governments, corporations, and technologies so broken that attempts to change it from the edges are futile. But cynics don’t build the future. Instead, they often use their jaundiced views to justify inaction. And never before have we more desperately needed their opposite — thoughtful, empathetic, resilient believers and optimists on a path of moral leadership.

[…]

Those I’ve known who’ve most changed the world exhibit a voracious curiosity about the world and other people, and a willingness to listen and empathize with those unlike them. These people stand apart not because of school degrees or the size of their bank accounts, but because of their character, their willingness to build reservoirs of courage and stand for their beliefs, even if they stand alone.

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

Along the path of their shared devotion to ending poverty, Jacqueline came to know these outstanding human beings — many of them people radically different from her, inhabiting worlds and shaped by world-forces radically different from those of her own crucible — through what she terms “the practice of accompaniment”:

Accompaniment is a Jesuit idea, meaning to “live and walk” alongside those you serve. It is the willingness to encounter another, to make someone feel valued and seen, bettered for knowing you, never belittled. Guiding another person, organization, or community to build confidence and capabilities requires tenacity, a disciplined resolve to show up repeatedly with no expectation of thanks in return. This kind of accompaniment requires the patience to listen to others’ stories without judgment, to offer skills and solutions without imposition. It is to be a follower as well as a guide, a humble yet aspirational teacher-student focused on coaching another with firm kindness and a steady presence. With those you aim to serve or lead, your job is to be interested, to help make another person shine, not demonstrate how smart or good or capable you yourself are.

Accompaniment is especially important when partnering with those who are from places or families that have been traumatized or marginalized by war, violence, isolation, aggression, or by drugs or generational poverty. Accompaniment recognizes that for many individuals and communities, spiritual poverty is as devastating as material poverty. The simple act of showing up and connecting with another’s humanity can help a person rekindle hope in ways they might not otherwise have dreamed of doing.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In the remainder of Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, she draws on her three decades of accompanying the world’s poor on a path of dignity, on working with remarkable local entrepreneurs changing the landscape of possibility for their communities, to share hard-earned learnings about listening across lines of seemingly unbridgeable difference, understanding poverty as something larger and more complex than income level, defining success by something larger and more complex than solvency and public acclaim, and inviting constructive conflict — or what the great jazz scholar and writer Albert Murray called “antagonistic cooperation” — within ourselves and among ourselves in order to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, the need for freedom with the need for belonging, in continually honing and refining the instrument of social change toward a more equitable and dignified world.

Complement with the great French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities and the young poet Marissa Davis’s stunning love letter to the double courage of facing a broken reality while refusing to cease cherishing this beautiful world in its brokenness, then revisit Zadie Smith on the vital interplay of optimism and despair in what we call progress.

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 receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.