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What Color Is Night? Grant Snider’s Illustrated Invitation to Discover the Subtle Beauty of Darkness

A spare serenade to the spectrum of wonder between black and white.

What Color Is Night? Grant Snider’s Illustrated Invitation to Discover the Subtle Beauty of Darkness

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in his gorgeous 1933 love letter to darkness. More than a century before him, Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion that “color itself is a degree of darkness.” Darkness, we could say, is the sum total of all the colors and all the emotions — a totality of consummate beauty awaiting those willing to look.

That is the sentiment radiating from the spare, singsong pages of What Color Is Night? (public library) by beloved cartoonist Grant Snider.

Half a century after the great graphic artist Edward Gorey invited children to contemplate why we have night, Snider invites them to learn how to have night, dispelling the specter of nocturnal fright, and replacing it with an exuberant hunt for beauty and delight.

He shepherds the reader to discover that night is not a mere mosaic of black and white but a vivid tessellation of “colors unseen” — subtle hues beckoning eye and heart alike — the silver of starshine, the warm brown of the moths flickering under the streetlamp, the neon green of the raccoon’s flash-lit eyes, the spectrum-crowning miracle of moonbow.

Complement What Color Is Night? with the great nature writer Henry Beston on how the beauty of night serenades the human spirit and Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on night as an existential clarifying force, then revisit Belgian artist and author Anne Herbauts’s synesthetic masterpiece What Color Is The Wind?, inspired by a blind child.

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Margaret Atwood on Marriage

“Marriage is not a house or even a tent…”

Margaret Atwood on Marriage

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote in his meditation on freedom, togetherness, and the secret to a good marriage. But how do two people protect this sacred necessity of the bond from the daily proximity of cohabitation, which now presses their closely neighboring solitudes into inevitable frictions, now pushes them apart into neighboring lonelinesses?

That is what Margaret Atwood explores in a short, stunning poem originally published in her 1970 collection Procedures for Underground, later included in her altogether wondrous Selected Poems: 1965–1975 (public library), and read here by musician, poetry-lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer to the serendipitous sound of church bells in the winter-quieted streets of Portugal.

HABITATION
by Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not

a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge

of the desert

                the unpainted stairs

at the back where we squat

outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder

at having survived even

this far
we are learning to make fire

Complement with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage and Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, then revisit other soulful and stirring readings by Amanda (who supports her music and life-poetry, like I do my writing and life-poetry, via donations): “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, “Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” by Wisława Szymborska.

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The Fate of Fausto: Oliver Jeffers’s Lovely Painted Fable About the Absurdity of Greed and the Existential Triumph of Enoughness, Inspired by Vonnegut

A soulful meditation on the eternal battle between the human animal and its ego, played out on the primordial arena of elemental truth.

The Fate of Fausto: Oliver Jeffers’s Lovely Painted Fable About the Absurdity of Greed and the Existential Triumph of Enoughness, Inspired by Vonnegut

In his short and lovely poem penned at the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut located the wellspring of happiness in a source so simple yet so countercultural in capitalist society: “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

A generation later, artist and author Oliver Jeffers — one of the most beloved and thoughtful storytellers of our time — picks up the message with uncommon simplicity of expression and profundity of sentiment in The Fate of Fausto (public library) — a “painted fable,” in that classic sense of moral admonition conveyed on the wings of enchantment, about how very little we and all of our striving matter in the grand scheme of time and being, and therefore how very much it matters to live with kindness, with generosity, in openhearted consanguinity with everything else that shares our cosmic blink of existence.

Inspired by Vonnegut’s poem, which appears on the final page of the book, the story follows a greedy suited man named Fausto, who decides he wants to own the whole world — from the littlest flower to the vastest ocean.

Building on Jeffers’s earlier illustrated meditation on the absurdity of ownership, the story is evocative of The Little Prince (which I continue to consider one of the greatest works of philosophy) and its archetypal characters, through whom Saint-Exupéry conveys his soulful existential admonition — the king who tries to make the Sun his subject; the businessman who, blind to the beauty of the stars, is busy tallying them in order to own them.

Perhaps Jeffers is paying deliberate homage to the beloved classic — the first two objects of Fausto’s hunger for ownership are a flower and a sheep.

One by one, he demands the surrender of sovereignty from all that he comes upon. The flower, being delicate and choiceless, assents to being owned by Fausto. The sheep, being sheepish, puts up no objection. Threatened, the tree bows down before him. (Oh how William Blake would have winced.)

When the lake questions Fausto’s self-appointed authority, he throws a tantrum to show the lake “who’s boss,” and the lake surrenders.

But when the mountain, grounded in her autonomy, refuses to move, Fausto flies into a fit of fury so menacing that even the mountain breaks down and submits to being owned.

Restless with not-enoughness, not content to own the flower and the sheep and the tree and the lake and the mountain, Fausto usurps a boat and heads for the open sea.

Alone amid the blue expanse, he bellows his claim of ownership. But the sea is silent. Fausto yells louder still, unsure quite where to aim his fury, for the sea stretches in all directions.

Finally, the sea responds, calmly questioning how Fausto can wish to own her if he doesn’t even love her. Oh but he does, he does, the riled Fausto insists. The sea, in consonance with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s observation that “understanding and loving are inseparable,” tells Fausto that he couldn’t possibly love her if he doesn’t understand her.

Anxious to stake his claim, Fausto scolds the sea for being wrong, barks that he understands her deeply, then swiftly demands that she submit to his ownership or he will show her who’s boss.

“And how will you do that?” asks the sea. By making a fist and stamping his foot, Fausto replies. With her primordial wisdom, having witnessed human folly since the dawn of humanity, the sea invites Fausto to show her just how he plans to stamp his foot, so she can understand. And Fausto, “in order to show his anger and omnipotence,” perches overboard and aims his foot at the sea.

Swiftly, inevitably, the laws of physics and human hubris take hold of Fausto, who disappears into the fathomless sea — a sinking testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s cautionary charge that unbridled anger “feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.” (How fitting, too, that Jeffers should choose the world of water — one of his supreme fixations as an artist, subject of some of his most haunting conceptual paintings — as the arena on which this final existential battle between the human animal and its ego plays out.)

Jeffers’s subtle, powerful message emerges with the tidal force of elemental truth: When all is said and done and sunk and swallowed, there is only the realization at which Dostoyevsky arrived in his stark brush with death: that “life is a gift, life is happiness, each moment could have been an eternity of happiness,” had it been lived with a sympathetic love of the world.

The sea, Jeffers tells us, feels sorry for Fausto, but goes on being a sea, as the mountain does being a mountain.

And the lake and the forest,
the field and the tree,
the sheep and the flower,
carried on as before.

For the fate of Fausto
did not matter to them.

We are dropped safely ashore to contemplate the fundamental fact that our lives — along with all of our yearnings and fears, our most small-spirited grudges and most largehearted loves, our greatest achievements and deepest losses — will pass like the lives and loves and losses of everyone who has come before us and everyone who will come after. Temporary constellations of matter in an impartial universe of constant flux, we will come and go as living-dying testaments to Rachel Carson’s lyrical observation that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.” The measure of our lives — the worthiness or worthlessness of them — resides in the quality of being with which we inhabit the interlude.

(As an ardent lover of both endpapers and marbling, I was naturally taken by the book’s delightful use of both.)

Complement The Fate of Fausto with poet Wendell Berry on the real measure of a rich life in a consumerist culture and George Sand’s forgotten only children’s book — a touching fable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and greed, illustrated by the Russian artist Gennady Spirin — then revisit Jeffers’s wondrous illustrated fable of what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.

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Dostoyevsky, Just After His Death Sentence Was Repealed, on the Meaning of Life

“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task.”

Dostoyevsky, Just After His Death Sentence Was Repealed, on the Meaning of Life

“I mean to work tremendously hard,” the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) resolved in contemplating his literary future, beseeching his impoverished mother to buy him books. At the age of twenty-seven, he was arrested for belonging to a literary society that circulated books deemed dangerous by the tsarist regime. He was sentenced to death. On December 22, 1849, he was taken to a public square in Saint Petersburg, alongside a handful of other inmates, where they were to be executed as a warning to the masses. They were read their death sentence, put into their execution attire of white shirts, and allowed to kiss the cross. Ritualistic sabers were broken over their heads. Three at a time, they were stood against the stakes where the execution was to be carried out. Dostoyevsky, the sixth in line, grew acutely aware that he had only moments to live.

And then, at the last minute, a pompous announcement was made that the tsar was pardoning their lives — the whole spectacle had been orchestrated as a cruel publicity stunt to depict the despot as a benevolent ruler. The real sentence was then read: Dostoyevsky was to spend four years in a Siberian labor camp, followed by several years of compulsory military service in the tsar’s armed forces, in exile. He would be nearly forty by the time he picked up the pen again to resume his literary ambitions. But now, in the raw moments following his close escape from death, he was elated with relief, reborn into a new cherishment of life.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

He poured his exultation into a stunning letter to his brother Mikhail, penned hours after the staged execution and found in the first volume of the out-of-print collection of his complete correspondence, the 1988 treasure Dostoevsky Letters (public library).

A century before Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl offered his hard-won assurance that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Dostoyevsky writes:

Brother! I’m not despondent and I haven’t lost heart. Life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. There will be people by my side, and to be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task. I have come to recognize that. The idea has entered my flesh and blood… The head that created, lived the higher life of art, that recognized and grew accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head has already been cut from my shoulders… But there remain in me a heart and the same flesh and blood that can also love, and suffer, and pity, and remember, and that’s life, too!

Art by Shaun Tan from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Still, even through this elation, the animating force of his being — his identity as a writer — grounds him into a depth of despair. “Can it be that I’ll never take pen in hand?” he asks in sullen anticipation of the next four years at the labor camp. “If I won’t be able to write, I’ll perish. Better fifteen years of imprisonment and a pen in hand!” But he quickly recovers his electric gratitude for the mere fact of being alive and, reassuring his brother not to grieve for him, continues:

I haven’t lost heart, remember that hope has not abandoned me… After all I was at death’s door today, I lived with that thought for three-quarters of an hour, I faced the last moment, and now I’m alive again!

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

In a beautiful testament to the elemental fact that when all the static of our self-righteousness dies down, what remains between good people is only love, he writes:

If anyone remembers me with malice, and if I quarreled with anyone, if I made a bad impression on anyone — tell them to forget about that if you manage to see them. There is no bile or spite in my soul, I would like to so love and embrace at least someone out of the past at this moment.

[…]

When I look back at the past and think how much time was spent in vain, how much of it was lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in the inability to live; how I failed to value it, how many times I sinned against my heart and spirit — then my heart contracts in pain. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each moment could have been an eternity of happiness. Si jeunesse savait! [If youth knew!]

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being.

Half a century before Oscar Wilde penned his extraordinary letter about suffering as a force of transformation and transcendence from prison, where he was interned for having loved whom he loved, Dostoyevsky adds:

Now, changing my life, I’m being regenerated into a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I won’t lose hope and will preserve my heart and spirit in purity. I’ll be reborn for the better. That’s my entire hope, my entire consolation.

Life in the casemate has already sufficiently killed off in me the needs of the flesh that were not completely pure; before that I took little care of myself. Now deprivations no longer bother me in the slightest, and therefore don’t be afraid that material hardship will kill me.

Having spent years in material privation myself — though never, mercifully, nearly to the extent Dostoyevsky endured — and being always grateful for how those times annealed me, how they made me less afraid of poverty and hardship, more willing to take risks others might not, to take less materially secure paths in life (one resulting in the birth of Brain Pickings), I can’t help but wonder how much this harrowing experience fomented Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary perseverance as an artist against the tides of convention and the constant specter of poverty. It certainly reverberates throughout Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and especially The Brothers Karamazov; it certainly informed his ideas about the meaning of life, set forth decades later in the guise of a dream, and inspired his insistence upon the existential duty of seeing the goodness in people “despite the abundance of all sorts of wretches.”

Complement with a young neurosurgeon on the meaning of life as he faces his death and Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Anna — the love of Dostoyevsky’s life, who saved him from poverty and debtor’s prison — on the secret to a happy marriage.

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