Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “walt whitman”

Amanda Palmer and The Decomposers Cover Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in Tribute to Rachel Carson

Art and science meet resistance in a modern reimagining of a classic anthem for the protection of nature.

Amanda Palmer and The Decomposers Cover Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in Tribute to Rachel Carson

I dedicated the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse to one of my great heroes, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), who catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson — a biologist who never relinquished her first love of literature — launched a courageous crusade against the deadly impact of pesticides and DDT in particular on nature. Conveying her unassailable science through exquisite literary prose, she awakened millions of lay people to the chemical industry’s ruthless assault on nature — not with mere facts, but with a larger poetic truth about our relationship and responsibility to this beautiful, fragile planet we call home. The creation of the first Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency were both direct consequences of her work. She never lived to see either — like Copernicus, Carson died shortly after the publication of her paradigm-shifting book. But she left behind a novel understanding of nature as a complex and beautiful interleaving of relationships, of which we are only a small part — a small part with a great responsibility for stewarding the whole.

It is hard, with our pathological cultural amnesia, to fully appreciate today just how far Silent Spring reached — beyond science, beyond policy. For years after its publication, after Carson’s death, the book’s message rippled and rippled across the groundwaters of popular culture. New Yorker cartoons and Peanuts strips celebrated Carson and her legacy, which touched a young musician only just making her name.

Rachel Carson (left) and Joni Mitchell

In 1970, Joni Mitchell composed “Big Yellow Taxi” — a song that would become a sort of bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement. It features this stanza inspired by Carson’s exposé of how pesticides, long marketed as harmless, were killing the birds and the bees:

Hey farmer farmer —
Put away the DDT
Give me spots on my apples,
but leave me the birds and the bees.

In putting together The Universe in Verse — a labor-of-love celebration of science and nature through poetry, and a voice of resistance against the current assault on nature, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council — I realized that among the lovely humans who had donated their time and talent to read poems were four stellar musicians. So I asked one of them — my frequent collaborator and dear friend Amanda Palmer — to reimagine “Big Yellow Taxi” in a cover dedicated to Carson. She kindly did, enlisting the accompaniment of the other three — cellist Zoë Keating, Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell, and singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sean Ono Lennon. In a lovely burst of spontaneity, this makeshift band christened themselves The Decomposers and proceeded to deliver a stunning rendition of Mitchell’s masterpiece, emanating the timelessness and growing urgency of Carson’s message.

Amanda Palmer and The Decomposers at The Universe in Verse, April 28, 2018. (Photograph: Molly Walsh for Brain Pickings)

Prior to the show, they made a studio recording of the song at Pioneer Works, where The Universe in Verse was hosted. It is now released as a record, with cover art generously donated by Pioneer Works founder Dustin Yellin. All proceeds from the downloads benefit the Natural Resources Defense Council — please enjoy, >download, and join this small but significant act of resistance against the destruction of our Pale Blue Dot.

Below is the live performance with my prefatory contextualization, courtesy of Kickstarter Live and Bridgeside Productions, who contributed to this many-peopled project of goodwill by donating the livestream and the recording:

For more of The Universe in Verse, see poet Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, and other highlights, then revisit the full recording of the inaugural 2017 show.

To become a patron of Amanda’s music, a great deal of which benefits various humanitarian and environmental causes, join me in supporting her on Patreon.

UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.


An Axiom of Feeling: Werner Herzog on the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth

“The soul of the listener or the spectator… actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity: that is, it completes an independent act of creation.”

In his arresting meditation on how we use language to reveal and conceal reality, Nietzsche defined truth as “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.” Truth, of course, is not reality but a subset of reality, alongside the catalogue of fact and the question of meaning, inside which human consciousness dwells. “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”

How the creative impulse from which art arises unlatches that other reality is what cinematic philosopher Werner Herzog explores in an essay titled “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth.” Originally delivered as an extemporaneous speech following a Milan screening of Herzog’s film Lessons of Darkness and later translated by Moira Weigel, it touches on a number of questions that have occupied Herzog for as long as he has been making art — questions he explores from other angles throughout Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library).

Werner Herzog (Photograph: Lena Herzog)

Herzog writes in the speech-turned-essay:

Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

Such truth, Herzog suggests, coalesces out of moments so saturated with reality that they become surreal. Reflecting on the disorientation-spurred rancor with which his film was initially met, he writes:

After the first war in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, the media — and here I mean television in particular — was in no position to show what was, beyond being a war crime, an event of cosmic dimensions, a crime against creation itself. There is not a single frame in Lessons of Darkness in which you can recognize our planet; for this reason the film is labeled “science fiction,” as if it could only have been shot in a distant galaxy, hostile to life.

Facing what he terms the “orgy of hate,” Herzog reminded audiences that he had done nothing different from Dante and Goya, those “guardian angels who familiarize us with the Absolute and the Sublime.” And yet our grasp of the Absolute is perennially slippery, our familiarity with it a seductive illusion — Carl Sagan knew this when he asserted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” With an eye to the greatest creative challenge in mathematics, Herzog writes:

The Absolute poses a never-ending quandary for philosophy, religion, and mathematics. Mathematics will probably come closest to getting it when someone finally proves Riemann’s hypothesis. That question concerns the distribution of prime numbers; unanswered since the nineteenth century, it reaches into the depths of mathematical thinking. A prize of a million dollars has been set aside for whoever solves it, and a mathematical institute in Boston has allotted a thousand years for someone to come up with a proof. The money is waiting for you, as is your immortality. For two and a half thousand years, ever since Euclid, this question has preoccupied mathematicians; if it turned out Riemann and his brilliant hypothesis were not right, it would send unimaginable shockwaves through the disciplines of mathematics and natural science. I can only very vaguely begin to fathom the Absolute; I am in no position to define the concept.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics

This ungraspable nature of the Absolute places it on the same plane as the Sublime — for the Sublime, as physicist Lisa Randall has written, also “proffers scales and poses questions that just might lie beyond our intellectual reach.” Occupying an entirely different stratum of reality is what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth” — the kind of truth marine biologist Rachel Carson celebrated in her transcendent encounter with midsummer fireflies, which illuminated for her the type of truth haloed with “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Herzog writes:

We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And: how important, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.

No masterpiece of Herzog’s better sparks that ecstatic flash than his film Fitzcarraldo — the story of an elaborate endeavor to stage an opera in the rainforest. Reflecting on his creative vision for the film and its broader conceptual commentary on the nature of truth, Herzog echoes Whitman’s conviction that music is the deepest and most direct expression of nature’s reality, and writes:

One maxim was crucial for me: an entire world must undergo a transformation into music, must become music; only then would we have produced opera. What’s beautiful about opera is that reality doesn’t play any role in it at all; and that what takes place in opera is the overcoming of nature. When one looks at the libretti from operas (and here Verdi’s Force of Destiny is a good example), one sees very quickly that the story itself is so implausible, so removed from anything that we might actually experience that the mathematical laws of probability are suspended. What happens in the plot is impossible, but the power of music enables the spectator to experience it as true.

Still from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Margaret Fuller’s beautiful assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Herzog adds:

It’s the same thing with the emotional world [Gefühlswelt] of opera. The feelings are so abstracted; they cannot really be subordinated to everyday human nature any longer, because they have been concentrated and elevated to the most extreme degree and appear in their purest form; and despite all that we perceive them, in opera, as natural. Feelings in opera are, ultimately, like axioms in mathematics, which cannot be concentrated and cannot be explained any further. The axioms of feeling in the opera lead us, however, in the most secret ways, on a direct path to the sublime.

Through the gateway of opera, Herzog enters the larger world of the Sublime as both subset and superset of reality:

Our entire sense of reality has been called into question… Sometimes facts so exceed our expectations — have such an unusual, bizarre power — that they seem unbelievable.

But in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth — a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft… However, we also gain our ability to have ecstatic experiences of truth through the Sublime, through which we are able to elevate ourselves over nature.

With an eye to the Ancient Greek philosophers and dramatists, who used language as a vessel of ecstatic truth, Herzog returns to the function of the creative act as communion with the Sublime. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s notion that the reader is the writer’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” he writes:

Thinking through language, the Greeks meant … to define truth as an act of disclosure — a gesture related to the cinema, where an object is set into the light and then a latent, not yet visible image is conjured onto celluloid, where it first must be developed, then disclosed.

The soul of the listener or the spectator completes this act itself; the soul actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity: that is, it completes an independent act of creation.

Complement with the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, then revisit Herzog on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love.


D.H. Lawrence on the Antidote to the Malady of Materialism

“Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell. But it is only superimposed: it is only a temporary disease. It can be cleaned away.”

D.H. Lawrence on the Antidote to the Malady of Materialism

“It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us… to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them,” the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in his touching fan letter to biologist Rachel Carson after she awakened the modern environmental conscience with her courageous 1962 book Silent Spring — a sobering look at the consequences, both for humanity and for our fragile planet, of material greed, unbridled power, and the cultural machine of consumerism. Several years later, the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm further diagnosed the central malady of materialism in his pioneering treatise on the tradeoffs between having and being: “The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”

But because the epidemiology of disease parallels that of ideas, by the time symptoms arise, the illness has been silently working its way through the body of culture for generations.

Half a century before Carson and Fromm, and decades before the golden age of consumerism, the English poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and painter D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) pressed his prescient fingers against the pulse-beat of culture to limn the malady that would define the century to come — the greed for power and material possession that would give rise to numerous dictatorships, exploit vulnerable populations, and deplete Earth’s resources — and envisioned a remedy it is not too late for us to implement.

D.H. Lawrence

Just before his thirtieth birthday in the summer of 1915, while escaping the tumult of World War I at the English seaside resort of Littlehampton, Lawrence contemplated the relationship between the increasingly artificial human world and the immutable authenticity of the natural world in a letter to his friend Lady Cynthia Asquith, found in The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (public library). Echoing Whitman (“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.”), Lawrence writes:

We have lived a few days on the seashore, with the wave banging up at us. Also over the river, beyond the ferry, there is the flat silvery world, as in the beginning, untouched: with pale sand, and very much white foam, row after row, coming from under the sky, in the silver evening: and no people, no people at all, no houses, no buildings, only a haystack on the edge of the shingle, and an old black mill. For the rest, the flat unfinished world running with foam and noise and silvery light, and a few gulls swinging like a half-born thought. It is a great thing to realise that the original world is still there — perfectly clean and pure…

Half a century before E.F. Schumacher made his elegant anti-consumerist case for “Buddhist economics,” Lawrence contrasts this living Paradise with the human-made inferno of materialism — an inferno whose blazing fire of greed and fuming brimstone of ownership have only intensified in the century since.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King, James Thurber’s 1927 parable of the destructiveness of greed and unbridled power.

Lawrence, who was a vocal opponent of militarism despite how unpopular and downright anti-patriotic this rendered him in wartime Britain, no doubt saw the causal relationship between humanity’s growing hunger for material possession —
the ultimate end of power — and the first truly global war that had just engulfed the world. He writes:

It is this mass of unclean world that we have superimposed on the clean world that we cannot bear. When I looked back, out of the clearness of the open evening, at this Littlehampton dark and amorphous like a bad eruption on the edge of the land, I was so sick I felt I could not come back: all these little amorphous houses like an eruption, a disease on the clean earth; and all of them full of such diseased spirit, every landlady harping on her money, her furniture, every visitor harping on his latitude of escape from money and furniture. The whole thing like an active disease, fighting out the health. One watches them on the sea-shore, all the people, and there is something pathetic, almost wistful in them, as if they wished that their lives did not add up to this nullity of possession, but as if they could not escape. It is a dragon that has devoured us all: these obscene, scaly houses, this insatiable struggle and desire to possess, to possess always and in spite of everything, this need to be an owner, lest one be owned. It is too horrible. One can no longer live with people: it is too hideous and nauseating. Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell. But it is only superimposed: it is only a temporary disease. It can be cleaned away.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes.

Sixteen years before his polymathic compatriot Bertrand Russell admonished against letting power-knowledge eclipse love-knowledge, Lawrence considers what it would take to rehabilitate the human spirit and treat not the symptoms but the illness itself:

One must destroy the spirit of money, the blind spirit of possession. It is the dragon for your St. George: neither rewards on earth nor in heaven, of ownership: but always the give and take, the fight and the embrace, no more, no diseased stability of possessions, but the give and take of love and conflict, with the eternal consummation in each. The only permanent thing is consummation in love or hate.

Complement this fragment of the immeasurably beautiful Letters of D.H. Lawrence with Alan Watts on money vs. wealth, Henry Miller on how the hedonic treadmill of materialism entraps us, and E.F. Schumacher on how to begin prioritizing people over products and creativity over consumption, then revisit Whitman on what makes life worth living.


The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.”

The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin asserted in 1960 as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves. But we can only make a broken world over if we first closely examine its parts — that is, its pasts — and take responsibility for the conditions as well as the consequences of its brokenness.

And yet, too often, we flee and burrow in the comforting certitude of our history, which is not the same as our past, no matter how false and hubristic such certitude may be. Baldwin himself touched on this a decade later in his spectacular and timely 1970 conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, where he observed: “What we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.” Without taking such responsibility we couldn’t create that new and better world, for the great drama of its creation — like that of our self-creation — is that of weaving something new and wonderful from the tattered threads of our cultural history and convention.

That difficult, necessary, transcendent will to weave is what the great Caribbean poet, playwright, essayist, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930–March 17, 2017) explores in a stirring 1974 essay titled “The Muse of History,” found in his essay collection What the Twilight Says (public library).

Derek Walcott

“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene,” the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva wrote on the cusp of the Russian Revolution and its attendant cultural revolution as she considered why we must intimately understand something before we can rightfully reject it. Half a century later, Walcott echoes her insight, turning a skeptical eye to the generation of West Indian writers who dismiss hastily and wholesale the complex colonial legacy of the New World. He writes:

Those who break a tradition first hold it in awe. They perversely encourage disfavour, but because their sense of the past is of a timeless, yet habitable, moment, the New World owes them more than it does those who wrestle with that past, for their veneration subtilizes an arrogance which is tougher than violent rejection. They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it … and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.

For those who take this stance, Walcott argues, “history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory.” In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas about the relationship between agency and victimhood, he writes:

The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim.

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.

Those whom Walcott celebrates as the great poets of the New World — Neruda, Whitman, Borges — reject this model of history and instead uphold a more ennobling alternative:

Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations… Fact evaporates into myth. This is not the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an elation which sees everything as renewed… This is the revolutionary spirit at its deepest; it recalls the spirit to arms.

And yet this potential for renewal necessarily coexists with our shared legacy of outrage, which must remain a wakeful outrage and not a somnolent trance if we are to transcend our history. Walcott writes:

Who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or for revenge? The pulse of New World history is the racing pulse beat of fear, the tiring cycles of stupidity and greed.


In time the slave surrendered to amnesia. That amnesia is the true history of the New World. That is our inheritance, but to try and understand why this happened, to condemn or justify is also the method of history, and these explanations are always the same: This happened because of that, this was understandable because, and in days men were such. These recriminations exchanged, the contrition of the master replaces the vengeance of the slave.

With an eye to classics like Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and radical poets like Neruda, who made of language a vehicle for redeeming the present without denying the past, he adds:

It is not the pressure of the past which torments great poets but the weight of the present… The sense of history in poets lives rawly along their nerves… The vision, the “democratic vista,” is not metaphorical, it is a social necessity.

Contemplating the challenge and the necessity of reconciling contrasting, often conflicting, histories and heritages — something he termed in another essay “that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape” — Walcott writes:

We are misled by new prophets of bitterness who warn us against experiences which we have never cared to have, but the mass of society has had neither the interest nor the opportunity which they chose. These preach not to the converted but to those who have never lost faith. I do not mean religious faith but reality. Fisherman and peasant know who they are and what they are and where they are, and when we show them our wounded sensibilities we are, most of us, displaying self-inflicted wounds.

I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.

Complement What the Twilight Says with Walcott’s charming lighter side and his endlessly enlivening poem “Love After Love,” then revisit young Barack Obama on identity, race, and the search for coherence of selfhood.


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. Privacy policy.