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Meditations on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: Polish Painter Józef Czapski on Literature, Survival, and the Human Soul

“The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.”

Meditations on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: Polish Painter Józef Czapski on Literature, Survival, and the Human Soul

“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Marcel Proust wrote as he considered why we read. “There is some Proust in me, and through Proust, bit by bit, I become aware of my own possibilities,” the great Polish painter Józef Czapski (April 3, 1896–January 12, 1993) reflected in his journal a generation later while interned as a prisoner of war in a Soviet labor camp alongside four thousand of his fellow Polish officers. Only seventy-nine of them would survive. The rest, alongside eleven thousand more Polish prisoners from other camps, would vanish without a trace somewhere in Siberia.

Survival was, of course, largely a matter of luck. But those who lived also owed their survival to the courageous, desperate, ennobling choice to nurture the resilience of their inner lives with intellectual and creative work that offered an escape, however temporary, from the anguishing depression and a restoration of their human dignity. While their compatriot Helen Fagin, who would survive the Holocaust and live past 100, was using literature to help young women endure in a Nazi ghetto in Warsaw, Czapski and his comrades, crammed into a dilapidated former convent previously occupied by Finnish prisoners with bunks infested by bedbugs, organized a series of literary and historical lectures to keep their minds and spirits alive.

Józef Czapski, Self-Portrait with Books, 1973 (Józef Czapski estate)

When the authorities discovered the gatherings and deemed them antirevolutionary, some of the speakers were immediately deported, or worse. But the lectures continued in secret — a testament to the memorable words of Rebecca West, who asserted while traveling through the same region at the same time that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

Czapski himself delivered several unscripted, soaring, intricately interwoven meditations on literature and creativity through the lens of Proust — whose novel In Search of Lost Time he had first devoured thirteen years earlier while recovering from typhoid fever and heartbreak — later published as Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (public library). Addressing the forty or so fellow prisoners who came to listen to him at twilight in their soaked shoes after a hard day’s labor in the camp, where temperatures often dropped to negative forty-five, Czapski worked entirely from memory and illustrated his lectures with colorful diagrams densely populated by linkages between concepts as varied as love, solitude, the motives of composition, the forms of joy and suffering, and Bergson’s philosophy of time — a vibrant embodiment of what Oliver Sacks called the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of creative genius at work.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

Czapski, who lived to nearly a hundred, reflects on the salvational value of these intellectual excursions away from the brutality of camp life and the suffocating weight of survivor’s guilt:

The joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking that gave us proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind — things then bearing no connection to our present reality — cast a rose-colored light on those hours spent in the former convent’s dining hall, that strangest of schoolrooms, where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived. It was incomprehensible to us why we alone, four hundred officers and soldiers, were saved out of fifteen thousand comrades who disappeared without a trace somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle, within the confines of Siberia. From those gloomy depths, the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me among the happiest of hours.

He wrests from Proust’s example a model of literature’s most humanistic offering:

Proust shone a penetrating light into the most secret recesses of the human soul that the majority of humanity would prefer to ignore.

[…]

Revising Anna Karenina, Tolstoy rewrote a long passage in order to hide his own opinion from the reader. But in Resurrection, the grand novel of his old age, we meet didacticism all too clearly, the author voicing certain key ideas so often that it produced the opposite effect, putting readers off, and so even Tolstoy, by lowering the artistic standard of his work, weakens rather than strengthens the radiance of his ideas.

Proust is the complete opposite. In his work we come across an absolute absence of bias, a willingness to know and to understand as many opposing states of the human soul as possible, a capacity for discovering in the lowest sort of man such nobility as to appear sublime, and in the seemingly purest of beings, the basest instincts. His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness whose soundness is infinitely greater than our own.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

Reflecting on his entry into Proust’s work through the gateway of his own heartbreak and the resonance he found in the novel’s central theme of the heart’s incompleteness, Czapski writes:

Every great book is profoundly tied in one way or another to the very matter of the life of its author. But this link is even more pronounced and perhaps more integral to the work of Proust. The very theme of [In Search of Lost Time] is Proust’s life, transposed; the principal character writes in the first person, and page after page reads like a barely concealed confession.

[…]

The ensuing heartbreak produces the same result — a feeling of unreality, and the awareness that the pleasures of life and a final understanding of it exist in the act of creation, the sole true life and true reality.

From the particularity of Proust’s novel, Czapski draws out the universal human journey — the savage, fraught, transcendent process of self-refinement:

The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

With an eye to “the extreme sense of responsibility Proust brought to each of his sentences” — immense, interminable sentences stretching past and beyond the page, saturated with a richness of language that revolutionized the era’s conventions of concision, fractalized into myriad references, allusions, and parenthetical revelations — Czapski considers the importance of this diffuse structure, both of form and of thought, to creativity itself:

Only by pushing a form to its furthest limits can one possibly manage to begin to convey the essence of a writer.

[…]

A scientist, on the verge of a discovery, can succeed only by giving his search the full attention of all his faculties, he is in no condition to think of anything else. In the same way, for the writer, it is not this or that idea he expounds by which we ought to measure the contribution that he has given to his country, but rather by the limits he pushes against in the realization of his form. Even among the greatest writers, single-mindedness weakens the effect of a work and can be a disservice, not only from an artistic point of view, but also in consideration of the very ideas that the writer had wanted to serve.

Complement Czapski’s short and splendid Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp with his compatriot Aleksander Wat on how books helped him survive in a Soviet prison, then revisit Iris Murdoch on literature as a force of resistance to tyranny and Toni Morrison on the writer’s singular service to humanity.

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What If: An Illustrated Celebration of the Utopian Imagination and the Will to Change the World

To be or not to be, bravely answered through the lens of could be.

What If: An Illustrated Celebration of the Utopian Imagination and the Will to Change the World

“The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. At bottom, choice and action always begin with “what if” — the mightiest spring for the utopian imagination, the fulcrum by which every revolution rolls into being. What if this world were freer, more beautiful, more just? “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in weighing the transformative power of the speculative imagination. “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

That chance to imagine a better world is what French author Thierry Lenain and artist Olivier Tallec invite in What If… (public library), translated by Enchanted Lion founder Claudia Bedrick — a lovely celebration of our civilizational responsibility, in the beautiful words of the cellist Pablo Casals, “to make this world worthy of its children” and a testament to James Baldwin’s sobering insistence that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Although we don’t yet know it, the story begins with an unborn child imagining himself into being as he imagines a better version of the world to be born into. Where he sees war, he imagines turning the soldiers’ guns into bird perches and shepherd’s flutes. Where he sees drought and famine, he imagines pulling rainclouds over the desert like enormous kites.

He places his child-body between the “gorging, ordering, shouting, and decreeing” orange-haired politician on the TV screen and the people mesmerized before it. He sits on the ocean shore and imagines it clean of human-inflicted pollution, buoying colorful fish.

He falls asleep on a mossy patch in the forest, listening to the wisdom of the trees. He sees heartache and tears, and imagines them salved by love.

“We have to hug,” he decided, “and not be afraid of kisses. What if we start saying ‘I love you,’ even if we’ve never heard it before?”

And looking out into this world, so imperfect yet so improvable, the child decides, in the final spread of the book, to be born.

The simple yet profound narrative and Tallec’s soulful, tender illustrations make What If… the young imagination’s counterpart to Albert Camus’s famous assertion that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Complement it with James Baldwin on the building blocks of a juster future, then revisit other poetic and profound treasures from artist and writers around the world, brought to English-speaking children ages 1 to 100 by the imaginative Enchanted Lion Books: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, also illustrated by Tallec.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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The Lioness in the Tall Grass: Farmer and Poet Laura Brown-Lavoie’s Extraordinary Letter to Children About the Power of Storytelling

In praise of sentences that pull you in with all their teeth.

The Lioness in the Tall Grass: Farmer and Poet Laura Brown-Lavoie’s Extraordinary Letter to Children About the Power of Storytelling

“Literature,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his insightful meditation on storytelling, “was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him… Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

Not a boy but a girl, not a canine beast but a feline one, and still the tall grass converge to illuminate the shimmering mesmerism of storytelling in one of the most soulful and sinewy contributions to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, entrepreneurs, philosophers, deep-sea divers.

Art by Ping Zhu for a letter by Laura Brown-Lavoie from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick.

Farmer, poet, doula, and performer Laura Brown-Lavoie writes:

Dear Reader,

Did you ever read a sentence you loved the way you love your favorite animal? My favorite animal is a lioness; how she doesn’t have a mane but she always has some blood around her mouth. And how the lionesses work together like good friends when they want to kill something. I’ve never seen a lioness in person or touched one or slept in the same bushes where a lioness lives, but I’ve known since I was a little kid that I love them the most.

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book and I’m under a blanket and no one’s trying to talk to me, I forget that I’m reading. The tall grass of the story grows up around me, and I’m just another silent creature whose heart beats in that world. If I sit still and keep reading that way, sometimes a sentence stalks by as lovely as a lioness. Blood around its mouth; that fresh, that killer. I read it once, and I know I have to read it again, not look away, watch closely how it moves.

And then I start to notice my eye muscles moving my eyeballs back and forth again, and see the black of the letters on the gray of the page, and I’m just plain reading under a blanket. It’s still fun. But the reason I read is for the lionesses. For the sentences that pull me in with all their teeth.

Love,
Laura

In a lovely meta-testament to the sentiment of her letter, Brown-Lavoie (to whom I was introduced by the wondrous Sarah Kay, another contributor to A Velocity of Being) also composed one of the most imaginative and delightful author bios in the book:

Laura Brown-Lavoie is writing stories at the library with dirt on her knees. Born, like we all are, of physical labor, of sunlight and rain. Laura’s stories are born in a war-waging country, written by a war-hating woman. Her poems grow like weeds from the cracks in the asphalt of Providence streets and get hung upside down in the kitchen to dry.

Savor more of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, with Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, Rebecca Solnit on how books solace, empower, and transform us, Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved actual lives.

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Poetic Symbology of the Heroine’s Journey: Artist Nancy Castille’s Stunning Homage to the Sumerian Proto-Feminist Goddess Inanna

5,000-year-old poems celebrating female sexuality and empowerment, reimagined in a new symbolic language at the nexus of beauty, wonder, and wisdom.

Poetic Symbology of the Heroine’s Journey: Artist Nancy Castille’s Stunning Homage to the Sumerian Proto-Feminist Goddess Inanna

“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison observed from the Stockholm stage upon becoming the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” A generation before her, Iris Murdoch — another woman of towering genius — wrote in weighing the salvational power of the written word: “The quality of a civilisation depends upon the scope and purity of its language.” Both culturally and biologically, language is the hallmark of our species — it is, as the great 19th-century biologist and anatomist Thomas Huxley noted upon reflecting on Darwin’s greatest legacy, what makes “every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor” and more attuned to the fundamental truths of the universe.

And yet even the greatest civilizations, along with their languages, die. Whether or not the civilizations that follow manage to grow wiser depends largely on the extent to which they can build upon the wisdom and beauty their predecessors left in the ruins of their fallen empires — legacies of meaning-making encoded almost entirely in language and art.

“The Holy One” (Nancy Castille)

Scholar, artist, seamstress, and violinist Nancy Castille brings an uncommonly inspired lens to this cross-civilizational culvert of meaning in Hieratica: Seven Hymns to the Goddess Inanna — her homage to a series of 5,000-year-old Sumerian poems dedicated to Inanna, the goddess of fertility, daughter of the Sumerian god of wisdom, Queen of Heaven and Earth, later known in Babylonian times as Ishtar.

According to the ancient myth, Inanna was tasked with conceiving the laws of human society and instilling them into the people — a task for which she travels to the Underworld, prevailing over innumerable challenges to emerge triumphant and transformed. It is essentially an empowering framework for the heroine’s journey, furnishing the proto-feminist counterpart to the now-iconic monomyth of the hero’s journey five millennia before Joseph Campbell devised it.

Baked clay relief of Inanna / Ishtar circa 19th-18th century B.C. (British Museum)

Castille writes in her artist statement:

The Sumerian myths are told by ancient peoples, on the cusp of the primitive and the mythic, emerging into a world organized by agriculture and the rise of large city-states. Although they are “only myths”, they tell of a still deeper history — the history of the human spirit as it has traveled through time, trying to make sense of its environment and constantly searching for meaning in life. Our souls are fortified and strengthened when they are exposed to such stories, stories that tell us more about the spirits and souls of our distant ancestors. From them, we derive a wisdom fearless and deep. The heart and soul of mankind shines out from the darkness of the past.

THE LADY OF THE EVENING

At the end of the day,
The great light,
Radiant Star,
The Lady of the Heavens appears.
The people in all lands lift their eyes to her;
The men they purify and the women cleanse Holy Inanna.

All living creatures,
The birds in the heavens,
The fish of the deep
My Lady protects them all.

All living creatures bow before her,
Feed and refresh her.
A young man makes love with his beloved.
The Lady of the Evening
Radiant on the horizon.

The lady looks down
In sweet wonder from heaven.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna.
Inanna, Lady of the Evening,
Radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady of the Evening
Radiant on the horizon.

THE LADY OF THE MORNING

Ornament of heaven,
Joy of the Sun,
You awake and appear like daylight.
The people petition you in their cares.
You render cruel judgment against Evil,
Show kindly eyes
And blessings on the righteous.
Inanna looks down in sweet wonder.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna.
Inanna, Lady of the Morning, radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady of the Morning
Radiant on the horizon.

Castille arrived at these hymns via a wonderfully improbable path. After an undergraduate degree in theology, an MBA in finance, and a quarter century in banking, she embraced the art of self-renewal and pivoted radically to philology and mythology, growing animated by the search for wisdom through the lens of art and the ancient spiritual traditions. A distributary in her immersion in the Mesopotamian classic Epic of Gilgamesh led her to the myth of Inanna and the millennia-old poems celebrating this confident, authoritative woman, aglow with equal parts wisdom and wonder — an abiding, deeply alive testament to Adrienne Rich’s insistence that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”

THE JOY OF SUMER: SACRED MARRIAGE RITE

The people of Sumer assemble in the place.
The King builds a throne for the queen.
On this day of rites, a sleeping place is set up for Inanna.
The people arrange a bridal sheet over the bed,
To rejoice the heart and sweeten the loins
Of the goddess and her man.
She sprinkles sweet-smelling cedar on the ground around him.
Tenderly he caresses her and murmurs
My holy jewel, my wondrous Inanna,
As he enters her holy vulva,
And embraces her,
Causing the queen to rejoice.
They shine radiantly joined in abundance, lushness and plenty.
The musicans play for the Queen,
Play songs for Inanna to rejoice the heart.
They reach out for food.
The people spend the day in plenty.
They stand assembled in great joy.
Inanna, First Daughter of the Moon,
Lady of the Evening,
I sing your praises.

Moved by the beauty and wisdom reverberating from these ancient verses across space and time — verses arresting in their unapologetic celebration of female sexuality as a wellspring of strength — Castille first envisioned drawing on her skills as a seamstress in a series of prayer flags that would symbolically represent the poems. Using a technique she developed called “E-quilting,” she scanned a variety of antique fabrics and objects to create an intricate electronic mosaic for each poem. But she soon realized that each collage would need an inscription to link it to the respective poem. Because any modern language seemed to disfigure the historical sensibility of the art, she endeavored to create an entire symbolic language for the inscriptions.

So began a remarkably ambitious project that would take Castille several years as she mined the poems for their most significant words and images, classified them into five core categories — Transcendence, Home, Earth, The Sacred, and Community — and began creating an alphabet of simple, non-pictographic symbols that could easily be traced onto a clay tablet, maintaining a cohesive visual vocabulary across the symbols representing the different words in each category. Something larger emerged from the categorization exercise — a picture of the primary sources of meaning and sanctity in the lives of these ancient people, encoded in their language.

LOUD THUNDERING STORM

Proud Queen of the Earth,
Loud thundering storm,
You pour rain over all the lands,
The heavens tremble,
You throw lightning across the earth,
Your deafening command
splits apart great mountains,
You stalk the heavens like a wild bull.
The riverbanks overflow
with the flood waves of your heart.

To further honor the artistic sensibilities and cultural histories of the region, Castille decided to relinquish her original prayer flag concept in favor of artwork based on Islamic mosaic patterns. She named the project after a cursive ink-on-papyrus writing system the sacred scribes of ancient Egypt devised to speed up the writing process: hieratica, from hieros, Greek for “sacred.”

The result is a beguiling, deeply poetic work of reverence, respect, and rapture at the nexus of beauty, wisdom, and wonder.

THE LADY WHO ASCENDS INTO THE HEAVENS

My lady, Amazement of the Land,
Lone Star, Brave One
Who appears in the heavens,
All lands revere her
And make offerings to her,
Incense like sweet-smelling cedar,
Butter, cheese, dates,
Fruits of all kinds.

Purify the earth for my Lady
Celebrate her in song.
Pour her wine and honey at sunrise,
Feed Inanna in this pure clean place.

My lady looks in sweet wonder from heaven.
The people of Sumer
Parade before the holy Inanna
INanna, the Lady who Ascends into heaven,
Radiant.
I sing your praises, holy Inanna.
The Lady who Ascends like the heavens
Radiant on the horizon.

Complement Castille’s enchanting Hieratica with Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages and French philosopher Maurice Blanchot on writing, the dual power of language to reveal and to conceal, and what it really means to see, then revisit the story of the invention of zero — that most revolutionary symbol in the native poetry of the universe, mathematics — conceived in the very lands that originated the myth of Inanna.

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