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Pinocchio: An Alternative Origin Story Exploring the Grandest Questions of Existence

A lyrical illustrated cosmogony serenading the ephemeral and the eternal.

Pinocchio: An Alternative Origin Story Exploring the Grandest Questions of Existence

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties: “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”

This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.

As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.

In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.

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A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.

Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.

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The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.”

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It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.

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The story begins with a comet that crashes onto earth, bringing with it the seed of life. Out of it a tree grows. Lightning strikes it, severing a small branch that comes alive and begins roaming the earth.

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As the branch-body encounters the world and its creatures, it lives and dies and lives again — in the bellies of beasts, in the bellowing depths of the ocean, in the moon-kissed valleys of the earth — until it crawls out of the primordial seas of existence as the promise of a new tree.

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Reminiscent in spirit to the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree, though dramatically different both conceptually and aesthetically, Sanna’s modern myth explores the commonest story of all — the shared journey of existence and its counterpoint — with uncommon imaginative elegance.

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Pinocchio: The Origin Story, inarticulably beautiful in its analog entirety, comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion, modern mythmaker of such inspired treasures as The Lion and the Bird, Cry, Heart, But Never Break, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.

Complement it with this illustrated celebration of ancient Indian origin myths and its contemporary Western counterpart, A Graphic Cosmogony, then revisit Sanna’s beguiling previous book, The River.

BP

A Cross-Cultural Bridge of Kinship and Mutual Appreciation: The Moving Correspondence of Albert Camus and Boris Pasternak

“It is false to say that frontiers do not exist. They do exist, temporarily. But at the same time there exists a force of creativity and truth uniting us all, in humility and in pride at the same time.”

A Cross-Cultural Bridge of Kinship and Mutual Appreciation: The Moving Correspondence of Albert Camus and Boris Pasternak

Months after Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) received the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature — which prompted him to send a beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher — he wrote to the great Soviet poet and translator Boris Pasternak (February 10, 1890–May 30, 1960). Camus had grown enchanted with Pasternak’s work for the very reasons — intellectual elegance, critical thinking, an independent socialist-hued spirit — that had made the Soviet government keep a censorious eye on the Russian writer and progressively threaten his civil liberties.

No stranger to unlikely friendships, Camus was reaching across the Iron Curtain, across language and culture and politics and age, with a largehearted offering of appreciation and encouragement to a man he had never met but who he felt deeply was a kindred spirit. Pasternak, almost a quarter century Camus’s senior, responded with a wonderfully generous mirroring of admiration.

Their correspondence, reminiscent of the virtuous cycle of mutual appreciation between Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, is included in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — that forgotten 1991 treasure edited by Eudora Welty, which gave us Welty’s warm wisdom on friendship as an evolutionary mechanism for language.

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On June 9, 1958 — shortly after the French publication of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and mere months before Pasternak himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which Russia’s humiliated Communist Party forced him to decline — Camus writes:

Dear Boris Pasternak,

René Char, who is my best friend, gave me your address because he knows the friendship and admiration that I have long felt for your work and the man whom one feels living within. I just wanted to send you a small text whose only importance is that of a far-off, but faithful, sign with regards to you. There are a few of us in France who know you, who share your life, in a certain way. I, who would be nothing without the Russian nineteenth century. I find in you once more the Russia that nourished me and gave me strength. It is false to say that frontiers do not exist. They do exist, temporarily. But at the same time there exists a force of creativity and truth uniting us all, in humility and in pride at the same time. I never felt this more than while reading you and that is why I would like to express my gratitude and my solidarity. I send warm wishes to you and yours, for your work and your great country. I shake your hand.

Albert Camus

Seventeen days later — a lapse likely due to the heavy surveillance of foreign correspondence in Soviet Russia — Pasternak sees Camus’s generosity and raises it in a beautiful letter he leaves unsigned, in case it falls into the hands of his government censors:

Dear Mr. Camus,

I can hardly believe my eyes, writing to you, Camus. A new page has opened in my life, that of having acquired the pretext, the right, the chance to tell you my delight and my gratitude for the special nuance in the play of today’s universal thought, [to tell you] that it is owing to you.

[…]

I rarely have the time to read what I like and what interests me. Kafka, Faulkner, still not read, wait for me to take them from the library shelf. Remembrance of Things Past” is broken off at the end of “Sodom and Gomorrah.” I exult. I congratulate you for writing a prose whose reading becomes a true journey: one visits the places you describe, one experiences the situations related, one feels them for the main characters… My new friendship, if I dare say so, with you … is an unspeakable happiness, and enchantment, a fairy tale. I catch the inconceivable breath of the garden at dawn. I want to surprise the mystery of the green eclipse of the dense foliage, and I think of René Char, who is all that. Or else I meditate on the absolute originality of art and on what is the task of art, rather than philosophy — seizing the essence of life and saying it palpably… And you are anxious about what can happen to me and you forget that no price is enough for this new kinship which is infinitely worth being lived and even suffered for. Thank you, thank you for everything.

"Boris Pasternak Writing," 1919, by Leonid Pasternak, Boris's father (Tate Museum)
“Boris Pasternak Writing,” 1919, by Leonid Pasternak, Boris’s father (Tate Museum)

When Pasternak died of lung cancer two years later — less than five months after Camus perished in a tragic car accident with an unused train ticket in his coat pocket — his funeral was announced via guerrilla postings on the Moscow subway and throngs of unflinching admirers risked trouble with the KGB and the Soviet Militia to travel to the service held at Pasternak’s country cottage.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly heart-expanding Norton Book of Friendship with Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens’s letter of admiration to George Eliot, and teenage James Joyce’s touching letter to Ibsen, his great hero, then drink in Camus’s sympathetic wisdom on strength of character, the art of awareness, what it means to be a rebel, and happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

BP

Do: Sol LeWitt’s Electrifying Letter of Advice on Self-Doubt, Overcoming Creative Block, and Being an Artist

“You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool.”

“The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together,” Vincent van Gogh wrote in contemplating principles, talking vs. doing, and the human pursuit of greatness in a beautiful letter to his brother Theo. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her memorable letter to Sherwood Anderson about success, public opinion, and what it really means to be an artist. But how does one keep a solid center of principled conviction while at the same time expanding outward into widening circles of growth-impulses, always reaching for the unknown without letting competence fester into complacency or perfectionism become an anchor of stagnation?

The answer to that, and to other elemental perplexities of the creative life, is what the artist Sol LeWitt (September 9, 1928–April 8, 2007) offers in a spectacular 1965 letter to the trailblazing sculptor Eva Hesse, whom he had befriended five years earlier. Hesse, a disciple of Josef Albers and a pioneer of the postminimalist art movement of the 1960s, began suffering from creative block and self-doubt shortly after moving from New York to Germany with her husband. She reached out to her friend for counsel and consolation.

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The masterpiece of a response LeWitt wrote on April 14, 1965 was later included in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the magnificent anthology edited by Shaun Usher, which gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life, E.B. White’s luminous assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, and Hemingway’s tough-love advice on writing and life to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In his impassioned five-page missive, which remains the closest thing to a personal creative credo LeWitt ever committed to words, the 41-year-old artist writes to Hesse:

Page 1 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Page 1 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

Dear Eva,

It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just

DO

In a sentiment that calls to mind the central Buddhist notion of shunyata [emptiness] as a wellspring of wisdom, LeWitt urges Hesse to cease overthinking her art and abandon her attachments to what it must be:

Page 2 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Page 2 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing — clean — clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder… real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful — real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever — make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to

DO

LeWitt reminds Hesse that perfectionism kills creativity and, in a parallel to Jennifer Egan’s assertion that bad writing is “a way of priming the pump” for great writing, urges her to surrender the addiction to good work and use the bad as a springboard into the great:

Page 3 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Page 3 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working — then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to

DO

Echoing O’Keeffe’s insistence that the discipline of being an artist is about “catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life,” LeWitt concludes:

Pages 4 and 5 of LeWitt's letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)
Pages 4 and 5 of LeWitt’s letter to Hesse (courtesy of The LeWitt Collection)

It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible — and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work — not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can — shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.

[…]

Much love to you both.

Sol

The following year, Hesse created “Hang-Up” — one of her most acclaimed and admired sculptures, of which she reflected:

It was the first time my idea of absurdity or extreme feeling came through… It is the most ridiculous structure that I ever made and that is why it is really good.

This was LeWitt’s advice, made tangible and given form.

The two artists remained close friends and creative kindred spirits, exchanging ideas and influencing each other’s work, for the remainder of Hesse’s short life. She was slain by a brain tumor in 1970, at only thirty-four. Two days after her death, LeWitt created “Wall Drawing 46,” which he dedicated to his friend. With its minimalist multitude of textured non-straight lines — a graphic element he had never used before — the piece was a significant aesthetic shift for LeWitt, who would go on to incorporate non-straight lines in his subsequent work, crediting Hesse’s influence.

Wall Drawing 46
Wall Drawing 46

Complement this particular fragment of the endlessly rewarding Letters of Note with Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies” for overcoming creative block, John Steinbeck’s disciplined cure for self-doubt, and some of today’s most celebrated artists on creative courage and what it takes to be an artist.

Thanks, Wendy

BP

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