welcome to this week’s edition of the brainpickings.org newsletterby Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s digest — Toni Morrison on wisdom in the age of information, a lyrical illustrated meditation on loneliness, Anne Gilchrist’s stunning love letters to Whitman — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) wrote in his most beautiful letter — a soaring defense of the imagination. A genius both tragic and transcendent, Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human conditionin a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LPsinging Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.
But no artist in our time, and possibly none in all of time, has been a more spirited exponent of Blake’s enduring genius than Patti Smith.
Smith discovered Blake as a girl, after her mother purchased for her at a church bazaar a handsome 1927 edition of his Songs of Innocence, faithful to the 1789 original, which Blake printed and illuminated himself. Mesmerized by the exquisite marriage of text and image, the young Patti spent hours deciphering Blake’s calligraphy and absorbing every detail of his rich, sensitive illustrations. She returned to him again and againthroughout her life, holding him up as consolation for the strife of struggling artists and eventually honoring him in a song. When her dear friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg fell mortally ill, she fetched a volume of Blake bound in blood-red leather from his library — a copy in which, she recalls, “each poem was deeply annotated in Allen’s hand, just as Blake had annotated Milton” — and read it by his dying bedside.
In 2007, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Smith edited a selection of his verses simply titled Poems (public library) — “a bit of Blake, designed as a bedside companion or to accompany a walk in the countryside, to sit beneath a shady tree and discover a portal into his visionary and musical experience.” She channels her reverence for the eternal artist into the uncommonly poetic prose of her introduction:
The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence. A newborn cries as the cord is severed, seeming to extinguish memory of the miraculous. Thus we are condemned to staggerrootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos.
William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein. The celestialsource stayed bright within him, the casts of heaven moving freely in his sightline. He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation; offering songs of social injustice, the sexual potency of nature, and the blessedness of the lamb. The multiple aspects of woven love.
His angels entreat, drawing him through the natural aspects of their kingdom into the womb of prophecy. He dips his ladle into the spring of inspiration, the flux of creation.
He is a messenger and a god himself. Deliverer, receptacle and fount.
Smith ends her introduction with a splendid invitation, or perhaps an incantation:
William Blake felt that all men possessed visionarypower… He did not jealously guard his vision; he shared it through his work and called upon us to animate the creative spirit within us.
To take on Blake is not to be alone.
Walk with him. William Blake writes “all is holy.”
That includes the book you are holding and the hand that holds it.
In this recording from a 2011 benefit concert for the Wadsworth Atheneum accompanying the opening of her exhibition at the museum, Smith tells the story of the notebook in which Blake wrote some of his most beautiful poetry — a little black sketchbook that belonged to his brother Robert, whose death devastated William — and she sings his iconic poem “The Tyger,” as it appeared in Blake’s original manuscript from the small notebook held at the British Library:
Complement with Smith on the two kinds of masterpieces and the crucial difference between writing poetry and songwriting, then revisit Esperanza Spalding’s performance of Blake’s existential poem “The Fly” and the brilliant, underappreciated Alfred Kazin on Blake and the tragic genius of outsiderdom.
Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species
A century before Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter revolutionized mycology with hergroundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which she was banned from presenting at London’s Linnaean Society on account of her gender, another Englishwoman of uncommon acumen overrode the limitations of her time and place to become one of the most esteemed natural history illustrators in human history with her drawings of Pacific, African, American, and Australian fauna.
Sarah Stone (1760–1844) began painting professionally at the age of seventeen. Although she learned her outstanding coloring skills from her father — a fan painter — she was largely self-taught in her draughtsmanship technique. At only twenty-one, she was invited to exhibit four of her paintings — a peacock, two other birds, and a set of seashells— at the Royal Academy, closed to women at the time. Like trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who became the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with a certificate on which the word “Fellow” was crossed out and “an Honorary Member” was inscribed above it in pencil, Stone was admitted as an “Honorary Exhibitor.” (There is something crushing about the “honor” of being temporarily exempted from millennia of baseline dishonor bestowed upon all the rest of one’s kind, all the rest of the time.)
Stone was still in her late teens when commissions from prominent collectors flooded in — most notably, from Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate the objects in his famed natural history and ethnographymuseum, the Holophusikon, including curiosities Captain Cook had brought back from his historic voyages. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales and did for the animals of Australia what Maria Merian had done for the butterflies of South America in the previous century.
With extraordinary draughtsmanship, she painted animals she had never seen alive, native to places she had never been herself — the invention of photography was still more than half a century away, and exotic travel was available only to the wealthy and to the men of science voyaging on expeditions. (It would be several decades until the word scientist was coined for mathematician Mary Somerville, replacing man of science.) Stone’s stunning depictions of parrots, serpents, fishes, marsupials, and other living wonders of the natural world were drawn from her science-informed imagination — sometimes from specimens brought back to England, sometimes entirely from the field notes of scientists on the exploring expeditions.
In this golden age of scientific discovery, vast audiences poured into the Leverian Museum to savor the splendors of faraway fauna, transported by Stone’s drawings. A number of them are the first studies of the respective species, granting them a singular place in the social history of natural history. Some of them depict species now entirely extinct or gravelyendangered, like the potoroo — a marsupial the size of a rabbit, with the posture of a kangaroo. Others portray strange, wondrous, and wondrously named creatures like the bird of paradise, the variegatedlizard, and the doubtful sparus.
As a child, Stone had learned a kind of folk chemistry, sourcing her pigments from local plants and household materials — brickdust, flower petals, the juices of leaves. When she became a professional painter, this awareness of pigment properties enabled her to choose colors she trusted to stand the assault of time more durably — striking colors like Chinese white, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow — which in turn lent her art an uncommon vibrancy.
After her marriage in 1789, Stone began signing her art “Mrs. Smith.” In the first half of the 1790s, drawings of Lever’s collection — hers, as well as other artists’ — were published in the monograph Museum Leverianum, edited by the physician and Royal Society Fellow George Shaw, who labeled and described the specimens. (Stone’s art from the volume is sometimes misattributed to Shaw, who was not an artist.)
Little is known about Stone’s life. From her prolific body of work, only about 900 drawings survive, collected and contextualized in Christine Jackson’s noteworthy monograph Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds (public library).
Complement with the 17th-century astronomical art of Maria Clara Eimmart and the pioneering sea algae cyanotypes of Anna Atkins — the world’s first known woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images — then revisit thesemasterpieces of natural history illustration, drawn from the rare book collection of the American Museum of Natural History.
These Truths: Jill Lepore on How the Shift from Mythology to Science Shaped the Early Dream of Democracy
“Between those happenings that prefigure it / And those that happen in its anamnesis / Occurs the Event, but that no human wit / Can recognize until all happening ceases,” W.H. Auden wrote in considering the selective set of remembrances and interpretations we call history. The trouble with the universe, of course, is that happening never ceases — at least not until the final whimper. In the meantime, we are left to fathom and figure the ongoingness of events, situating ourselves between a nebulous past and an uncertain future. “We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum,” Susan Sontag observed in the same bygone slice of ongoingness that Auden inhabited. “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”
We try to render our existence a little less precarious and a little more relevant by mooring ourselves to the truth of what happened, what matters, and why, only ever attaining a makeshift understanding of that truth. And though it may be that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — or perhaps precisely because it is so — a robust understanding of history, with its truths and its biases, is central to our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. It is also imperative for a future that mends the mistakes of the past — for, as James Baldwin so memorably observed, “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”
Such a transformative understanding is what historian Jill Leporefurnishes in These Truths: A History of the United States (public library) — a masterwork of poetic scholarship that stands as one of the most compelling and captivating books I have ever read.
“‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.” Alice’s Evidence — art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
With uncommon intellectual elegance, Lepore explores the intertwinedsinews of democracy’s making and unmaking: technology as a tool that encodes both the ideals and the biases of its society; the heroisms of thought and action that chipped away at the monolith of injustice upon which the nation was founded; the market manipulations and professionalized preying on the human animal’s weaknesses that gave rise to consumerism and public relations and “fake news” and the NRA. Emanating from these pages is a reminder that the history of the United States is a history of bias and brutality and hubris, but it is also a history of idealism and hard work and soaring optimism. What emerges is an invitation to regard these tessellated truths and conflicting motive forces with an equanimous understanding that can inform a juster, more beautiful, and less conflicted future.
Lepore writes in the preface:
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. This was all true until one day, Tuesday, October 30, 1787, when readers of a newspaper called the New-York Packet found on the front page an advertisement for an almanac that came bound with tables predicting the “Rising and Setting of the Sun,” the “Judgment of the Weather,” the “Length of Days and Nights,” and, as a bonus, something entirely new: the Constitution of the United States, forty-four hundred words that attempted to chart the motions of the branches of government and the separation of their powers as if these were matters of physics, like the transit of the sun and moon and the comings and goings of the tides. It was meant to mark the start of a new era, in which the course of history might be made predictable and a government established that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice. The origins of that idea, and its fate, are the story of American history.
The Constitution entailed both toil and argument. Knee-breeched, sweat-drenched delegates to the constitutional convention had met all summer in Philadelphia in a swelter of secrecy, the windows of their debating hall nailed shut against eavesdroppers. By the middle of September, they’d drafted a proposal written on four pages of parchment. They sent that draft to printers who set the type of its soaring preamble with a giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw.
Radiating from the four pages that begin with “We the people” are eternal, elemental questions about how our noblest aspirations measure up against the limitations of human nature and its social scaffolding:
Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justlyand fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?
Art by Maira Kalman from And the Pursuit of Happiness
These questions could only be answered empirically, in the grand experiment of American democracy, in a laboratory operated by “the people.” A century into the experiment, with the beaker of conscientiouscitizenship in hand, Walt Whitman would contemplate his country’s “democratic vistas” and issue a prescient admonition: “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.” Lepore considers the foundational hedge against downfall and ruin, encoded in the country’s birth and its ancient heritage stretching back to bygone civilizations whose failed experiments fertilized the soil of the New World:
The American experiment rests on three political ideas — “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Half a century after the brilliant mathematician Lillian Lieber bridged Euclidean geometry and the American Constitution to extract a set of postulates of democracy, Lepore adds:
The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.
Art by Maira Kalman from Bold & Brave
Central to this new way of apprehending truth was a shift in the understanding of the past — a shift away from unexamined mythology and toward the reasoned probing of collective memory we call history; a shift from mysticism to critical thinking. Lepore writes:
Understanding history as a form of inquiry — not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting — was central to the nation’s founding… Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered.
This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions — the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran — are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them — with evidence.
Arising from this notion is a reminder that all cultural history is inevitably a history of science, which is the history of human thought and the mind’s insatiable hunger to know reality. “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us,” Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer — wrote a century after her country’s founding as she contemplated our abiding search for truth, “and the more we gain, the more is our desire.” In consonance with Carl Sagan insisted that science is a tool of democracy that “provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes,” Lepore considers the crucial role of the scientific mindset in the origins of American democracy:
Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candidworld.”
Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?
The verdict hinges on complex calculus, with variables yet to be weighed and factors yet to be computed. One thing is certain — the future may be unknown, but the past is at last partly knowable, and there is a moral imperative to its knowledge that must be embraced with full responsibility if we are to meet the future with more than mere hope. Lepore writes:
The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the dead.
The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.