Brainpickings.org Newsletter


 This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Nietzsche on love, perseverance, and moving beyond good and evil; stunning indigenous Indian drawings of trees; James Baldwin on roots and reading — you can catch up right here. And don’t miss the anniversary edition of essential life-learnings from 14 years of Brain Pickings. If you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, as I have been for fourteen years, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

To Believe in Things: Poet Joseph Pintauro’s Lost Love Poem to Life, Illustrated by the Radical Nun and Visionary Artist Sister Corita Kent

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Unusual and unafraid to be so and in love with life, the priest turned poet and playwright Joseph Pintauro (November 22, 1930–May 29, 2018) was born and raised and annealed in New York, in the intellectual and creative ferment of the city, the city that never sleeps and always dreams. A late bloomer by every common measure, he published his first poetry collection in the gloaming hour of his thirties and married the love of his life — Greg, his partner of forty years — in the gloaming hour of life, at 81. But oh how splendidly, how fragrantly, how soulfully he bloomed.

Shortly after he resigned his work with the church in his mid-thirties, Pintauro commenced a series of wonder-smiting collaborations with artists, bringing his existentially enormous poems to life in small objects of shimmering delight that can best be described as children’s books for grownups. Four of them, illustrated by the graphic artist Norman Laliberté, he called “boxes” and dedicated to a particular emotional season of life — among them The Magic Box (autumn) and The Rabbit Box (spring).

But Pintauro’s most inspired collaboration, both poetically and aesthetically, was with the artist, designer, printmaker, pop art pioneer, and unstoppable force of social justice Sister Corita Kent (November 20, 1918–September 18, 1986). Entirely self-taught, she became one of the most innovative silkscreen artists of the 1960s and 1970s, suffusing her stunning prints with messages of solidarity with the civil rights and environmental movements of the era, messages of peace and harmony and love — love, as the poet Elizabeth Alexander might say, and did say half a century later, “beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light.”

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In 1968, the year she left the order and moved to Boston, Corita cast her widening pool of light around Pintauro’s debut poetry collection, To Believe in God, which unspooled a “trilogy of beliefs,” proceeding with To Believe in Man in 1970 and culminating with the out-of-print treasure To Believe in Things (public library) in 1971.

Corita — whose now-iconic “Rules for Students and Teachers” have inspired generations of artists, including John Cage — went, like Beyoncé, by her first name only, so that the spines of the living treasures read Pintauro / Corita.

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Pintauro’s poem itself is an uncommonly beautiful, buoyant, and largehearted celebration of life — of the ecstatic improbability of it, the self-enlarging and unselfing interconnectedness of it, the luminous fulness of it across the entire spectrum of joys and sorrows.

With a feeling-tone evocative of Marie Howe’s superb “Singularity,” the poem opens the way it ends — by bridging science and the human spirit:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMillions of years ago, there
was blackness,
pure and beautiful Nothing. There
was no thing
in it, no star, no wind,
no light, no word, no broken heart.

But a time came when perfect,
restful Nothing
was to vanish forever. Something was
about to be.

Suddenly, there it was. Something,
all alone,
king of everything. Killer of ancient,
beautiful Nothing. There was
a silence.

…till Nothing screamed a death
scream and
that scream is still screaming, an
expanding ring into the universe
that will never end.

Nothing is dead…

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Like any great work of art, the poem makes the personal the portal into the universal, into the beautiful bittersweet dance of life and death. Nested in the narrative sweep as wide as spacetime are a handful of poignant vignettes pinned to particular moments in time from a particular life. With exquisite subtlety, Pintauro captures his dying mother’s hopeless, hopeful cosmic bid against mortality:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMy sister was told to do her typing away from the
rest of us,
where it wouldn’t disturb us.

We did our homework at the dining-room table while
our mother crocheted big white stars according to plan
on the
instruction sheet. When she finished one, she would tie
the yarn and flatten the star on the table: “Look boys,
that makes eleven.”

We looked up, as bored by the stars as our
homework. We
were too young to understand, she had
decided between
dying and making a bedspread and her stars were
all very
important.

We went to bed those nights with Julius Caesar on
our minds,
with Napoleon, Spartacus, photosynthesis, zinc,
granite,
       the
names of all the rocks of the earth and of
the constellations.
All that knowledge inside us, we fell asleep,
assured that
there are forty million mornings in unheard-of places.

While she lay awake, vaguely wishing there
were angels
who would accept the coming of a new bedspread into
the universe,
in exchange for her life.

Recently, I was going through the junk of the cellar
and I
found the bedspread. It was torn and unraveled
and stuffed
into an old pillowcase.

My sister recalls washing it once, and adding too
much bleach
to the machine. When she took it from the dryer, it
fell apart in her hands.

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Radiating from these verses that celebrate the vibrant aliveness of the Earth — the minerals that form “the hills and the mountains” and are also “the substance the hills and mountains stand upon”; the “red hanging begonias” that “parachute onto twinkling grass”; the ice of February — is a reminder that these living miracles exist with us, not for us. Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous countercultural insistence that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Pintauro issues a poetic admonition against the American hubris of proprietorship and extractivism:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMr. Griswold owns all the property in America.
…but the trees never heard of him.
He owns the property except
the daylilies don’t understand
they are growing in
his dirt, and
the dirt doesn’t know
the difference
       between

Mr. Griswold
   and
the deer
   and
the chipmunks
   who trespass
      there.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngto believe in the wind is to know

there are things we harvest which no man plants
in our sails
our hair, in sea
shells our ears,
the wind is
why there is music no man made
in our rooms
when october makes love
to the house.
The wind is why
the screen door
speaks to you now and then and why
it is true
when they are abandoned, barns will
moan and there is crying
on the fire escape
when no one is there.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pnglong live the little greek diner
on first avenue near the 59th
street bridge

the greek there sells fresh fish
and fresh string beans, rice pudding
and homemade coffee for
ninety cents
because he’s old and his wife
is gone and he can’t sleep mornings.
he goes to the fulton fish market
to watch the sun come up, besides
the fresh fish there is cheaper
than frozen
he smells greece on the fish and
he feels
his childhood when he cleans them.

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All of Pintauro’s poetry is essentially love poetry. Harmonizing the cosmic and quotidian scales of his verse-meditations is a subtle and symphonic love poem, evocative of that exquisite passage from the diaries of Albert Camus: “If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.” Pintauro writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pnglong live our avoidance
of the quadrillion probabilities
of our non-existence

i am not who i was
i am not going to be who i was going to be
you changed all that

you are not who you were
you are not going to be who you were going to be
i changed all that

what is, is… and cannot at the same time, not be.
what was, was… and cannot,
not have been. so you see my love

we are us
we are us now and we shall never have been
not us.

who are we going to be?
we are going to be who we never would have been
without each other.

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Rising above the human love poem is a grand orchestral love poem to life, improbable and temporal and transcendent life — life in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a century before Pintauro, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” These verses close the miraculous To Believe in Things:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLONG LIVE EVERYTHING

… but remember,
everything is not every
possible thing
everything is only all
there is here and now

somewhen,
there will be more than there is.

you are not everything
but everything
could not be
everything without
      you.

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FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/
donating=lovingEvery week since 2006, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you’ve had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)monthly donationYou can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch. one-time donationOr you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

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Twenty-four centuries after Pythagoras contemplated the purpose of life and the meaning of wisdom as he coined the word philosopher to mean “lover of wisdom,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) contemplated the meaning of personhood and the measure of wisdom as he revolutionized the word poet to stand for “lover of life.”

Tucked toward the end of his ever-foliating Leaves of Grass is what might be his most musical poem — a sweeping thirteen-page symphony of thought and feeling and rhythm in language, undulating across three distinct thematic movements: the carefree optimism of embarking upon a new path; the transcendent self-discovery in traversing new landscapes of beauty and possibility; and the transcendence of the self in connecting with something larger than oneself: nature, time and space, love. Whitman himself considered it his “mystic and indirect chant of aspiration toward a noble life” and “a vehement demand to reach the very highest point that the human soul is capable of attaining.”margaretcook_leavesofgrass12.jpg

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

For his remaining decades, Whitman lived in it and with it for, changing its title from the humble “Poem of the Road” in the first 1856 edition to the wanderlustful “Song of the Open Road” in 1867, fine-tuning the verses again and again, mapping the poem’s 224 lines into fifteen numbered sections by the final edition in the winter of his life.

The second movement of the lyric symphony peaks at the sixth section, erupting with Whitman’s most direct and life-tested hypothesis about what makes a great person and what wisdom really means. It augurs his hard-earned wisdom on what makes life worth living, at which he would arrive half a lifetime later while recovering from a paralytic stroke. It echoes the famous prose-meditation on the key to a vibrant and rewarding life, with which he introduced Leaves of Grass as a young man. It hums, surefooted and sonorous, as a kind of blessing song for the road of life.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngNow I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied — he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Complement with Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistancewhat it takes to be an agent of changehow to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and women’s centrality to democracy, then revisit a beautiful reading from his furthest-seeing, deepest-feeling poem.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/

A Fuller Picture of Human Personality: Iris Murdoch on How Art Helps Us Reimagine Freedom, Moral Life, and Our Inner Worlds

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“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Carl Jung observed as he contemplated human personality in a BBC interview at the end of his life. But how do we wrest meaning from existence, or rather make meaning through the force of our personhood?

That is what another titanic mind of the twentieth century — the rare philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — took up in the year of Jung’s death, in an essay titled “Against Dryness,” originally published in the literary magazine Encounter and later included in the sublimely insightful posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and the key to good writing.IrisMurdoch_IdaKar_NationalPortraitGallery.jpg?resize=680%2C687

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

With an eye to how the landmark developments of the twentieth century — chiefly, the way scientific materialism has enfeebled the dogmas and precepts of religion — have left us triangulating uncomfortably between the traditions of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Liberalism, Murdoch writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality… [The Anglo-Saxon] conception consists in the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will. These subtly give support to each other. From Hume through Bertrand Russell, with friendly help from mathematical logic and science, we derive the idea that reality is finally a quantity of material atoms and that significant discourse must relate itself directly or indirectly to reality so conceived. This position was most picturesquely summed up in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

[…]

This is one side of the picture, the Humian and post-Humian side. On the other side, we derive from Kant, and also Hobbes and Bentham through John Stuart Mill, a picture of the individual as a free rational will. With the removal of Kant’s metaphysical background this individual is seen as alone. (He is in a certain sense alone on Kant’s view also, that is: not confronted with real dissimilar others.) With the addition of some utilitarian optimism he is seen as eminently educable. With the addition of some modern psychology he is seen as capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense. So we have the modern man*, as he appears in many recent works on ethics and I believe also to a large extent in the popular consciousness.

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Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

A century after John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s trailblazing partnership of equals shaped the scaffolding of Liberalism, Murdoch points out a crucial blind spot of this otherwise noble-minded and far-seeing tradition of thought:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngFor the Liberal world, philosophy is not in fact at present able to offer us any other complete and powerful picture of the soul.

[…]

Our central conception is still a debilitated form of Mill’s equation: happiness equals freedom equals personality. There should have been a revolt against utilitarianism; but for many reasons it has not taken place.

She considers what we have lost by blindly adopting this worldview and what we were never given in the first place:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity. What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background.

We have never solved the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. Between the various concepts available to us the real question has escaped: and now, in a curious way, our present situation is analogous to an eighteenth-century one. We retain a rationalistic optimism about the beneficent results of education, or rather, technology. We combine this with a romantic conception of “the human condition,” a picture of the individual as stripped and solitary: a conception which has, since Hitler, gained a peculiar intensity.

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Solitary. Photograph by Maria Popova.

Writing at a time when W.H. Auden — one of her great intellectual heroes — insisted that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act,” and in concord with her own lifelong insistence that art is essential for a democratic society, Murdoch considers the role of art and of literature in particular in furnishing a fuller, truer model of human personality, necessary for a thriving political conscience:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.

[…]

The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behaviourism, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. It is natural that a Liberal democratic society will not be concerned with techniques of improvement, will deny that virtue is knowledge, will emphasise choice at the expense of vision; and a Welfare State will weaken the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society.

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Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

In a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary critic, who tends to merely point out the flaw in a system, with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, without a lucid and largehearted vision for solutions, Murdoch considers what it would take to remedy this impoverished Liberal model of human personality:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.

The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.

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Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with the poet Mary Oliver’s lovely assertion that “attention without feeling… is only a report” and with Ursula K. Le Guin’s bold conviction that “literature is the operating instructions” for a noble and fulfilling life, Murdoch insists upon the power of literature to furnish a vocabulary of feeling with which to better express who we are and what we value — the supreme language of human personality, of our morality, of our personal and political ideals:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThrough literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return.

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Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Since literature rests upon language, it is language that needs to be reinvigorated. A century after Nietzsche weighed how language can both conceal and reveal truth, Murdoch adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI would connect eloquence with the attempt to speak the truth.

[…]

Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied individual… Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination… Too much contingency of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete, art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.

In morals and politics we have stripped ourselves of concepts. Literature, in curing its own ills, can give us a new vocabulary of experience, and a truer picture of freedom. With this, renewing our sense of distance, we may remind ourselves that art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure. Perhaps only Shakespeare manages to create at the highest level both images and people; and even Hamlet looks second-rate compared with Lear. Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.

Every page of Existentialists and Mystics is saturated with Murdoch’s uncommonly eloquent insight into the richest, deepest strata of human experience. Complement this portion with Toni Morrison on the fullest meaning of freedom, Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a human being, then revisit Murdoch on language as a bastion of truthhow love gives meaning to our existence, and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/
donating=lovingEvery week since 2006, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you’ve had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)monthly donationYou can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch. one-time donationOr you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

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Vintage Science Face Masks Benefiting the Nature Conservancy