Hello, nick duval-smith! If you missed last week's edition – the science of stress and how our emotions affect our susceptibility to burnout and disease, Aldous Huxley on how to get out of your own light, an illustrated meditation on memory inspired by Borges, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
If death is so enormous a mystery that we remain unable to wrap our grownup minds around it, despite comfort from our great poets and consolation from our great philosophers, how are tiny humans to make sense of it all? Although there exist some exceptional children's books about loss and grief, explaining death to a child remains one of the most challenging tasks for a human being to undertake.
Because the language of Zen, holding great complexity of experience in great simplicity of expression, is so organically suited to the child – children, after all, have a way of leaning their minds toward the profound by way of the simple – it is perhaps the best language we have in offering a befitting explanation, as much to ourselves as to our young ones.
That's what the great Korean-born Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004) offers in one of the chapters in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) – a tiny treasure of a book originally published in 1976, irreverent yet immensely spiritually invigorating, collecting his correspondence and conversations with Zen students in the West.
Soen-sa recounts his conversation with Gita, the seven-year-old daughter of one of his students at the Cambridge Zen Center, after the death of the center's beloved cat, cleverly named Katz. ("KATZ!" is the transcription of the famous Buddhist belly-shout, used as a way of focusing energy and intention during Zen practice.) Katz had died after a long illness and was given a traditional Buddhist burial, but the little girl remained troubled by his death. One day after practice, she came to the great Zen teacher for an explanation. He relays the exchange:
"What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”
Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”
“From my mother's belly.”
“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.
Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made – lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see – a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor – all these things are really the same.”
“What are they?”
Illustration by Edward Gorey from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
With an eye to our tendency to mistake a thing's name for its thingness, Soen-sa answers by urging the little girl to contact the universal life-force of the metaphorical cookie dough:
“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn't say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn't say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’
So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”
“I shouldn't use words.”
Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn't use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”
Gita was silent.
Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me."
“What is Buddha?”
Soen-sa hit the floor.
Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What is God?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What is your mother?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What are you?”
Gita hit the floor.
“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”
Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”
“You still haven't told me where Katz went.”
Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”
Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.
Soen-sa ends the anecdote with an exchange intended to be funny, but in fact a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:
As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I'm not going to answer that way when I'm in school. I'm going to give regular answers!” Soen-sa laughed.
Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz
In another section of the book, Soen-sa examines the principles and practices that help us cultivate the pre-thinking mind necessary for truly tasting the metaphorical cookie dough of the universal life-force. Responding to a letter from a Zen beginner, a young woman named Patricia who had trouble grasping the value and very notion of "don't-know mind," he writes:
Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn't know... Your before-thinking mind, my before-thinking mind, all people's before-thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud, and you become one... The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things.
A few months later, in another letter to Patricia, he explores the three pillars of Zen's don't-know mind:
Zen practice ... requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.
What is great faith? Great faith means that at all times you keep the mind which decided to practice, no matter what. It is like a hen sitting on her eggs. She sits on them constantly, caring for them and giving them warmth, so that they will hatch. If she becomes careless or negligent, the eggs will not hatch and become chicks. So Zen mind means always and everywhere believing in myself...
Great courage ... means bringing all your energy to one point. It is like a cat hunting a mouse. The mouse has retreated into its hole, but the cat waits outside the hole for hours on end without the slightest movement. It is totally concentrated on the mouse-hole. This is Zen mind – cutting off all thinking and directing all your energy to one point.
Next – great questioning... If you question with great sincerity, there will only be don't-know mind.
Complement Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, indispensable in its entirety, with the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character, Alan Watts on death, and beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to do "hugging meditation."
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"A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us," philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed in his reflection on dreams and reverie. And yet our dream-selves and our waking selves are somehow the same person, linked by an even more mysterious continuity of consciousness than that between our childhood selves and our present selves. As scientists continue to probe the enigma of why we dream, we continue dreaming and interpreting our dreams, hoping to find in them answers to our greatest existential perplexities.
Beloved writer Neil Gaiman may be a sage of storytelling in his wakeful life and one of the most interesting people alive, but he is also a masterful weaver of whimsical, intensely interesting stories while asleep. Over the years, his wife – musician, patronage crusader, and friend-of-Brain-Pickings Amanda Palmer – has been his dutiful dreamkeeper. She regularly amuses herself by engaging half-asleep Neil in semi-sensical conversation, plunging into this unguarded rabbit hole into the surreal wonderland of his mind and writing down the best such conversations in a notepad.
One day, when she didn't have paper on hand, Amanda slipped into the bathroom and quietly recounted a particularly fantastic dream of Neil's in a voice memo. A year later, she discovered the recording on her phone. Newly enchanted by its whimsy, she decided to bring it to life in a short film, enlisting the help of her Patreon supporters, of whom I am proudly one. (All of Amanda's work is freely offered and, like Brain Pickings, relies on audience support.)
She composed an original score and teamed up with animator Avi Ofer to create something utterly magical – something weird and whimsical and strangely philosophical, partway between that curious vintage children's book about dreaming, illustrated by Freud's eccentric cross-dressing niece, and Mark Strand's beautiful poem "Dreams." Please enjoy:
Complement with the science of dreams and why we have nightmares and the story of how Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in a dream, then revisit Ofer's wonderful animations of the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Jane Goodall's remarkable life-story.
Join me in supporting Amanda on Patreon, where she has written about how this piece of magic came to be.
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Beatrix Potter (July 28, 1866–December 22, 1943) is one of the most beloved and influential storytellers of all time. The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other gloriously illustrated children's books tickle the human imagination through the fantastical aliveness of nature and its creatures, in a spirit partway between Aesop and Mary Oliver, between Tolkien and Thoreau. At a time when women had no right to vote and virtually no access to higher education, very rarely owned property and were themselves considered the property of their husbands, Potter became a commercially successful writer and artist, using the royalties from her books to purchase her famed Hill Top Farm, where she lived simply and with great love for the land for the remaining four decades of her life. Potter's art was a formative influence for Maurice Sendak, who collected her books, traveled to her farm, winked at her famous costumed mice in his reimagining of Nutcracker, and incorporated some of her work into his illustrations for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves. Her 1913 book The Tale of Pigling Bland was a childhood favorite of George Orwell's and became one of the key inspirations for his allegorical masterwork Animal Farm. (In addition to her extraordinary achievements and far-reaching creative legacy, I have always held special affection for Potter for the absurdly human reason that we share a birthday.)
Teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885 (Princeton University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections)
But no aspect of Potter's kaleidoscopic genius is more fascinating than her vastly underappreciated contribution to science and natural history, which comes to life in Linda Lear's altogether magnificent Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (public library) – by far the best book on Potter and one of the finest biographies ever written, Lear's prose itself a supreme work of art.
The pervasive Victorian enthusiasm for natural history produced quite a few female amateur scientists, including ornithologist Genevieve Jones, lepidopterist Maria Merian, and fossil-hunter Mary Anning – "amateur" being not a reflection of their scientific rigor and dedication, which were formidable, but of the fact that a formal scientific education was virtually inaccessible to women, except for the rare Ada Lovelace or Maria Mitchell, and membership in scientific societies was strictly reserved for men. But Potter's scientific work was exceptional in that she deliberately tried to penetrate the very institutions that dismissed women's scientific labor solely on the basis of gender.
By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. In the winter months, she frequented London's Natural History Museum to study their displays. Lear writes:
Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.
There is also something quite poetic about Potter's obsession with fungi – in her later children's books, she bridged real life and fantasy by transmuting the animals and plants she observed in nature into whimsical characters and stories, and mushrooms have long symbolized this very transmutation, perhaps most prominently in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, which first captured the popular imagination the year Potter was born.
But her interest went far beyond the mere aesthetics or symbolism of mushrooms – she was studious about their taxonomy, taught herself the proper technique for accurate botanical illustration, and worked tirelessly to get an introduction to the eminent mycologist Charles McIntosh. With his help and encouragement, she continued advancing her microscopic observations, which kindled in her an intense fascination with how mushrooms reproduced – something poorly understood at the time. Potter soon began conducting her own experiments with spores she had germinated herself. She was particularly captivated by lichens, considered at the time the "poor peasants of the plant world," in the words of the great botanist Linnaeus – a statement itself belying the dearth of scientific understanding at the time, for lichens are not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae.
This hybrid nature, first proposed by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener in 1869 and believed by no one else for decades, seemed so laughable a concept that "Schwendenerist" became a term of derision. But young Beatrix's experiments convinced her that Schwendener was on to something with his "dual hypothesis." She set down her theories and empirical findings in a paper titled "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae," accompanied by her breathtakingly detailed illustrations.
But between her and the acceptance of the truth stood formidable sociocultural forces: London's Linnean Society, the bastion of Victorian botany, was exclusively male and barred women from membership, denied them access to the research library, and wouldn't even allow them to attend the presentations of scientific papers. One of the Society's most influential gatekeepers was William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, the despotic director of the famed Kew Gardens and a man of particularly misogynistic conviction – and it was he whom thirty-year-old Potter had to sway in order for her paper to be presented at the Society. His response was blatantly patronizing – he called her ideas unimportant "mares' nests" that couldn't possibly measure up to a subject this "profound" and dismissed her drawings without even looking at them.
That night, an indignant and furious Potter wrote in her diary:
I informed him that it would all be in the books in ten years, whether or no, and departed giggling.
Potter's uncle, a respected scientist himself, was equally appalled by Thiselton-Dyer and took it upon himself to see to her paper's presentation at the Society. Lear writes:
The general membership of the Society met at seven o‘clock on Tuesday evening, 1 April 1897 with President Albert C. L. G. Gunther in the chair. The business of the meeting was the reading of a paper, "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae by Miss Helen B. Potter," and the presentation of several exhibits by five distinguished fellows, including Thiselton-Dyer and George Murray. Since women were not allowed to be members or to participate in the meetings, Beatrix was not present... Afterwards, together with any slide drawings as exhibits, it was ‘laid on the table’ where it could be examined... "Laid on the table" had the specialized meaning in Linnean Society parlance of the time of "received but not seriously considered in open forum." In short, while Beatrix’s paper was read at least in part, no substantive notice was given to it... Like other women at the time who attempted to gain a hearing for their scientific research at the Linnean, Beatrix’s theories were never seriously considered.
So the paper never even got to the point of peer-reviewing Potter's actual reproduction hypothesis to determine whether it was correct – she (any "she") was, it was made clear, not a peer and thus not worthy of such consideration.
A century later, the Linnean Society issued an apology of sorts for its historic sexism – its executive secretary formally acknowledged that Potter's research had been "treated scurvily." And yet to this day, Potter's remarkable fungi illustrations are studied for their scientific accuracy and consulted by mycologists all over the world in identifying mushroom species. And, who knows, perhaps one day a kindly mycologist will discover a new species and name it after Potter.
But Potter wasn't too perturbed by the rejection – she channeled her genius and creative energy in a different direction. Only five years later, the self-published first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit sold out before the next commercial edition was even printed, and Potter became one of the most famous and successful children's book artists and writers of her time, and soon of all time. The same reverent fascination with nature that had fueled her scientific work now appeared in a new guise in her stories, full not of the fantastical beings of fairy tales but of the realistic animals and plants native to the very woods in which she had collected her mushroom specimens.
In the epilogue to the book, Lear captures Potter's larger legacy as a naturalist, environmentalist, and singular artisan who dedicated her life to weaving a profound reverence for nature into the very fabric of culture:
Beatrix Potter brought nature back into the English imagination with her books and her illustrations. She wrote most of them at a time when nature was viewed as something of little value, when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation. After her marriage [to William Heelis] in 1913 the emphasis of her imaginative work shifted more and more away from literature towards the land and the animals it sustained. Beatrix cared about the old ways, and about what was necessary to live simply in nature.
Imagination is the precursor to policy, the precondition to action. Imagination, like wonder, allows us to value something. Imagination allowed Beatrix Potter to value the natural world and to share the treasures she found in the Lake District and its culture. As a far-sighted businesswoman she understood that their preservation was inherently linked to the success of fell farming.
Beatrix Heelis’s stewardship created a singular moment in the recovery of nature in the twentieth century; a paradigm of environmental awakening.
Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is a glorious read in its entirety, detailing Potter's creative evolution, her era-defying development as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, her intimate relationship with place and landscape, and much more. Complement it with the butterfly drawings of entomological illustrator Maria Merian and the bird eggs of self-taught artist Genevieve Jones, then revisit Jon Mooallem's magnificent modern-day appeal to the environmental imagination.
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Theodor Geisel (March 2, 1904–September 24, 1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most beloved children's book authors of all time. Maurice Sendak called him "a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.” Geisel was also a creature besotted with animals, in his art and his life. One of literary history's greatest pet-lovers, he had more pets throughout his life than he did accolades, and accolades he had many – including a Pulitzer Prize, three Caldecott Honors, and eight honorary degrees. Animals populated his many children's books, his secret art, and even his wartime propaganda cartoons.
In the spring of 1957, almost two decades after his little-known "adult" book of nudes, it was an animal book – The Cat in the Hat – that led critics to declare Dr. Seuss an overnight success, despite the fact that he had been writing for twenty years and this was his thirteenth book. That fall, How the Grinch Stole Christmas sealed his status as a celebrity of creative culture and he joined Random House as the editor of a new imprint for young readers.
But the book into which Dr. Seuss poured his most exuberant love of animals, created sometime between 1958 and 1962, was never made public in his lifetime.
In 1991, shortly after his death, Geisel's widow Audrey and his longtime secretary and friend Claudia Prescott discovered among his papers the manuscript and finished line art for what is now finally published as What Pet Should I Get? (public library).
Although the story, on the surface, is about a classic practical dilemma of childhood, it has – like all Dr. Seuss books, and like all great children's books, for there is no such thing as writing "for children" – a deeper philosophical undercurrent. At its heart is a meditation on two all too common maladies afflicting modern grownups – the paradox of choice, which Geisel witnessed closely as the Mad Men era ushered in consumerist society and which continues to fascinate psychologists today, and the fear of missing out, so pervasive in contemporary culture that we've shorthanded it into the buzzwordy acronym FOMO.
We meet a brother and sister who arrive at the pet store, enraptured by their father's permission to choose one – and only one – pet to take home. But as soon as they enter, a growing chorus of lovable animals make their irresistible appeals. The common binary choice of cat or dog soon expands into an overwhelming array of increasingly fantastical creatures, beginning with other less common real-life pet options and eventually tipping over into Dr. Seuss's famous imaginary beings.
Recurring throughout the story and interjecting the otherwise first-person narrative is an omniscient voice urging the kids, "Make up your mind" – the quintessential refrain of the mind paralyzed by the paradox of choice and tortured by FOMO.
Or the dog?
It is something
to make a mind up.
Then I looked at Kay.
I said, "What will we do?
I like all the pets that I see.
So do you.
We have to pick ONE pet
and pick it out soon.
You know Mother told us
to be back by noon."
The ending is both playful and profound: Under the use-it-or-lose-it proposition of the time they were given to choose a pet, the kids do as the refrain urges, make up their minds, and choose – except we never find out which creature they chose.
Undergirding this open-endedness is a poetic reminder that in the face of life's dilemmas, there is often no right or wrong choice – what matters is only that we do choose, that we make up our minds and march forward, for nothing dulls the little time we have more surely than the paralysis of indecision. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll's Alice, who tells the Cheshire Cat: "I don't much care where ... so long as I get somewhere."
"I will do it right now.
I will do it!" I said.
"I will make up the mind
that is up in my head."
The dog...? Or the rabbit...?
The fish...? Or the cat...?
I picked one out fast,
and that that was that.
The story's protagonists are the same kids that had appeared in Dr. Seuss's 1960 book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. (Geisel, like Maurice Sendak and other children's book authors, sometimes recycled his characters.) Like most of the books Dr. Seuss created before 1963, One Fish was colored using basic CMYK – cyan, magenta, yellow, and black – without mixing the inks to create other colors, such as green and purple, which would only appear in his later books.
Geisel was ordinarily meticulous about indicating what colors should go where in his line art, but he had left no such markings on this manuscript. To address the practical challenge while honoring Dr. Seuss's aesthetic, Cathy Goldsmith – the Random House art director tasked with bringing the manuscript to posthumous life – turned to the fish book as a color guide but bridged it with Dr. Seuss's later work to create a hybrid palette composed primarily of CMYK, enriched by a few additional colors. This would no doubt have pleased Geisel, a notorious perfectionist who belabored every detail and once professed:
I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.
A spread from 'What Pet Should I Get?' as it was originally found. Geisel estimated that he produced more than a thousand pages of text and images for a typical 64-page book, revising over and over. He always taped the text into position on the original line art, as seen here.
In the afterword, the editors at Random House add a thoughtful addendum to the otherwise timeless Dr. Seuss story, pointing out a critical aspect of how times have changed:
Pets are life-changing. They greet us like heroes when we walk in the door, comfort us when we are sad, and love us unconditionally. Dogs and cats are the most popular pets in the United States, but these wonderful, vulnerable animals can easily live for over a decade and are dependent on us for their needs. So committing to caring for a pet as a cherished, not captive, companion is a big decision.
Choosing where to get your pet is also very important. When Dr. Seuss wrote What Pet Should I Get? over fifty years ago, it was common for people to simply buy dogs, cats, and other animals at pet stores. Today animal advocates encourage us to adopt them from a shelter or rescue organization and warn us never to purchase pets from places that are supplied by puppy mills. We wholeheartedly agree and completely support this recommendation.
Complement the wholly delightful What Pet Should I Get? with the secret art of Dr. Seuss, then revisit this fascinating cultural history of thinking with animals.
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Why do we humans create – why do artists make art, why do writers write? Pablo Neruda gave a beautiful answer in his metaphor of the hand through the fence. For Joan Didion, the impulse is a vital gateway to her own mind. David Foster Wallace saw it as a mode of fun-having and truth-telling. For Italo Calvino, it was a matter of belonging to "a collective enterprise." William Faulkner simply believed it to be "the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet." But even more important, perhaps, is the question of why – and how – artists continue to make art in the face of the rejection, ridicule, and indifference with which their society often meets them.
That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled "Spirit and Vision" from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece – a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists – bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.
Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings
Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.
This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears – the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau's wholly plussing Walden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile – one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world – save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of "incomparable things said incomparably well" and declared it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
Art from Whitman Illuminated by Allen Crawford
And yet Whitman didn't give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:
Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.
With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:
Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce ... from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.
In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Mark Strand's memorable meditation on the artist's task and Annie Dillard's assertion that "writers serve as the memory of a people," Pritchard adds:
We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.
But make no mistake – Pritchard's is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:
All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it... Art [is] a form of active prayer.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from The Big Green Book by Robert Graves
For writers, Pritchard argues – especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection – literature is a "sacred vocation"; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity – only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:
Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.
We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.
This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can... This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.
The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:
Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.
Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.
Art from Whitman Illuminated by Allen Crawford
This, indeed, is Pritchard's most piercing point – however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:
If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power – the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.
She ends the piece like one might a commencement address – and if this were one, it would certainly be among the greatest commencement addresses of all time – urging writers:
What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice – not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) – your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.
Complement A Solemn Pleasure, seriously pleasurable in its entirety, with Susan Sontag's advice to writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, and Cheryl Strayed's no-nonsense wisdom on the craft, then revisit this evolving archive of great writers' advice on writing.
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