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Brain Pickings

Welcome Dear <<Name>>, welcome to this week's edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's digest — Amanda Palmer reads Mary Oliver's soulful ode to trees, Patti Smith on dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of life — 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.

The Great Czech Playwright Turned Dissident Turned President Václav Havel on Hope

impossible1.jpg?zoom=2&w=680“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself,” Rachel Carson exhorted the young in her final farewell to the world. “Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” she told the next generation, two generations before Rebecca Solnit insisted in her magnificent manifesto for resilience that “hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”

I too have long contemplated the question of hope — how it serves as a life-affirming antidote to the cowardice of cynicism, how its active and actionable nature differs from the laziness of passive optimism. Born into a communist dictatorship, one of my earliest memories is sitting atop my father’s shoulders, holding a candle into the night air alongside thousands of others gathered at the plaza before the Bulgarian Parliament in the protests that eventually brought down the dictatorship.

Months after I was born, a handful of longitude degrees north, the great Czech playwright turned dissident (turned, some years later, president) Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed the vital role of hope in steering destiny in a series of interviews conducted shortly after his release from prison, where he had spent four years for composing an anti-communist manifesto in response to the imprisonment of the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Eventually published as Disturbing the Peace in 1990, his timeless insights into the inner life and civic purpose of hope were excerpted a quarter century later in Paul Loeb’s lucid and life-buoying posy of hope-strands, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (public library).

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Václav Havel

Imprisoned multiple times for upholding his ideals of justice and humanism, for his insistence on anti-consumerism and environmental responsibility, Havel, like Viktor Frankl, knew the value of hope with visceral intimacy, not as an intellectual pretension or a spiritual delusion but as a lifeline of sanity and survival, for the individual as well as for the constellation of individuals we call society. He writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

A century after Walt Whitman, having lived and served and continued writing hope-giving, life-salving verses through a gruesome war, held up optimism as a mighty force of resistance, Havel adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngHope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

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Art from Trees at Night by the dissident political cartoonist Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

But what is this “elsewhere” and where does it reside? In the hearts of citizens, Havel argues — the individual hearts that harmonize into the symphonic pulse-beat of culture. Writing from the other side of unspeakable atrocities and terrors and oppressions, as the communist regime was beginning to topple after a decades-long rein, he examines the nature of power as a bidirectional valve, flowing not only top-down but bottom-up:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAll power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behavior of those it rules over… No one can govern in a vacuum. The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: Everyone has a small part of himself in both.

With an eye to the groundswells of hope and resistance he had begun witnessing — the very groundswells that would, before the decade’s end, topple the dictatorship — he writes in a passage of astounding prescience for his own time and vibrant resonance to ours:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngNew islands of self-awareness and self-liberation are appearing, and the connections between them, which were once so brutally disrupted, are multiplying… Something is happening in the social awareness, though it is still an undercurrent as yet, rather than something visible… And all of this brings subtle pressure to bear on the powers that govern society. I’m not thinking now of the obvious pressure of public criticism coming from dissidents, but of the invisible kinds of pressure brought on by this general state of mind and its various forms of expression, to which power unintentionally adapts, even in the act of opposing it.

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Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.

Pointing to “the unstoppable development of independent culture” and the moral awakening of youth as the two greatest motive forces for the coming change, he writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png[Young people are beginning] to seek, among the diffuse and fragmented world of frenzied consumerism…, for a point that will hold firm — all this awakens in them a longing for a genuine moral “vanishing point,” for something purer and more authentic. These people simply long to step outside the general automatic operations of society and rediscover their natural world and discover hope for this world.

I thought of Havel as I cycled across the Manhattan Bridge to join the breathtaking gathering of young people at the 2019 Climate Strike, the largest environmental protest in history — a magnificent mass of resistance to greed, to consumerism, to the capitalist exploitation of our irreplaceable planet’s oceans and rivers and rainforests and wildlife, whose preservation and administration, as Rachel Carson admonished in 1953 to unheeding ears, “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”

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Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s poems. (Available as a print.)

The future, Havel reminds us, is a mosaic built of these seemingly small yet combinatorially enormous acts of courage and resistance:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIsn’t the reward of all those small but hopeful signs of movement this deep, inner hope that is not dependent on prognoses, and which was the primordial point of departure in this unequal struggle? Would so many of those small hopes have “come out” if there had not been this great hope “within,” this hope without which it is impossible to live in dignity and meaning, much less find the will for the “hopeless enterprise” which stands at the beginning of most good things?

[…]

People who are used to seeing society only “from above” tend to be impatient. They want to see immediate results. Anything that does not produce immediate results seems foolish. They don’t have a lot of sympathy for acts which can only be evaluated years after they take place, which are motivated by moral factors, and which therefore run the risk of never accomplishing anything.

Unfortunately, we live in conditions where improvement is often achieved by actions that risk remaining forever in the memory of humanity… History is not something that takes place “elsewhere”; it takes place here; we all contribute to making it.

Complement the thoroughly inspiriting The Impossible Will Take a Little While — which also gave us Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about loneliness and resilience — with Zadie Smith on optimism and despair and Iris Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, then revisit Havel’s stirring 1995 Harvard commencement address.

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Kevin Kelly’s Letter to Children About the Glory of Books and the Superpower of Reading in an Image-Based Digital Culture

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In his epoch-making 1632 book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, Galileo made a subtle case for how reading gives us super-human powers. Printed books were a young medium then, still in many ways a luxury for the privileged. But as the cogs of culture continued to turn, revolutionizing ideologies and technologies, making books common as daylight, the written word never lost this power. 350 years later, Carl Sagan — another patron saint of cosmic truth — echoed Galileo in his insistence that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Hermann Hesse, too, knew this when he considered why we read and always will, no matter how technology may change, in his prescient 1930 essay “The Magic of the Book.”

Generations after Hesse and epochs after Galileo, amid a new wilderness of communication technologies and visual media, futurist, digital optimist, and Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly takes up the case in his contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: entrepreneurs, poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, philosophers, deep-sea divers.

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Art by Andrea Tsurumi for Kevin Kelly’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDear Young Hero,

Imagine you can choose your own superpower from one of these three: flying, invisibility, or being able to read. You’d be the only person in the world with that superpower. Which one do you choose? Flying is not so useful without other superpowers. Invisibility is okay for being naughty or for a little fun but not good for much else. But if you were the only person who could read… you’d be the most powerful person on Earth. You would be able to tap into all the wisdom of the smartest people who ever lived. Their knowledge would go from their heads through squiggles on paper right into your head. You would learn things from them that no ordinary mortal would ever have enough time to learn. You would be as smart as everybody in total. Not that you have to remember it all. With reading you just look it up.

Reading is a superpower that also gives you a type of teleportation; it moves you a million miles instantly. That feeling of being immersed in a different place, or even a different time period, can be so strong you may not want to leave.

When you have this superpower you can see the world from the viewpoint of someone else. This helps protect you from the mistakes and untruths of others as well as your own ignorance.

More and more of our society is centered on pictures and images, which is a beautiful thing. But some of the most important parts of life are not visible in pictures: ideas, insights, logic, reason, mathematics, intelligence. These can’t be drawn, photographed, or pictured. They have to be conveyed in words, arranged in an orderly string, and can only be understood by those who have acquired the superpower of reading.

This superpower will always be with you; it will never leave you. But like all superpowers, it increases the more you use it. It works on paper and screens. As we invent new ways to read, its value and power will expand and deepen. At any time, reading beats any other superpower you can name.

Yours,
Kevin Kelly

For more letters from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, savor Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, Rebecca Solnit on how books solace, empower, and transform us, 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved actual lives, poet and farmer Laura Brown-Lavoie on the power of storytelling, and Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding.

A selection of artwork from the book — a visual celebration of the written word — is available as prints, also benefiting the public library.

What Miss Mitchell Saw: An Illustrated Celebration of How 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell Blazed the Way for Women in Science

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“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) often told her Vassar students — the world’s first university class of professionally trained women astronomers — having herself become America’s first professional woman astronomer, thanks to her historic discovery of a new telescopic comet on October 1, 1847, after sixteen tenacious years of sweeping the sky night after night.

Mitchell (whose extraordinary life was the seed for what became Figuring and to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated) not only went on to blaze the way for women in STEM but used her prominence — she was arguably America’s first true scientific celebrity, welcomed in England, Italy, and Russia as a dignitary of the New World — to become one of the nineteenth century’s most ardent advocates for social reform, advancing women’s rights and abolition.

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The epoch-making discovery that became the platform for Mitchell’s modeling of possibility and far-reaching influence is the kernel of the lovely picture-book What Miss Mitchell Saw (public library) by author Hayley Barrett and illustrator Diana Sudyka — a splendid addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Barrett’s lyrical prose opens with a clever and tender solution to the common pronunciation confusion — Mitchell’s first name is spelled like my own but pronounced the presently atypical traditional Latin way:

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOn the first day of August, in a house tucked away on the fog-wrapped island of Nantucket, a baby girl was born.

Like all babies, this baby was given a name.
Her parents whispered it to her like a gentle breeze, ma…RYE…ah

Names become a central creative trope in the book — the dignifying, truth-affirming act of calling all realities by their true names. We see the young Maria learn to recognize the ships of this whaling community by name and come to know the local shopkeepers by name.

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Finally, after her father apprentices her as his astronomical assistant, she learns the stars by name — a testament to bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s astute observation that “finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

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Sudyka’s beautiful gouache-and-watercolor illustrations weave together hand-lettered words from the story with the three great animating forces of Mitchell’s early life: the enchantment of the cosmos, the whaling culture of Nantucket, and her family’s Quaker values. (In Figuring, writing about the factors that fomented Mitchell’s unexampled ascent above the common plane of possibility for women in her era, I point to the original use of the word genius in the term genius loci — Latin for “the spirit of a place” — and wonder whether, despite her incontrovertible natural gift for mathematics, she would have so soared had she not grown up in a secluded whaling community, where matriarchs ruled while men spent months and years on whaling trips, where Quakers lived by the then-countercultural ethos of equal education for boys and girls, where a barren landscape and long winter nights turned astronomy into cherished popular entertainment.)

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The book ends with the motto emblazoned on the gold medal Mitchell received from the King of Denmark for her landmark discovery — “Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars” — a sentiment that echoes the dying words of the great astronomer Tycho Brahe, which Adrienne Rich incorporated into her exquisite tribute to Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”

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Complement the wondrous What Miss Mitchell Saw with the picture-book biographies of other inspiring cultural figures — Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Nellie Bly, Wangari Maathai — then revisit Mitchell’s abiding wisdom on friendship, social change, science, spirituality, and our search for truth, and the art of knowing what to do with your life.

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I pour tremendous time, thought, heart, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free, and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy, stimulation, and consolation 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.

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