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Hello, Peter Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Leonard Cohen's unreleased, astonishingly timely verses on democracy, James Baldwin on the poet's role in a divided society, Naomi Shihab Nye on kindness over fear, and more – you can catch up right here. If you missed the special once-a-decade edition -- the 10 most important things I learned in the first 10 years of Brain Pickings -- find that here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
“Only an artist can tell … what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it,” James Baldwin asserted in contemplating how the artist’s struggle illuminates the common human struggle. “War and chaos have plagued the world for quite a long time,” wrote a forgotten defender of E.E. Cummings and the artist’s duty to challenge the status quo, “but each epoch creates its own special pulse-beat for the artists to interpret.” Often, the pulse-beats of chaos that feel most unsurvivable are those which artists must most urgently interpret in order for us to indeed survive.
That task of the artist as a grounding and elevating force in turbulent times is what Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) explores in a stunning essay titled “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” included in the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation.
Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)
Christmas, the day after, in 2004, following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush.
I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine — and you?”, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”
I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.
With an eye to the various brokennesses of the world, past and present, Morrison writes:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.
Complement with Morrison on how to be your own story and George Saunders on the artist’s task, then revisit JFK’s spectacular speech on the artist’s role in society.
“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often,” Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016) famously quipped in a 1992 conversation about work ethic and the creative process. But more than two decades earlier, not having yet condensed the mystique of inspiration into such a clever package, Cohen willingly walked into and talked about the labyrinthine path of creativity.
On December 4, 1971, he sat down with Kathleen Kendel from New York public radio station WBAI for a beautiful conversation about the wild and winding paths of the creative process, preserved by the wonderful Pacifica Radio Archives. Annotated highlights below.
In a testament to his lifelong “sense of being in this for keeps,” Cohen considers the tapestry of creative motivations and influences:
It’s very hard to really untangle the real reasons why you do anything. But I was always interested in music and it seemed to me I always played guitar. I always associated song and singing with some sort of nobility of spirit. The first songs I learned were of the workers movement. I always thought that this was the best way to say the most important things… I don’t mean the most ponderous or pompous things. I mean the important things — like how you feel about things, how you feel about someone else — and I always thought this was the way to do it.
It’s also very difficult to untangle influences because you represent the sum of everything you’ve seen or heard or experienced. The kind of language that I’d like to have been influenced by the Bible and Cervantes, by the old masters. The kind of sensibility I’ve been influenced [by], of course, [is] a great deal by the French writers — Camus, Sartre — the Irish poets — Yeats — the English poets. And, of course, we had our own little group of poets in Montreal years back, all very fine, one man especially standing out — I think one of the finest writers in the language — Irving Leighton. I don’t think he’s known [outside Canada] at all.
Echoing young Sylvia Plath’s assertion that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” Cohen casts a benevolent eye upon the large and loving body of covers of his songs:
I’m always pleased when somebody sings a song of mine. In fact, I never get over that initial rush of happiness when someone says they are going to sing a song of mine. I always like it.
That song enters the world and it gets changed, like everything else — that’s OK as long as there are more authentic versions. But a good song, I think, will get changed.
In this wonderful excerpt from the interview animated by Blank on Blank, Cohen reads the poem “Two Went to Sleep” from his 1956 debut as a poet, Let Us Compare Mythologies (public library), and tells the wild story of how moonlight transported him to where the good songs come from:
Complement with Cohen on democracy’s foibles and redemptions and Pico Iyer on what Cohen taught him about the art of stillness.
For more animated archival gems from Blank on Blank, see Nora Ephron on women and politics, Kurt Vonnegut on what it takes to be a writer, Sally Ride’s conversation with Gloria Steinem about being a trailblazing female astronaut, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the art of love, Ray Bradbury on the secret to great storytelling, David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Jane Goodall on overcoming extraordinary odds, Hunter S. Thompson on the only cure for our destructive tendencies, and Richard Feynman on what his father taught him about the most important thing.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?
That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library) — the follow-up to Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, The Blue Whale, which was among the best science books of 2015.
The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.
As in Desmond’s previous book, the protagonist moves through the story wearing a crown reminiscent of Max’s in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are — whether conscious or not, a delightfully apt allusion.
Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency as we witness the nightmarish absurdity of a new president who is vowing to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” beginning by appointing a science-denier as its chief administrator — an agency built on the wings of Rachel Carson’s tireless advocacy, nurtured for generations, and responsible for whatever environmental consciousness America does have. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.
Desmond writes in the prefatory author’s note:
Until well into the 20th century, polar bears were hunted for sport, food, clothing, and traditional crafts. By the 1950s, unregulated hunting for sport and furs was threatening their very survival.
This ended in 1973, with the signing of “The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears,” which banned sport and commercial hunting, finally giving legal protection to these bears and their environments.
Today the biggest threat to their survival is climate change. This is because polar bears depend on sea ice to hunt for food, but as the world’s temperatures rise, Arctic ice has begun to melt earlier in the summer and freeze later in the autumn. This means that polar bears now have less available food during the summer months. Should a bear already be underweight, the length of time it now has to wait for the ice and its food to return may just be too long.
Polar bears are intelligent, playful, and curious creatures. Along with caring for the rest of the natural world, we need to care for these bears and their environments. Only with our commitment to protecting our planet will polar bears be able to truly flourish and multiply in their Arctic homes.
Polar bears are similar to dogs in having access to a rich universe of smell inaccessible to us. Desmond writes:
A bear can small seals from several miles away and relies on scent to find a mate, detect danger, and locate its cubs. When polar bears stand up on their hind legs, it’s so they can smell the air even better.
Polar bears do not hibernate. They like to sleep though, and can sleep almost anywhere at any time. Like humans, polar bears sleep in different positions. On warm days, they might stretch out on their back with their feet in the air or lie down on their stomach. On cold, stormy days, they curl up with a paw over their snout for warmth, letting the snow cover them like a blanket.
Most bears sleep a lot when there isn’t much food or during bad weather. In areas where the ice melts completely in the summer, a polar bear may spend nearly half its time asleep. Since it’s hard to find food without sea ice, it makes sense to save energy and rest.
Just like polar bears, people also curl up in cozy places, perhaps to fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream…
Complement The Polar Bear, which received the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book accolade, with Desmond’s The Blue Whale, both of which come from Brooklyn-based idealist children’s book publisher Enchanted Lion Books.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova
“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,” beloved Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) observed in his forgotten 1980 conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” By that point, Achebe had already been busy upsetting the system for more than two decades, beginning with his iconic debut novel Things Fall Apart, which remains the most widely read book in African literature.
Eight years after his conversation with Baldwin, 58-year-old Achebe sat down to discuss the storyteller’s task in both upsetting the system and stabilizing the spirit of the people with another exceptional interlocutor — Bill Moyers, who so poetically describes Achebe as “a storyteller who hears the music of history, weaves the fabric of memory, and sometimes offends the Emperor.” The conversation was later included in Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library) — the indispensable 1989 tome that gave us Isaac Asimov on the role of science fiction in advancing society and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility.
Reflecting on a famous Ibo proverb — “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” — Achebe considers the complementarity at the heart of existence:
There is no one way to anything. The Ibo people who made that proverb are very insistent on this — there is no absolute anything. They are against excess — their world is a world of dualities… If there is one God, fine. There will be others as well. If there is one point of view, fine. There will be a second point of view.
When Achebe reflects on the damage done by missionaries and colonial administrators who had come to Africa with a single idea of truth — an ideology that promised those dissatisfied with the status quo a new world order — his words radiate tremendous relevance to the political situation in America today:
Those people who found themselves out of things embraced the new way, because it promised them an easy escape from whatever constraints they were suffering under.
But it was not necessary to throw overboard so much that was thrown overboard… It was not necessary. I think of the damage, not only to the material culture, but to the mind of the people.
In another passage of sobering prescience as we face a world in which the despot of Kremlin has “a friend in the White House,” Achebe remarks:
It seems to me that something happened in that period between Roosevelt and perhaps the period of McCarthy that made it possible for the South African regime, for example, to say they have a friend in the White House. I think what happened is that America became a power in the world and, after the Second World War, forgot its revolutionary origin.
In a sentiment that affirms Toni Morrison’s conviction that troubled times are precisely when artists must go to work, Achebe considers the different types of power that the storyteller and the political ruler have over the people:
A storyteller has a different agenda from the emperor. [And yet] there’s a limit to what storytelling can achieve. We’re not saying that a poet can stop a battalion with a couple of lines of his poetry. But there are other forms of power. The storyteller appeals to the mind, and appeals ultimately to generations and generations and generations.
If you look at the world in terms of storytelling, you have, first of all, the man who agitates, the man who drums up the people — I call him the drummer. Then you have the warrior, who goes forward an fights. But you also have the storyteller who recounts the event — and this is one who survives, who outlives all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that survivors must have — otherwise surviving would have no meaning… This is very, very important… Memory is necessary if surviving is going to be more than just a technical thing.
In yet another passage of piercing relevance to American politics today, Achebe considers the then-common Western perception that Africa’s path to independence has resulted in chaos, violence, and despair:
If you look at this very small segment of history, then you can talk about it in those terms. If you are frozen in time, you can say yes, it’s awful. And it is really awful. But I think if you take the wide view of things, then you begin to see it as history, as human history over a long period of time, and that we are passing through a bad patch. It’s not death. We are passing through a bad patch, and if we succeed, then even this experience of the bad patch will turn out to be an enrichment.
History’s hindsight has proven Achebe right: The African cultural renaissance in the decades since, with its incredible groundswell of literature, art, and entrepreneurship, offers, perhaps, some assurance that our present “bad patch” might lead, not without pain and exasperation, to similar enrichment.
Achebe considers the most difficult yet important path to ensuring that chaos results in something constructive:
Seeing the world from the position of the weak person is a great education. We lack imagination. If we had enough imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we oppress, things would begin to happen. So it is important that we develop the ability to listen to the weak.
Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas remains a ceaselessly rewarding read in its hefty totality, featuring wisdom from such luminaries as physicist Steven Weinberg, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, poet Derek Walcott, management legend Peter Drucker, geneticist Maxine Singer, linguist Noam Chomsky, and novelist E.L. Doctorow. Complement this particular fragment with Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility to the world, then revisit Moyers’s poignant conversation with Maya Angelou about courage and facing evil.