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Brain Pickings

Welcome Hello <<Name>>! This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Octavia Butler on how (not) to choose our leaders, a neuroscientist on the similarity between drug withdrawal and heartbreak, Gertrude & Alice's love — you can catch up right here. And 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.

The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

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Since long before Dr. King proclaimed “I have seen the mountaintop!” mountains — like rivers — have been among our richest nature-drawn metaphors for making sense of our human lives and values. When the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan was asked in a television interview who the most important person she ever met was, she answered without hesitation: “A mountain.” She meant a non-metaphorical mountain — Mount Tamalpais — out of which she carved her exquisite philosophical-poetic meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

But no one has explored the existential through the metaphor of the alpine more elegantly than the French surrealist poet, philosopher, and novelist René Daumal (March 16, 1908–May 21, 1944) in his allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (public library), posthumously published and translated into English by Carol Cosman — a novel quite possibly inspired by and almost certainly subtitled as a wink to Edwin Abbott Abbott’s iconic 1884 allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, yet a novel entirely and uncommonly original.

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René Daumal

Daumal — who taught himself Sanskrit, translated some of the great Buddhist texts into French, and saturated his writing with philosophical reflections drawn from the liminal space between the scientific and the spiritual, between physical fact and poetic truth — begins by defining his “analogical alpinism”:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAlpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence.

Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.

Upon this conceptual foundation Daumal builds his alpine allegory of life. In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of ‘condescension’ / Means we all sink.” — he writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngYou cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again…

So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully.

There is something profound that the alpine shares with the telescopic: the gift of perspective — a gift that, once granted, cannot easily be revoked; once we have seen, once we have known, we cannot easily unsee and unknow, and so we cannot easily lose our position in space and sense. Daumal writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThere is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.

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Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Echoing his equally brilliant, equally underappreciated compatriot and contemporary Simone Weil’s notion of the highest mountain-view of the mind, Daumal adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngKeep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look at your feet. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you have arrived just because you see the peak. Watch your feet, be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.

In what may be the most elegant articulation of the essence of responsibility, applicable to everything from our smallest personal acts to our grandest generational choices that shape posterity’s social and ecological inheritance, Daumal writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhen you take off on your own, leave some trace of your passage that will guide your return: one rock set on top of another, some grass pierced by a stick. But if you come to a place you cannot cross or that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead the people following you into trouble. So go back the way you came and destroy any traces you have left. This is addressed to anyone who wants to leave traces of his passage in this world. And even without wanting to, we always leave traces. Answer to your fellow men for the traces you leave behind.

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“Tectonic Time” by Maria Popova

In an admonition against the twin hazards of hubris and self-pity, he adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngNever stop on a crumbling slope. Even if you believe your feet are firmly planted, while you take a breath and looking at the sky the earth is gradually piling up under your feet, the gravel is slipping imperceptibly, and suddenly you are launched like a ship.

[…]

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory.

Couple Daumal’s strange and wondrous Mount Analogue with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Field Guide to Getting Lost, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, writing at the same time as Daumal, on the life of the living mountain and Vita Sackville-West’s early love letters to Virginia Woolf about mountain-climbing and the meaning of life.

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Every 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.)

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How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout

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The question of whether we are minds in bodies or bodies with minds has animated philosophers for millennia. But whatever our cerebral orientation to the question, we must each answer it for ourselves — a kind of private embodied illumination.

My own accidental answer arrived long ago, when I began noticing that my morning workout provided the most fertile hours for reading and thinking. Every single morning for more than fifteen years, I have journeyed to the gym with a book, filling margins with motion-mangled notes and scribbling ideas sparked in the connective tissue of the mind as blood and electricity course through my muscles.

In the midst of a difficult year, I found myself unable to read anything but Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) during this morning regimen of body and spirit — perhaps because the poet himself so strongly believed in and enacted the relationship between the creaturely and the creative, the physical and the poetic.

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Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

More than a decade after his experience as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the vital relationship between body and spirit, Whitman described his own physical regimen in Specimen Days (public library) — the indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art gives meaning to life, what makes life worth living, and his most direct reflection on happiness.

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One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an entry from the winter of 1877, still recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled five years earlier, the sixty-six-year-old poet describes his workout in the gymnasium of the wilderness:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngA solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high — pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets or plays — or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army. I make the echoes ring, I tell you!

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One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

The great nature writer John Burroughs — Whitman’s longtime friend, and his first and to this day foremost biographer — further described the poet’s workout in his superb and loving more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), published four years after Whitman’s death.

Burroughs writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngHis exercise for an hour each day consisted in tossing a few feet into the air, as he walked, a round, smooth stone, of about one pound weight, and catching it as it fell. Later in life, and after his first paralytic stroke, when in the woods, he liked to bend down the young saplings, and exercise his arms and chest in that way. In his poems much emphasis is laid upon health, and upon purity and sweetness of body, but none upon mere brute strength.

Both Whitman’s Specimen Days and Burroughs’s Whitman: A Study are books of vigorous and timeless delight. Complement this particular portion with psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how our minds and our bodies converge in healing, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on how our minds obscure our bodies, and Rilke on the relationship between the body and the soul, then revisit Whitman’s advice to the young on the building blocks of character and his timeless wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

Why We Walk: A Manifesto for Peripatetic Empowerment

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“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau exulted as he championed the spirit of sauntering in an era when the activity was largely a male privilege — for a woman, these everyday crusades meant the dragging of long skirts across inhospitable terrains, before unwelcome gazes. It would take a century and a half of bold women conquering the mountains and reimagining the streets before Rebecca Solnit could compose her exquisite manifesto for wanderlust, reclaiming walking as an activity that vitalizes the mind — the mind that, in the landmark assertion of the seventeenth-century French philosopher François Poullain de la Barre, “has no sex.”

Lauren Elkin brings some of these women and their emancipatory, culture-shifting legacy to life in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (public library) — a celebration of the peripatetic foot as an instrument of the mind, an insurgency, a liberation, drawing on the novels and diaries of titanic writers like Virginia Woolf and George Sand, who wove walking into their lives and works as a central theme of empowerment and active curiosity, and on her own diaries and memories as an expatriate in Paris and Tokyo, a traveler in Venice and London, a student in New York.

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Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

The title itself is a rebellion against and a recouping of the French word flâneur, masculine for “one who wanders aimlessly,” popularized in the first half of the twentieth century. Elkin writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngA figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.

Every right begins as a privilege and Elkin sets out to reclaim this once-male privilege as a basic human right of the modern urban dweller — one that requires the resexing of flâneur into flâneuse:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngFlâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.

That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don’t even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for ‘flâneur, -euse’. Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.

Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is lying down? This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: search for ‘flâneuse’ on Google Images and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench and a few images of outdoor furniture.

mairakalman_myfavoritethings5.jpg?zoom=2&w=680

Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Walking for Elkin, as for her marching army of women, is a wholly different matter. She offers her own tessellated definition of its raison d’être:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhy do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, to lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.

Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. There’s a small pleasure in seeing how well I’ve come to know the city through my wanderings on foot, crossing through different neighbourhoods of the city, some I used to know quite well, others I may not have seen in a while, like getting reacquainted with someone I once met at a party.

Sometimes I walk because I have things on my mind, and walking helps me sort them out. Solvitur ambulando, as they say.

More than half a century before the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd asserted that “place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Elkin adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png I walk because it confers — or restores — a feeling of placeness. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says a space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced.

I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.

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Art by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

And yet this inevitable commingling with humanity, for all of its rewards, also exposes one of the most disquieting questions of modern life — what does it mean to be in motion, in public? Elkin writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png[This is] the key problem at the heart of the urban experience: are we individuals or are we part of the crowd? Do we want to stand out or blend in? Is that even possible? How do we — no matter what our gender — want to be seen in public? Do we want to attract or escape the gaze? Be independent and invisible? Remarkable or unremarked-upon?

With an eye to her childhood and young adulthood in suburban America, Elkin reflects on how she awakened to the relationship between walking and agency, to the sense that self-propelled motion is a vital form of participation in the world on one’s own terms:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture; a culture that does not walk is bad for women. It makes a kind of authoritarian sense; a woman who doesn’t wonder — what it all adds up to, what her needs are, if they’re being met — won’t wander off from the family. The layout of the suburbs reinforces her boundaries: the neat grid, the nearby shopping centre, the endless loops of parkways, where the American adventure of the open road is tamed by the American dream.

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Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland.

But alongside this self-empowerment, this triumph of individualistic agency, walking confers upon the walker a perpendicular gift — a connection, embodied in the sinews rather than reasoned by the mind, to the constellation of other selves speckling the world. Elkin reflects on a semester abroad in Paris — the city in which she first fell in love with “the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other” — during her time as a Barnard College student:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIn those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into a great passion. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.

I remember when I’d take the métro two stops because I didn’t realise how close together everything was, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I’d cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my room-mates. I saw things I’d never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.

Complement Flâneuse, a captivating read in its entirety, with Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame on walking as creative fuel and Robert Walser on the art of walking, then revisit the crowning curio of the peripatetic canon — Solnit’s Wanderlust — and the story of how the bicycle emancipated women.

donating=loving

Every 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 donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start Now Give Now

Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7
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