Attentiveness as the Pulse-Beat of Art: Alice James on Living with Wide-Open Consciousness

“There are some people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing.”


Attentiveness as the Pulse-Beat of Art: Alice James on Living with Wide-Open Consciousness

To be an artist, in the most expansive sense, is to live with uncommon wakefulness to the world, both interior and exterior, unafraid to be moved by a universe observed with benevolent and unrelenting curiosity, then to give shape to those observations in a way that helps other people live. “Go into yourself,” Rilke counseled in his advice on being an artist, “and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”

One of the simplest, most profound meditations on awareness as the pulse-beat of art comes from a person who lived generation before Rilke and was not exactly an artist of tangibles but was very much an artist of life: Alice James (August 7, 1848–March 6, 1892) — the brilliant bed-bound sister of psychologist William James and novelist Henry James, a woman who considered herself “simply born a few years too soon” and who spent her life as an astute observer of the human experience, with its full spectrum of tragedy and triumphant joy, from the confines of her infelicitous vantage point as a lifelong invalid bedeviled by a mysterious and debilitating illness.

Alice James in 1891 (Harvard Houghton Library)

James recorded what she observed in The Diary of Alice James (public library), in which she wrote with uncommon elegance of insight and splendor of sentiment about life, art, and the art of living fully while dying. A hundred years before Annie Dillard contemplated the two ways of looking and the secret to truly seeing, James writes in a journal entry from mid-June of 1889:

I went out today, and behaved like a lunatic, “sobbed” … over a farmhouse, a meadow, some trees and cawing rooks. Nurse says that there are some people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing. How grateful I am that I actually do see, to my own consciousness, the quarter of an inch that my eyes fall upon; truly, the subject is all that counts!

Sketch of Alice James by Henry James, 1872

More than a century before Jeanette Winterson wrote of art as a function of “active surrender,” James adds:

Nurse asked me whether I should like to be an artist — imagine the joy and despair of it! the joy of seeing with the trained eye and the despair of doing it. Among the beings who are made up of chords which vibrate at every zephyr, of the two orders, which know the least misery, those who are always dumb and never loose the stifled sense, or the others who ever find expression impotent to express!

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether magnificent Diary of Alice James with E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist, Pablo Neruda on why we make art, and James Baldwin on the artist’s task.


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Adventure Time Posters by Dave Quiggle & George Caltsoudas from Mondo (Onsale Info)

Later today Mondo will drop a duo of posters for Adventure Time by Dave Quiggle and George Caltsoudas. Information on both is listed below. These go on sale today (Thursday, September 21st) at a random time. Visit MondoTees.com.

Adventure Time by Dave Quiggle

18″ x 24″ Screenprint, Edition of 250, $45

Dave Quiggle

Adventure Time by George Caltsoudas

24″ x 18″ Screenprint, Edition of 225, $45

George Caltsoudas

Adventure Time by George Caltsoudas (Variant)

24″ x 18″ Screenprint, Edition of 125, $65

George Caltsoudas

The post Adventure Time Posters by Dave Quiggle & George Caltsoudas from Mondo (Onsale Info) appeared first on OMG Posters!.

Source: http://omgposters.com

Caitlin Moran on Fighting the Cowardice of Cynicism

“When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.”


Caitlin Moran on Fighting the Cowardice of Cynicism

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. In the decades since, cynicism has become a cultural currency as deadly as blood diamonds, as vacant of integrity and long-term payoff as Enron. Over the years, I have written about, spoken about, and even given a commencement address about the perilous laziness of cynicism and the ever-swelling urgency of not only resisting it but actively fighting it — defiance which Leonard Bernstein considered an essential countercultural act of courage.

Today, as our social and political realities swirl into barely bearable maelstroms of complexity, making a retreat into self-protective cynicism increasingly tempting, such courage is all the harder and all the more heroic.

That’s what English writer Caitlin Moran examines in a stirring passage from How to Build a Girl (public library) — a novel that quenches questions springing from the same source as her insightful memoir-of-sorts How To Be a Woman.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Moran writes:

When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment.

And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are scared of disappointment. Because they are scared someone will take advantage of them. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them — that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Descartes’s abiding ideas about the relationship between fear and hope, Moran writes:

Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow — like insect armor. This armor will protect your heart, from disappointment — but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance in this armor. Cynicism keeps you pinned to the spot, in the same posture, forever.

A century and a half after Van Gogh reflected on fear and risk-taking, arguing that “however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth … steps in and does something,” Moran echoes Angelou and adds:

The deepest irony about the young being cynical is that they are the ones that need to move, and dance, and trust the most. They need to cartwheel though a freshly burst galaxy of still-forming but glowing ideas, never scared to say “Yes! Why not!” — or their generation’s culture will be nothing but the blandest, and most aggressive, or most defended of old tropes.

When young people are cynical, and snarky, they shoot down their own future. When you keep saying “No,” all that’s left is what other people said “Yes” to before you were born. Really, “No” is no choice at all.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on resisting the defeatism of easy despair, Jonathan Lear on radical hope, and Toni Morrison on rising above fear in troubled times.


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Rachel Carson on Science and Our Spiritual Bond with Nature

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”


Rachel Carson on Science and Our Spiritual Bond with Nature

“The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal,” the nineteenth-century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote. “The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live.”

The most fertile seeds of cultural sensibility can take generations to bloom. In the twentieth century, Jefferies’s ideas became a major inspiration for Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) — the pioneering marine biologist and writer who catalyzed the modern environmental movement and ushered in a new literary aesthetic of writing about science as something inseparable from life and inherently poetic.

Carson examined the question of beauty as a lens on comprehending the universe in a stunning speech she delivered before a summit of women journalists in 1954, later published under the title “The Real World Around Us” in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Carson’s prescient 1953 protest against the government’s assault on science and nature.

Rachel Carson

Carson, for whom wonderment was not only the raw material for her books but the native orientation of her mind, writes:

A large part of my life has been concerned with some of the beauties and mysteries of this earth about us, and with the even greater mysteries of the life that inhabits it. No one can dwell long among such subjects without thinking rather deep thoughts, without asking himself searching and often unanswerable questions, and without achieving a certain philosophy…. Every mystery solved brings us to the threshold of a greater one.

Nearly a century after trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, in reporting on a total solar eclipse, observed that “it is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people,” Carson writes:

The pleasures, the values of contact with the natural world, are not reserved for the scientists. They are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of a lonely mountain top — or the sea — or the stillness of a forest; or who will stop to think about so small a thing as the mystery of a growing seed.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Unafraid of being seen as sentimental, this uncynical scientist, who eight years later would awaken the modern environmental conscience and who considered her life animated by “a preoccupation with the wonder and beauty of the earth,” adds:

I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.

I believe this affinity of the human spirit for the earth and its beauties is deeply and logically rooted. As human beings, we are part of the whole stream of life. We have been human beings for perhaps a million years. But life itself — passes on something of itself to other life — that mysterious entity that moves and is aware of itself and its surroundings, and so is distinguished from rocks or senseless clay — [from which] life arose many hundreds of millions of years ago. Since then it has developed, struggled, adapted itself to its surroundings, evolved an infinite number of forms. But its living protoplasm is built of the same elements as air, water, and rock. To these the mysterious spark of life was added. Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.

With a cautious eye to “this destruction of beauty — this substitution of man-made ugliness — this trend toward a perilously artificial world” — cautiousness rendered tragically prescient in the retrospect of half a century of irreversible environmental destruction in the hands of merciless capitalism — Carson admonishes against the commodification of nature as a marketable resource for human use:

Beauty — and all the values that derive from beauty — are not measured and evaluated in terms of the dollar.

Looking back on the innumerable letters from readers she had received in response to her groundbreaking book The Sea Around Us — a book that crowned the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-nine weeks, made Carson the most famous nonfiction writer in America, and earned her the National Book Award — she notes that she heard from people as diverse as “hairdressers and fishermen and musicians, “classical scholars and scientists,” who all articulated a kindred sentiment:

So many of them have said, in one phrasing or another: “We have been troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith in man; it helps to think about the long history of the earth, and of how life came to be. And when we think in terms of millions of years, we are not so impatient that our own problems be solved tomorrow.”

Photograph by Maria Popova

Returning to the Jefferies lines that had so inspired her, she adds:

In contemplating “the exceeding beauty of the earth” these people have found calmness and courage. For there is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; in the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Carson ends on a note of lucid hope in the face of humanity’s destructively short-sighted descent into “an artificial world of its own creation”:

For this unhappy trend there is no single remedy — no panacea. But I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

The whole of Lost Woods is a trove of abiding wisdom from one of humanity’s most elevated and elevating minds. Complement it with Henry Beston, one of Carson’s great heroes, on relearning to live in harmony with nature, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work and her almost unbearably touching deathbed farewell to her soul mate.


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Take Fate by the Throat: Beethoven on Creative Vitality and Resilience in the Face of Suffering

“Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe.”


Take Fate by the Throat: Beethoven on Creative Vitality and Resilience in the Face of Suffering

“After all that has been said and mused upon the ‘natural ills,’ the anxiety, and wearing out experienced by the true artist,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who paved the way for women in the arts, wrote in reflecting on art and suffering from her sickbed, “is not the good immeasurably greater than the evil?” The great nineteenth-century poet is among the handful of highly influential artists who, like Frida Kahlo, surmounted an inordinate share of physical suffering to make art of unassailable beauty that heals the human spirit.

Among those few was Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), whose abidingly transcendent music sprang from the common fountain of his joy and his suffering. By his late twenties, Beethoven had begun losing his hearing — a deterioration that would result in near-total deafness by the end of his life, the source of which remains a medical mystery and the object of ample speculative mythologizing. One contemporary biographer has proposed lead poisoning, while the composer himself allegedly implicated a fit of fury — a second-hand account reported to his first serious biographer held that when a tenor interrupted Beethoven’s creative flow during a period of vigorous composition, he flew into a rage so violent that he collapsed to the floor in a seizure, hitting his head, and was deaf by the time he rose.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

By the end of his thirtieth year, Beethoven began actively seeking medical help for the ailment that anguished him and abraded his pride in his exceptional musical ear. Just as he was wading through the enigma of his suffering, in that strange and inopportune way the heart has of sneaking up on its owner, he fell in love with a young countess. A year before he wrote the spectacular letter to his brothers about the joy of suffering overcome, thirty-one-year-old Beethoven penned another letter of unrelenting optimism and towering spiritual resilience, found in the classic 1937 biography Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (public library).

Riding the tidal wave of elation that carries new love, Beethoven writes to his boyhood friend Franz Wegeler, then a medical student:

Oh, if I were rid of this affliction I could embrace the world! I feel that my youth is just beginning and have I not always been ill? My physical strength has for a short time past been steadily growing more than ever and also my mental powers. Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe. It is only in this that your Beethoven can live. Tell me nothing of rest. I know none but sleep, and woe is me that I must give up more than to it than usual. Grant me but half freedom from my affliction and then — as a complete, ripe man I shall return to you and renew the old feelings of friendship. You must see me as happy as it is possible to be here below — not unhappy. No! I cannot endure it. I will take fate by the throat; it shall not wholly overcome me. Oh, it is so beautiful to live — to live a thousand times! I feel that I am not made for a quiet life.

He would go on to cultivate a lifestyle regimen that sustains this superhuman vitality, to embody the crucial difference between genius and talent, and to believe that music saved his life.

Complement this portion of Beethoven: His Spiritual Development with the great composer’s love letters to his “immortal beloved” and his touching letter of advice on being an artist, written to a little girl who sent him fan mail.


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