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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – an illustrated homage to Frida Kahlo, Oliver Sacks on death and the redemptive radiance of a life fully lived, Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, Eudora Welty on friendship, and more – you can catch up right 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.
What is it that gives the human spirit wings to soar above the trenches of tradition, above the flatlands of convention, above even the highest peaks of the probable into ever-greater altitudes of possibility?
That’s what the great journalist and essayist Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) explores in a beautiful piece published in his New York Herald Tribune column, Today and Tomorrow, on July 8, 1937 — six days after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind a decades-long comet tail of courage that has since inspired generations.
I cannot quite remember whether Miss Earhart undertook her flight with some practical purpose in mind, say, to demonstrate something or other about aviation which will make it a little easier for commercial passengers to move more quickly around the world. There are those who seem to think that an enterprise like hers must have some such justification, that without it there was no good reason for taking such grave risks.
But in truth Miss Earhart needs no such justification. The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. They help to offset the much larger numbers who are ready to sacrifice the ease and the security and the very lives of others in order to do what they want done.
Writing on the cusp of World War II, Lippmann admonishes against mistaking force for fortitude and argues that “synthetic heroes” and “men in bulletproof vests surrounded by squads of armed guards” are the measure not of humanity’s strength but of our weakness. Heroes like Amelia Earhart offer a different, truer conception of courage. He writes:
It is somehow reassuring to think that there are also men and women who take the risks themselves, who pit themselves not against their fellow beings but against the immensity and the violence of the natural world, who are brave without cruelty to others and impassioned with an idea that dignifies all who contemplate it.
The best things of mankind are as useless as Amelia Earhart’s adventure. They are the things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. In such persons mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves.
Such energy cannot be planned and managed and made purposeful, or weighted by the standards of utility or judged by its social consequences. It is wild and it is free. But all the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know what they discover. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They can give no account in advance of where they are going or explain completely where they have been. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.
No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.
“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.” It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago — that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.
Of the nine kinds of silence that Sontag’s contemporary and friend Paul Goodman outlined, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul” is the kind we seem to have most hastily forsaken — and yet it is also the one we most urgently need if we are to reclaim the aesthetic of silence in the art of living.
That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) — the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyo’s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.
Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows — that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of life’s most beautiful dimensions, just as today’s excessive noise silences life’s subtlest and most beautiful signals.
Goldsaito’s lyrical writing, part ballad and part haiku, and Kuo’s illustrations, midway between manga and Chris Ware yet thoroughly original, carry the story with effortless poetic enchantment.
We follow Yoshio as he leaves home one rainy morning and steps into the symphony of urban sounds cascading through the city — “raindrops pattering on his umbrella,” “boots squishing and squashing through the puddles.”
As he makes his way through this aural wonderland, he is suddenly enthralled by a most magical sound. He follows it to discover a koto player tuning her instrument.
Then the koto player played. The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, “Sensei, I love sounds, but I’ve never heard a sound like that!”
The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.
“Sensei,” Yoshio said, “do you have a favorite sound?”
“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”
“Silence?” Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.
Puzzled and vitalized by the cryptic message, the little boy sets out to find the sound of silence.
He goes to the quietest place he knows, the bamboo grove behind the playground, but even there silence is ushered out by the sound of the living world.
The bamboo made a takeh-takeh-takeh sound as the wind banged its stalks together. He closed his eyes and heard the swish-swish-swish of the wind making the leaves talk. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t silence.
As Yoshio makes his way home through the city, he continues to look for silence — at the train station, at the dinner table, in the bath.
Even at night, while the rest of the family is sleeping, he listens for the silence only to hear the faint hum of a distant radio.
The next morning, he arrives at school before everyone else and sits down to read a story, which absorbs him so wholly that he is transported to the elusive place he had been searching for all along.
Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it.
No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned.
In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath. Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed. Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun.
Silence had been there all along.
In that moment, he learns what we so easily forget: that silence is not the absence of sound but the presence of an inward-listening awareness, an attunement of the mind’s ear and an orientation of the spirit toward a certain inner stillness — perhaps the positive counterpoint to loneliness, which so often thrives amid the crowd.
Coates reflects on the transformative experience of his first visit to Paris — a perspective-reorienting pilgrimage he made from West Baltimore, by way of Harlem, as soon as he received his first adult passport:
It occurred to me that I really was in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation — even if it wasn’t a part I relished. I was the one the police stopped on Twenty-third Street in the middle of a workday. I was the one driven to The Mecca. I was not just a father but the father of a black boy. I was not just a spouse but the husband of a black woman, a freighted symbol of black love. But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, I was a sailor — landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before — that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone else’s dream.
Loneliness — particularly the loneliness familiar to those of us who are immigrants or alien in any other way, the kind that comes from being in a culture but not of it — is a paradoxical emotion, stretched between longing and fear: we long for inclusion, acceptance, and equal belonging, but fear we’d be hurt, rejected, or violated in the vulnerable-making act of making our longing manifest. The fear takes over — especially if it carries the momentum of previous violations, be they personal or inherited — and erects a protective wall that only further separates us from the very thing we long for.
With an eye to that divisive fear, Coates addresses his young son:
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