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Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, Amanda Palmer reads Neil Gaiman's feminist poem about science, Ursula K. Le Guin on writing, and more

Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, Amanda Palmer reads Neil Gaiman's feminist poem about science, astrophysicist Janna Levin reads Adrienne Rich's tribute to women in astronomy, Ursula K. Le Guin on writing, and more. NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program.
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WelcomeHello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – Neil Gaiman on how to tell a great personal story, Meryl Streep sings her mother's lullaby, an anthem against the silencing of science, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Feminist Poem About Science, Read by Amanda Palmer

“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the great astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in her diary in 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, I hosted The Universe in Verse in collaboration with astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin and the Academy of American Poets — an evening of poetry celebrating science and the scientists who have taken us to where we are today, and a kind of symphonic protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To our astonishment, eight hundred people poured into Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works and thousands watched the livestream of the sold-out show — a heartening testament to this seemingly unsuspected yet immensely fertile meeting point of science, poetry, and protest, featuring poems about Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Caroline Herschel, Euclid, neutrinos, and the number pi, by poets like Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wisława Szymborska, read by beloved artists and writers, including Rosanne Cash, Diane Ackerman, Ann Hamilton, Brandon Stanton, Jad Abumrad, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Amanda Palmer with her reading as the audience packs into Pioneer Works (Photograph by Amanda Palmer)

The readings concluded with something very special: “The Mushroom Hunters,” a feminist poem about the dawn of science, written by the inimitable Neil Gaiman especially for this occasion and read by his wife, the ferocious musician, artist, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer — what a generous gift and what a perfect finale, tying together an evening whose unspoken yet deliberate theme was the often untold history of women in science. (The image I chose as the backdrop for Amanda’s reading of “The Mushroom Hunters” comes from children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s little-known yet revolutionary mycological work — another fragment in the canon of women’s underheralded contribution to science.)

Amanda Palmer

In this excerpt from the show, I frame the significance of the poem in the context of the evening and Amanda tells the story of its composition. (The isolated audio of the poem appears below the video.) Please enjoy.

And the poem by itself:

THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS

Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.

In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.

The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.

Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.

Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.

Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.

The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

The men go running on after beasts.

The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.

Photograph by Molly Walsh / Academy of American Poets

For more from The Universe in Verse, see astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and playwright and actor Sarah Jones’s astonishing chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, based on a poem by Campbell McGrath.

For more of the gorgeous poetry performances I mention in introducing Amanda to the stage, hear her readings of “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, then join me in supporting the wonderful nonprofit artists’ space Pioneer Works so that they may continue to open their doors to such elevating events.

The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on What Self-Love Really Means and Why It Is the Basic Condition for a Sane Society

“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion famously wrote in making her case for the value of keeping a notebook. But many of us frequently find it hard enough to be on nodding terms even with the people we currently are. “We have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in contemplating the perils of self-criticism and how to break free from the internal critics that enslave us. And yet can we even imagine self-celebration — do we even know what it looks like — if we are so blindly bedeviled by self-criticism? Can we, in other words, celebrate what we cannot accept and therefore cannot love?

How to break this Möbius strip of self-rejection is what the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in a portion of his timeless 1956 treatise The Sane Society (public library) — the source of Fromm’s increasingly timely wisdom on our best shot at saving ourselves from ourselves.

Erich Fromm

Fromm frames love as what he calls “the productive orientation” of the psyche, an “active and creative relatedness of man to his fellow man, to himself and to nature.” He writes:

In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all men, and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence. In the experience of love the paradox happens that two people become one, and remain two at the same time. Love in this sense is never restricted to one person. If I can love only one person, and nobody else, if my love for one person makes me more alienated and distant from my fellow man, I may be attached to this person in any number of ways, yet I do not love.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Just as self-compassion is the seedbed of compassion, Fromm argues that such all-inclusive love must begin with self-love:

If I can say, “I love you,” I say, “I love in you all of humanity, all that is alive; I love in you also myself.” Self-love, in this sense, is the opposite of selfishness. The latter is actually a greedy concern with oneself which springs from and compensates for the lack of genuine love for oneself. Love, paradoxically, makes me more independent because it makes me stronger and happier — yet it makes me one with the loved person to the extent that individuality seems to be extinguished for the moment. In loving I experience “I am you,” you — the loved person, you — the stranger, you — everything alive. In the experience of love lies the only answer to being human, lies sanity.

Fromm is careful to point out that in this “productive orientation,” love is not a passive abstraction but an active responsibility. Shortly before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his abiding case for the respectful and responsible love of agape, Fromm writes:

Productive love always implies a syndrome of attitudes; that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. If I love, I care — that is, I am actively concerned with the other person’s growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to his needs, to those he can express and more so to those he cannot or does not express. I respect him, that is (according to the original meaning of re-spicere) I look at him as he is, objectively and not distorted by my wishes and fears. I know him, I have penetrated through his surface to the core of his being and related myself to him from my core, from the center, as against the periphery, of my being.

The Sane Society is an enormously insightful read in its totality. Complement it with Fromm on the art of living, the art of loving, and how to transcend the common laziness of optimism and pessimism, then revisit this animated primer on the difficult art of self-compassion.

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Women in Astronomy

Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer, was a remarkable woman who lived a long and pathbreaking life. Her parents deemed her too ugly to marry and envisioned for her a life as a servant — she became the Cinderella of the household, tending to the domestic needs of her parents and her eleven siblings. But Herschel, though incredibly humble, had a tenacity of spirit that kept her quiet passion for the life of the mind burning. She went on to pave the way for women in science, becoming the first woman admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society — the era’s most prestigious scientific institution — alongside the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (for whom the word “scientist” was coined).

Exactly 120 years after Herschel’s death, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a woman who espoused the political power of poetry and believed that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility” — commemorated Herschel’s far-reaching legacy of unlocking a universe of possibility for women in a beautiful 1968 poem titled “Planetarium,” found in Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library).

At The Universe in Verse — my celebration of science through poetry, which also gave us Neil Gaiman’s new feminist poem about the dawn of science — astrophysicist and author Janna Levin brought Rich’s masterpiece to life in an enchanting reading:

PLANETARIUM

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman    ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses

Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled
in those spaces    of the mind

An eye,

    ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
    from the mad webs of Uranusborg

                                            encountering the NOVA

every impulse of light exploding

from the core
as life flies out of us

    Tycho whispering at last
    ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’

What we see, we see
and seeing is changing

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body

The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus

    I am bombarded yet    I stand

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep    so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me    And has
taken    I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images    for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

A curious footnote I shared at the show: When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was struck by its searing beauty, but also puzzled by why, out of all possible cosmic phenomena, Rich chose to make a particular mention of pulsars. It wasn’t until I devoured Levin’s gorgeous book Black Hole Blues that I came to suspect why: The first pulsar, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was discovered in 1967 — less than a year before Rich wrote the poem — by a 23-year-old astronomer named Jocelyn Bell, who was subsequently excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery she herself had made.

This being an Adrienne Rich poem, I’ve always taken its dedication — to Caroline Herschel “and others” — to mean “and other unsung and undersung women in astronomy.” After reading Levin’s book, I’ve come to suspect that Rich’s deliberate mention of pulsars — a completely nascent discovery at the time, and not at all common cosmic vocabulary 
---------------------------

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