Rosanne Cash on how science saved her life and her beautiful reading of Adrienne Rich's tribute to Marie Curie, Primo Levi on happiness, unhappiness, and human nature, and more.
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Hello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – 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 – 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.
Most know Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) as a trailblazing scientist — a pioneer of radioactivity, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize, and to this day the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences, chemistry and physics. But unbeknownst to most, she was also a woman of tremendous humanitarian heroism and courage: When WWI swept Europe, Curie, a vehement pacifist, invented and operated mobile X-ray units known as “Little Curies” — ambulances which she herself drove, treating an estimated one million wounded soldiers and civilians, using the technology her own discoveries had made possible to save innumerable lives.
It fell on another extraordinary woman, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), to eulogize Curie exactly forty years after the trailblazing scientist’s death in the 1974 poem “Power,” which opens Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library).
Another forty years later, another remarkable woman animated this double legacy of greatness — multiple Grammy winner Rosanne Cash, a musician of enormous poetic potency, a beautiful memoirist, and one of very few women inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Prefacing her reading, Cash offered the greatest testimonial to the power of science there is — one attested to with her very life, which science saved after pseudo-science and today’s fossils of superstition imperiled it — and reflected on how Rich’s poem, while celebrating a scientist, also speaks to the deepest source of every artist’s power.
Persist and verify… The power that we abdicate to others out of our insecurity — to others who insult us with their faux-intuition or their authoritarian smugness — that comes back to hurt us so deeply… But the power we wrest from our own certitude — that saves us.
And here is the isolated poem:
Living in the earth-deposits of our history
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old cure for fever or melancholy a tonic for living on this earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie: she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness her body bombarded for years by the element she had purified It seems she denied to the end the source of the cataracts on her eyes the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying her wounds denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
Rich was the only poet with two poems represented in The Universe in Verse. Devour the other one — her tribute to Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer — here, then revisit Rich herself reading her increasingly timely poem “What Kind of Times Are These?”
“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe,” Rebecca West wrote in her extraordinary 1941 treatise on survival and the redemption of suffering. One such unrelenting inquirer into the nature of his barely survivable fate was the great Italian Jewish chemist and writer Primo Levi (July 31, 1919–April 11, 1987), who was thrown into a Nazi death camp shortly after West set her timeless words to paper. Arrested as a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and deported to Auschwitz in 1944, Levi lived through the Holocaust and transmuted his horrifying confrontation with death into a humanistic force of justice and empathy under the lifelong conviction that “no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis.”
In Survival in Auschwitz (public library), originally published as If This Is a Man, Levi wrests from what he witnessed and endured profound insight into some of the most elemental questions of human existence: what it means to be happy, why we habitually self-inflict unhappiness, how to fathom unfathomable suffering, where the seedbed of meaning resides.
Of the forty-five people crammed into the train car that took Levi to Auschwitz, which he notes was “by far the most fortunate wagon,” only four survived. Toward the end of his memoir, in diaristic form, he offers a harrowing perspective barely imaginable to any free person:
This time last year I was a free man: an outlaw but free, I had a name and a family, I had an eager and restless mind, an agile and healthy body. I used to think of many, far-away things: of my work, of the end of the war, of good and evil, of the nature of things and of the laws which govern human actions; and also of the mountains, of singing and loving, of music, of poetry. I had an enormous, deep-rooted foolish faith in the benevolence of fate; to kill and to die seemed extraneous literary things to me. My days were both cheerful and sad, but I regretted them equally, they were all full and positive; the future stood before me as a great treasure. Today the only thing left of the life of those days is what one needs to suffer hunger and cold; I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself.
It takes an extraordinary person to not only survive such a devastating extreme of inhumanity but to emerge from it with the awareness that existence always leans toward equilibrium. Reflecting on his experience in the camp, Levi writes:
Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.
With an eye to his own experience in the camp, he adds:
It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair, both during the journey and after. It was not the will to live, nor a conscious resignation; for few are the men capable of such resolution, and we were but a common sample of humanity.
Mining once again the reality of the camp for universal human truth regarding the larger reality of life, Levi considers the root of our self-generated unhappiness — a kind of habitual infinite regress of discontentment:
Human nature is such that grief and pain — even simultaneously suffered — do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective… This is the reason why … man is never content. In fact it is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of the state of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.
Levi contemplates how a particular dichotomy of human nature revealed itself in the camp:
There comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men — the saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) are considerably less distinct, they seem less essential, and above all they allow for more numerous and complex intermediary gradations.
This division is much less evident in ordinary life; for there it rarely happens that a man loses himself. A man is normally not alone, and in his rise or fail is tied to the destinies of his neighbors; so that it is exceptional for anyone to acquire unlimited power, or to fall by a succession of defeats into utter ruin. Moreover, everyone is normally in possession of such spiritual, physical and even financial resources that the probabilities of a shipwreck, of total inadequacy in the face of life, are relatively small. And one must take into account a definite cushioning effect exercised both by the law, and by the moral sense which constitutes a self-imposed law; for a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful.
“Society,” Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist, “is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person “must be a nonconformist.”
“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 — detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an “arch-poseur and pretender” and a “disintegrator of language” who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.
Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvard’s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).
In the fourth of the six lectures, titled “On Nonconformity,” Shahn writes:
The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt… appear unexpectedly bearded… offer, freely, unsolicited advice… or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.
Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists — the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.
An art critic appalled by the backward proposition responded with twenty-five reasons why the Independents should keep their space and hold their annual exhibition. The reasons he listed were only names — the names of the most recent winners of the Prix de Rome, the venerated French art award that had been conferred upon promising talents in traditional art since 1663. All but one of those names were by then completely unknown. The critic juxtaposed those with the names of twenty-five artists who had presented at the Independents’ exhibition — artists who, as Shahn points out, “could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award [as the Prix de Rome].” Among those were Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Cézanne.
Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:
By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.
The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:
All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.
But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.
Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isn’t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition — it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science “the hummingbird effect.”) And yet all nonconformity — whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time — requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that
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