The nine kinds of silence, how art transforms us, Ursula K. Le Guin on growing older and what beauty really means, 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 – on saying "I love you" only when you mean it, E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, Amanda Palmer reads a stunning Jane Kenyon poem about life with and after depression – 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.
Le Guin contrasts the archetypal temperaments of our favorite pets:
Dogs don’t know what they look like. Dogs don’t even know what size they are. No doubt it’s our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother’s dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart. When a little dog is assaulting its ankles the big dog often stands there looking confused — “Should I eat it? Will it eat me? I am bigger than it, aren’t I?” But then the Great Dane will come and try to sit in your lap and mash you flat, under the impression that it is a Peke-a-poo.
Artwork by Mark Ulriksen from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for more.
Cats, on the other hand, have a wholly different scope of self-awareness:
Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.
Housecats know that they are small, and that it matters. When a cat meets a threatening dog and can’t make either a horizontal or a vertical escape, it’ll suddenly triple its size, inflating itself into a sort of weird fur blowfish, and it may work, because the dog gets confused again — “I thought that was a cat. Aren’t I bigger than cats? Will it eat me?”
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats. Click image for details.
More than that, Le Guin notes, cats are aesthetes, vain and manipulative in their vanity. In a passage that takes on whole new layers of meaning twenty years later, in the heyday of the photographic cat meme, she writes:
Cats have a sense of appearance. Even when they’re sitting doing the wash in that silly position with one leg behind the other ear, they know what you’re sniggering at. They simply choose not to notice. I knew a pair of Persian cats once; the black one always reclined on a white cushion on the couch, and the white one on the black cushion next to it. It wasn’t just that they wanted to leave cat hair where it showed up best, though cats are always thoughtful about that. They knew where they looked best. The lady who provided their pillows called them her Decorator Cats.
Artwork by Ronald Searle from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Cats.’ Click image for more.
A master of bridging the playful and the poignant, Le Guin returns to the human condition:
A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.
Echoing legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham’s contemplation of dance as “the human body moving in time-space,” Le Guin considers the dancers she knows and their extraordinary lack of “illusions or confusions about what space they occupy.” Recounting the anecdote of one young dancer who upon scraping his ankle exclaimed, “I have an owie on my almost perfect body!” Le Guin writes:
It was endearingly funny, but it was also simply true: his body is almost perfect. He knows it is, and knows where it isn’t. He keeps it as nearly perfect as he can, because his body is his instrument, his medium, how he makes a living, and what he makes art with. He inhabits his body as fully as a child does, but much more knowingly. And he’s happy about it.
Photograph from Helen Keller’s life-changing visit to Martha Graham’s dance studio. Click image for details.
What dance does, above all, is offer the promise of precisely such bodily happiness — not of perfection, but of satisfaction. Dancers, Le Guin argues, are “so much happier than dieters and exercisers.” She considers the impossible ideals of the latter, which cripple them in the same way that perfectionism cripples creativity in writing and art:
Perfection is “lean” and “taut” and “hard” — like a boy athlete of twenty, a girl gymnast of twelve. What kind of body is that for a man of fifty or a woman of any age? “Perfect”? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one . . . A soft brown woman in a flowery dress . . . There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.
Photograph by Zed Nelson from his project ‘Love Me.’ Click image for more.
And just like that, Le Guin pirouettes, elegantly but imperceptibly, from the lighthearted to the serious. Reflecting on various cultures’ impossible and often painful ideals of human beauty, “especially of female beauty,” she writes:
I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.
Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.
Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin
Le Guin, who writes about aging with more grace, humor, and dignity than any other writer I’ve read, turns to the particularly stifling ideal of eternal youth:
One rule of the game, in most times and places, is that it’s the young who are beautiful. The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is partly simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of ’em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.
And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don’t. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.
But what makes the transformations of aging so anguishing, Le Guin poignantly observes, isn’t the loss of beauty — it’s the loss of identity, a frustratingly elusive phenomenon to begin with. She writes:
I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.
We’re like dogs, maybe: we don’t really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.
A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn’t. The change is hard. And it’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me?
And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy.
Artwork by Mark Ulriksen from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for more.
In a sentiment that calls Rilke to mind — “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” he memorably wrote, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” — Le Guin admonishes against our impulse to intellectualize out of the body, away from it:
Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist.
But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.
There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.
And yet for all the ideals we impose on our earthy embodiments, Le Guin argues in her most poignant but, strangely, most liberating point, it is death that ultimately illuminates the full spectrum of our beauty — death, the ultimate equalizer of time and space; death, the great clarifier that makes us see that, as Rebecca Goldstein put it, “a person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world.” With this long-view lens, Le Guin remembers her own mother and the many dimensions of her beauty:
My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.
That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.
The Wave in the Mind remains the kind of book that stays with you for life — the kind of book that is life.
“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity,” Rebecca West wrote in her stunning 1941 reflection on how art transforms mere existence into meaningful being, “and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”
Few cups hold life more sturdily and splendidly than poetry. Understanding the wellspring of magic that grants the poetic form its power can only be done, must only be done, by plumbing the deepest groundwater from which all great art springs and tracing the rivulets that slake the most eternal thirsts of the human spirit.
How do poems — how does art — work? Under that question, inevitably, is another: How do we?
Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)
Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. It is also a changing of vision. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? … And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share…. Inside the intricate clockworks of language and music, event and life, what allows and invites us to feel and know as we do, and then increase our feeling and knowing? Such a question cannot be answered. “We” are different, from one another and, moment by moment, from even ourselves. “Art,” too, is a word deceptively single of surface. Still, following this question for thirty years has given me pleasure, and some sense of approaching more nearly a destination whose center cannot ever be mapped or reached.
Her insight into the interior machinery of this poetic transformation radiates beyond poetry to illuminate all powerful art, while still speaking to poetry’s unexampled power:
A mysterious quickening inhabits the depths of any good poem—protean, elusive, alive in its own right…. We feel something stir, shiver, swim its way into the world when a good poem opens its eyes. Poetry’s work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving…. The eyes and ears must learn to abandon the habits of useful serving and take up instead a participatory delight in their own ends. A work of art is not a piece of fruit lifted from a tree branch: it is a ripening collaboration of artist, receiver, and world.
All writers recognize this surge of striking; in its energies the objects of the world are made new, alchemized by their passage through the imaginal, musical, world-foraging and word-forging mind.
This altered vision is the secret happiness of poems, of poets. It is as if the poem encounters the world and finds in it a hidden language, a Braille unreadable except when raised by the awakened imaginative mind.
And yet for all its kinship with other forms of art, poetry does work us over in a singular way, which Hirshfield captures with exhilarating precision:
Poetry itself, when allowed to, becomes within us a playable organ of perception, sounding out its own forms of knowledge and forms of discovery. Poems do not simply express. They make, they find, they sound (in both meanings of that word) things undiscoverable by other means.
A poem is not the outer event or phenomenon it ostensibly describes, nor is it the feeling or insight it may seem to reveal or evoke. A poem may involve both, but is, more complexly, a living fabrication of new comprehension — “fabrication” meaning, not accidentally, both “lie,” “falsehood,” and, more simply and fundamentally, anything created and made: the bringing of something freshly into being. Fabric, whether of material or mind, is an interwoven invention: some substance — silk or cotton, wool or image — made stronger, larger than itself, by the dual-natured meeting of warp thread and weft thread. A work of art holds our lives as they are known when fully engaged with the multiple, crossing experience-strands of self, language, culture, emotion, senses, and mind.
Above all, poetry unpeels the rind of habit from the living instrument of our perception. More than two centuries after William Blake wrote in his most exquisite letter that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” Hirshfield writes:
The desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look… To form the intention of new awareness is already to transform and be transformed.
In this way, a great poem, like any great work of art, is subject to the central paradox of all transformative experience — the self that is cannot imagine the self that can be, for the very faculty that does the imagining is found on the other side of the transformation. But poetry, Hirshfield suggests, equips us with that rare faculty of recognition that bridges the experiential abyss between actual self and possible self:
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