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Zadie Smith's dance lessons for writers, a tender illustrated fable of finding kinship through otherness, E.B.B. on happiness as a moral obligation

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Brain Pickings

Welcome Hello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Leonard Cohen on words, Audre Lorde on turning fear into fire, Emerson on living with authenticity and presence in a culture of busyness and surfaces — 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. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Bear and Wolf: A Tender Illustrated Fable of Walking Side by Side in Otherness

Otherness has always been how we define ourselves — by contrast and distinction from what is unlike us, we find out what we are like: As I have previously written, we are what remains after everything we are not. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection — in slicing through the surface unlikenesses, we can discover a deep wellspring of kinship, which in turn enlarges our understanding of ourselves and the other. “The world’s otherness is antidote to confusion,” Mary Oliver wrote in her moving account of what saved her life. “Standing within this otherness… can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

That is what Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Daniel Salmieri explores with great thoughtfulness and tenderness in Bear and Wolf (public library).

On a calm winter’s night, Bear ventures into the forest in consonance with Thoreau’s love of winter walks and his insistence that “we must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day.” As she savors the touch of the sparkling snowflakes falling on her fur, she spots “something poking from the glistening white.”

At the same time, Wolf was out walking, then he spotted something poking out form the glistening white.

As the two solitary walkers approach, they see each other up close — a young bear, a young wolf.

She could see the wolf’s pointy snout, smooth gray fur, golden eyes, and wet black nose… He could see the bear’s big round head, soft black fur, deep brown eyes, and wet black nose.

In a testament to Anaïs Nin’s observation that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Bear and Wolf meet each other not with frightened hostility but with openhearted, compassionate curiosity. Their encounter is a shared question mark regarded with mutual goodwill and concern for rather than fear of the other:

“Are you lost?” asked Bear.

“No, I’m not lost. Are you?” asked Wolf.

“No, I’m not lost. I’m out for a walk to feel the cold on my face, and to enjoy the quiet of the woods when it snows. What are you doing?”

“I’m out for a walk to feel the cold under my paws, and to listen to the crunching of the snow as I walk.”

“Do you want to walk with me?” asked Bear.

“Sure,” said Wolf.

And so they head into the woods furry side by furry side, wet nose near wet nose, aware that they are “both creatures made to be comfortable in the very cold.” They savor the splendor of this forest world they share, smelling “the wet bark on the trees,” listening to “the small sounds” of the snowflakes falling on their fur, looking closely at the multitude of shapes.

Meanwhile, above them, Bird spots two tiny figures “poking out from the glistening white.”

As Bear and Wolf walk forth, they come upon a great white clearing in the woods — a place faintly familiar, for they have both been there before, but in the summertime. What is now a vast oval of white was then a vast blue lake.

They venture onto the frozen lake, clean a window of ice, and peer down to see fish floating, asleep.

And then the time comes for them to part ways and return to their separate lives, lived in parallel in this shared world — Bear must return to her cave and hibernate with her family, and Wolf must return to his pack to run chasing the scent of caribou.

The seasons turn, winter warms into spring, and in this forest newly alive with bloom and birdsong, Bear and Wolf encounter each other again — different still, transformed a little, and ready to walk side by side again into the living world they share.

The wonderful Bear and Wolf comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, creators of intelligent and sensitive treasures like Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, The Paper-Flower Tree, and Bertolt. For other tender illustrated parables of friendship at the borderline of difference and kinship, revisit Friend or Foe, Winston and George, and the almost unbearably wonderful Big Wolf and Little Wolf.

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Zadie Smith’s Dance Lessons for Writers

“Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed when she experienced dance for the first time in legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s studio. Graham herself saw a parallel between her particular art and all creative endeavors of the mind, in which “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action.”

That parallel is what Zadie Smith, one of the great thought-artists of our time, explores in “Dance Lessons for Writers,” found in her altogether fantastic essay collection Feel Free (public library) — the source of Smith’s incisive meditation on the interplay of optimism and despair.

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Smith writes:

The connection between writing and dancing has been much on my mind recently: it’s a channel I want to keep open. It feels a little neglected — compared to, say, the relationship between music and prose — maybe because there is something counter-intuitive about it. But for me the two forms are close to each other: I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do.

Citing Martha Graham’s famous advice on creative work, intended for dancers but replete with wisdom for writers, Smith considers the common ground beneath the surface dissimilitudes between these two art forms:

What can an art of words take from the art that needs none? Yet I often think I’ve learned as much from watching dancers as I have from reading. Dance lessons for writers: lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style, some of them obvious, some indirect.

Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire

She proceeds to explore these dimensions through a set of contrasts between famous performers, beginning with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire:

“Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, in old age, “and I represent the proletariat.” The distinction is immediately satisfying, though it’s a little harder to say why. Tall, thin and elegant, versus muscular and athletic — is that it? There’s the obvious matter of top hat and tails versus T-shirt and slacks. But Fred sometimes wore T-shirts and slacks, and was not actually that tall, he only stood as if he were, and when moving always appeared elevated, to be skimming across whichever surface: the floor, the ceiling, an ice-rink, a bandstand. Gene’s center of gravity was far lower: he bends his knees, he hunkers down. Kelly is grounded, firmly planted, where Astaire is untethered, free-floating. Likewise, the aristocrat and the proletariat have different relations to the ground beneath their feet, the first moving fluidly across the surface of the world, the second specifically tethered to a certain spot: a city block, a village, a factory, a stretch of fields.

When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating. The ground I am thinking of in this case is language as we meet it in its “commonsense” mode. The language of the television, of the supermarket, of the advert, the newspaper, the government, the daily “public” conversation. Some writers like to walk this ground, re-create it, break bits of it off and use it to their advantage, whereas others barely recognize its existence. Nabokov — a literal aristocrat as well as an aesthetic one — barely ever put a toe upon it. His language is “literary,” far from what we think of as our shared linguistic home. One argument in defense of such literary language might be the way it admits its own artificiality. Commonsense language meanwhile claims to be plain and natural, “conversational,” but is often as constructed as asphalt, dreamed up in ad agencies or in the heart of government — sometimes both at the same time. Simultaneously sentimental and coercive (“the People’s Princess,” “the Big Society,” “Make America Great Again”), commonsense language claims to take its lead from the way people naturally speak, but any writer who truly attends to the way people speak will soon find himself categorized as a distinctive stylist or satirist or experimentalist. Beckett was like this, and the American writer George Saunders is a good contemporary example.

Echoing Goethe — whose insistence on the importance of “divine discontent” in creative work predates Martha Graham’s “divine dissatisfaction” by a century and a half, and who argued that self-comparison to Shakespeare’s greatness calibrates the ambition of any aspiring writer — Smith, in many ways a Nabokov of our time, concludes her Astaire/Kelly dichotomy:

Kelly quoted the commonplace when he danced, and he reminds us in turn of the grace we do sometimes possess ourselves… [Astaire] is “poetry in motion.” His movements are so removed from ours that he sets a limit on our own ambitions. Nobody hopes or expects to dance like Astaire, just as nobody really expects to write like Nabokov.

Next, she examines the writer’s sometimes parallel, sometimes perpendicular responsibilities to representation and joy by contrasting the brothers Harold and Fayard Nicholas:

Writing, like dancing, is one of the arts available to people who have nothing. “For ten and sixpence,” advises Virginia Woolf, “one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare.” The only absolutely necessary equipment in dance is your own body. Some of the greatest dancers have come from the lowliest backgrounds. With many black dancers this has come with the complication of “representing your race.” You are on a stage, in front of your people and other people. What face will you show them? Will you be your self? Your “best self”? A representation? A symbol? The Nicholas Brothers were not street kids — they were the children of college-educated musicians — but they were never formally trained in dance. They learned by watching their parents and their parents’ colleagues performing on the “Chitlin” circuit, as black vaudeville was then called. Later, when they entered the movies, their performances were usually filmed in such a way as to be non-essential to the story, so that when these films played in the south their spectacular sequences could be snipped out without doing any harm to the integrity of the plot. Genius contained, genius ring-fenced. But also genius undeniable. “My talent was the weapon,” argued Sammy Davis Jr., “the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.” Davis was another Chitlin hoofer, originally, and from straitened circumstances. His logic here is very familiar: it is something of an article of faith within the kind of families who have few other assets. A mother tells her children to be “twice as good,” she tells them to be “undeniable.” My mother used to say something like it to me. And when I watch the Nicholas Brothers I think of that stressful instruction: be twice as good. The Nicholas Brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw. They are progressing down a giant staircase doing the splits as if the splits is the commonsense way to get somewhere. They are impeccably dressed. They are more than representing — they are excelling. But I always think I spot a little difference between Harold and Fayard, and it interests me, I take it as a kind of lesson. Fayard seems to me more concerned with this responsibility of representation when he dances: he looks the part, he is the part, his propriety unassailable. He is formal, contained, technically undeniable: a credit to the race. But Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible Afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back. Between propriety and joy choose joy.

Among the contrasting dancing styles through which Smith examine the various stylistic, aesthetic, rhetorical, and conceptual choices a writer must make — Prince vs. Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson vs. Madonna vs. Beyoncé, Rudolf Nureyev vs. Mikhail Baryshnikov — are those of David Byrne and David Bowie, singular in the choice they illustrate by way of negative space. Smith writes:

The art of not dancing — a vital lesson. Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad. To express other possibilities for bodies, alternative values, to stop making sense. It’s interesting to me that both these artists did their “worst” dancing to their blackest cuts. “Take me to the river,” sings Byrne, in square trousers twenty times too large, looking down at his jerking hips as if they belong to someone else. This music is not mine, his trousers say, and his movements go further: Maybe this body isn’t mine, either. At the end of this seam of logic lies a liberating thought: maybe nobody truly owns anything.

In consonance with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s agreement that our identities are often established by defining what we are not — exclusionary self-definition that serves to contract rather than expand us — Smith adds:

People can be too precious about their “heritage,” about their “tradition” — writers especially. Preservation and protection have their place but they shouldn’t block either freedom or theft. All possible aesthetic expressions are available to all peoples — under the sign of love. Bowie and Byrne’s evident love for what was “not theirs” brings out new angles in familiar sounds. It hadn’t occurred to me before seeing these men dance that a person might choose, for example, to meet the curve of a drum beat with anything but the matching curving movement of their body, that is, with harmony and heat. But it turns out you can also resist: throw up a curious angle and suddenly spasm, like Bowie, or wonder if that’s truly your own arm, like Byrne.

Feel Free is a spectacular read in its totality, dancing across the ladder of culture to demolish, with uncommon elegance of thought and language, the artificial categories of high and low in a way Susan Sontag would have appreciated. Complement it with Smith on the psychology of the two types of writers and her ten rules of writing.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Happiness as a Moral Obligation

“What is happiness, anyhow? … so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge,” Walt Whitman wondered in his most direct reflection on happiness. Thirty years earlier, another genius of letters and pioneering poet of the era made a sublime case for happiness as a moral obligation — even, and especially, in the midst of suffering.

By the time Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) became one of the most celebrated authors of her time, she had endured an inordinate amount of suffering — from a litany of losses to a rare, debilitating chronic illness that left her bedridden for much of her life. And yet she adamantly renounced the dangerous myth of the suffering artist and instead played the cards she’d been dealt with a remarkable buoyancy of spirit. That radiance of mind beneath her creative and intellectual genius is what enchanted Robert Browning when the two commenced the secret epistolary courtship that would unfold into one of history’s most beautiful real-life love stories.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In one of her early letters to Robert, penned the day before her thirty-ninth birthday and included in the altogether splendid Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook), Elizabeth poses her animating ethos:

It is well to fly towards the light, even where there may be some fluttering and bruising of wings against the windowpanes, is it not?

A century before Albert Camus insisted that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” she writes:

I am not desponding by nature, and after a course of bitter mental discipline and long bodily seclusion, I come out with two learnt lessons (as I sometimes say and oftener feel), — the wisdom of cheerfulness — and the duty of social intercourse. Anguish has instructed me in joy, and solitude in society; it has been a wholesome and not unnatural reaction. And altogether, I may say that the earth looks the brighter to me in proportion to my own deprivations. The laburnum trees and rose trees are plucked up by the roots — but the sunshine is in their places, and the root of the sunshine is above the storms. What we call Life is a condition of the soul, and the soul must improve in happiness and wisdom, except by its own fault. These tears in our eyes, these faintings of the flesh, will not hinder such improvement.

In a beautiful antidote to the cynical worldview that has come to dominate our collective conscience and our media landscape in the century and a half since Barrett Browning’s time, she adds:

It seems to me from my personal experience that there is kindness everywhere in different proportions, and more goodness and tenderheartedness than we read of in the moralists.

The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning is replete with both poets’ luminous sentiments luminously phrased. Complement this particular portion with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, then revisit Barrett Browning on what makes life worth living.

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Each week of the past eleven years, I have poured tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

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