May 19, 2019

Rebecca Solnit on love and living with purpose, Toni Morrison on writing and the transformative power of art, a lovely picture-book about the Moon

NOTE: This newsletter might be cut short by your email program. View it in full.   If a friend forwarded it to you and you'd like your very own newsletter, subscribe here — it's free.   Need to modify your subscription? You can change your email address or unsubscribe.
Brain Pickings

Welcome Dear Tee, welcome to this week's edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's digest — Virginia Woolf on how illness invites us into presence, Robert Browning on artistic integrity and the courage to create rather than cater, astrophysicist Cecilia Payne on the science of stars and the muse of science, and more — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Rebecca Solnit on Love, Purposeful Work, and the Meaning of Liberty: An Empowered Retelling of Cinderella

cinderellaliberator_rebeccasolnit.jpg?fit=320%2C401

"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge," Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person's deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.

We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard's landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.

Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library) — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.

rebecasolnit.jpg?resize=680%2C453

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Governed by her conviction that "key to the work of changing the world is changing the story" and by her lifelong love of books as "toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart," Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else's story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.

cinderellaliberator2.jpg?resize=680%2C485

cinderellaliberator7.jpg?resize=680%2C463

In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo's touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters' preparations for the great ball:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngPearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.

Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren't very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.

But there isn't actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion's mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it's a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.

cinderellaliberator5.jpg?resize=680%2C453

There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a "she," the bird-doctor is a "he," the dancing teacher is a "they," and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other's dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince's spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.

On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don't, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.

cinderellaliberator4.jpg?resize=680%2C682

In the end, each creature is liberated to become his or her "truest self" — even the pitiful stepsisters: One finds her sense of purpose by opening a salon "where she piles up people's hair as high as it will go, and she's happy because she's doing what she loves," and the other discovers that she likes "making beautiful dresses even more than wearing them," and becomes a seamstress. Only the wicked stepmother remains unredeemed, for she has learned neither love nor the generosity of spirit necessary for contributing to the world in a meaningful way, and instead is operating from a small, dark place of seeing happiness as a limited zero-sum resource, wherein anything she gives to increase another's wellbeing detracts from her own, and therefore she gives none. Turning the wicked stepmother into "the roarding in the trees on stormy nights," Solnit writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSometimes you can hear her outside, a strong wind rattling the windows and shaking the leaves off the trees, saying More and more and more, or Mine, mine, mine, and then the hungry wind dies down and she is gone until next time.

Sometimes that roaring is inside your own heart and head, and then it dies down there, too, the wind in all our heads that says we need more, we need to grab what someone else has and steal it away like the hungry wind. Everyone can be a fairy godmother if they help someone who needs help, and anyone can be a wicked stepmother. Most of us have some of that hunger in our hearts, but we can still try to be someone who says, I have plenty, or even Here, have this and How are you?

cinderellaliberator1.jpg?resize=680%2C466

Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham's cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI was also touched by Rackham's image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.

I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it's also a meeting place.

cinderellaliberator44.jpg?resize=680%2C475

Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, "both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued." She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMy paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it form the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.

Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who's overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.

cinderellaliberator6.jpg?resize=680%2C448

Complement the electrically wonderful Cinderella Liberator — at once an empowering gift to any young person beginning to behold the landscape of possibility we call life and powerful existential reboot for any grownup ready to break free of the world's limiting stories — with Solnit on breaking silence, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, catastrophe as a catalyst for human goodness, and her lovely letter to children about how books solace, empower, and transform us, then revisit the story of how Arthur Rackham revolutionized book art with his 1907 illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, one of the first classic children's books to cast a girl as a protagonist endowed with agency, curiosity, and self-determination.

donating=loving

I pour tremendous time, thought, heart, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free, and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy, stimulation, and consolation in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start Now   Give Now

Moon: A Peek-Through Picture-Book About the Most Beloved Fixture of the Night Sky

moon.jpg?fit=320%2C388

Night after night at my telescope, I marvel with undiminished awe at what Margaret Fuller reverenced as "that best fact, the Moon." How is it that our abiding nocturnal companion, which has stood sentinel and silent witness to the rise and fall of civilizations, to innumerable heartbreaks and triumphs, never loses its luminous mesmerism? It has inspired sonnets and love songs and religious reveries — an enchanted loom onto which humanity has woven entire mythologies and cosmogonies. Nothing else quite beckons us to transcend the smallness of our lives, zoom out of our fleeting sorrows, and take solace in the telescopic perspective more powerfully than the Moon. "There is a soft moonlight that can give us the peace that passes understanding," Aldous Huxley wrote in his meditation on the Moon, considering its myriad enchantments. "There is a moonlight that inspires a kind of awe. There is a cold and austere moonlight that tells the soul of its loneliness and desperate isolation, its insignificance or its uncleanness. There is an amorous moonlight prompting to love — to love not only for an individual but sometimes even for the whole universe."

That timeless bond between our home planet and its satellite, between moonlight and the human heart, comes alive with uncommon loveliness in Moon: A Peek-Through Picture Book (public library) by German artist and author Britta Teckentrup.

moon3.jpg?resize=680%2C366

moon23.jpg?resize=680%2C440

A singsong narrative carries the reader across gentle rhymes and gorgeously illustrated vignettes, depicting the Moon's role in the lives of various creatures. As its phases swell from crescent to full, we see it illuminate the nocturnal foraging of the field mouse, congregate the puffins under the northern lights, govern the tides of the mighty ocean, steer the sea turtles to lay their eggs, and stand vigil over our homes as we dream our human dreams.

moon2.jpg?resize=680%2C367

moon22.jpg?resize=680%2C426

moon1.jpg?resize=680%2C366

moon24.jpg?resize=680%2C447

moon26.jpg?resize=680%2C453

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAs birds fly south to warmer climes,
They seem to sense the perfect time.
Shining strongly through the night,
The moon will always guide their flight.

What emerges is a tender serenade to this most beloved fixture of the night sky, both springboard for the human imagination and anchor to the deepest cosmic realities, uniting lives of tremendous difference under its soft, generous glow.

moon30.jpg?resize=680%2C451

moon29.jpg?resize=680%2C444

moon27.jpg?resize=680%2C424

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe ocean sparkles, bluey-green,
Lit up by a magical scene.
Waves roll gently to and fro.
The moon commands their ebb and flow.

moon28.jpg?resize=680%2C448

moon31.jpg?resize=680%2C453

moon20.jpg?resize=680%2C453

Couple Teckentrup's lovely Moon with her 17th-century compatriot Maria Clara Eimmart's stunning astronomical drawings of the moon phases, then revisit Sun and Moon — a picture-book about celestial myths from Indian folklore, illustrated by ten of India's greatest indigenous artists.

Toni Morrison on the Power of Art and the Writer's Singular Service to Humanity

thesourceofself-regard_morrison.jpg?fit=320%2C483

"Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, 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," Rebecca West — one of humanity's most insightful and underappreciated writers — observed as she contemplated storytelling and survival in her 1941 masterwork Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Two generations later, on the other side of WWII and the Cold War and the atomic bomb and myriad other failures of humanity, another seer of uncommon lucidity took up these questions in her formidable body of work, which made her the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) examines the function of art and literature as humanizing forces of survival throughout The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library) — the nonfiction collection that gave us her wisdom on wisdom in the age of information.

tonimorrison.jpg?resize=680%2C428

Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)

Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that "a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven," Morrison writes in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech, which opens the volume:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWriters — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

[…]

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

MouniFeddag.jpg?resize=680%2C944

Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

In another piece, drawn from her 1990 Massey Lectures at Harvard, Morrison echoes Ursula K. Le Guin's astute observation that "storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want," and probes deeper into the singular gift and responsibility of the writer:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWriters are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer's ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.

literarywitches_tonimorrison.jpg?resize=680%2C957

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.

Complement with Iris Murdoch on art as a vehicle of truth and Albert Camus on the artist's role as a force of resistance, then revisit Morrison on the artist's task in troubled times and her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language.

donating=loving

I pour tremendous time, thought, heart, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free, and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy, stimulation, and consolation in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start Now   Give Now
---