10 facts about the color black

Black—favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists—has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue, Red, and Green tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe. 

Here are ten facts from the book about black:

When Isaac Newton discovered the color spectrum in 1665, he presented a new order of colors in which there would no longer be a place for white or black. This thinking continued for centuries.  

In the Medieval period, painters and dyers did not make purple by mixing blue and red, rather by mixing blue and black; purple was a sort of demi-black.

In Medieval Europe, white is the color of priests, red the color of warriors, and black is the color of artisans.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, humans learned how to make black pigment by burning plants and minerals. Depending on the original material—woods, barks, roots, shells, pits—the shade of black would be more or less brilliant and more or less dense. When they learned how to burn bone in a similar fashion, they had access to even more beautiful blacks.

The most prized black pigment by the Romans was from vines, obtained through the calcination of very dry vine shoots that gave the color depth and blue highlights.

In Latin caeruleus can refer to both blue and black. Viridis can refer to green and black.

Medieval heraldry used only six colors: white, yellow, red, blue, green, and black. Black could be found in 20-25% of European coats of arms. Red was the most common color and green, the rarest.

It was lawyers, judges, and magistrates who popularized black as a color for clothing in early 14th century Europe. Prior to that, black was the color of Satan and fear, but it came to be seen as a color of sobriety and gravitas. By the end of the century, merchants, bankers, and all men of finance had also adopted black as their chosen color for attire.

Early inks following the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid 15th century contained linseed oil to make it heavy and viscous enough to adhere to the paper; iron or copper sulfate to give it a brilliant black color; and metallic salts to facilitate its drying.

While the Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a near universal retreat from dark colors throughout much of Europe and embrace of bright colors and pastels, Protestant morals in Northern Europe forbade too vivid or frivolous colors—black prevailed there.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton) and The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes.

Dora Malech on her new collection, Stet

In Stet, poet Dora Malech takes constraint as her catalyst and subject, exploring what it means to make or break a vow, to create art out of a life in flux, to reckon with the body’s bounds, and to arrive at a place where one might bear and care for another life. Tapping the inventive possibilities of constrained forms, particularly the revealing limitations of the anagram, Stet is a work of serious play that brings home the connections and intimacies of language.

Why anagrams?

I asked myself this question over and over as individual lines became individual poems became project became book. Most of the poems in Stet take shape through anagrammatic methods, and almost all of them operate through some kind of “constrained form,” foregrounding alphabetic transposition or redaction. The immersive nature of these processes drew me to them; I’d find myself lost for hours dismantling and reassembling these building blocks of written language. Of course, many cultures, including Jewish mysticism, have a spiritual relationship with the letters of the written word, but I couldn’t bring myself to make that leap. Rather, it was wanting to make that leap into belief, and being unable, that led me from constraint-as-process to constraint-as-theme. I found myself asking what it means to attempt to remake one’s life from the same old materials, what it means to want to believe in transformation.

Is this use of constrained form a departure from your previous work?

It seems so, but it isn’t exactly. Gertrude Stein referred to her repetitions as “insistence”; this book feels like an insistent exploration of tendencies that have always captivated me. I’ve always been deeply invested in sound, and pattern, and linguistic play in my poetry. I’m also drawn to the full spectrum of enactment and subversion of “traditional” prosody. Rhyme and meter and verse form is “constrained form” too, of course, though I use the term to refer to practices viewed as peripheral to canonical verse, embraced by the writers of Oulipo in the middle of the last century. I wrote this book from a place of intense change and questioning, and its forms reflect that intensity, but I have always been obsessed with thinking about what language is made of both on and off the page – sound, sense, word, letter.

Are there particular writers who inspired this project, or contemporary writers engaged in similar work?

As my teachers used to remind me to do in math class, Stet “shows its work.” It foregrounds both its formal process of making, and those who inspired and informed that process. For example, Andrew Joron’s sense of “language as a speculative substance” continues to be an energizing force for me. Unica Zürn and Sylvia Plath (both mothers who took their own lives) echo through the book. Influence isn’t always linear; as I went deeper into the project, I sought out those who could in some way explain or justify my own practices to me. For example, I read from the work that has become Stet in Amsterdam several years ago, where some of the students urged me to read the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens. This work on the culturally fundamental nature of play became a touchstone for me, articulating some of my own previously inchoate thoughts.

For a reader accustomed to reading verse that employs a more straightforward narrative or lyric mode, or for a reader hesitant to approach contemporary poetry altogether, what could you say to convince them to take a chance on Stet?

The lived stakes of Stet are fragmented and submerged, but they are present nonetheless – relationships, closures, and apertures enacted in language. I hope that the pleasure I take in the materiality of language translates to pleasure for the reader, and I hope that the emotional intensity I channeled into the process of making and remaking translates as well. As Stet is a book that foregrounds process, it’s also a book that invites the reader to participate in that process and in the act of meaning-making. That engagement can bring its own kind of pleasure, and for someone asking “why poetry?” This collection foregrounds that very question.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Poet Austin Smith on Flyover Country

Flyover Country is a powerful collection of poems about violence: the violence we do to the land, to animals, to refugees, to the people of distant countries, and to one another. Drawing on memories of his childhood on a dairy farm in Illinois, Austin Smith explores the beauty and cruelty of rural life, challenging the idea that the American Midwest is mere “flyover country,” a place that deserves passing over. At the same time, the collection suggests that America itself has become a flyover country, carrying out drone strikes and surveillance abroad, locked in a state of perpetual war that Americans seem helpless to stop.

Why did you title your collection Flyover Country?

Because I despise the term. I’ve always found it to be extraordinarily condescending. I had heard the phrase for years, and it always grated on me, but since the election of 2016 it has become even more common. As with most things that hurt us, I think my impulse was to take it in and use it. This is a risk, because, as poets, the titles of our collections announce to the world what we’re about. The title is a the purest distillation of the themes a reader can expect to find in the book. I’ve already had one reader ask me whether I’m nervous that using the term might not offend the very people I’m writing about. But my intention is to say to readers: “Here is book about the Midwest, so-called ‘flyover country,’ and now I’m going to show (if the poems are successful) all the ways in which that definition of this region is offensive and inadequate.” I try to set up an expectation, and then challenge it. And after deciding to call the book Flyover Country, I realized that the title also resonated with some of the war poems in the book, particularly the poems that involve American foreign policy, preemptive war, drone strikes. While I refute the idea that the Midwest is flyover country, I would argue that the nation itself has become a flyover country in our utilization of drone strikes and other acts of war that protect us from seeing the damage we are doing.

Your first collection, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets in 2014. What are some of the differences between Almanac and Flyover Country?

The manuscript for Almanac was a decade in the making. In some ways it began when I took a poetry class with the inimitable Michael Theune as an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University. Within a year or so of graduating I was submitting a manuscript to prizes. Every year the book changed, from the title to the selection of poems to individual poems themselves, all through two graduate programs in poetry. I had many different titles, including Salvation Army, Ducks’ Misery and Autumn’s Velocity. It was Theune who suggested I call it Almanac. Eventually the book began to stabilize. Certain poems just stuck, and versions of poems became indelible, so that I felt I couldn’t change them. If Paul hadn’t taken the book, it surely would have kept changing. I feel a bit disconnected from Almanac, because I have no idea how the book came together. It grew parallel to me. It was different with Flyover Country. The publication of Almanac wiped the slate clean. I knew that every poem I wrote from then on would be vying for its place in the next collection. Also, the fall that Almanac was published I had just started the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford in fiction, and so was focusing more on prose. All this to say that I wrote many fewer poems, and therefore Flyover Country came together more deliberately. Once I started recognizing some of the themes I was working with, I started writing towards those themes. I’ve never been able to understand when poets say they’re working on a book: I tend to just write poems and let them fall together as they will. But my process for Flyover Country was definitely more linear and rational, whereas Almanac was much more subconscious.

Many of your poems involve political subject. I’m thinking in particular of “Augury,” which suggests Trump’s inauguration, and the poem “That Particular Village,” written in the voice of Donald Rumsfeld. Do you consider yourself a political poet?

I’ve thought long and hard about the role of the poet in relation to politics. I’ve had intense but jovial arguments with many friends on the subject. To require that poets’ poems be political (perhaps in the hopes that their art might agitate for change) seems dangerous to me. People say that these times are crazy, and that poets should be putting their shoulders to the wheel and writing about the world as it is now, but we know that all times have been crazy. If poets have to be political today, they ought to have always been political. I got in a pleasant argument while at Stanford with the incredible novelist and teacher Richard Powers. To paraphrase his argument, he suggested that any fiction writer who isn’t writing about climate change is shirking their moral responsibility. He didn’t mean, of course, that every novel be explicitly about climate change. But he seemed to believe that, in being alive at this moment, it was only appropriate that our work respond to this moment. This argument makes me extremely uncomfortable. I worry that one day books will require a kind of imprimatur, vouching that they have been deemed sufficiently politically-engaged in order to be published. I make this argument in recognition of the fact that Flyover Country is at times explicitly political, especially in the poems you mention in your question. These explicitly political poems are my least favorite poems in the collection. The poems I have the most affection for are those poems that suggest the political, but work at a deeper, more symbolic level. For instance, when I wrote the poem “Cat Moving Kittens,” I wasn’t thinking about the Trump administration’s immoral policy of family separation at the southern border because I wrote the poem before Trump was even elected, but I can’t help but read the poem in that context now. This is only possible, I would argue, because the poem operates by suggestion and metaphor. I want to write poems that have a chance of becoming relevant in the future, not poems that becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on.

Your father was a dairy farmer for many years, and is also a poet. What impact has his work as a poet had upon yours?

I came to poetry through my parents’ love of poetry and of literature generally. The farmhouse I grew up in was chock-full of books. For whatever reason I was instinctually drawn towards the poetry collections. Before I could even really understand the poems I was reading, I just liked the way the poems looked on the page, visually. I still find myself randomly pulling a book of poems down from the shelf, just to consider a poem’s shape. My first book of poems was the New Directions edition of One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth. I loved the book itself, the simplicity of the cover, the feel of the pages, the font. But when I really wanted to be a poet was after seeing my Dad read poems at the art museum in town. He was writing about the farm, about places and events I was utterly familiar with, but in what seemed to me a completely different language. Actually, it wasn’t a different language but the same language heightened. The poems had more in common with prayer and song than with ordinary speech. I distinctly remember the first time I found that heightened language myself. It was my first poem, called “Christmas,” rhymed couplets, beginning: “The fire is burning hot. / I can hear the hunter’s shot.” Something clicked for me there. And then there were the poets who would come out to the farm for dinner, having been brought to Freeport by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson to read at Highland Community College. I met Gary Snyder, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Margaret Gibson, and many others. I saw how poets inhabited the world, how they talked and laughed and walked and ate and drank. It struck me early on I think that to become a poet was not merely to become a person who writes poems, but to live a life oriented towards what poetry suggests: careful (by which I mean “full of care”) and compassionate language and living. So, yes, it was my Dad, his books, his poems, his friendships, who sent me on my way. I was very nearly derailed by the embarrassment of turning in a collection of haiku titled Silver Moon for the Young Author’s competition in third grade, but after recovering from that pitfall it has been more or less smooth sailing.

Who are the poets who mean the most to you?

My reading habits are so eclectic that I’d rather give a broader answer, composed mostly but not entirely of poets. To be honest, I don’t read many poems these days. I have many friends, poets all, who sit down and read new collections straight through. It’s rare that I’ll do that. It’s rare that I’ll like a poem, including my own. And usually, I become enamored with a poet, not with a particular collection or even a particular poem, and everything that poet has written will seem like gold to me. An example is the great French poet Jean Follain. I love reading Follain’s short, unpunctuated, imagistic poems, considering how he makes the moves he does, and comparing different translations. It seems to me that his poems are reflective of some deeper quality he must have had, and that cannot have helped but come through in his poems. Another poet like this is Keats, not so much in his poems, but in his letters: I feel I know him, his humor, his compassion. And then there are the Wordsworths, especially Dorothy, and Coleridge. I read Dorothy’s journals in a kind of continuous loop. I also love the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, especially The Poetics of Space. All of these people, Follain, Keats, Dorothy Wordsworth, Bachelard, are like saints to me. So I could say that the poet Larry Levis has been very important to me, or that the poet W.S. Merwin has been very important to me (and the namesake of a long-lost cat of mine), but a more accurate answer would be that I live in an atmosphere of blended enthusiasms, which transcend genre.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

All woman: the utopian feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

by Michael Robertson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

RobertsonCharlotte Perkins Gilman is best known today for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), a widely anthologised short story that mixes Gothic conventions with feminist insights, and a chilling dissection of patriarchy that seems as if it might have been co-authored by Edgar Allan Poe and Gloria Steinem. Fewer people know that Gilman began her career as a speaker and writer on behalf of Nationalism, a short-lived political movement inspired by Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). She ended it as a writer of her own utopian fictions, including Herland (1915), a playful novel about an ideal all-female society.

What does Gilman’s utopian feminism have to say to us now, when the dystopian pessimism of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is resurgent?

As a young woman, Gilman was drawn to Bellamy’s utopian socialism because of his stance on women’s economic independence; in the society depicted in Looking Backward, every woman and man earns an ‘equal credit’. Bellamy was certain that, from this economic parity, gender equality would follow. Gilman took a different approach. She believed that the realisation of utopia depended on women’s ‘mother instinct’, and advocated what she called the ‘larger motherhood’. As she wrote in her Bellamyite poem ‘Mother to Child’ (1911):

For the sake of my child I must hasten to save
All the children on earth from the jail and the grave.

Her life’s work centred on the concept of what she called the ‘World’s Mother’ – the selfless, nurturing woman-spirit who loves, protects and teaches the entire human race.

During the first decade of the 20th century, following the collapse of Bellamy’s Nationalist movement, Gilman turned to utopian fiction, producing three novels, a novella, and a flock of short stories. All were variations on the same utopian blueprint: the ideal society could be achieved peacefully in a remarkably short time if only women were freed from conventional housework and childrearing (she envisioned a combination of communal living and professional childcare) in order to spread the self-sacrificing ethics of the larger motherhood.

In 1915, she broke this fictional mould with Herland, a utopian fantasy that combines the plot of Alfed, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) – the discovery of an all-female society – with the conventions of the masculine adventure tale. Three bold young men on a scientific expedition to a remote part of the globe hear tales of a land inhabited only by women, located in an inaccessible mountain range. The men obtain a biplane and pilot it into the mountains, where after landing they soon spy three beautiful young women and give chase. The athletic young women, sensibly attired in utopian bloomers, easily outrun the men, who are captured by a phalanx of unarmed but well-disciplined women who chloroform them and place them under house arrest in a guarded fortress.

At this point, the novel transitions into utopian exposition, with long disquisitions on Herland’s society. Gilman was remarkably indifferent to the typical concerns of utopian fiction: work, politics, government. Instead, she used her fantastical premise to focus on her own interests, such as animal rights. Herlanders have eliminated all domesticated animals because of the cruelty inherent in slaughtering them for food. They are appalled at the idea of separating cows from their calves. Any interference with the natural processes of mothering is abhorrent to them.

Mothering is at the centre of Herland society. The word ‘mother’ or its variants appears more than 150 times in the novel. The women of Herland reproduce parthenogenetically, bearing only daughters, who are raised communally: each child is regarded as the child of all. ‘We each have a million children to love and serve,’ one of the women explains. Gilman evidently felt no need to explain Herland’s economy because it seemed to her so obvious: these ‘natural cooperators’, whose ‘whole mental outlook’ is collective, have no use for the individualism and competitiveness inherent in capitalism. Instead, a motherly state meets every citizen’s basic needs.

Herland depends on Gilman’s interpretation of women’s ‘maternal instinct’, an idea she clung to despite her own disastrous experience as a mother. Following the birth of her only child, a daughter, when Gilman was 24, she was plunged into a horrendous depression, an episode that she drew on for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. When her daughter was three, Gilman separated from her husband; six years later, she divorced him and gave up custody of their child. Herland enabled her to reconcile the contradictions between her utopian celebration of the maternal spirit and her difficult personal experience. Although every woman in Herland is capable of parthenogenetic reproduction, only an elite is entrusted with rearing children, in a collectivised and professionalised fashion. Gilman’s interest in the topic blended her conviction that women, like men, owed it to the world to work outside the home with her self-exculpating belief that the raising of children is so vital to the future race that it must be entrusted to professionals. Gilman derided the smallness, the possessiveness of the average woman’s conception of motherhood: my children, my family, my home. Herlanders see every child as theirs, the entire population as one family, the nation as home. 

Herland dropped out of view soon after its publication. Gilman had serialised the novel in The Forerunner, her self-published magazine, which folded soon after, and it never came out in book form. The novel was resurrected in the late 1970s by the American scholar Ann J Lane, who edited a paperback edition. Initially, the novel was hailed as a rediscovered feminist classic. Later scholars were more critical. They singled out its gender essentialism, but also the eugenic regime that underlay Gilman’s utopianism: her obsession with improving the strategically undefined ‘race’. Drawing on Gilman’s other writings, they convincingly argued that white racism is central to her utopian project.

Four decades after its rediscovery, Herland no longer seems the purely playful, light-hearted speculative fiction it once did. Nor does its central theme of collective child-rearing seem that different from the gendered regimes animating The Handmaid’s Tale – which, with an unabashed sexist and racist in the White House, serves as a powerful cautionary tale for progressives. Dystopian fiction, however, lacks the visionary inspiration – what the German philosopher Ernst Bloch in the 1950s called ‘the principle of hope’ – that utopianism provides. 

Despite Herland’s time-bound shortcomings, we need its vision of a society without poverty and war, where every child is precious and inequalities of income, housing, education and justice are nonexistent. For all its faults, Herland remains an eloquent expression of the nonviolent democratic socialist imagination. As fully as any work in the utopian tradition, Herland reminds us of the truth of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. Most recently, he is the author of The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy.

Asma Naeem on Black Out

Black Out Naeem book coverBefore the advent of photography in 1839, Americans were consumed by the fashion for silhouette portraits. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes, gathers leading experts to shed light on the surprisingly complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simple art form. Silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation, roiling with tensions over slavery and political independence.  Presenting the distinctly American story behind silhouettes, Black Out vividly delves into the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of this evocative, ever popular form of portraiture.

Here, author Asma Naeem discusses her interest in the form, as well as some of the surprises she discovered during her research.

The exhibit this book accompanies is curated by Naeem and runs through March 10, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the inspiration for Black Out?

The spark for Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now happened many years ago on a brilliant sunlit day as I stood in front of an antiques shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Tucked in the corner of the window, away from the mahogany Chippendale secretary, Federal convex mirrors, and handsome Windsor chairs, were some of the most arresting objects of early Americana that I had ever seen. The simplicity of design, the lustrous maple and gilt frames, the creamy paper, the intense black shapes cut by human hands, not to mention the intimate nature of the portraits – all of these things formed an indelible impression.

Imagine my pleasure years later when I joined the National Portrait Gallery and became a steward of one of the most stellar collections of silhouettes in the country.

Once I began researching these objects, however, different impressions began to form, impressions of an America that many of us didn’t know existed.

Why did you decide to include both historical and contemporary artists?

Once I decided to create an exhibition on silhouettes, suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw silhouettes—on signage, on book covers, on my mobile phone, and of course, in thrilling contemporary art installations by established and emerging artists alike. I knew then that I had to share these discoveries, known only to handfuls of experts, with the public at large.

What was your research process like?

I conceived of this show four years ago and it has been a years-long journey to find and then narrow down the list of objects for the exhibition. I wanted this show and catalogue to be more than your grandmother’s silhouettes, so I had to spend a lot of time looking for unique objects, both historical and contemporary. I went to many small historical societies to unearth their treasures. I encountered some of the most generous archivists and a few ghost stories along the way! I also had to spend much time accumulating all of the scholarship on silhouettes, much of which is written for antique collectors. For the contemporary works, I visited the artists in their studios or galleries when possible, and had numerous conversations about what I envisioned the show to look like and how their work fit in that vision.

Were you expecting to find so much historical material dealing with race, enslavement, and disability?

Yes, and no. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the traditional medium of portraiture, oil on canvas, precluded the less wealthy, women, and people of color because of its expensive, exclusive status. I didn’t expect to find such interesting, beautiful portraits of African Americans, the disabled, and such spunky women, particularly within our own collection here at the Portrait Gallery.

What can studying the history of the silhouette teach us about the representation of identity today?

This book will hopefully deepen our understanding of how Americans—women, men, black, white, states men, laborers—wanted to see themselves in the years of the Early Republic. We have always been a polyphonic, vibrant society. It also opens new pathways between our past and our present in terms of period notions of individualism, racial profiling, power, and even how our digital selves can be critiqued through the medium of portraiture.

Who else contributed essays to the book?

This project has been enriched and transformed by some of the most erudite minds in American art and conservation. I was fortunate to have essays written by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Art on Paper at the Harvard Art Museums.

Nemerov and Shaw each probe the cultural contours of the remarkable worlds of unconventional nineteenth-century silhouettists Martha Ann Honeywell and Moses Williams, respectively. Knipe carefully examines silhouettes from the inside out, revealing various aspects of their material composition—about the paper, the scissors, and so forth—that many readers will find surprising.

Anne Verplanck, associate professor of American studies and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who is one the preeminent scholars on silhouettes in the country, also was generous enough to write entries on many of the objects, not to mention offer her invaluable expertise to me regarding the historical art form on numerous occasions.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will find silhouettes as fascinating, complicated, and significant in the history of American art as I do. I very much want the reader to see how silhouettes, like other forms of craft, should no longer be devalued in the art canon, and do, in fact, offer revelatory insights into how our country’s racial, social, and political history. I also would like to see silhouettes repositioned in our understanding of portraiture – what an incredibly popular and democratizing force they were in Early Republic America – well before the advent of photography in 1839. Without silhouettes, we would not have as much insight into the lives of such overlooked populations as the enslaved, same-sex couples, international envoys, and the disabled. And with the contemporary works, I’d offer silhouettes as an enduring, capacious, and utterly modern mode of expression, with their seemingly contradictory qualities of generality and specificity, blackness, playfulness, and the intersection with our social media profiles of our digital selves. The four female contemporary artists featured have created breathtaking, complex works that confirm that silhouettes are here to stay.

Asma Naeem is curator of prints, drawings, and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery.

 

Marcin Wodziński on Historical Atlas of Hasidism

WodzinskiHistorical Atlas of Hasidism is the very first cartographic reference book on one of the modern era’s most vibrant and important mystical movements. Featuring sixty-one large-format maps and a wealth of illustrations, charts, and tables, this one-of-a-kind atlas charts Hasidism’s emergence and expansion; its dynasties, courts, and prayer houses; its spread to the New World; the crisis of the two world wars and the Holocaust; and Hasidism’s remarkable postwar rebirth. Historical Atlas of Hasidism is visually stunning and easy to use, a magnificent resource for anyone seeking to understand Hasidism’s spatial and spiritual dimensions, or indeed anybody interested in geographies of religious movements past and present.

What exactly is the Historical Atlas of Hasidism?

This is the first cartographic interpretation of the mystical movement of Hasidism. 280 pages of large-format, full-color maps, images, and text about Hasidism, from its origins in the mid-eighteenth century until today.

What is the appeal of the Atlas?

Whoever gets it into his or her hands will notice that the atlas is simply beautiful. With more than one hundred charts, tables, and unique images, and with 74 beautifully designed full-color maps, this is simply a pleasure to flip through. But I believe there is much more to it. The atlas presents in a visually attractive, easy-to-understand cartographic form the spatial, physical, and visual dimension of a mystical movement. More than that, it demonstrates the meaningful interrelations between the movement’s spatiality and spirituality: Hasidism has been conditioned by its geographic characteristics not only in its social organization, but also in its spiritual life, type of religious leadership, and cultural articulation. On the more general level, this atlas offers an innovative way of looking at a religious movement that might be inspiring for anybody interested in the history, sociology, or geography of religions. This is why I believe the atlas will have a wide readership.

Why does Hasidism require a special Atlas?

Hasidism is one of the most important religious movements of modern Eastern Europe, contemporary Israel, and North America, and this for a number of reasons. For example, this is one of very few successful attempts at creating a religious movement that is both egalitarian and mystical, a real exception in the history of world religions. In addition, many people today are captivated by the extraordinary social and political success of the Hasidim, far beyond their rather moderate numbers. But maybe most importantly, even for those who have never heard the name of Hasidism, the image of traditional Jewry, of the “authentic Jewishness,” is informed mostly by Hasidism. Even though I disagree with this over-simplifying narrative, I believe it vividly represents the importance of the phenomenon.

But why maps, why an atlas as opposed to a standard monograph?

How otherwise could we capture the spatial dimension of the movement? If you believe, as I do, that the Hasidim were not only otherworldly mystics, but also down-to-earth residents of specific locations in very specific historical context of Eastern Europe, then you need to ask what is relation between these two. The maps are not only the easiest way to show it, but they allow for much more than textual exposition. And, besides, today in the digital age, visualization might be the only way to get through with a complex message.

To put this same question another way: you’ve written on Hasidism before; what is unique about this book?

I published my first book in Hasidism twenty years ago and I am still proud of this juvenile publication, as I am of other books I published later. But this book is indeed special. My previous books on Hasidism were more specialist, addressed mostly to the academic readers. This one is addressed to a wide group of readers, academic and lay. Each of the nine chapters introduces in a short, accessible way some central features of Hasidism, such as emergence, development of leadership, relation between religious centers and peripheries, demography, crisis of war and the Holocaust, etc. This very accessible introduction leads to the analysis of how these phenomena were affected by and found representation in space. In other ways, each chapter attempts to be accessible, but at the same time to offer some innovative understanding of the movement (and of a spatial dimension of any religion by implication). The same way, the maps have been conceptualized so that they communicate both the big message, something that you might grasp in the blink of your eye, and a far more developed, complex message, something that you need to read the map carefully for in order to see and understand. In this sense, the atlas both makes the history of Hasidism accessible to a freshman and introduces an expert knowledge on aspects that will be hopefully novel to both the students of Hasidism and a larger group of historians, sociologists, and geographers of religions.

Is it really a book for everybody?

I wouldn’t put it that way. The book is academic. But we, the cartographer and I, made a lot of effort to make it accessible, attractive, and engaging for a wide group of non-academic readers, too, e.g. those interested in Jewish history, Judaism, and history of religion more generally. Also, as the maps contain much geographical detail, e.g. thousands of places of residence of Hasidic leaders, thousands of Hasidic prayer halls, this will be of interest also to lay readers interested in local history, family histories, etc.

The scope of the Atlas sets it apart from other publications. Can you explain how?

This atlas broadens our understanding of Hasidism in three important ways. First, it looks at the movement beyond the Hasidic leaders at thousands of their followers living far from Hasidic centers. This is new, innovative, and I think very needed corrective to the dominant trends in research on Hasidism. Second, it examines Hasidism in its historical entirety from its beginnings in the eighteenth century till today. Very few publications are similarly comprehensive. Most importantly, responding to the challenge of digital humanities, it uses the diverse collection of qualitative, but above all quantitative data of diversified origin, including extensive GIS-processed databases of historical and contemporary records. The largest database is nearly 130 thousand records! Several others have thousands of records. I don’t know any similar publication on Hasidism, or, indeed, on any other religious movement.

Does the Atlas have real world applications?

I believe every knowledge has real world applications, at least by making us wiser. Well, of course, some sections might have direct application. For example my mapping of the settlement patterns among Israeli Hasidim might be successfully used by the Israel city planners or government administration in allocation of resources. For some others, the atlas might become an inspiring guidebook for cultural, or, indeed, spiritual tourism in Eastern Europe. Hasidism pilgrimages are today enormous enterprise with tens of thousands of Hasidim and non-Hasidim visiting graves of the tsadikim and other Hasidic sites. Finally, many maps are simply beautiful, so my wife says they will make perfect print for tablecloths, T-shirts, and postcards. We can’t wait to open a souvenir shop!

Marcin Wodziński is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Wrocław in Poland. His many books include Hasidism: A New History (Princeton) and Hasidism and Politics: The Kingdom of Poland, 1815–1864. Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Eli Maor on Music by the Numbers

MaorThat music and mathematics are somehow related has been known for centuries. Pythagoras, around the 5th century BCE, may have been the first to discover a quantitative relation between the two: experimenting with taut strings, he found out that shortening the effective length of a string to one half its original length raises the pitch of its sound by an agreeable interval—an octave. Other ratios of string lengths produced smaller intervals: 2:3 corresponds to a fifth (so called because it is the fifth note up the scale from the base note), 3:4 corresponded to a fourth, and so on. Moreover, Pythagoras found out that multiplying two ratios corresponds to adding their intervals: (2:3) x (3:4) = 1:2, so a fifth plus a fourth equals an octave. In doing so, Pythagoras discovered the first logarithmic law in history.

The relations between musical intervals and numerical ratios have fascinated scientists ever since. Johannes Kepler, considered the father of modern astronomy, spent half his lifetime trying to explain the motion of the known planets by relating them to musical intervals. Half a century later, Isaac Newton formulated his universal law of gravitation, thereby providing a rational, mathematical explanation for the planetary orbits. But he too was obsessed with musical ratios: he devised a “palindromic” musical scale and compared its intervals to the rainbow colors of the spectrum. Still later, four of Europe’s top mathematicians would argue passionately over the exact shape of a vibrating string. In doing so, they contributed significantly to the development of post-calculus mathematics, while at the same time giving us a fascinating glimpse into their personal relations and fierce rivalries. As Eli Maor points out in Music by the Numbers, the “Great String Debate” of the eighteenth century has some striking similarities to the equally fierce debate over the nature of quantum mechanics in the 1920s.

What brought you to write a book on such an unusual subject? 

The ties between music and mathematics have fascinated me from a young age. My grandfather played his violin for me when I was five years old, and I still remember it quite clearly. He also spent many hours explaining to me various topics from his physics book, from which he himself had studied many years earlier. In the chapter on sound there was a musical staff showing the note A with a number under it: 440, the frequency of that note. It may have been this image that first triggered my fascination with the subject. I still have that physics book and I treasure it immensely. My grandfather must have studied it thoroughly, as his penciled annotations appear on almost every page.

Did you study the subject formally?

Yes. I did my master’s and later my doctoral thesis in acoustics at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. There was just one professor who was sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject, and he agreed to be my advisor. But first we had to find a department willing to take me under its wing, and that turned out to be tricky. To me acoustics was a branch of physics, but the physics department saw it as just an engineering subject. So I applied to the newly-founded Department of Mechanics, and they accepted me. The coursework included a heavy load of technical subjects—strength of materials, elasticity, rheology, and the theory of vibrations—all of which I did as independent studies. In the process I learned a lot of advanced mathematics, especially Fourier series and integrals. It served me well in my later work.

What about your music education?

I started my musical education playing Baroque music on the recorder, and later I took up the clarinet. This instrument has the unusual feature that when you open the thumb hole on the back side of the bore, the pitch goes up not by an octave, as with most woodwind instruments, but by a twelfth—an octave and a fifth. This led me to dwell into the acoustics of wind instruments. I was—and still am—intrigued by the fact that a column of air can vibrate and produce an agreeable sound just like a violin string. But you have to rely entirely on your ear to feel those vibrations; they are totally invisible to the eye.

When I was a physics undergraduate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a group of students and professors decided to start an amateur orchestra, and I joined. At one of our performances we played Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute. There is one bar in that overture where the clarinet plays solo, and it befell upon me to play it. I practiced for that single bar again and again, playing it perhaps a hundred times simultaneously with a vinyl record playing on a gramophone. Finally the evening arrived and I played my piece—all three seconds of it. At intermission I asked a friend of mine in the audience, a concert pianist, how did it go. “Well,” she said, “you played it too fast.”  Oh Lord!  I was only glad that Mozart wasn’t present!

Throughout your book there runs a common thread—the parallels between musical and mathematical frames of reference. Can you elaborate on this comparison? 

For about 300 years—roughly from 1600 to 1900—classical music was based on the principle of tonality: a composition was always tied to a given home key, and while deviating from it during the course of the work, the music was invariably related to that key. The home key thus served as a musical frame of reference in which the work was set, similar to a universal frame of reference to which the laws of classical physics were supposed to be bound.

But in the early 1900s, Arnold Schoenberg set out to revolutionize music composition by proposing his tone row, or series, consisting of all twelve semitones of the octave, each appearing exactly once before the series is completed. No more was each note defined by its relation to the tonic, or base note; in Schoenberg’s system a complete democracy reigned, each note being related only to the note preceding it in the series. This new system bears a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, in which no single frame of reference has a preferred status over others. Music by the Numbers expands on this fascinating similarity, as well as on the remarkable parallels between the lives of Schoenberg and Einstein.

You also touch on some controversial subjects. Can you say a few words about them?

It is generally believed that over the ages, mathematics has had a significant influence on music. Attempts to quantify music and subject it to mathematical rules began with Pythagoras himself, who invented a musical scale based entirely on his three “perfect intervals”—the octave, the fifth, and the fourth. From a mathematical standpoint it was a brilliant idea, but it was out of sync with the laws of physics; in particular, it ignored other important intervals such as the major and minor thirds. Closer to our time, Schoenberg’s serial music was another attempt to generate music by the numbers. It aroused much controversy, and after half a century during which his method was the compositional system to follow, enthusiasm for atonal music has waned.

But it is much less known that the attraction between the two disciplines worked both ways. I have already mentioned the Great String Debate of the eighteenth century—a prime example of how a problem originating in music has ended up advancing a new branch of mathematics: post-calculus analysis. It is also interesting to note that quite a few mathematical terms have their origin in music, such as harmonic series, harmonic mean, and harmonic functions, to name but a few.

Perhaps the most successful collaboration between the two disciplines was the invention of the equal-tempered scale—the division of the octave into twelve equally-spaced semitones. Although of ancient origins, this new tuning method has become widely known through Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier— his two sets of keyboard preludes and fugues covering all 24 major and minor scales. Controversial at the time, it has become the standard tuning system of Western music.

In your book there are five sidebars, one of which with the heading “Music for the Record Books: The Lowest, the Longest, the Oldest, and the Weirdest.”  Can you elaborate on them?

Yes. The longest piece of music ever performed—or more precisely, is still being performed—is a work for the organ at the St. Burkhardt Church in the German town of Halberstadt. The work was begun in 2003 and is an ongoing project, planned to be unfolding for the next 639 years. There are eight movements, each lasting about 71 years. The work is a version of John Cages’ composition As Slow as Possible. As reported by The New York Times, “The organ’s bellows began their whoosh on September 5, 2001, on what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday. But nothing was heard because the score begins with a rest—of 20 months. It was only on February 5, 2003, that the first chord, two G-sharps and a B in between, was struck.” It will be interesting to read the reviews when the work finally comes to an end in the year 2640.

I’ll mention one more piece for the record books: in 2012, astronomers discovered the lowest known musical note in the universe. Why astronomers?  Because the source of this note is the galaxy cluster Abell 426, some 250 million light years away. The cluster is surrounded by hot gas at a temperature of about 25,000,000 degrees Celsius, and it shows concentric ripples spreading outward—acoustic pressure waves. From the speed of sound at that temperature—about 1,155 km/sec—and the observed spacing between the ripples—some 36,000 light years—it is easy to find the frequency of the sound, and thus its pitch: a B-flat nearly 57 octaves below middle C. Says the magazine Sky & Telescope, “You’d need to add 635 keys to the left end of your piano keyboard to produce that note!  Even a contrabassoon won’t go that low.”

Eli Maor has taught the history of mathematics at Loyola University Chicago until his recent retirement. He is the author of six previous books by Princeton University Press: To Infinity and Beyonde: the Story of a NumberTrigonometric DelightsThe Pythagorean TheoremVenus in Transit; and Beautiful Geometry (with Eugen Jost). He is also an active amateur astronomer, has participated in over twenty eclipse and transit expeditions, and is a contributing author to Sky & Telescope.

Brian O’Connor on Idleness: A Philosophical Essay

idleFor millennia, idleness and laziness have been regarded as vices. We’re all expected to work to survive and get ahead, and devoting energy to anything but labor and self-improvement can seem like a luxury or a moral failure. Far from questioning this conventional wisdom, modern philosophers have worked hard to develop new reasons to denigrate idleness. In Idleness, the first book to challenge modern philosophy’s portrayal of inactivity, Brian O’Connor argues that the case against an indifference to work and effort is flawed—and that idle aimlessness may instead allow for the highest form of freedom. A thought-provoking reconsideration of productivity for the twenty-first century, Idleness shows that, from now on, no theory of what it means to have a free mind can exclude idleness from the conversation.

Could we start by asking you to tell us what you mean by idleness? Which sense of the word is important for your book?

Yes—that’s really key to appreciating what I’m interested in exploring. I actually don’t mean anything that’s at all obscure. The sense of idleness at the center of the book is that of doing little or nothing that’s considered productive, of feeling free of the pressures of caring about what one is supposed to make of oneself. An idle person is not pinned down by any plan that shapes their future. It’s a kind of way of being that, in the context of life today, amounts to a disavowal of those inclinations that make us into effective social agents, like being useful, busy, or competitive.

What gave you the idea of writing a book on philosophical criticisms of idleness?

Many years ago I was struck by Kant’s claim that no rational being—that is to say, a properly functioning moral person—would ever believe it proper to live according to the rule of idleness. This was no throwaway remark. It was backed up by some quite complex reasoning. Nevertheless, I found myself completely unimpressed by his position. What Kant was trying to convince us of in that claim just didn’t resonate with me personally. I noticed a number of other philosophers from around and soon after Kant’s time devising their own original ways of denigrating idleness. Eventually, I thought it was time to react. The book is my effort to expose the problems and assumptions within those philosophies which tell us that idleness is an unworthy way of life.

Why did you feel motivated to react with that critical attitude?

There’s a philosophical interest in identifying and exposing arguments that seem to serve as apologies or defenses of some kind of the basic practices of life in the modern world. I just happen to be drawn to the longstanding practice of unsettling philosophy’s complicity with the troubling and often destructive burdens social structures place on human beings.

But there’s also a sense that lives pursued through an obsession with reputational and material advance bring a significant amount of harm to our world. We seem to be driven to see a large part of who we are in terms of how much we can accomplish. It’s a precarious and anxious way to live. Although I don’t develop that point in the book, it’s held in mind throughout.

Does your book argue, then, that we need to work less and do more to enjoy our free time?

No. I make no positive proposals for any alternative lifestyle. The philosopher as guru is not a happy spectacle. What I do try to do—and different lessons might be drawn from this—is show that some of the most ingenious arguments against idleness developed by some exceptionally influential philosophers turn out to be justifications of our anxious world. What’s more broadly intriguing about those arguments is that they express sentiments that have become increasingly common outside philosophy. At the core of them is this idea, that a life worth living is one of effort and recognized achievement. If we can successfully criticize that idea perhaps it contributes in some small way to reflection on the power it ought to hold over us.

You mentioned that you look at particular philosophers opposed to idleness. Which ones and why?

I’ve already noted Kant’s austere perspective. And added to his formal argument are quite a few condescending dismissals of lives that seem to be quite free of any effort to achieve social worth, in Kant’s sense of that idea. There’s a similar move found in Hegel who values the process of turning us into autonomous self-perpetuating workers. As we work we serve a system whose power over us Hegel doesn’t find troubling. He too sees nothing impressive in cultures that seem to survive quite happily in near idleness. And then there’s Marx who famously designs a picture of utopian co-operation in which the fullest freedom and self-realization might be found in even the most arduous forms of labor. He has no interest in the kinds of freedom that might be enjoyed in the absence of labor.

Your book also looks at the question of boredom. How does that fit with the topic of idleness?

It’s virtually inevitable to experience boredom when we have nothing to do. And when we reflect for a moment on that experience we might want to conclude that idleness, as a state of doing nothing in particular, could actually be a cause of boredom. If so, then what’s the point in trying to rescue idleness from its hostile characterizations? The most ambitious philosophical expression of a deep connection between boredom and idleness is found in Schopenhauer. I raise questions about whether Schopenhauer mistakes our socialization for facts of nature. He’s certainly no advocate of the modern world, yet he doesn’t quite see the degree to which the experiences he describes are peculiar to that world.

A more difficult question is posed when looking at de Beauvoir’s notion of the idle woman. She compellingly outlines the circumstances which, in her time, encouraged women to invest little in developing skills and to dream instead of idleness. But the reality was often lives crushed by boredom since the group she describes had only really been encouraged to develop what would turn out to be an impaired ability to keep themselves occupied.

Bertrand Russell praised idleness and noted that human beings have forgotten how to play. Do you think the idea of play is close to what you mean by idleness?

Yes it is. I give quite a lot of space to exploring two major theories of how play might be considered as an alternative to the grueling processes of ceaseless industry and the discipline it imposes on us. I’m quite sympathetic to those theories—they belong to Schiller and Marcuse. Play means living without seriousness, with a readiness to respond rather than impose, an openness rather than a strictness about what one might do next. I do tease out some of the difficulties in the formulations of those theories while trying to keep their importance as sources of resistance to the anti-idlers firmly in view.

In reply to some of these questions “freedom” seems to be a significant feature of idleness. How does that sense of freedom compare with senses more familiar from moral and political theory?

At first it looks like idle freedom belongs to some space that’s beneath any kind of philosophical interest. That, at least, is what some of the philosophers I examine would like us to believe. I try to show that idle freedom—a positive experience of freedom from social expectation, and indifference to life plans and so on—may actually come closer to what we expect freedom to be than the very influential yet often philosophically artificial idea of autonomy. Too often autonomy—supposedly the highest freedom—has been tied to social participation under the conditions of the modern world. It also frankly endorses the idea that freedom can be a burden, but that’s just how it is. I hope some of the ideas I’ve conveyed in this Q&A will give you a sense of why those features of autonomy at least—core features—seem less defensible than the notion of idle freedom in terms of their respective appreciation of what ordinarily matters about freedom.

Brian O’Connor is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. He is the author of Adorno and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic.

Michael North on What is the Present

The problem of the present—what it is and what it means—is one that has vexed generations of thinkers and artists. Because modernity places so much value on the present, many critics argue that people today spend far too much time in the here and now—but how can we tell without first knowing what the here and now actually is? What Is the Present? takes a provocative new look at this moment in time that remains a mystery even though it is always with us. Presenting an entirely new conception of the temporal mystery Georg Lukács called the “unexplained instant,” this book explores how the arts have traditionally represented the present—and also how artists have offered radical alternatives to that tradition.

What inspired you to write a book about the present?

I’m interested in the fact that some of the most obvious and ordinary aspects of life are also the most mysterious. The present is one of these. You might say, in fact, that the present is the most obvious aspect of life, one that we can never get away from. And yet, whenever you come to think about it at all seriously, it becomes very confusing.

How so?

Well, we tend to think of the present as something like a dash on a timeline or a tick mark on a clock, as if it were nothing more than an ultra-thin divisor between past and future. But we also think of ourselves as living in the present, and this implies that it takes up some amount of time. If so, then how much time does it take up? Is its length always the same or does it change from time to time or even from person to person? And then if the present is separate from past and future, how does time get connected back up again? If I watch as I move my arm, I seem to see the whole movement as one indivisible process, not as a series of snapshots. In other words, I seem to see the whole process as if it were happening now, not separated out into past, present, and future. And yet logically the very beginning of that movement must be in the past by the time the whole movement is concluded. How do we come to see it as one apparently simultaneous arc?

Couldn’t some of these puzzles be cleared up by scientific investigation?

Unfortunately, science just makes it worse. For a long time, physiological psychologists hoped to isolate the present by measuring human reaction times, on the assumption that the shortest possible reaction time could be taken as the length of the present. But they could never really come up with a consistent value. Now it seems that the human nervous system may be governed by a number of different clocks, running at different rates. There isn’t any central agent to which all the various parts of the nervous system report, so in a sense there isn’t a single physiological present at all.

But surely there must be an objective present, even if the subjective present turns out to be a fiction?

I guess not. Go outside some night and look up at the stars. The starlight you see in the “present” is actually billions of years old, some of it more and some of it less. What sense does the concept of the present make in that context? As our knowledge of the universe has expanded, it has become less and less possible to believe in the Enlightenment concept of a universal simultaneity, a now that would synchronize all the matter in existence.

Does any of this make a difference on a more practical level?

It could. We hear a lot of complaints nowadays about the present, how it has become too important, crowding out the past and the future. These complaints rely on the assumption of a normative present, one that is neither too long nor too short, but just right. If this present is a fiction, then we are flogging ourselves for no reason. And it turns out that if you examine the evidence offered for this normative present, the little that exists is primarily figurative in nature.

Figurative in what sense?

The present is almost always explained in metaphorical terms. A time-line, for instance, is a spatial metaphor, with a point or a short dash representing the present. People sometimes think of the present as something like a single frame in a movie, static by itself but fluid when shown with the entire film. Versions of this particular metaphor go all the way back to the magic lantern, which Locke used as a metaphor for the experience of time. It turns out, though, on close inspection, that these are not metaphors for something else. Where the present is concerned, these metaphors are all there is. In fact, it is because of the force and vividness of these metaphors that we continue to believe in the present, though it has always been so hard to establish its actual status.

So does that mean we should abandon a category that has always seemed essential to our understanding of time? Is there no future for the present?

An important part of this book is an account of how the arts have represented and used the present. Painters, writers, and film-makers have had to contend with the problem of the present in various ways, and the solutions they have come up with are more flexible and expansive than the standard notion of it as a thin slice of time sandwiched between past and future. I’m particularly fond of George Kubler’s version of this when he calls the present “a plane upon which the signals of all being are projected.” It sounds a lot like our present right now, with its apparently infinite access to all of recorded history, but it suggests a present that is bigger and more comprehensive, not smaller and more isolated. In this sense, the present contains the past, and I guess in a sense it contains the future as well.

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Novelty: A History of the New, Machine-Age Comedy, and Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word.

Michael Robertson on The Last Utopians

RobertsonFor readers reared on the dystopian visions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of a perfect society may sound more sinister than enticing. In The Last Utopians, a lively literary history of a time before “Orwellian” entered the cultural lexicon, Michael Robertson reintroduces us to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of late nineteenth-century American and British writers and readers. The book delves into the lives and works of four key figures—Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who lived during an extraordinary period of literary and social experimentation. The publication of Bellamy’s Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates of an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a future Arcadia. Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Gilman, a women’s rights activist and author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” wrote Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society. Read on to learn more about utopian dreaming and action, in both their time and ours.

When did you get the idea to write this book? 

At a lunch on Nassau Street in Princeton with Hanne Winarsky, my former editor at Princeton University Press. I had just completed Worshipping Walt, my group biography of Walt Whitman’s disciples, and Hanne and I were batting around ideas for my next book project. Writing Worshipping Walt, I’d become fascinated by Edward Carpenter, a British writer attracted to Whitman by his proclamations of love between men. Hanne asked what particularly interested me about Carpenter. I replied, “His utopianism. His bold and eccentric and wonderful idea that homosexual men and women constitute the advance guard of the utopian future.” By the end of the lunch, I had the chapters of The Last Utopians mapped out.

Sounds a bit like a cartoon lightbulb-going-on moment.

It does, doesn’t it? When I told that story to a friend, he said he knew lots of writers who had had the same experience, but it always happened late at night, in a bar, and involved ideas scribbled on cocktail napkins that made no sense the next day.

Your title and subtitle seem to be at odds. Your title claims that Carpenter, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were the last utopians, but the subtitle refers to their legacy. What’s up with that?

I hope there’s a creative tension at work. These four writers were indeed part of the last generation of artists and intellectuals who took utopia seriously—who believed in the importance of laying out their visions of a transformed, better society, and who believed that we could reach utopia through a benign evolutionary process. After World War I—and after World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot—that sort of grand utopian vision became increasingly untenable. But I didn’t want to end the book on the battlefields of the Great War. The philosopher Ernst Bloch argued the “the hope principle” is as basic to human nature as the pleasure principle, and I think the utopian impulse is alive and well today. It just takes different forms. My last chapter is all about contemporary utopianism.

What’s behind your choices of the contemporary utopian communities and movements that you describe in your last chapter?

I wanted to explore sites and movements that share the values of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman. In brief, those are a commitment to democratic economic equality, an interest in alternatives to the patriarchal nuclear family and compulsory heterosexuality, a progressive spirituality that locates the divine in the human and natural worlds, and the search for a simple lifestyle in harmony with nature. In a couple of cases, I found contemporary movements directly inspired by one of the last utopians. I attended a retreat in Scotland of the Edward Carpenter Community, a gay men’s group, and I spend a weekend in Vermont with the Radical Faeries, gender noncomformists who embrace Carpenter’s radical utopian vision. But most of the contemporary utopians I encountered had no knowledge of Carpenter, et al.

Who are those other contemporary utopians?

I found some of them in what used to be called “utopian communes” but now are known as “intentional communities.” I visited two of the largest, oldest, and best-known communities, Twin Oaks in Virginia and Findhorn in Scotland, and I spent a week at Erraid, which is located on a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. I was also able to visit a short-lived but influential community: Occupy Wall Street. Every utopian thinker is interested in education, and that’s especially true of Rudolf Steiner, the eccentric Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf schools. I spent a wonderful day visiting classes at the local Waldorf school. Finally, the contemporary food movement, with its vision of small, sustainable, community-supported agriculture has a powerful utopian vision, and I visited a lot of farms and gardens.

The research must have been enjoyable.

It was. I spent a lot of time with big-hearted optimists in a variety of interesting places. I picked radishes in the rain with a chatty woman from East London, talked about utopia with Michael Moore at Occupy Wall Street, chatted with ten-year-old boys knitting at a Waldorf school, played frisbee with the Radical Faeries, and built planters out of dumped tires in an empty lot in Trenton.

You say in the book that we’re in a golden age for dystopian fiction. Isn’t this a peculiar moment to publish a book about utopia? Why should we care? 

It’s easy to understand why dystopian fiction is so popular right now, given the resurgence of right-wing fundamentalism, misogyny, nativism, and racism; the reality of climate change; our increased awareness of police brutality and invasions of privacy; the crudeness and mendacity of our political culture. But without a utopian vision of a better world, we’re reduced to merely reacting to the latest outrage or resigning ourselves to a morally intolerable status quo. I hope that The Last Utopians will inspire readers with its account of these nineteenth-century visionaries and their contemporary heirs. My goal is to help readers envision how they might live out some portion of a transformed future in the here and now.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications.

C.C. Tsai on ‘The Analects’ and ‘The Art of War’

Tsai AnalectsC. C. Tsai is one of Asia’s most popular cartoonists, and his editions of the Chinese classics have sold more than 40 million copies in over twenty languages. These volumes present Tsai’s delightful graphic adaptation of The Analects and The Art of War, two of the most influential books of all time and works that continues to inspire countless readers today. The texts are skillfully translated by Brian Bruya, who also provides an introduction.

What got you interested in illustrating the Chinese classics?

Ever since I was small, I loved reading—the Bible, detective stories, world classics, science. Of course, the Chinese classics were also part of the mix. In 1985, I moved to Japan to hide away and draw something new. This was a time when teenage love stories were all the rage in Japan. It occurred to me that I could use the simple-to-understand form of the comic to express difficult-to-understand ancient classics. I started with the charming stories of Zhuangzi.

How were these different from what you’d been drawing all along? And what did you hope to get across to your readers?

Before these books, I did mostly comic strips, and in those, I did all the creative work, including the story lines. With the classics, I am illustrating the works of thinkers like Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. It still required quite a bit of creativity to distill the works into digestible episodes, but it also required an enormous amount of background reading and research. My aim was to put the essence of their thinking into pictures.

I’ve heard that you have unique working habits—that you go to bed at 5 p.m., get up at 1:00 a.m., and work until 2:00 p.m. When did you start this routine, and why?

My lifestyle resembles that of the great French writer Balzac: to bed at dusk and up at about 1:00 a.m. Then, stand in the window drinking coffee and thinking. 95% of my thinking at this time is about the future. Only 5% is about the past. Then I start working and work straight through until about 2:00. Then, I eat, take a nap, and either read or watch a movie on the internet.

When you really focus on one thing, there is nothing but silence, and it’s as if you are the only thing that exists in the whole world. It’s as if time slows to a halt. This is why I prefer to get up in the night to welcome each new day.

From my experience, the stomach and brain are in a reciprocal relationship. Creativity is highest when the stomach is empty. And when the stomach is full, the brain turns off. I don’t really like to eat and prefer not to interrupt my work with meals. After eating, I can never get back to the same state of creativity.

You’ve done so many amazing things in your life. What are you the most proud of?

The thing that I am the most proud of is using maximal freedom to live the simplest life. I took ten years off just to study physics. Those were the ten happiest years of my life. Second to that was the four years that I spent in Japan while drawing the Chinese classics. If you can do what you most love over an extended period of time—that is a life worth living!

Of all the comic books you’ve created, which is your favorite?

The sage Laozi is my idol, but Zhuangzi must have been my form in a previous lifetime. I’m most like Zhuangzi, and I like Zhuangzi the most. He was blind to fame and fortune and simply lived his own life without concern for what others thought. I do the same, and this is why I drew Zhuangzi first in the series.

Are you one of those old guys trying to bring back traditional culture? Doesn’t it seem out of touch with today’s youth, who prefer surfing the Internet, getting on social media, and figuring out ways to make a quick buck?

There is nothing wrong with getting online or wanting to make a quick buck. The question is: how many people succeed in making that quick buck? Maybe one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand. I have always lived by three simple principles:

  1. Find something you are good at and that you like to do and then devote yourself to it.
  2. Once you get good at something, your efficiency will increase exponentially, and you’ll be faster than you ever expected. This builds on itself, so that you increasingly get faster and better.
  3. When you can perform efficiently and at a high level, you’ll have very little competition. Challenge yourself. Every time you do something, try your best to do it faster and better than you did it last time. Soon, you will speed right past all of your peers.

You began drawing when you were 4 years-old. Do you remember your first drawing?

I have a deep impression of my first work of art. When I was two years-old, I was awe-struck by the special red ink that my dad would sometimes use in his calligraphy, so when he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his brush and used that red ink to draw the shape of a person on our white wall. The subsequent punishment is what made it stick in my memory.

Have you ever altered your style to meet the demands of your readers, or of the market?

In the fifty years that I’ve been drawing comics, including 7 years doing animation, I’ve developed 20 different styles. I tailor the style to the content. For traditional philosophy, I balance the difficulty of the thought with a light and breezy drawing style. But this is in service to the reader. I always have the needs of the reader at the front of my mind. Do these sections flow together? Is this sentence clear? A book is a way to connect with a reader’s mind. From creation, to editing, to printing, to distribution—a book is not complete until the reader has finished reading.

What is the focus of your work now? Do you have any plans for a new series?

I just finished a series on Buddhism, along with two animated feature films, and am now planning a series on the “wisdom of the East.”

What other kind of challenges do you plan to take on?

I have a strong interest in creating a comic book series devoted to helping people understand physics and mathematics. I’ve been studying these subjects for many years and am just about ready. At this point in my life, though, it becomes a matter of whether I am still alive and have the energy to complete the project.

Has drawing comics always been your goal in life?

Drawing comics is not my goal in life. My goal is to live with as much spiritual freedom as possible and as few material desires as possible.

There is a story of a little chick that has just pecked its way out of its shell when it comes across a snail. “So that’s what a shell is for,” it says to itself. So the chick picks up the pieces of its shell and carries them on its back for the rest of its life.

We are born free, so why accumulate shells to carry on your back? Our purpose in life is not to accumulate fame and fortune that we can’t take with us when we die; it is to be who we are to the fullest extent possible. Since we only have one life to live, we have to make the most of it. That’s why I’m not willing to spend an ounce of energy pursuing fame or fortune. Look at your life from the perspective of your death, then go and do something significant.

What books have influenced you the most?

I’ve found that reading is the most rewarding investment of one’s time. By the time I was three, I had finished reading the Bible. At 9, I had read many of the world’s most famous works of literature. Up to now, I’ve probably read over twenty thousand books, including eight thousand comic books. Of these, my favorite author is Kahlil Gibran. My favorite books are Gibran’s The Prophet and Sand and Foam and Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell.

From your own experience and perspective, to what do you attribute your success. What could your fans learn from you about how to succeed in their own lives?

A person without a dream is like a butterfly without wings. In Taiwan, there is a saying: a blade of grass, a drop of dew. In the early morning, every kind of plant, whether big or small, a weed or a flower, will have dew on it. What this means is that nature is fundamentally fair, in that everyone has their own talents and abilities. You just have to develop them.

You have popularized comic books about ancient times. Do you feel like you have some special connection with the ancients?

I am interested in anything that has to do with wisdom. Reading is like being a neighbor to the ancients, like forming a friendship with them. I have never traveled for the sake of traveling, like a tourist does. Instead, I travel with the people of the past.

Where do you find your inspiration?

My inspiration comes from my attempt to connect with wisdom. I try to use this creative form to pass on some wisdom to later generations. My process lies in reading and note-taking. I’m slow at reading paper books and now prefer to read books on the computer. I download some ancient book, convert it to a Word document, and add correct punctuation. It’s hard on my eyes, and I sometimes think I’ll go blind doing it like this. Is this a bottleneck in my workflow? Actually, no. If I were to convert all of my notes to paper notebooks, I estimate they would take up something like 800 volumes.

Whenever people achieve a level of great success, it’s natural that others wonder how they were able to do it. What would you say is the secret to your success?

The secret to success is to find something you love and then do it. Even today, I still love to work. I work 16 – 18 hours per day. I don’t have a cell phone, and still use a land line. I also don’t have material desires to speak of, getting by on about $8/day. Besides working, my next love is playing bridge online. I’m still that little kid from the Taiwan countryside—very simple, just doing whatever he enjoys the most.

When did you first think of putting ancient thought into comics? Did your understanding of it come through studying it on your own?

When I was 9 years-old, I realized that if you really want to learn something, you have to teach yourself. The questions are yours, and you have to come up with the answers. Most teachers are just average people and are limited in their ability to satisfy a child’s curiosity. It was then that I began my project of self-learning. Self-learning is how you learn fast and efficiently. Everything I know, I’ve learned this way: cartooning, animations, physics, advanced mathematics, Japanese, bridge, Asian philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, and so on. I’m an autodidact through and through.

When I was 36 years old, I had the idea that putting classical literature into comics could be of great benefit to others. So, I decided to go to Japan and spend four years creating this series. Wouldn’t it be great to take priceless ideas of the Chinese classics and transmit them via the most efficient modern media format? Nothing could be more natural! 

Who has most influenced your drawing style?

I was exposed to the Bible when I was just one year-old. When I was 3-and-half, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. When I was four-and-a-half, I decided that I would become an illustrator. At 9, I set my mind on becoming a professional cartoonist. I published my first comic when I was 15. When I first started drawing comics, I was heavily influenced by my idol at the time, Tetsuya Chiba. But after a year, I found my own voice and developed my own style. At 36, when I was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur airport, I came across some comics by a cartoonist who goes by the name of Lat. There is a freedom to his drawings that helped me develop my carefree style. But the one thing that has been most influential in my drawing has been my own studies—of classical Chinese painting, Western art history, Bauhaus design, not to mention physics and mathematics. It was only after studying formulas in physics and math that my drawing took on a kind of lyrical openness. But I don’t have just one style. Right now, I can draw in any of 20 different styles. It’s not a problem if a beginning artist is influenced by an idol’s style, but the artist has to very quickly transition to a unique style. We’re each a unique being from the day we’re born. If we can’t be ourselves, who is going to come and be us? We are our own selves, not copycats of others.

C. C. Tsai is one of East Asia’s most popular illustrators. His bestselling editions of the Chinese classics have introduced generations of readers to the wisdom of such luminaries as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Laozi. Born in Taiwan, Tsai now lives in Hangzhou, China. 

 

Tsai