Poets, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Biologists: Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring

“We snatch our freeze frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives.  All the while we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things, for the things themselves, our records for our history.   History is not what happened but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.”

Maria Popova

The title of the book Figuring refers to Popova’s ideas about:

‘figuring and reconfiguring of reality – it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony …’

Her book ranges widely across philosophical ideas and scientific notions, starting with mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

Kepler would, says the author ‘quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted’.

Kepler had investigated and proposed the claim (made 50 years earlier by Copernicus) that the Earth moves around the sun, even before Galileo Galilei plucked up the courage to say that he had himself thought along these lines but kept silent to avoid being charged with heresy.  Eventually he could keep silent no longer.    Kepler, Before Newton,  also conceived the notion of a gravitational force which directed the movement of the planets.

The book moves on to American Journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and the life of astronomer and mathematician Maria Mitchell (1818-1889).   Mitchell rose to be the first female Professor of Astronomy at Vassar.  Maria Mitchell knew that the surest route to empowerment of women was through education.

We are taken by the author on a journey through the  life and poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and on to the groundbreaking work of environmental scientist, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with others in between.

Among the questions Popova asks, and seeks to answer through the examination of the lives of the (mostly women) in this book.     What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement?

This last is a question which courses like blood through the veins of the book because, if it is axiomatic that we should seek to achieve greatness in our chosen field, whether science, literature, art, then what part does societal recognition play?  The lives of the women in this book were lived out against a background of the utter disbelief  of those particular societies in which they lived concerning the suitability of women even to partake in education, let alone to make world changing scientific or artistic discoveries.   Yet this is exactly what they did.

While it is impossible to know for certain every life chance or turn that led to these women becoming exactly who they did, they all shared the fortune of coming from families enlightened as to the education of its daughters.  They all shared a need to work, and like every human soul, a need for love which came in all sorts of shapes and guises.

Popova writes about women who were major achievers in their fields but this is not just an account of certain lives however remarkable they may be.  What Figuring does is the same thing that Popova’s blog Brain Pickings (www.brainpickings.org) does, it makes beautiful connections between art and life, between sinew and spirit, soul, chance and choice.  In her inimitable way she makes the reader not just wish to know more but insist on knowing more, to relish the ‘down the rabbit-hole’ effect of research,  to want to delve further, find more tunnels.

 

silentspring

 

The last ‘life’ to be covered in Figuring is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring.

Carson was a biologist, nature writer and oceanographer, an ecologist before the term was even known.   Although ailing and nearing the end of her life at the time of writing Silent Spring this was the book that it fell to her to write simply because she was the best qualified to do the job,  and in so doing she founded an ecological movement which today is more desperately needed than ever.

Carson was informed by the establishment of the time that despite her meticulously evidenced research on the damage caused by the use of DDTs in crop sprays and pesticides in decimating bird and insect populations,  there was no ‘evidence’ of permanent damage.  In other words, it was thought by some in a gung-ho way that populations might be decimated but, hey, they would recover.  They didn’t.  My life had stood a loaded gun’ as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

The conflation of such gung-ho attitudes towards chemically manufactured carcinogens, in pursuit of profit, and the disparagement by those engaged in such activities of individuals who challenge them, has given rise to the environmental activism we see today.    It is shocking how little attitudes have changed since Carson wrote in the 60s and how much there is still to achieve.  For example in the last few days it has been reported in the Guardian that the peaceful environmental group Extinction Rebellion was listed by the Metropolitan Police on its Prevent list of radicalisation, alongside neo-Nazi groups, meaning that to be concerned about ecological destruction and the death of species, is considered extreme even though we ourselves are part of the ecology we destroy.

Carson would no doubt  take little pleasure in – but equally might not be surprised by  narratives being pursued today by powerful corporates and those who serve their interests  regarding the damage done to human tissue by ultra-fine particles in the air that we breathe.

Governments cannot be trusted with environmental crises.  Although DDT’s may be banned in certain countries our legal and regulatory systems lag behind desecration and mayhem caused by chemical pollutants in our air and water systems, particularly from vehicle and aviation exhaust fumes.

 

 

2019 goodbye to all that …

As 2020 is upon us,  here is a brief look at some of the titles I reviewed in 2019. I would like to wish everyone a Happy – and not at all volatile – New Year.

January I looked at Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:

“Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.”

April

VanGogh

“Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.’

This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.”

May

I reviewed this savage memoir of rape and childhood trauma

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe,  Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

 

 Also in May I looked at a collection of essays by Mary Oliver,

 

He was probably only looking for a partner. So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear.    This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to,  as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.”

 

 

June – From bears to invisible women,  Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I reviewed Caroline Criado Perez research on the data bias that causes invisibility of the female in data about ‘mankind’.  Essential reading for anyone who assumes that in the 21st century equality of the sexes is a done deal.

 

July – Virginia Hall’s daredevil exploits during World War 2

Review:

“her service is even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.”

 

In September – my book of the year,  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

At once both ultra contemporary and completely ageless, this book sums up societies both sides of the Atlantic as they ruthlessly are rather than as we might like to see ourselves.

” Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK.”

 

In November Edward Snowden came to tell us about the world we are creating for ourselves through unbridled and poorly understood – yes even by those who are supposed to know  – technology.

snowdencover

 

“I was worried that the book might be quite technical and I wouldn’t understand it.  But I need not have worried.  Permanent Record is much more about the why rather than the how.  Why a young man might give up his whole life as he knows it – home, family, friends, extremely well paid job – for his principles.”

 

In December, Harry Lee Poe’s  biography of writer C.S. Lewis

“Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.”

 

 

 

 

Always Winter, never Christmas: The Hero’s Journey to The Ivory Towers

Review of #Becoming C.S. LewisA Biography of young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) (Crossway)

 Harry Lee Poe

This biography of C.S. Lewis (1898-1918) covers the formative years:  his childhood, his mother’s untimely death, family relationships with especial emphasis placed on the rather miserable scool years  in a place called Wynyards, which thankfully doesn’t exist any more,  and later on,  Malvern College.

Poe writes:

“In September 1908, without benefit of trial by a jury of his peers, contrary to magna carta, and in the absence of habeas corpus, young Jack Lewis found himself interred in a concentration camp.”

(aka boarding school)

Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.

The latter half of the book deals with Lewis as a teenager from leaving Malvern to being tutored for Oxford Entrance in the private home of a man called Fitzpatrick – a friend of his father’s. There is also a lengthy section dealing with Lewis’ literary influences including:

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey,  Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes.  William Morris’ tales of Siegrfried and The Well at the World’s End – a story set in an historical medieval world where the four sons of King Peter of Upmeads set out to explore the world.  Spenser’s Faerie Queene,  The Norse myths.

The horrors of the First World War, in which his brother Warnie was fighting for his and everyone else’s lives, scarcely impinged upon the young Jack sheltered in his mentor Kirkpatrick’s house in Great Bookham in those days surrounded by open country.  Jack’s letters to his friend Arthur continue to reflect his literary obsessions.  Lewis referred in other writings to that sense of longing and desire that nothing in ordinary experience could satisfy and doesn’t strike me as being anyone who ever wished to engage with the world.  Given what was happening at the time perhaps that’s unsurprising.

But the values that he cared about in literature were not reflected in the ‘brute universe that consisted of a meaningless dance of atoms’

But then oddly after such arguments Poe states of Lewis:

“He could be dismissive of imaginations as a teenager because he thought the world of imagination was not real.”

Yet it seemed the imagination is where Lewis mostly dwelt. Rejecting his father’s faith in his struggle for his own identity and independence “the last thing Jack wanted was an interfering God from whom one could never escape,” there followed a struggle with various ideologies, materialist and metaphysical. Lewis embraced theories such as ‘logical positivism’ (the view that only what can be verified by sensory evidence actually exists and has meaning) and a confusion of scientific and philosophical strands.

Describing him as a typical teenager – a construct that barely existed at the beginning of the 20th century – Poe’s descriptions of Lewis immersing himself in classics, philosophy, literature and history from a young age, in Homer, Spenser and Ruskin,  show a young man earmarked for the ivory towers of Oxford,  where he meets and befriends J.R.R. Tolkein.

The book covers Lewis’ entry into Oxford and his concerns about the possibility of conscription.  In 1916 apparently oblivious to the fact that his brother was fighting in the Battle of the Somme, Jack and his father were making plans regarding his entrance examinations into Oxford.  Until a letter arrived from his brother describing being surrounded by “things which were once men”.

The author describes Jack as being adolescent and rebellious and perhaps for those days he was but he comes across more as complacent and the idea of a seventeen year old being considered rebellious because he doesn’t want to do what his father tells him is  a bit old hat.  Certain sections of the book covering whether or not Jack would enlist, or with whom he would spend the Easter holidays, which operas he may or may not have attended,  struck me as being superfluous.

For fans of the Chronicles of Narnia and other of Lewis’ writings,  there is some interest here in following the trail of white stones that led through the forest of his young psyche.

But for those who wish to find the wardrobe and pass through behind the fur coats to the forest where it is always winter, never Christmas – and especially for those who wish to meet Mr. Tumnus carrying his packages wrapped in brown paper –  you are much better off reading the books.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Crossway for this review copy.

 

 

Sorry Mr. Fleming, WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy was in fact a lady

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (Virago Press, 2019)

 

 

An unscheduled No.4 from my 10 books of Summer  but a worthy addition to the list.

Hall’s wartime service is described  by Purnell as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”,  her service even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.

Virginia Hall experienced many rejections in her life but she never allowed these to stand in her way.  Repeatedly refused work in the diplomatic corps in the US (she was a woman for goodness sake who had ever heard of such a thing) Hall nevertheless in 1940 (aged 34)  travelled to France to volunteer as  an ambulance driver.  Later she went to England where she got picked up by Churchill’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out disruptive work behind enemy lines –  and sent to France to help coordinate the resistance movement.

In 1940 the SOE itself was not the fait accompli that, with the wisdom of hindsight and Sebastian Faulks’ novels, we now assume it to be.  Purnell explains:

“Advertising for recruits for such subversive work was obviously out of the question – the government never mentioned SOE in public and if asked they would deny its very existence.  Traditionally, British Secret Services had drawn from a shallow pool of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, but this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.”

Virginia Hall, however, was.

Subtitled The Untold Story of Virginia Hall WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Purnell gives us the story of this courageous  lady whose exploits are not dissimilar although in many ways even more extreme than those of war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in Iraq in 2012.

Reporter for a US newspaper was the  alias that Hall first used when she went to France where she had been tasked with coordinating and building up the French resistance, starting in Lyon when she fought to stay one step ahead of the notorious butcher Klaus Barbie.  This ‘staying one step ahead’ at one stage involved Hall having to  travel to Perpignan and  cross the Pyrenees in midwinter in order to reach Spain which was, at least officially, neutral.    This unimaginable feat – with a prosthesis – this  treacherous crossing that had felled plenty of fit and able young men:

“sometimes escape parties would come across a frozen corpse, occasionally in an upright position, gazing forward with a fixed stare.”

was undertaken by Hall with the slimmest chance of survival,  along with an unfriendly guide and two other men,  even as the Wehrmacht combed the town behind her with sniffer dogs.

Despite the fact that the internet age was still half a century in the future, the germans were never short of information or the ability to trap spies from other nations, yet Virginia eluded them, even though they knew about her, including a description,  even though she limped and had a prosthesis.  Even thought they put her on their most wanted list.  She seemed to have an uncanny ability not only to adopt different physical disguises but different demeanours too.

The book is hugely readable and fascinating.  But most of all it made me feel ashamed that I had barely heard of this lady.  Yet which of us has not heard of Douglas Bader? In 1956, barely a decade after WW2 ended, a film was produced with Kenneth More in the title role playing Bader.   If Hall had been a man it is unlikely we would have had to wait so long to hear her story.  Purnell’s book is more than a biography it is the setting straight of a record that has long needed setting straight. I urge you to read it.

 

Van Gogh obscured by his own mythology: At Eternity’s Gate. Dir Julian Schnabel

Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.  This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.

VanGogh

Reading Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, intellect and erudition shine through, certainly financial worries and an inability to find love, but self confidence? No. I wouldn’t say so.

There is more than one reference to Christ in the film, including pictorial ones.  Jesus himself, Van Gogh tells the priest, wasn’t famous until forty years after his death. Well maybe but that’s not a line guaranteed to get you out of the asylum in France in 1890.

The artist himself wrote:

‘’…on no account would I choose the life of a martyr.  For I have always striven for something other than heroism, which I do not have in me…’

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

Has Van Gogh become obscured by his own mythology? And does it matter?    This clearly is a concern to Ronald de Leeuw in his 1990 introduction to the Penguin edition of Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo.   It is worth pointing out here that the Editor of the letters was at the time of the book’s appearance Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – so hardly a slouch in terms of authority.    Both de Leeuw and the translator of the edition are clear that Vincent took his own life.

Yet film makers beg to differ.  He was shot they claim, by a local thug.    In this respect At Eternity’s Gatefollows on from the excellent and exquisitely rendered artists film,  Loving Vincent(2017) which also pushed the shot-by-a-local called René Secrétan angle.  Whereas scholarly thinking is that he committed suicide.

 

VanGogh2

It’s hard not to be fascinated …

by the life stories of artists and this one in particular.  After all,  Van Gogh painted his way from unknown son of a preacher man to incipient global icon in a period of roughly 11 years,  making the decision to become an artist (a late start for a  painter with no particular formal training in 1879) and dying aged 37 from gunshot wounds in 1891.

Possibly no other artist’s life  – or death – seems quite so intriguing to us or quite so surrounded with mysteries. And film loves a mystery.   But there is scholarly theory that these mysteries are not mysteries at all but are add ons to our popular image of the ultimate tortured and impoverished artist.  I do not claim that there is no substance in these ideas – the ear chopping episode (mercifully done off screen in Schnabel’s film) is sufficient evidence of a mind and body in torment.   But to make a shortcut between that and genius, and to claim little else for the man?  That I don’t accept.  Also the fact that the artist had self- harmed so spectacularly makes a greater case for his subsequent suicide, rather than a lesser one.

Van Gogh rarely discusses his illness in his letters to his brother perhaps not wishing to make him anxious but occasionally he does make reference to his illness.

When I came out of hospital with good old Roulin, I fancied there had been nothing wrong with me, it was only afterwards I felt I’d been ill.  Well, that’s only to be expected.  I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod. 

But when I am in a delirium and everything I love so much is in turmoil, then I don’t mistake that for reality and I don’t play the false prophet.

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

One aspect of Schnabel’s film which seems on the surface intriguing, but which is in fact inaccurate,  is the matter of the missing ledger book.  An empty ledger book was given by Madame Ginoux to Van Gogh for him to use as a drawing book and which the film claims was returned to her (although without her knowledge) complete with more than 60 of his drawings.  Heavens!  What would that be worth now?   The ledger, the film says, mysteriously disappeared and was only rediscovered in 2016.

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw this was  why? If the artist was reviled in his lifetime certainly by the local populace of Arles, and if so few of his paintings sold, why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a ledger book to all intents and purposes considered worthless at the time? And where was it all those years? How exciting!  The answer however – as answers often are – is more prosaic.

Martin Bailey, in an article dated 29thMarch 2018 for The Art Newspaper, writes that the book was not authentic.

Schnabel told The Times that it is “irrelevant” whether the drawings are genuine or not. He has seen them and says “they were pretty damn good”. This comes as a surprise from an artist, since the sketches are weakly drawn, derivative works. The Arles Sketchbook is not authentic, as the Van Gogh Museum determined after an exhaustive examination. (And the sketches were not discovered “in 2016”, since I had been shown some of them in 2010.)

Our need for the tortured artist as sacrificial victim should not overtake historical accuracy in biography. For the film maker it seems, it is not enough that Vincent should have taken his own life but that someone needed to do it for him.  Perhaps so that we may be yet more convinced of the rightness of his vision. Perhaps genius can only exist against a backdrop of ignorance, so that it may shine ever more brightly? I don’t know.      But here is the artist’s own voice on the subject:

“… I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make pictures that give rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about art and life.”

 

Ring of Bright Water, An epitaph

It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s  Ring of Bright Water.  I remember the book coming out.  I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different.   As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.

I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems.  Ignorant? Probably.  I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography.    There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed.    Well, no.  What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the  Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The  authorised biography  is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate,  but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life. 20060630-Hampton Court -DSC_0337

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography,  that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.  These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from.    Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place,  they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.