The Marginalian
The Marginalian

M.C. Escher on Loneliness, Creativity, and How Rachel Carson Inspired His Art, with a Side of Bach

“A person who is lucidly aware of the miracles that surround him, who has learned to bear up under the loneliness, has made quite a bit of progress on the road to wisdom.”

M.C. Escher on Loneliness, Creativity, and How Rachel Carson Inspired His Art, with a Side of Bach

“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in,” Rachel Carson wrote as she contemplated the loneliness of creative work after her unexampled books about the sea made her one of the most beloved writers of her time, “you will interest other people.”

She couldn’t have known it then, but across the Atlantic another visionary was drawing creative succor from her work while reckoning with the same blessed burden of the unexampled.

M.C. Escher: Self-Portrait in Spherical Mirror, 1935.

In the autumn of 1955, M.C. Escher (June 17, 1898–March 17, 1972) wrote to his son:

A person who is lucidly aware of the miracles that surround him, who has learned to bear up under the loneliness, has made quite a bit of progress on the road to wisdom.

Escher spent his life trying to bear up under the loneliness of gift — the product of a rare mind best described, to use a notion alien to his epoch, as gloriously neurodivergent. His stunningly detailed lithographs and his meticulous woodcuts, his reality-warping geometries and astonishing tessellation and pleasantly unnerving defiances of gravity partway between optical illusion and dream, were a hallmark of the lonely patience of creative work, which often left him feeling like a “miserable fanatic,” “always wandering around in enigmas,” afflicted by an “association-mania.”

M. C. Escher: The Fifth Day of Creation. (Available as a print.)

Like Carson, who was too lyrical for science and too scientific for literature, Escher inhabited two worlds as an outsider to both; he felt that scientists nodded politely at his mathematically inspired art “in a friendly and interested manner,” but considered him merely a “tinkerer,” while artists were “primarily irritated” by his unclassifiable graphic daring. From this betwixt-and-between place, he lamented to son:

It continues to be a profoundly sad and disillusioning fact that I am beginning to speak a language these days only very few understand. It only increases my loneliness more and more.

In the introduction to the 1957 book about his core creative obsession, Regular Divisions of the Plane, he painted himself as a vessel for some larger creative force, available to all but accessed only by the very few:

I am walking around all alone in this splendid garden that does not belong to me and the gate of which stands wide open for anyone; I dwell here in refreshing but also oppressive loneliness. That is why I’ve been attesting to the existence of this idyllic spot for years… without expecting many strollers to come, however. For what enthralls me and what I experience as beauty is often judged to be dull and dry by others.

But for all his loneliness, Escher also saw himself as tasked with “astonishment” — “sometimes ‘beauty’ is a nasty business,” he wrote — and with rendering “dreams, ideas or problems in such a way that other people can observe and consider them.” And this was enough — the sheer joy his work gave him assured him that he was on “the right track.”

M.C. Escher: Sky and Water I. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Work so unusual did not, could not, be arrived at via the usual paths. For all the astonishing mathematical precision of his prints, Escher had struggled ferociously with mathematics as a young student at the Haarlem School of Civil Engineering and Decorative Arts. It wasn’t until he heard Bach’s Goldberg Variations that his mind snapped onto its own gift for rendering meaning through form. “Father Bach,” he called him. Wonder-smitten by Bach’s music — by its mathematical figures and motives repeating back to front and up and down, by the majesty of “a compelling rhythm, a cadence, in search of a certain endlessness” — Escher felt in it a strong kinship, a special “affinity between the canon in the polyphonic music and the regular division of a plane into figures and identical forms.”

Later, Escher would come to regard his own work as “a kind of small philosophy,” but one that has nothing to do with the literary form philosophy ordinarily takes — rather, his was a philosophy of pleasure and spaciousness: the compositional joy of arranging forms on a plane and giving meaning to each part of it. “It has much more to do with music than with literature,” he wrote.

M.C. Escher: Fish.

What most enchanted him in Bach was the “infinite variation of waves and undulations” in his music — it spoke to something in his own soul that had not yet awakened. And then one day, while he was traveling through Italy as he did throughout much of his twenties and thirties, it did: Listening to his wife brushing her hair, Escher was reminded of the sound of waves and was suddenly overcome by an intense longing for the sea.

He had always been curious about the marine world, fascinated by the “fluid mass,” by its creatures and its phenomena — especially the otherworldly wonder of bioluminescence — but this was a calling of a different order and a new urgency.

M.C. Escher: The Phosphorescent Sea. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

He began taking voyage after voyage aboard cargo ships. Mesmerized by the billowing trails the ship left on the water, he watched the flying fish from the deck. He filled his notebook with a private glossary of nautical terms. On land, he read everything about the ocean he could get his hands on as the it went on tugging at his heart. He felt that only seasoned sailors understood this elemental yearning. “You never (or very rarely) come across such people on land,” he told his son.

This swelling obsession eventually led Escher to Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us — the lyrical book that had won her the 1951 National Book Award.

Rachel Carson, 1951

Wonder-smitten with her writing, Escher wrote to his son:

She describes that liquid element, with an overview of all its associated facets and problems, in such an enthralling manner, with precision and poetry, that it is driving me half insane. This is exactly the kind of reading material I, with my advancing years, need most: a stimulus from our mother earth for my spatial imagination… It is kindling in me intense inspiration to create a new print.

M.C. Escher: Regular Division of the Plane Drawing #20. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

He grew obsessed with rendering the blue fluidity of the “liquid element” in a static black-and-white image that sacrificed none of the feeling-tone and dynamism of the living reality:

Those waves! Soon I’m going to try once more to draw something wavelike. But how can you suggest movement on a static plane? And how can you simplify something as complicated as a wave in the open sea to something comprehensible?

M.C. Escher: The Second Day of Creation. (Available as a print.)

Carson’s poetic yet scientifically scrumptious writing rendered the wonder of the sea comprehensible not by diminishing its enchantment but by magnifying it with understanding, giving Escher a new way of thinking about the three-dimensional nature of space that had always animated his work and making him consider for the first time the fourth dimension of time. Like Carson, who looked at the ocean and saw in it a lens on eternity and the meaning of life, he now saw the ocean as an antidote to the transience that marks our lives — an ever-flowing, ever-lapping salve for our terrified incomprehension of the finitude of time, which is always at bottom a terror of our own finitude:

A human being is not capable of imagining that the flow of time could ever come to a standstill. Even if the earth were to stop turning around its axis and around the sun, even if there wouldn’t be any more days and nights, any more summers and winters, time will continue to flow onward into eternity, that’s how we imagine it.

M.C. Escher: Dolphins. (Available as a print and as a cutting board.)

Like Carson, who found in music the concentration and consecration of her work, Escher never ceased slaking his soul on Bach:

Many a print reached definite form in my mind while I was listening to the lucid, logical language he speaks, while I was drinking the clear wine he pours.

Months after Rachel Carson’s untimely death, Escher received an award with a reflection on his core creative ethos that is as true of hers:

The consistency of the phenomena around us, order, regularity, cyclical repetitions and renewals… brings me repose and gives me support. In my pictures I try to bear witness that we are living in a beautiful, ordered world, and not in a chaos without pattern, as it sometimes seems.

M.C. Escher. Sketchbook, tessellations.

After Carson’s death, two original signed Escher prints were discovered among her belongings. In the final years of his own life, in a token of gratitude for how her work had touched his, he granted the posthumously assembled Rachel Carson Council permission to freely reproduce his prints in their advocacy of the sea for perpetuity.

Complement with the Trappist monk and theologian Thomas Merton’s stirring letter of appreciation to Carson, then revisit the story of how Carl Sagan inspired Maya Angelou.

BP

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Arthur Rackham’s Haunting Illustrations for the Barrie Classic

“There is almost nothing that has such a keen sense of fun as a fallen leaf.”

In the first years of the twentieth century, a strange book titled The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens enchanted readers with its fusion of whimsy and dark humor, its way of addressing adults in a way that honors the eternal child alive in each of us, and especially with one of its characters: a small boy named Peter Pan.

Four years later, six of its chapters sprouted a new book, not for adults but for actual children. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (public library | public domain) — the story of baby Peter, who, “like all infants,” was part bird but has now to learn to live an earthbound life — was published in 1906 with illustrations by the wildly imaginative, wildly prolific Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939).

Available as a print and as stationery cards.

A year later, Rackham would revolutionize the technology and economics of book art with his Alice in Wonderland illustrations; Peter Pan became the R&D lab for his revolution, working within the limitations of the three-color printing process then available to create worlds of wonder with his meticulous ink lines, populating London’s familiar landscapes and places with otherworldly creatures of haunting tenderness and strangeness — Shakespearean fairies and talking mice and, of course, his signature enchanted trees.

Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Here was a tall gaunt man who looked like a priest and carried himself like a professor, neat and precise, Victorian to the bone, wresting from his unquiet mind something of such wildness and such defiant beauty that one is staggered into remembering that consciousness abides no exteriors.

Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Upon seeing Rackham’s illustrations, Barrie found himself “entranced.”

“I am always your debtor,” he wrote to the artist.

Rackham, for his part, felt betrayed by Barrie in the land of the imagination, faulting the author for creating two entirely different Peter Pans — the baby of Kensington gardens and the eternal child of Never-Never Land, which he felt had “entirely eclipsed” the first Peter despite Never-Never Land being a “poor prosy substitute” for the original world.

Available as a print and as stationery cards.

“I regret that the chance has been let slip of permanently peopling Kensington Gardens as the book might have done it,” Rackham rued of the rise of the second Peter, overlooking the fact that it was the first, as rendered in his own enchanted art, from which the second had sprung, both in the public’s imagination and in the author’s. Without Rackham’s fairies, there might be no Wendy; without Rackham’s Queen Mab, there might not be half of Disney.

Available as a print.
Queen Mab. Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Complement with Rackham’s illustrations for The Tempest and Irish fairy tales, then revisit the tragic teenage prodigy Virginia Frances Sterrett’s tender and haunting illustrations for old French fairy tales.

BP

The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds: “Goodnight Moon” Author Margaret Wise Brown’s Little-Known Philosophical Children’s Book About Love and Loss

“There had never been such a quiet day before. It was the quietest day in the world.”

The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds: “Goodnight Moon” Author Margaret Wise Brown’s Little-Known Philosophical Children’s Book About Love and Loss

Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) never did anything half-heartedly. When the love of her life fell mortally ill, she did the hardest thing in life — facing the death of a beloved while remaining a pillar for their passage — the best way she knew how: she wrote her a love letter in the form of a children’s book.

On the last day of spring in 1950, three years after Goodnight Moon had enraptured the world with its bright playfulness, The Dark Wood of the Golden Birds (public library) appeared, somber and numinous with its elegiac prose, and its haunting duotone of otherworldly greens and yellows, and its the simple dedication: “For Michael Strange.”

Michael Strange and Margaret Wise Brown

In the decades since, the book has fallen out of print in a culture that has no room and no language for grief, and no tolerance for the darkest dimensions of life, which crack open our vastest capacity for light. It would take an act of countercultural courage and resistance for a modern publisher to bring this work of uncommon beauty and tenderness back into the fold of life.

Illustrated by Brown’s longtime collaborator and friend Leonard Weisgard, and written with her singular poetics, the story begins:

It happened in the woods
a long time ago.
In the dark woods
where the golden birds
sang all through the night
and the day.

This magic forest grows behind the house of “an old man with white hair and green eyes,” who is “never a year older or a day younger,” and who keeps honeybees and grows asparagus for a living.

The people who flock to his house for honey and asparagus never dare venture past the edge of “the wood of the golden birds,” believing it to be a magic wood — “the unknown from which there is no return”; of the few brave souls who have wandered in, none ever returned. The old man himself never goes into the dark wood, but sometimes — at night, or early in the morning — he can hear the golden birds sing.

And in their song he heard all that was beautiful to hear,
the ringing of bells
and the soughing of the wind;
he heard the echo that is hidden in a sea shell,
the deep sea music;
he heard laughter and singing
and the songs his mother sang to him long ago.

But even he is too afraid of the song to go into the woods looking for its source.

While she was writing the book, Margaret Wise Brown was watching her beloved flicker in and out of consciousness. She must have wondered about the mystery of it all, about the harrowing unreality into which Michael vanished when she slipped into a coma her doctors at first took for permanent death.

One day a lady had gone into the woods
just a little way. But when she came out
she spoke in words that none of the other people
could understand.
And she was never herself again.
But the people who had gone only to the edge of the woods
had heard the golden birds
and had been happier for hearing their song.

One day, a brother and a sister whose parents have died wander to the old man’s house.

The old man was sorry for them;
and when he heard their happy laughter
and saw how they ran with the bees from flower to flower
he loved them.
And he took them to live with him
and gave them a home.

The children find happiness working in the old man’s garden, but as time unspools, they grow more and more curious about the dark wood of the golden birds. The bees, they reason, go into the magic forest every day and not only return, but return with wildflower nectar for honey that “makes the sick people well and the sad people happy,” “the slow people fast and the noisy people quiet.” There seems to be a secret magical vitality in the dark wood, but none of its enchantments beckon the children more powerfully than the song of its golden birds.

In a passage revealing Margaret Wise Brown as one of the great unsung poets of the twentieth century, sonorous with her secret devotion to poetry, the boy tells his sister:

At night when I hear them singing far off,
I remember strange and quiet things,
the way the wind bends the grasses
as it blows across the field.
I hear the sound of the rain,
I remember the warm sunlight and the long evening shadows.
I think of the grey night and of the vast sea
and I remember all I have forgotten
that ever made me happy or sad.

When the children plead with the old man to condone their venture into the woods, he only reminds him that it is not to be done, for no one has ever returned. When they ask what lies beyond the dark wood, for there is surely an other side, he simply tells them that “on the other side of the dark wood is the land that no one knows.” When they press on with their restive curiosity, he grows angry, then falls silent, falls ill.

Day by day, the children grow more and more worried about the old man, until they decide that only one thing could revive him.

If only he could hear once more
the song of the golden birds…
Then he would remember all he has forgotten…
He would remember the sky and the sunlight on the grass.
He would remember the kindness in people’s hearts
and the sweet drowsy humming of the season of the bees.

And so, the boy decides that he must bring the song of the golden birds to the old man. One morning, “without telling anyone goodby,” he leaves the house and heads for the woods.

Days go by and he does not return.

His sister busies herself in the garden to keep the tears of loneliness and anticipatory loss from coming.

In a gentle nod to The Quiet Noisy Book, which she had published earlier that year, also illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, Brown writes:

Then came the time of the great silence.
No winds blew
and even the bees seemed to stop their buzzing.
The sun was warm on the earth.
The old man slept
and all the little girl could hear
was the sound of her broom
as she swept the house.
There had never been such a quiet day before.
It was the quietest day in the world.

The night came on
more softly than ever
with shooting stars
and no winds blowing.
There were no colors now,
everything was dark in the night,
and the night was black
and heavy and silent.

Then, just before dawn, a voice comes from the wood, “clear and more golden than the song of the golden birds.” The little girl hears it in her sleep, and smiles; listening at his window, the old man “remembers all he had forgotten and knew more than he had ever known before.” So it is that Margaret Wise Brown contours the outlines of the transformation, but she lets the reader fill it in with their own meaning, for it is a transcendent experience she writes of, and half a century before her William James had qualified ineffability as one of the four features of transcendent experiences.

The next day when the sun shone
on the house in the field of grass
it woke up the bees and the old man
and the little girl.
And it woke up the boy
who was once more asleep in his own bed.

He had returned with a golden feather piercing his heart and the secret knowledge of the dark wood — the knowledge of life in its totality, ravishing and savage — a magic forest in which darkness and light are forever aflicker in a single enchantment.

As the boy weeded the asparagus
there were times when he sang as he worked.
Sometimes his song was happy
as the birds in the air.
Sometimes his song was sad
like a spring mist in the night;
or like the depths of a lake at noon, very quiet.
But always the songs he sang were such
that the people who came to buy in the afternoon
stayed to listen
and then had to hurry home to their suppers before dark.
And as they walked along the paths to their homes
the winds seemed softer
and the evening star seemed brighter
for their having listened to the boy’s song.

Michael Strange lived through that summer before entering the dark wood in the last weeks of autumn never to return, remaining, as every great love does, imprinted on the song of Margaret Wise Brown’s life.

BP

How to Make the Best of Life: A Visionary Victorian Recipe for Enduring Actualization

“Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”

How to Make the Best of Life: A Visionary Victorian Recipe for Enduring Actualization

Even if we recognize the statistical-existential fact that death is an emblem of our luckiness, most living beings are emphatically averse to the idea of dying. Since the dawn of our species, in our poems and our psalms and our dreams of eternal life, we humans have been petitioning entropy for mercy, for exception, for a felicitous violation of the laws of physics. In prior ages, this was the task of religion, and it was a necessary task — all major religions arose at a time when most children never survived childhood, most people had lost a panoply of parents, children, siblings, and spouses by the end of their twenties, and most never lived past their forties. People needed a pleasing consolation just to live with such staggering levels of loss, and they found it in the soothing notion of an immortal soul that survives the body. In our own epoch, secular notions like cryogenics, transhumanism, and technological singularity have taken on that role, trying to get to immortality through the wormhole of some very slippery semi-science.

But what if the key to immortality was already ours, hidden in the very heart of our humanity, not in our science but in our art? So argues the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler (December 4, 1835–June 18, 1902) — a writer of uncommon foresight into our common future, epochs ahead of his time in his thinking, and still ahead of ours — in a lecture he delivered under the brief “How to Make the Best of Life.”

Samuel Butler

Butler begins by facing the magnitude of the question:

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. One cannot make the best of such impossibilities, and the question is doubly fatuous until we are told which of our two lives — the conscious or the unconscious — is held by the asker to be the truer life.

In a sentiment Richard Dawkins would come to echo two human lifetimes later, Butler adds:

I do not deny that we had rather not die, nor do I pretend that much even in the case of the most favoured few can survive them beyond the grave. It is only because this is so that our own life is possible; others have made room for us, and we should make room for others in our turn without undue repining.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

But then he offers a wondrous perspective on our longing for immortality, both counterintuitive and grounded in the most fundamental truth of life, which is our creative conscience:

Death gives a life to some men and women compared with which their so-called existence here is as nothing. Which is the truer life of Shakespeare, Handel, that divine woman who wrote the Odyssey, and of Jane Austen — the life which palpitated with sensible warm motion within their own bodies, or that in virtue of which they are still palpitating in ours? In whose consciousness does their truest life consist — their own, or ours? Can Shakespeare be said to have begun his true life till a hundred years or so after he was dead and buried? His physical life was but as an embryonic stage, a coming up out of darkness, a twilight and dawn before the sunrise of that life of the world to come which he was to enjoy hereafter.

[…]

Homer and Shakespeare speak to us probably far more effectually than they did to the men of their own time, and most likely we have them at their best.

Considering what determines whether a person is making “the best of life” in this way — whether they are living up to their highest human potential, which ensures they go on living in other lives — Butler locates some of the key in “in the wideness of his or her sympathy with, and therefore life in and communion with other people.” We are able to recognize such everlasting lives “in the wreckage that comes ashore from the sea of time” — but they are not always those who reached greatness in their own lifetime, or those worshipped by the greatest number of posterity:

I do not speak of the Virgils and Alexander Popes, and who can say how many more whose names I dare not mention for fear of offending. They are as stuffed birds or beasts in a museum; serviceable no doubt from a scientific standpoint, but with no vivid or vivifying hold upon us. They seem to be alive, but are not. I am speaking of those who do actually live in us, and move us to higher achievements though they be long dead, whose life thrusts out our own and overrides it. I speak of those who draw us ever more towards them from youth to age, and to think of whom is to feel at once that we are in the hands of those we love, and whom we would most wish to resemble.

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake, 1805. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

If we are attentive enough to our inner lives, we can each recognize the influential dead living within us, whose life’s work has shaped and is shaping our own. (Figuring most dominantly in my own private retinue are Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Thomas, Carl Sagan, and Rilke.) Those who attain such immortality, Butler intimates, are passionate lovers of life, enamored with all the dazzlements of nature and human nature:

We never love the memory of anyone unless we feel that he or she was himself or herself a lover.

[…]

People stamp themselves on their work; if they have not done so they are naught, if they have we have them; and for the most part they stamp themselves deeper on their work than on their talk. No doubt Shakespeare and Handel will be one day clean forgotten, as though they had never been born. The world will in the end die; mortality therefore itself is not immortal, and when death dies the life of these men will die with it — but not sooner. It is enough that they should live within us and move us for many ages as they have and will. Such immortality, therefore, as some men and women are born to achieve, or have thrust upon them, is a practical if not a technical immortality, and he who would have more let him have nothing… He or she who has made the best of the life after death has made the best of the life before it.

With an eye to the imperceptible means by which we come to live in others, as others have come to live in us, he writes:

Unconsciousness is no bar to livingness. Our conscious actions are a drop in the sea as compared with our unconscious ones. Could we know all the life that is in us by way of circulation, nutrition, breathing, waste and repair, we should learn what an infinitesimally small part consciousness plays in our present existence; yet our unconscious life is as truly life as our conscious life, and though it is unconscious to itself it emerges into an indirect and vicarious consciousness in our other and conscious self, which exists but in virtue of our unconscious self. So we have also a vicarious consciousness in others. The unconscious life of those that have gone before us has in great part moulded us into such men and women as we are, and our own unconscious lives will in like manner have a vicarious consciousness in others, though we be dead enough to it in ourselves.

The Dove No. 1 by Hilma af Klint, 1915. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is by the force of our creative vitality, and by the generosity of spirit with which we share it with others, that we attain such immortality in the consciousness of others. Recognizing this as he looks over the landscape of his own creative field — the art of literature — Butler arrives at a common truth for all art:

Will [any artist] hesitate to admit that it is a lively pleasure to her to feel that on the other side of the world someone may be smiling happily over her work, and that she is thus living in that person though she knows nothing about it? Here it seems to me that true faith comes in. Faith does not consist, as the Sunday School pupil said, “in the power of believing that which we know to be untrue.” It consists in holding fast that which the healthiest and most kindly instincts of the best and most sensible men and women are intuitively possessed of, without caring to require much evidence further than the fact that such people are so convinced; and for my own part I find the best men and women I know unanimous in feeling that life in others, even though we know nothing about it, is nevertheless a thing to be desired and gratefully accepted if we can get it either before death or after… Our life then in this world is, to natural religion as much as to revealed, a period of probation. The use we make of it is to settle how far we are to enter into another.

In a lovely sentiment that would have sent Vonnegut into a vigorous nod, he considers the type of person who most readily reaches such immortality in others:

As the life of the race is larger, longer, and in all respects more to be considered than that of the individual, so is the life we live in others larger and more important than the one we live in ourselves. This appears nowhere perhaps more plainly than in the case of great teachers, who often in the lives of their pupils produce an effect that reaches far beyond anything produced while their single lives were yet unsupplemented by those other lives into which they infused their own.

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on slaking our yearning for eternal life and Lisel Mueller’s splendid poem “Immortality,” then revisit Butler’s prophetic admonition for how to save ourselves in the age of artificial intelligence.

BP

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