An irreverent invitation to reconsider the world’s givens.
By Maria Popova
The lever by which the human imagination moves the world rests on one little word: if — that linchpin of possibility allowing us to question the way things are and imagine better, truer alternatives for how they might be. “‘What if… ?’ gives us change, a departure from our lives,” Neil Gaiman observed in extolling the power of cautionary questions. “What if there is something I do not yet know?” Tolstoy asked himself in contemplating what gives life meaning. Copernicus toppled God through the implied if of a universe in which we were no longer at the center of significance. Democracy began with the experimental if of a world in which every human being is granted equal opportunity at happiness.
In 1960, more than a decade before he created the iconic I♥NY logo, legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser (b. June 26, 1929) joined forces with his wife, Shirley Glaser, on a series of unusual children’s books composed by Shirley and illustrated by Milton, beginning with one that explores that supreme propulsive force of the human imagination.
Republished for the first time since its original debut more than half a century ago, If Apples Had Teeth (public library) is part poetry, part art, part jubilant nonsense, radiating a simple, playful, yet profound question: Why must things be the way they are, and what if they were otherwise? A century after Mark Twain penned his irreverent Advice to Little Girls, inviting young women to question social mores, the Glasers tug at life’s givens with a playful and pleasantly mischievous curiosity kindred to Twain’s.
“It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled.”
By Maria Popova
“And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers. But in this particular sentiment, the otherwise insightful Nobel laureate seems to have been blind to his own admonition against the dangers of ego, for only the ego can blind an artist to the recognition that all creative work begins with imitation before fermenting into originality under the dual forces of time and consecrating effort.
In his impressive handwritten notes on creativity and the brain, which became the basis of the essay, Sacks had enthused about — in two colors, underlined — the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of the mind engaged in creative work. But, contrary to the archetypal myth of the lone genius struck with a sudden Eureka! moment, this chaos doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, it coalesces from a particulate cloud of influences and inspirations without which creativity — that is, birthing of something meaningful that hadn’t exist before — cannot come about.
With the illustrative example of Susan Sontag — herself a writer of abiding wisdom on the art of storytelling — Sacks traces the inevitable trajectory of creative development from imitation to originality:
Susan Sontag, at a conference in 2002, spoke about how reading opened up the entire world to her when she was quite young, enlarging her imagination and memory far beyond the bounds of her actual, immediate personal experience. She recalled,
When I was five or six, I read Eve Curie’s biography of her mother. I read comic books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias indiscriminately, and with great pleasure…. It felt like the more I took in, the stronger I was, the bigger the world got…. I think I was, from the very beginning, an incredibly gifted student, an incredibly gifted learner, a champion child autodidact…. Is that creative? No, it wasn’t creative…[but] it didn’t preclude becoming creative later on…. I was engorging rather than making. I was a mental traveler, a mental glutton…. My childhood, apart from my wretched actual life, was just a career in ecstasy.
I started writing when I was about seven. I started a newspaper when I was eight, which I filled with stories and poems and plays and articles, and which I used to sell to the neighbors for five cents. I’m sure it was quite banal and conventional, and simply made up of things, influenced by things, I was reading…. Of course there were models, there was a pantheon of these people…. If I was reading the stories of Poe, then I would write a Poe-like story…. When I was ten, a long-forgotten play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R., about robots, fell into my hands, so I wrote a play about robots. But it was absolutely derivative. Whatever I saw I loved, and whatever I loved I wanted to imitate — that’s not necessarily the royal road to real innovation or creativity; neither, as I saw it, does it preclude it…. I started to be a real writer at thirteen.
Sontag’s experience, Sacks argues, reflects the common pattern in the natural cycle of creative evolution — we learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation. He writes:
If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.
When Alexander Pope was thirteen years old, he asked William Walsh, an older poet whom he admired, for advice. Walsh’s advice was that Pope should be “correct.” Pope took this to mean that he should first gain a mastery of poetic forms and techniques. To this end, in his “Imitations of English Poets,” Pope began by imitating Walsh, then Cowley, the Earl of Rochester, and more major figures like Chaucer and Spenser, as well as writing “Paraphrases,” as he called them, of Latin poets. By seventeen, he had mastered the heroic couplet and began to write his “Pastorals” and other poems, where he developed and honed his own style but contented himself with the most insipid or clichéd themes. It was only once he had established full mastery of his style and form that he started to charge it with the exquisite and sometimes terrifying products of his own imagination. For most artists, perhaps, these stages or processes overlap a good deal, but imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity.
Curiously, Sacks points out, many creators don’t make the leap from mastery to such “major creativity” — something Schopenhauer considered in his incisive distinction between talent and genius. Often, creators — be they artists or scientists — content themselves with reaching a level of mastery, then remaining at that plateau for the rest of their careers, comfortably creating more of what they already know well how to create. Sacks examines what set those who soar apart from those who plateau:
Why is it that of every hundred gifted young musicians who study at Juilliard or every hundred brilliant young scientists who go to work in major labs under illustrious mentors, only a handful will write memorable musical compositions or make scientific discoveries of major importance? Are the majority, despite their gifts, lacking in some further creative spark? Are they missing characteristics other than creativity that may be essential for creative achievement — such as boldness, confidence, independence of mind?
It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.
Much of the gamble, Sacks argues, is a kind of patient gestation at the unconscious level — something Einstein touched upon in explaining how his mind worked. Echoing T.S. Eliot’s insistence on the necessity of “a long incubation” in creative work, Sacks adds:
Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well. This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own…. The essential element in these realms of retaining and appropriating versus assimilating and incorporating is one of depth, of meaning, of active and personal involvement.
He illustrates the detrimental absence of such a gestational period with an example from his own experience:
Early in 1982, I received an unexpected packet from London containing a letter from Harold Pinter and the manuscript of a new play, A Kind of Alaska, which, he said, had been inspired by a case history of mine in Awakenings. In his letter, Pinter said that he had read my book when it originally came out in 1973 and had immediately wondered about the problems presented by a dramatic adaptation of this. But, seeing no ready solution to these problems, he had then forgotten about it. One morning eight years later, Pinter wrote, he had awoken with the first image and first words (“Something is happening”) clear and pressing in his mind. The play had then “written itself” in the days and weeks that followed.
I could not help contrasting this with a play (inspired by the same case history) which I had been sent four years earlier, where the author, in an accompanying letter, said that he had read Awakenings two months before and been so “influenced,” so possessed, by it that he felt impelled to write a play straightaway. Whereas I loved Pinter’s play — not least because it effected so profound a transformation, a “Pinterization” of my own themes — I felt the 1978 play to be grossly derivative, for it lifted, sometimes, whole sentences from my own book without transforming them in the least. It seemed to me less an original play than a plagiarism or a parody (yet there was no doubting the author’s “obsession” or good faith).
In a testament to his uncommon empathic might and his endearing generosity of interpretation in regarding others, Sacks reflects on the deeper phenomena at play:
I was not sure what to make of this. Was the author too lazy, or too lacking in talent or originality, to make the needed transformation of my work? Or was the problem essentially one of incubation, that he had not allowed himself enough time for the experience of reading Awakenings to sink in? Nor had he allowed himself, as Pinter did, time to forget it, to let it fall into his unconscious, where it might link with other experiences and thoughts.
The unfortunate playwright seems to have embodied the lamentation which poet Mary Oliver so beautifully articulated in her meditation on the creative life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
All of us, to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it. We found it, we grew up into it, though we may use it, interpret it, in very individual ways. What is at issue is not the fact of “borrowing” or “imitating,” of being “derivative,” being “influenced,” but what one does with what is borrowed or imitated or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.
“It was so pleasant to see a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid.”
By Maria Popova
At twenty-nine, already an outlier in being unmarried and having claimed for herself erudition comparable to what the best formal education offered men at the time, Florence Nightingale (May 12, 1820–August 13, 1910) did something completely radical for a woman in her era — in the winter of 1849, she traveled to a foreign country on another continent with a fundamentally different culture, accompanied only by a middle-aged childless couple she had befriended in Paris through her parents. Nightingale’s beautiful writings from her travels, posthumously published as Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850 (public library), emanate the same critical insight, humane curiosity, and reverence for basic human dignity that would lead her to revolutionize hospital care five years later — work that gained her the moniker “the Lady with the Lamp” and established her as the founder of modern nursing.
In a letter to her sister penned shortly after her arrival in Alexandria, Nightingale considers the key difference between Islam and Christianity as she perceived it:
The Mohametan religion takes man on the side of his passions; it gratifies all these; it offers him enjoyment as his reward. The Christian religion takes him on the side of penitence and self-denial. This seems the fundamental difference: otherwise there is much good in the Mohametan religion. Charity is unbounded; and it is not the charity of patronage, but the charity of fellowship. If any man says to another “Inshallah,” In the name of God, he may sit down at his table and partake of anything that he has, and no man will refuse. The beggar will do this with the greatest dignity. There is no greediness, no rapacity. Nothing of any value is ever stolen from you; there is no need to shut the door: they will take a trifle, but nothing else.
In the large harem there are 200 or 300 wives, and four or five children. But the woman is not a wife nor a mother: she cannot sit down in the presence of her son, her husband is her master, and her only occupation is that of beautifying herself and surpassing the others in his eyes. She becomes his real wife only at his caprice, by a paper given to her, which paper bears that for a certain sum, a few piastres, he may send her away. Then she is satisfied to believe that she will stay at the gate of Paradise, — she, the woman, who has more to suffer than the man, both in heart, and in spirit, and in body.
Still, she approached the foreign culture with a benevolent curiosity, seeking to understand rather than to judge:
I was so very anxious to see the inside of a mosque, to see where my fellow-creatures worshipped…. I am very glad to have done it, though I never felt so uncomfortable in all my life. We had to put on the Egyptian dress: first, an immense blue silk sheet (the head comes through a hole in the middle); then a white stripe of muslin which comes over your nose like a horse’s nose-bag, and is fastened by a stiff passementerie band, which passes between your eyes and over and behind your head like a halter; then a white veil; and lastly, the black silk balloon, which is pinned on the top of your head, has two loops at the two ends, through which you put your wrists, in order to keep the whole together. You only breathe through your eyes: half an hour more, and a brain fever would have been the consequence.
With strict injunctions not to show our hands, we set forth in this gear with the Consul’s janissary, who had been denuded of his robes of office that he might not be known. The Consul followed at a little distance, but would not let Mr. Bracebridge speak to us in the streets, and hovered round the mosque all the while we were there, for fear of a disturbance. Up the steep stairs we went, past the great stone pool of Bethesda, where all the Muslims were kneeling round, washing their arms and faces for prayer, for it was just midday; past a school, where the boys were learning the Koran (see-sawing backwards and forwards the whole tim), into the mosque… arcades, floors lined with matting; a niche towards Mecca, toward which the worshippers turn their faces; a pulpit beautifully carved in network, archway at the bottom of the pulpit, straight stairs to the top; a gallery out of sight, where women are allowed, but only on the evenings of the feasts, and only old women.
Among the dark-skinned local men, the fair Nightingale, visibly foreign and female, grew acutely aware of her otherness — otherness that marked her as an infidel, otherness pointed out to her not in the kindest of ways:
The mosque was full; the people crowded round us, laughing and pointing. I felt so degraded, knowing what they took us for, what they felt towards us. I felt like the hypocrite in Dante’s hell, with the leaden cap on — it was a hell to me. I began to be uncertain whether I was a Christian woman, and have never been so thankful for being so as since that moment. That quarter of an hour seemed to reveal to one what it is to be a woman in these countries…. God save them, for it is a hopeless life. I was so glad when it was over.
But pained as she was to witness and experience the bitter oppression of women in this culture, Nightingale took care to focus on its singular points of sweetness:
Still the mosque struck me with a pleasant feeling…. Some were at their prayers; but one was making baskets, another was telling Arabian Night stories to a whole group of listeners, sitting round him — others were asleep. I am much more struck with the irreverence of a London church.
It was so pleasant to see a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid. Here the homeless finds a home, the weary repose, the busy leisure, — if I could have said where any woman may go for an hour’s rest, to me the feeling would have been perfect.
“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire.”
By Maria Popova
“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote shortly before his death. An entire century earlier, another patron saint of cosmic insight contemplated this enduring question with equal parts wisdom and warm wit — the pioneering astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), a mind amply ahead of her time, who paved the way for women in science and who examined the age-old tension between science and religion throughout the eternally rewarding Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook).
Mitchell’s landmark 1847 comet discovery earned her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — she was the first woman ever inducted, and it would be nearly a century until the second. She later became the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus” — a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world.
As one of the world’s first true academic celebrities, Mitchell had a chance to do something only a handful of her contemporaries did — the girl who came of age on the tiny isolated island of Nantucket grew up to travel the world, visiting various institutions and observatories in England, Italy, and Russia, bringing with her an infinitely compassionate curiosity about the innumerable ways in which life is lived on our pale blue dot.
Although she was brought up in a Quaker home, Mitchell never joined any church and was consistently critical of religiosity — another hallmark of intellectual independence that defied her era’s climate. At her funeral, the president of Vassar College, where Mitchell had educated America’s first class of women astronomers and taught for many years, remarked that Professor Mitchell had devoted her life to the conquest of truth and never accepted any statement without studying its claims herself — an embodiment of Galileo’s tenets of critical thinking.
Upon visiting Rome during her European tour in 1858, Mitchell records a striking reflection on the age-old conflict between science and religion, approaching it, as she did everything, from a thoroughly original perspective rooted in the most elemental truths of existence:
This is the land of Galileo, and this is the city in which he was tried. I knew of no sadder picture in the history of science than that of the old man, Galileo, worn by a long life of scientific research, weak and feeble, trembling before that tribunal whose frown was torture, and declaring that to be false which he knew to be true. And I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.
It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.
In one of her frequent strokes of wry wisdom, Mitchell adds:
It is a very singular fact, but one which seems to show that even in science “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” that the spot where Galileo was tried is very near the site of the present observatory, to which the pope was very liberal.
And yet that very observatory, set in a church built in 1650, was bloodthirsty for martyrdom of a different sort: Mitchell was denied entry on account of her gender and had to seek special permission from the pope himself — a tragic testament to how humanity has long used the oppressive mythologies of religion to assault not only science but justice and basic human dignity as well. (A generation after Mitchell, Mark Twain would condemn how religion is used to justify injustice.)
But Mitchell, ever the observer of nuance, is careful to note that religion, like any technology of thought, can be applied equally in ways that obstruct equality and ways that advance it. During her visit to Russia, she contemplates the local approach to religion as an equalizer of humanity:
I am never in a country where the Catholic or Greek church is dominant, but I see with admiration the zeal of its followers. I may pity their delusions, but I must admire their devotion. If you look around in one of our churches upon the congregation, five-sixths are women, and in some towns nineteen-twentieths; and if you form a judgment from that fact, you would suppose that religion was entirely a “woman’s right.” In a Catholic church or Greek church, the men are not only as numerous as the women, but they are as intense in their worship. Well-dressed men, with good heads, will prostrate themselves before the image of the Holy Virgin as many times, and as devoutly, as the beggar-woman.
Then there is the democracy of the church. There are no pews to be sold to the highest bidder — no “reserved seats;” the oneness and equality before God are always recognized. A Russian gentleman, as he prays, does not look around, and move away from the poor beggar next to him. At St. Peter’s the crowd stands or kneels — at St. Isaac’s they stand; and they stand literally on the same plane.
Most of all, Mitchell condemned the hypocrisies and pretensions of religion. She scoffs in her diary after attending a church service in December of 1866:
[The Reverend] chanted rather than read a hymn. He chanted a sermon. His description of the journey of Moses towards Canaan had some interesting points, but his manner was affected; he cried, or pretended to cry, at the pathetic points. I hope he really cried, for a weakness is better than an affectation of weakness. He said, “The unbeliever is already condemned.” It seems to me that if anything would make me an infidel, it would be the threats lavished against unbelief.
After another service, she finds herself appalled at the abyss between blind faith and fact:
The sermon was wholly without logic, and yet he said, near its close, that those who had followed him must be convinced that this was true.
By the following year, Mitchell’s frustration with religion’s assault on critical thinking reaches a boiling point:
I am more and more disgusted with the preaching that I hear! … Why cannot a man act himself, be himself, and think for himself? It seems to me that naturalness alone is power; that a borrowed word is weaker than our own weakness, however small we may be. If I reach a girl’s heart or head, I know I must reach it through my own, and not from bigger hearts and heads than mine.
Unlike many, who tend to find religion’s escapist promises of immortality more and more alluring as they confront their own mortality, Mitchell grew only more insistent on truth over illusion as her lifetime unfolded. In her final years, she writes of attending a preacher’s sermon at the Universalist church, which of all religious denominations she found most tolerable:
[The Reverend] enumerated some of the dangers that threaten us: one was “The doctrines of scientists,” and he named Tyndale, Huxley, and Spencer. I was most surprised at his fear of these men. Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the search for it?
I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence; and while there live sensualists, despots, and men who are wholly self-seeking, I cannot bear to have these sincere workers held up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth, even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the earth. I am hopeful that scientific investigation, pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring to us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown.
The physical and the spiritual seem to be, at present, separated by an impassable gulf; but at any moment that gulf may be overleaped — possibly a new revelation may come.
In another diary entry, she captures the greatest, plainest frontier of hope for such a reconciliation:
Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.