Esteemed thinker: Robert Louis Stevenson

wolf It is a difficult task being a reader today, not because there is not enough to read, but rather there is too much. Unlike those who lived in a time where all published material was executed by a printer, who had the laborious job of setting out one block letter at a time and manually turning a press that would emboss the ink to the paper… words today fly off the screen and are dumped into the ethereal airspace… so many pieces of writing that it would be presumptuous to believe we could count them all. Henceforth, we the reader has to decipher and manage this material like panning with a sieve to separate sand from gold nuggets, what we believe to be fact from fiction … and by following this procedure, as I stated before, it can only be sorted as a most cumbersome and challenging act.

And just like those professions who we trust to be sincere and honorable, so do we often believe is true for the author…yet naively often we wander into their passages and articles…like Little Red Riding Hood in the forest… just perhaps we need to be more wary of the wolf.

Robert Louis Stevenson Today’s blog brings to you the esteemed thinker: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Scottish poet, novelist, and essayist. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he became one of the most celebrated authors, having penned such great works as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was a most prolific and notable writer; giving us pause to wonder what are the elements that fuels such literary grandness that were achieved by our acclaimed Mr. Stevenson; for once you become engrossed in his work it is hard not to concur that he demonstrates classical distinction.

So, I bid you to set aside a moment to read from his essay: “The Morality of the Profession of Letters” and then you will understand a bit of his thinking… discovering the constitutional make-up of a great writer.

“….Man is imperfect; yet, in his literature, he must express himself and his own views and preferences; for to do anything else is to do a far more perilous thing than to risk being immoral: it is to be sure of being untrue. To ape a sentiment, even a good one, is to travesty a sentiment; that will not be helpful. To conceal a sentiment, if you are sure you hold it, is to take a liberty with truth. There is probably no point of view possible to a sane man but contains some truth and, in the true connection, might be profitable to the race. I am not afraid of the truth, if any one could tell it me, but I am afraid of parts of it impertinently uttered. There is a time to dance and a time to mourn; to be harsh as well as to be sentimental; to be ascetic as well as to glorify the appetites; and if a man were to combine all these extremes into his work, each in its place and proportion, that work would be the world’s masterpiece of morality as well as of art. Partiality is immorality; for any book is wrong that gives a misleading picture of the world and life. The trouble is that the weakling must be partial; the work of one proving dank and depressing; of another, cheap and vulgar; of a third, epileptically sensual; of a fourth, sourly ascetic. In literature as in conduct, you can never hope to do exactly right. All you can do is to make as sure as possible; and for that there is but one rule. Nothing should be done in a hurry that can be done slowly. It is no use to write a book and put it by for nine or even ninety years; for in the writing you will have partly convinced yourself; the delay must precede any beginning; and if you meditate a work of art, you should first long roll the subject under the tongue to make sure you like the flavour, before you brew a volume that shall taste of it from end to end; or if you propose to enter on the field of controversy, you should first have thought upon the question under all conditions, in health as well as in sickness, in sorrow as well as in joy. It is this nearness of examination necessary for any true and kind writing, that makes the practice of the art a prolonged and noble education for the writer…”

Marie Curie and names

baby name_toned Selecting a name is not something that we take lightly, for whatever it is that you are naming…may it be a baby, a pet, or even a website, we want it to be received with favor. Names for children are often given because we wish to pay respect to another person. It may be a name for an individual who is alive or deceased. Some parents choose names for their newborn after a famous person or just select one that seems to suit that new member by the way they smile; you know that angelic divine baby face gurgle… Pets are often named because of the way they look…like Spot or Fluffy; or the way we wish them to be perceived by temperament such as Lover; and then some pets are named for the way they behave such as Frisky.

A name for an invention or gadget is often delivered with the intent of giving the user a sneak peek at its purpose …like the ever- famous “Salad Spinner” and “Mr. Coffee”. Some names as in a business however, really don’t do anything except perhaps glorify… such as “McDonalds” or “ Trump Tower”.

The idea of pondering names are prevalent as far back as we wish to travel…for we can see that Shakespeare entertained the notion when he wrote the dialogue in Romeo and Juliet Act ii Scene II…
“…What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,..”
Here Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called “Montague”, not the Montague name nor the Montague family.

Whatever name and for whatever reason we choose, it is most certain that time was or will be spent mulling over that decision. I for one am pleased with the prospect…for the name selected is the one that will carry you for a very long time…

Curie on bank note And so for today’s blog I bring back Marie Curie, world renowned Polish physicist and chemist who together with her husband, Pierre Curie, discovered two new elements… radium and polonium. In July 1898 they were able to announce to the world the definitive discovery of one of these substances…the problem was what to call it, whereby Pierre enlisted his wife to name it.

Let take a moment to read the words of Madame Curie taken from the Proceeding of the Academy …remembering that although she was in France, her heart belonged to her beloved homeland, Poland.

“ We believe the substance we have extracted from pitchblende contains a metal not yet observed, related to bismuth by its analytical properties. If the existence of this new metal is confirmed we propose to call it polonium, from the name of the original country of one of us.”

Esteemed thinker: Marie Curie

Marie curie_toned The first time you looked through a telescope and saw craters of the moon and the first time you placed a celery stalk in water mixed with food coloring and its leaves turned from green to blue… you knew you were in the presence of magic. Oh, not the fake kind of magic where your Uncle was hiding the coin in his other hand…even the ‘young’ you understood this was a trick! No, it’s the kind of magic that seduces you, a yearning to learn more … it’s the special magic that nagged at your youthful imagination to find out what makes the leaves turn colors in autumn, why does the wind whistle through the oak’s canopy, and how is it that the firefly wears a little light that goes on at night… the real magic that comes alive with knowledge.

Just perhaps this is how it must be for the life of the scientist; a quest to discover or uncover magic. Of course I am using magic as a metaphor in relationship to scientific discovery, however just for a moment think about it …it often seems like such work would be aligned with the spirit of wonderment… almost a childishly magical realm…

And so with the thoughts of the magic in science, today’s blog brings you the esteemed thinker: Marie Curie; given name Maria Salomea Skłodowska and best known as Madame Curie (1867-1934)… legendary woman scientist… pioneer in the study of radioactivity. Born in Russian occupied Poland, at the age of fifteen she obtained a higher education (forbidden to girls in Poland) from a clandestine, revolving academy for women taught in private homes. In 1891 she went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne where she met and married the French professor and physicist Pierre Curie (1895). Their life together was mutually respected whereby their research and discoveries led the way for future generations. Marie Curie’s life is nothing short of a heroine, having earned two Nobel Prizes in Physics and in Chemistry and culminating in the tragic death from radium; the very discovery that brought her fame.

So, let us take pause to hear a bit of her words during a debate she presided over in Madrid (1933) on “The Future of Culture”. We will celebrate this extraordinary woman with a brief but solitary moment out of own busy day…

“… I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: *he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its own beauty. Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and it akin to curiosity… ”

* it is curious that Madame Curie only used the masculine pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ although she herself was a great and renown scientist at this time in her life. However, when we reflect back with the knowledge that women in France had only gained the right to vote in 1944 (by the order of 21 April 1944 adopted by the provisional government of General de Gaulle in Algiers) it really is not too curious after-all…

Esteemed thinker: John Locke

experience When we look back upon our day or night we often compile the hours as bits of experiences. What we did, what we ate, who we interacted with… and as a result of these experiences we often evaluate the day or night; whereupon if asked we would respond with, “I had a good day or bad day depending upon the experience encountered. And if we were to collect these continuances, we could stretch this element of time into years, thus compiling quite the grand allotment of experiences.

However, an experience is really an idea for you can’t manufacture in the same category with a tangible item…rather it is a personal state of mind, something that we have collected and stored in the crevices of our brain, only to retrieve at will or sometimes involuntarily as a resurrection of a nightmarish or traumatic “experience”.

Experiences formulate our conceptions, our perceptions, and even how we react to people, places and things… for if our episode was met with an unsatisfactory encounter…it can leave a lasting impression, and what is an impression…merely another intangible idea denoted by a strong feeling from the immediate effect of our experience…

John Locke Today’s blog takes us back a bit to the 17th century where we will meet the esteemed thinker: John Locke ( 1632-1704), English philosopher and physician whose influence on the philosophy of politics was so powerful that he is thought of as the founder of philosophical liberalism. His book Essay on the Human Understanding is considered his greatest work upon which he is most famous for. He opposed the foremost idea of “innate principles’ which contended that “we are all born knowing certain fundamental principles, such as “whatever is, is.” Rather, he presented his argument against innate knowledge, asserting that “human beings cannot have ideas in their minds of which they are not aware, so that people cannot be said to possess even the most basic principles until they are taught them or think them through for themselves.”

So, let us take time to ponder Mr. Locke’s idea and drift back the 1600s where we will read a selection from his Essay of Human Understanding, Book II…

“… All Ideas come from Sensation or Reflection. Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:—How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the MATERIALS of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either, about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the MATERIALS of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring…

The mind thinks in proportion to the matter it gets from experience to think about. Follow a child from its birth, and observe the alterations that time makes, and you shall find, as the mind by the senses comes more and more to be furnished with ideas, it comes to be more and more awake; thinks more, the more it has matter to think on. After some time it begins to know the objects which, being most familiar with it, have made lasting impressions. Thus it comes by degrees to know the persons it daily converses with, and distinguishes them from strangers; which are instances and effects of its coming to retain and distinguish the ideas the senses convey to it. And so we may observe how the mind, BY DEGREES, improves in these; and ADVANCES to the exercise of those other faculties of enlarging, compounding, and abstracting its ideas, and of reasoning about them, and reflecting upon all these; of which I shall have occasion to speak more hereafter…”

William Carlos Williams and the short story

williams Being succinct is often more difficult than being lofty. This is the realm of the short story writer; for the task of such an author is to come full circle; to satiate with a satisfying balance of beginning, middle, and end… all the while maintaining a full and open throttle…driving the plot in a degree that it sustains the interest of the reader while not diverging off course. Take no side trips, no matter how lovely a place they could lead you, for the short story is like the plane on a scheduled fight…we don’t wish the pilot to deviate from the flight plan.

And so I must confess that this blogger likes to read and write the short story even though it sometimes appears to have lost its momentum in the 21st century… yet I maintain that it is still alive and kicking…you just have to go into the gardens and weed them out…

Which brings us to today’s post where a path was cleared away again for our esteemed thinker: William Carlos Williams; poet, writer and defender of the modern literature and art movement in the 20th century. From his notes so aptly titled A Beginning on the Short Story, I have plucked from his writing a portion for us to ponder. I give you, Mr. Williams and the short story…

“… One chief advantage as against a novel- which is its nearest cousin-is that you do not have to bear in mind the complex structural paraphernalia of a novel on writing a short story and so may dwell on the manner, the writing. On the process itself. A single stroke, uncomplicated but complete. Not like a chapter or paragraph. Thus bearing a possible novel in mind, if you will, you can play with words as materials. You can try various modes of writing-more freely.Try all sorts of effects. The short story is a wonderful medium for prose experimentation. You may, economically try devices- varied devices-for making the word count toward a particular effect. … And be careful not to imitate yourself-like how many others. Remember: the imagination! The short story has all the elements of a larger work-but in petto. Dash off a story in an evening- any old way, try to follow the action of some characters you can imagine. Sit down blind and start to fling the words around like pigments-try to see what nature would do under the same circumstances –let ’em go and (without thinking or caring) see where they’ll lead you. You may be surprised-you may even end up as a disciplined writer…”

Esteemed thinker: Willliam Carlos Williams

cave If we were posed with the question of” who is considered to be the first artist” we may find a multitude of diverse answers. For we would have to ask ourselves, what are we defining as “art”. For the sake of continuity, let me suggest that perhaps the walls of the El Castillo Cave in Cantabria, Spain served as the first canvas a mere 40,000 years ago. And then there are the very famous Lascaux Caves in France which host the wall drawings of horses, human figures, and abstract signs that we are quite familiar with… Maybe these prehistoric galleries are samples of our first graffiti artists. Alas, I would have to say “no” to the latter since the only means of a platform to draw upon were the cave walls…for all other natural elements such as bark would have disintegrated…and unlike materials for today’s artist … there was no paper, cloth, or even papyrus.

So, what is a work of art? We all have our own opinion, which varies in styles and individual favorites with the same degree of assortment as the changes in weather; and if you rather not trouble yourself with a personal constitution defining what makes up “a work of art” … there is always the critic that does… and will surely bestow their “expert” opinion.

So, to help us weed through some ideas regarding art, I bring to you today’s esteemed thinker: William Carlos Williams (1883 -1963), medical doctor and writer who influenced modern 20th century poetry with his unconventional approach to imagery, “lack of form”, and the use of the “American language”. Williams was considered a modernist in his style; writing a prolific body of work that included essays about literature, music, and painters. He contributed to literary magazines and was a highly sought after lecturer. In 1963 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Pictures from Brueghel.

william carlos williams Let us pause today for Mr. Williams and read from his Selected Essays (1931), “Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist”…taking note of his honest approach with the subject…and when you are finished you may contemplate the caves…is it indeed art?

“… I’ve been writing a sentence, with all the art I can muster. Here it is: A work of art is important only as evidence, in its structure, of a new world which it has been created to affirm.
Let me explain.
A life that is here and now is timeless. That is the universal I am seeking: to embody that in a work of art, a new world that is always “real”.
All things otherwise grow old and rot. By long experience the only thing that remains unchanged and unchangeable is the work of art. It is because of the element of timelessness in it, its sensuality. The only world that exists is the world of the senses. The world of the artist… That is the artist’s work. He might well be working at it during a bombardment, for the bombardment will stop. After a while they will run out of bombs. Then they will need something to fall back on: today. Only the artist can invent it. Without today everything would be lost and they would have to start bombing again as they always do, to hide the lack. If the artist can finish before the attack is over it will be lucky. He is the most important artisan they have.
The work an artist has to do is the most important creation of civilization. It is also its creator…”

Esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis

Jacob riis “A picture speaks a thousand words…” An adage that we have all heard, all recognize by its metaphoric content; but I wonder… is this the rallying cry of the photojournalist? For when we are witness to that “split second” moment caught on film, it is forever documented. With the camera being in our hands as early as the 1800s, we are able to step back in time and literally spy upon our days-gone-by; often its effect has the ability to embellish or diminish our perception of the past.

Early photographers like their counterpart the early journalists and writers often became the champions of the disenfranchised; describing and photographing parts of society that were often ignored, brushed aside, or even invisible to the public who were not in immediate contact of those less fortunate.

And so, today’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) social reformer, writer, and photographer that brought to light the plight of the city’s poor. Riis himself was an immigrant that arrived in New York City in 1870 from Denmark. Having taken many different jobs, he became a police report and began to document the slums of New York City. Through his writings and photography he became a change agent, fighting for reform, for better housing, sanitation, care for the poor, and especially the children. He believed that all men who were moral citizens, regardless of economic status, should have an opportunity to better their lives and break free from poverty. His book of 1890, How the Other Half Lives created public uproar and intitiated a movement for change.

huddle riis From one of his many works titled, The Battle of the Slum, we cannot help but be moved by his firsthand account. Here is Mr. Riis in his own words….

“… The slum is as old as civilization. Civilization implies a race, to get ahead. In a race there are usually some who for one cause or another cannot keep up, or are thrust out from among their fellows. They fall behind, and when they have been left far in the rear they lose hope and ambition, and give up. Thenceforward, if left to their own resources, they are the victims, not the masters, of their environment; and it is a bad master. They drag one another always farther down. The bad environment becomes the heredity of the next generation. Then, given the crowd, you have the slum ready-made…”

“…High rents, slack work, and low wages go hand in hand in the tenements as promoters of overcrowding. The rent is always one fourth of the family income, often more. The fierce competition for a bare living cuts down wages; and when loss of work is added, the only thing left is to take in lodgers to meet the landlord’s claim. The midnight visit of the sanitary policeman discloses a state of affairs against which he feels himself helpless. He has his standard: 400 cubic feet of air space for each adult sleeper, 200 for a child. That in itself is a concession to the practical necessities of the case. The original demand was for 600 feet. But of 28,000 and odd tenants canvassed in New York, in the slumming investigation prosecuted by the general government in 1894, 17,047 were found to have less than 400 feet, and of these 5526 slept in unventilated rooms with no windows. No more such rooms have been added since; but there has come that which is worse…”

housing riis