Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo

I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci as an audiobook (I knew little of Leonardo outside of the sort of standard popular culture stuff that everyone seems to know, so caveat lector for what follows). In many ways it is an ideal audiobook: packed full of interesting facts, an interesting subject (but one that’s not a person or area of particular interest for me), written in a clear “journalistic” style, well narrated by Alfred Molina, accompanied by a detailed .pdf document, etc.

I felt like I received a good introduction to Leonardo, and a list of additional sources I could explore if I wanted to pursue his work and life further, but there was something in Isaacson’s presentation that I found irritating at times. Especially in the introduction and conclusion of the book, there was a certain “You too, can be like Leonardo” emphasis. Not that Isaacson is saying Leonardo wasn’t a genius, and that anyone with a certain set of techniques is able to paint the Mona Lisa. But, he emphasizes a number of times that Leonardo’s genius isn’t due some sort of off-the-charts intellectual horsepower (à la Isaac Newton), but grounded in things a regular person can imitate in her own small way (i.e. curiosity, a child-like sense of wonder, indulging in fantasy etc.).

It’s not that the lessons for creativity that Isaacson draws from Leonardo’s life are bad – in fact, they’re all pretty good advice – everyone could do with a little more wonder. And I don’t think it’s even the sort of “self-helpy”  tone that bothers me (after all, “Every book is self-help”) – it wouldn’t be the route I’d go, but whatever. I think my complaint is more that in his attempts to make Leonardo accessible, Isaacson misses or downplays some of the strangeness of Leonardo. While much of Leondardo’s life and personality remains mysterious (and Isaacson admirably resists the urge to speculate), what we do know makes him seem (to me) deeply strange and eccentric. In the desire to avoid perpetuating the Romantic myths of the “tortured genius” Isaacson perhaps downplays Leonardo’s “otherness” (and perhaps also the “otherness” of Leonardo’s context) too much.

I think many of Isaacson’s readers will think this is a feature rather than a bug. When reading about a historical figure and period, many readers want them to be made accessible, and want to know how the people of the past are “just like us.” Whereas, I’m always suspicious of this sort of equation – I’m always more curious about all the things I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand about a historical figure or time period: an emphasis on the differences rather than the similarities.

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Advent Reading

Here comes the winter night. If we were our oldest ancestors, tucked into draughty recesses of caves with blue hands hugged around us as we slept, we’d be dreaming of summer: we’d be using our human freedom to step away from circumstances to wish that all mornings were June mornings, all noons burned yellow in the sky, all days ended in easy heat under green trees. But for us the night laps comfortably around warm houses. From within our walls the cold seems something to relish. The sharp air outdoors drives the blood from the surface of our fingers only so the soft air inside can return it, tingling. The darkness beyond the window glass gives us the black outer frame for winter comforts like a still-life. Red curtains, green leeks chopped for soup, oranges in a bowl. All glow more because they stand out from a border of shadow.

The opening of “Winter Night”  in Francis Spufford’s essay collection, True Stories & Other Essays (which is as good as one might expect). I don’t have any new recommendations to add to my previous Advent reading ideas (which I still think aren’t too bad). It’s not that there isn’t other stuff out there, I just haven’t really had time to search out new texts for the season.

A lot of my reading this time of year is now taken over with toddlers’ picture books about Christmas and Advent, and I have to say that most of them are pretty bad (ranging from the foolishly sentimental to what can only be described as crass money-grab schemes by publishers trying to cash in on Christmas consumerism). A notable exception is Song of the Stars, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Alison Jay (and I’m sure there are others out there that I’m forgetting or haven’t found yet) which captures the links between the doctrines of creation and incarnation. The book illustrates well the idea that in the incarnation the Creator has come to his own creation – as Athanasius … or Irenaeus … or Gregory Nazianzen (one of those old, bearded guys, anyway) says – and they’re really just echoing John 1 – which should get more Advent season airplay in our contemporary moment. So there you go, I’ve given you an Advent reading recommendation after all.

Oliver O’Donovan on Pride

But when we are simply ‘proud,’ we have not kept our satisfaction focused on the concrete object, just one accomplishment among many accomplishments, but have taken it into our moral self-consciousness. The achievement drops out of sight; what remains is the standing that it leaves us with. This halts in its tracks the dynamic progress of practical reason from one provisional end to the next, from faith to love to hope and back to love again, keeping faith and hope in play until the final end is reached. Pride thus makes absolute the sins against self, world, and time. Agency is re-founded on what we have made of ourselves, instead of being received afresh in faith as God’s gift. The social world becomes our prey, raw material for our self-valuation. Time is seized and over-mastered, since it cannot be endured. The proud individual, people, or civilization no longer learns or does, for it is always having to maintain its position, scanning the world of appearances for proof of its power, technique, or wealth. At the root of its impotence is a moral vacuum, an intolerable doubt as to the point of existence, an inability to live without a surrogate for the meaning it has lost sight of.

Oliver O’Donovan, Entering into Rest

Ellen Ullman in 1998

I fear for the world the Internet is creating. Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties.

But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags.

Ellen Ullman, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, in an essay from 1998 titled “Museum of Me.”

Life will not conform

The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.

Penelope Fitzgerald, at the end of her life, quoted in Hermione Lee’s biography. “Life will not conform” summarizes Fitzgerald’s own struggles in many ways, and is a fundamental theme of her fiction (“life makes its own corrections” as a sledge driver says in The Beginning of Spring). They should probably just stamp it on the back of the books, I’m sure it would boost sales.

(As an aside: Lee is very good at arranging her material. She places this quote just prior to Fitzgerald starting to write and publish, in her late 50s. In another wise decision she discusses the books not in order of publication, but in relation to the parts of Fitzgerald’s life to which they seem most connected – although something like this was inevitable, I suppose, given how late in life Fitzgerald started writing/publishing).

The Present Moment

Ok, I said. As long as I’ve got you here, we’re going to use and appreciate this present moment. Because I wish, and I’ve wished a thousand times since you went, that we’d known it was the present, and that we were living in it.

Ali Smith, Artful

Penelope Fitzgerald (Almost) Writes an Inklings Novel

In old age, Penelope began to sketch out notes for a novel called “Why (or ‘How’) We Were Very Young.” The setting is Oxford in the 1930s, and the main characters are to be J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien lectured to her on Anglo-Saxon and “Middle English,” with occasional readings from The Hobbit (published in 1937). She disliked him for his misogyny and used to refer to the “odious Tolkien.” C. S. Lewis was “darkly red-faced and black-gowned,” talking from the minute he entered the room, “the indispensable teacher, about whom all we personally knew was that he was pipe- and beer-loving, lived outside Oxford, and made a ‘thing’ of disliking the twentieth century. When T. S. Eliot came to read ‘The Waste Land’ to the Poetry Society, Lewis was not there.” Yet her notes sympathetically and comically reconstruct what their lives must have been like.

From Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which deserves all the accolades it has received. Partly because Lee is just a good biographer, and partly because Fitzgerald’s life is better material for a biography than the back-of-the-book notes on her life (or her self-curated public persona) would indicate.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s potential “Inklings novel” (which obviously could have gone a number of directions) really would have been fantastic though. We got The Gate of Angels instead, which is not a bad consolation prize, but … I mean, come on. Both Lewis and Tolkien are, in a number of ways, the sorts of can’t-quite-cope-with-the-world male characters that appear so frequently in Fitzgerald’s novels. It gets me thinking about a contemporary author I could imagine writing an Inklings novel I might actually like to read. A.S. Byatt had Lewis as a tutor as well, I think, but she wouldn’t do a great job with this. Francis Spufford maybe, or Sarah Perry, but their books would be very different than Fitzgerald’s.