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Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a letter to his ten-year-old daughter explaining the importance of evidence in science and in life:. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence. Love is an untamed force.

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When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused. Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up. Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore :. Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.

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Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

Forster in A Room with a View :. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you.

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I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal. It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them. Archival postcards courtesy the New York Public Library. Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price.

That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy. What Is Love? Kurt Vonnegut , who was in some ways an extremist about love but also had a healthy dose of irreverence about it , in The Sirens of Titan : A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved. Stendhal in his fantastic treatise on love : Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.

His disgust at the actions of his fellow sailors may be apparent, but there is little registration of moral outrage. By the end of his trip to Africa, therefore, Hughes has become sated by and distanced from the Continent. The possibility of home in Africa begins to look more and more like the home he left. Still, there is an imaginative space of acceptance even when the reality of acceptance fails. As his poetry makes clear, for Hughes, Africa remains an abstract ideal, a creative space to which one can escape and create what one wants.

Nigeria, Senegal, and other places might not live up to expectations, but the space of the imagination continues to construct Africa as it wishes, and that construction continues to serve a healthy purpose for African American writers. Underlying them all is the notion of heathenism versus civilization. That might also reduce to light versus darkness, education versus illiteracy, Christianity versus idolatry, mind versus body, inhibition versus self expression, and others.

Since Cullen had not traveled to Africa before publishing this poem, he clearly relies upon book learning or hearsay perceptions of Africa. In repetitive rhyme and meter, Cullen depicts Africa as an atavistic force that entices him to break free from so-called civilization, to become wild and unrestrained, to give up refined culture for a taste of the forbidden. Africa is the imaginative space of release, of getting away from the restrictions of civilization. For both Cullen and Hughes, Africa is creative fodder for their imaginations as much as it is an ancestral home.

When they try to project it as home, it runs into contradictions and complications that they find hard to reconcile. Again, what is missing can only be imagined. With McKay, there is the added complication of Jamaican ancestry and experience mitigated by black American experience, which makes him doubly removed from Africa. The ambiguities and longings that McKay and Cullen exhibit are less apparent in the poetry of Gwendolyn Bennett. One of the lesser known Harlem Renaissance writers, Bennett did not publish a volume during the Harlem Renaissance.

Instead, her works were published in various of the magazines that were prominent during the period, such as Crisis, Opportunity, Palms, and Gypsy. She published 22 poems in such journals between and And several of her poems appeared in anthologies, including The Book of American Negro Poetry that James Weldon Johnson originally edited and published in and expanded to include younger poets such as Bennett in This directive was typical of several writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

How could black people undo the damage of history? Undo the damage of slavery? They could claim Africa, assert their beauty over and over again until the masses believed in it. To Bennett, Africanness has been hidden under a minstrel smile. Just as the Harlem Renaissance burst forth as a declaration of independence of sorts for African American writers, so too Bennett wants to see a similar movement for the masses of black people. Look to the past, to Africa, to home, she implies, and find the pride, history and self-love that will enable contemporary African Americans to re-define themselves as healthy and valuable beings.

What separates blacks from America, however, is also what stereotypes, as Bennett pictures a heathen, unrepressed African personality comparable to the one upon which Cullen elaborates. Marcus Garvey It is worth reiterating that the fact that writers of the Harlem Renaissance incorporated Africa into their works is the important thing here.

1. The Primacy of the Aesthetic

It is a pattern that culminated in the s with the Black Arts Movement. In the s, however, no one was more secure in Africa as ancestral and contemporary home than Marcus Garvey , who migrated to the United States from Jamaica and shared that origin with Claude McKay. He even went so far as to purchase a ship, to be the first of what he called The Black Star Line, to transport American and West Indian blacks to Africa.

Recall that the Republic of Liberia was founded by Africans who repatriated from America in the nineteenth century. Garvey wanted to do that during the s. Through a series of elaborate titles and especially through the Harlem parades that featured Garvey and his followers dressed in extravagant, ceremonial clothing, Garvey captured what Africa could mean to black Americans emotionally and visually in the early twentieth century. It was only his mismanagement of funds and his deportation from the United States that brought his dream, which had thousands of believers, to a halt.

Aaron Douglas, Song of the Tower , Writers and artists had close relationships during the Harlem Renaissance, and some of the rising artists provided illustrations for many literary texts of the period.

19th Century Romantic Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Artists found their sources of inspiration in reality as well as in imagination. Indeed, if there is any one artist who symbolizes the African-influenced art of the s, that is Aaron Douglas. Enticed from his job as a high school principal in Kansas to join Hughes, Hurston, McKay, Cullen, and countless others who had come to Harlem, Douglas became iconic with his two-dimensional depictions of black figures. His paintings have been used to illustrate the covers of a number of late twentieth century as well as twenty-first century anthologies and other books.

Douglas remains as much appreciated in the twenty-first century as he was during the third decade of the twentieth century. Perhaps of all the evocations of Africa and home, those put forth by Alain Locke and W. Du Bois have lingered longest and had most consequence. The black American generations of the early twentieth century, Locke asserted, identified with their brothers and sisters on the continent of Africa. They placed race at the center of their selfhood. Locke wrote:. Du Bois was instrumental in organizing the Pan African congresses that took place in Africa in , , and also in and Interested parties met to discuss how dispersed African peoples could move forward together for the goals of mutual progress.

Cooperative movements that have developed since the s show that Locke and Du Bois were on the right track for international cooperation among peoples of African descent. Their historical and realistic approaches to peoples of the African Diaspora serve as the necessary counterpart to the often romanticized notions that the writers presented in their creative works.

Still, the writers needed Africa for their emotional and spiritual development in America, a country that often treated them as non-citizens. All the writers discussed here think of Africa Africa as home—welcoming, embracing, denying, unattainable.

Home can be welcoming, embracing, questioning, denying, elusive, and perhaps even unattainable, but there is ever a reason to reach, to claim, to assert kinship. That pattern is true for how African American writers imagined Africa during the Harlem Renaissance, whether their imaginings had a basis in reality or not.

So long, So far away Is Africa.


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Not even memories alive Save those that history books create, Save those that songs Beat back into the blood— Beat out of blood with words sad-sung In strange un-Negro tongue— So long, So far away Is Africa. Subdued and time-lost Are the drums—and yet Through some vast mist of race There comes this song I do not understand, This song of atavistic land, Or bitter yearnings lost Without a place— So long, So far away Is Africa's Dark face. Begin with where your students are.

A good exercise might be to ask them to detail some of their perceptions of the Continent of Africa. What do they Ask students about their images of Africa and how those images have been shaped. How have their perceptions been shaped—news media, books, movies, hearsay, travel? What can they say, if anything, about the Continent that moves from the realm of generalized perception to specificity? What do they know of African politics, cultures, social life, art, terrain, peoples? Now, turn to contemplate persons of African descent on American soil.

Africa in the African American imagination has not always been as esteemed as it has become since Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Students need to understand that many, if not the majority, of persons of African descent in previous centuries were just as quick to assume heathenish people and practices in Africa as were white travelers to the Continent. A necessary antecedent to understanding the significance of the treatment of Africa in works during the Harlem Renaissance is background knowledge about what these writers were writing against.

Your students, therefore, should become familiar with some of this history of perception and mythologizing. What were the prevailing American notions of Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How did these perceptions influence, shape, or justify the trading in human beings that led to chattel slavery in the New World?

Now, turn to the early literature that African Americans created.


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What is the image that Wheatley has of Africa? By contrast, what is her image of America? This is a good place to begin contemplation of a couple of major dichotomies between African and western cultures. The first is heathenism versus Christianity. The second is barbarism versus civilization.

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Other binaries that recur are light versus darkness and education versus illiteracy.

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Since Cullen had not traveled to Africa before publishing this poem, he is clearly relying upon book learning or hearsay perceptions of Africa. What are the characteristics of each, especially in terms of nature, physicality, and spirituality? Have your students consider early movie representations of Africa, especially those that feature Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. What does this convey about the intersections of white and black American conceptions of and reactions to Africa?

Cullen joined other writers of the Harlem Renaissance in attempting to encourage black pride rooted in African heritage. But there is still ambiguity here. Pride and celebration border on creating stereotype. Be sure to focus on the ways in which romantic or fanciful conceptions of Africa inform literary creation. In what ways do his poems romanticize Africa—if they do? While Bennett was more expansive in her consideration of Africa, the continent was still more fanciful than real for her.