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“Your imagination… is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence… a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.”
By Maria Popova
Two years before she fused her childhood impression of a mechanical loom with her devotedly honed gift for mathematics to compose the world’s first computer program in a 65-page footnote, Ada Lovelace postulated in a letter that creativity is the art of discovering and combining — the work of an alert imagination that “seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition.”
Her father — the poet Lord Byron, rockstar of the Romantics — embodied this in his own work, fusing influences* as diffuse in time, space, and sensibility as Confucius and Virgil, Erasmus Darwin and and Mary Shelley, Greek tragedy and Galilean astronomy, to compose some of the world’s most original* and enduring poetry.
A century and a poetic revolution after him, Rilke captured this combinatorial nature of creativity when he contemplated what it takes to write anything of beauty and substance.
All poets — “poets” in Baldwin’s broad sense of “the only people who know the truth about us,” encompassing all artists, all makers of beauty and knowledge, all shamans of our self-knowledge — understand this intimately, and therefore understand the most elemental truth about creativity: that *these two words are chimeras of the ego.
There is no blank slate upon which works of true originality are composed, no void out of which total novelty is created. Nothing is original because everything is an influence; everything is original because no influence makes its way into our art untransmuted by our imagination. We bring to everything we make everything we have lived and loved and tessellated into the mosaic of our being. To be an artist in the largest sense is to be fully awake to the totality of life as we encounter it, porous to it and absorbent of it, moved by it and moved to translate those inner quickenings into what we make.
That is what Nick Cave, part Byron and part Baldwin for our own time, explores in an issue of his Red Hand Files — the online journal in which he takes questions from fans and answers them in miniature essays of uncommon insight, soulfulness, and sensitivity, opening up improbable backdoors into those cavernous chambers where our most private yet common bewilderments about art and life dwell, and filling those chambers with the light of sympathetic understanding.
When a fan from my own neighborough asks Cave how he muffles all of his influences in order to hear his own inner voice and trust that he is making something wholly his own, he answers with his characteristic poetics of numinous pragmatism:
Nothing you create is ultimately your own, yet all of it is you. Your imagination, it seems to me, is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence, and is not intrinsic to you, rather it is a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.
Your spirit is the part of you that is essential. It is separate from the imagination, and belongs only to you. This formless pneuma is the invisible and vital force over which we toss the blanket of our imagination — that habitual mix of received information, of memory, of experience — to give it form and language. In some this vital spirit burns fiercely and in others it is a dim flicker, but it lives in all of us, and can be made stronger through daily devotion to the work at hand.
In consonance with Black Mountain College poet and ceramicist M.C. Richards’s lovely notion of creativity as the poetry of our personhood and with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s concept of “composing a life” — which captures with such poetic precision the fundamental fact that our very lives are the ultimate creative work — Cave adds:
Worry less about what you make — that will mostly look after itself, and is to some extent beyond your control, and perhaps even none of your business — and devote yourself to nourishing this animating spirit. Bring all your enthusiasm to bear on the development of that good and essential force. This is done by a commitment to the creative act itself. Each time you tend to that ingenious spark it grows stronger, and sets afire the ordinary gifts of the imagination. The more dedication you show to the process, the better the work, and the greater your gift to the world. Apply yourself fully to the task, let go of the outcome, and your true voice will appear. You’ll see. It can be no other way.
There are echoes here of Whitman, who declared in his “Laws of Creation” for “strong artists and leaders… and coming musicians” that to create means only to “satisfy the Soul”; there are echoes, too, of Mary Oliver and her invocation of “the third self” — that crucible of our creative energy, which demands of us to give it both power and time.
“Whosoever… is overrun with solitariness, or carried away with pleasing melancholy and vain conceits… or crucified with worldly care, I can prescribe him no better remedy than… to compose himself to the learning of some art or science.”
An impressive florilegium nearing a thousand pages strewn with a progenitor of hypertext, the book weaves together a cornucopia of quotations from earlier writers, from Seneca to Solomon, to illustrate Burton’s central points — many radical then, some radical still — about a subject he examines “philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up”; a subject of which he had an early and intimate experience. “That which others hear or read of,” he wrote, “I felt and practised myself; they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholizing.”
Burton was only a teenager when he was plunged into his first episode of debilitating depression — a term that did not yet exist in the modern sense, because mental health did not yet exist as a clinical concept. This “melancholy,” which often left him with “a heavy heart and an ugly head,” was so disabling that it took him more than a decade to complete his studies at Oxford. He kept trying to leave the university and start an independent life, but never quite managed, lamenting his “hopes frustrated” and feeling “left behind, as a Dolphin on shore.”
Eventually — centuries before psychologists demonstrated that revising our inner narrative about a situation is the only way to improve our experience of that situation — Burton reoriented to his circumstance, coming to feel that his “monastick life” protected him “from those tumults & troubles of the world.” Out of this conflicted isolation, he composed The Anatomy of Melancholy, subtitled What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, & severall cures of it.” It went on to touch lives as varied as Samuel Johnson, Jorge Luis Borges, and Nick Cave. Keats — whose brief and light-giving life was punctuated by periodic onslaughts of darkness — declared it his favorite book.
Like Whitman did with his Leaves of Grass, Burton kept obsessively revising and expanding his magnum opus, publishing five more editions by the end of his life — no small triumph for a book in the first century since the Printing Revolution, or a book in any era, especially one nearly a thousand pages long.
Burton inhabited the golden age of Renaissance anatomy, when Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings peered into the distant future of medicine. But medicine then was still as crude as a stone blade directed at the body, to the total Cartesian exclusion of the mind. Psychology was not even a faint contour in humanity’s imagination. The birth of neuroscience was still three and a half centuries away. That Burton applied a term of physiology to the understanding of a psychology not yet born is already a staggering leap of the imagination. But even as a progressive of his era, he was also — like every visionary — a product of his era. (Which is alright — as I often say, even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of understanding; to expect of them otherwise is ahistorical hubris and an act of cruelty toward the limits of their time and place, which they chose no more than we have chosen ours.) Burton endorsed the humoral theory of the human body, navigated life-decisions by astrological calculations, earnestly believed in a physiological basis for men’s intellectual superiority, celebrated barbarisms like hunting and hawking as spiritually worthy recreations, and excluded women from all recreations of the mind, relegating them to “curious needleworks,” the making and showing off of “confections, conserves, distillations, &c.,” and the tending to “sweet-smelling flowers” in the garden.
And yet, through his convoluted Old English and his epochal blind spots, there shines a bright and clear light of understanding — a beam stretching backward and forward in time, to the dawn of our species and to the far future of our science, illuminating what it means to be human and what we can do to magnify the light of our humanity even in our darkest hours.
This, indeed, is a word Burton cherishes: Epochs before I borrowed the lovely phrase Patti Smith borrowed from William Blake in living the life-resolution to seek out what magnifies your spirit, magnify is the word Burton uses over and over for the activities he most recommends as salves for depression — he writes of how reading, walking, and art “much magnify” the person who partakes of them; four centuries before neurologist Oliver Sacks reflected on forty years of medical practice to point to gardens as one of the two things that have most helped his patients heal, Burton writes of a royal garden that “highly magnifies” the visitor’s spirit.
This is the essence of his insight — the way our physiological experience and our psychological experience can magnify each other. He writes:
To that great inconvenience, which comes on the one side by immoderate and unseasonable exercise, too much solitariness and idleness on the other, must be opposed as an antidote, a moderate and seasonable use of it… both of body and mind… conducing to… the general preservation of our health.
Perched in time between the dawn of medicine with Galen and Hippocrates, and holistic healthcare as we now know it, Burton distills what those before him prescribed for good health. He observes that of the “labours, exercises, and recreations” most commonly recommended, “some properly belong to the body, some to the mind, some more easy, some hard, some with delight, some without, some within doors, some natural, some are artificial.” He then goes on to make his own recommendation for the activities most potent as antidotes to melancholy. Alongside running and dancing, country sports and city gymnastics, he devotes an especially lovely passage to the one bodily activity most beloved by fertile minds.
To walk amongst orchards, gardens, bowers, mounts, and arbours, artificial wildernesses, green thickets, arches, groves, lawns, rivulets, fountains… brooks, pools, fishponds, between wood and water, in a fair meadow, by a river side… in some pleasant plain, park, run up a steep hill sometimes, or sit in a shady seat… [is] a delectable recreation.
Noting that such recreations can uniquely “refresh and give content to a melancholy dull spirit,” and that they are universally and readily available to just about anyone anywhere, he adds:
Every palace, every city almost hath its peculiar walks, cloisters, terraces, groves, theatres, pageants, games, and several recreations; every country, some professed gymnics to exhilarate their minds, and exercise their bodies.
From the exercise of the body, Burton turns to the exercise of the mind, evaluating various contenders for the perfect antidote to melancholy.
There is chess, “invented (some say) by the general of an army in a famine, to keep soldiers from mutiny” — an activity he considers “good and witty exercise of the mind,” sure to allay melancholy in those who are “idle, and have extravagant impertinent thoughts, or troubled with cares, nothing better to distract their mind, and alter their meditations.” But he hastens to caution that chess “may do more harm than good” if you become too invested in its mastery — then, chess can become “too full of anxiety” and turn into “a testy choleric game” causing grave distress to the brittle ego of the loser who is already in low spirits.
Then there are acts of charity and philanthropy, “which are harmless jests, and have their good uses,” but people often perform them “to exhilarate themselves and others” — acts often used to prop the doer’s own ego, with little long-term circumstances of those upon whom they are bestowed. (Here too Burton is far ahead of his time, presaging our still dawning understanding of the paradoxes of aid in notions like “effective altruism” and “impact investing.”)
With this, he arrives at his most confident prescription. Centuries before T.H. White dreamt up the adventures of King Arthur’s court and put into the mouth of his Merlyn the mightiest consolation for sorrow , Burton offers:
Amongst those exercises, or recreations of the mind within doors, there is none so general, so aptly to be applied to all sorts of men, so fit and proper to expel idleness and melancholy, as that of study… Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned, [or] observe what our forefathers have done, the beginnings, ruins, falls, periods of commonwealths, private men’s actions displayed to the life, &c… Who is not earnestly affected with a passionate speech, well penned, an elegant poem, or some pleasant bewitching discourse?… To most kind of men it is an extraordinary delight to study. For what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts, and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader? In arithmetic, geometry, perspective, optics, astronomy, architecture, sculpture, painting… in mechanics and their mysteries, military matters, navigation, riding of horses, fencing, swimming, gardening, planting… in music, metaphysics, natural and moral philosophy, philology, in policy, heraldry, genealogy, chronology… What so sure, what so pleasant?
Whosoever he is therefore that is overrun with solitariness, or carried away with pleasing melancholy and vain conceits, and for want of employment knows not how to spend his time, or crucified with worldly care, I can prescribe him no better remedy than this of study, to compose himself to the learning of some art or science.
With the sensitive disclaimer that overabsorption in the life of the mind can itself become a source of melancholy, he adds:
Study is only prescribed to those that are otherwise idle, troubled in mind, or carried headlong with vain thoughts and imaginations, to distract their cogitations… and divert their continual meditations another way. Nothing in this case better than study… As meat is to the body, such is reading to the soul.
In all nature what is there so stupendous as to examine and calculate the motion of the planets, their magnitudes, apogees, perigees, eccentricities, how far distant from the earth, the bigness, thickness, compass of the firmament, each star, with their diameters and circumference, apparent area, superficies, by those curious helps of glasses, astrolabes, sextants, quadrants… arithmetic, geometry, and such like arts and instruments?
Burton returns to the necessary balance of bodily and mental exercise in lifting the grey gauze of melancholy:
Body and mind must be exercised, not one, but both, and that in a mediocrity; otherwise it will cause a great inconvenience. If the body be overtired, it tires the mind. The mind oppresseth the body, as with students it oftentimes falls out, who (as Plutarch observes) have no care of the body.
A posy of subtle illumination from the garden of life.
By Maria Popova
“Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being,” wrote Rumi. “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.”
Eight centuries later, we go on spending our lives trying to win something we don’t fully understand but are constantly defining, and we go on betting on all the wrong things: We mistake admiration, visibility, and the trappings of success for love, we mistake being powerful for being loved, we mistake needing for loving.
True maturity is largely a matter of unlearning all these confusions acquired in the course of costuming ourselves with adulthood. So it is that only the very young and the very old seem to remember the elemental truth about love — love not as a bargaining chip but as the living prize, both vulnerable and wildly tenacious, radiant with Iris Murdoch’s timeless definition of it as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”
That gladsome, reality-broadening understanding comes abloom on the pages of What Is Love? (public library) by author Mac Barnett and artist Carson Ellis — a poetic modern fable reimagining with uncommon tenderness and originality the oldest quest narrative: that ancient hero’s journey of discovery and homecoming.
In a gesture that is itself the deepest solution to the riddle of life and love, she enfolds him in an embrace and tells him that she does not have an answer — but that he might find it if he goes out into the world. This is Barnett’s subtle summation of what it means to be human — we long for love, we long to understand how the world works, and spend our lives foraging for understanding as we make our uncharted way through the wilderness of being.
The answers he encounters bewilder him — each strange and suspect if taken literally, each shimmering with the intimation of some larger abstract truth, each almost absurdly particular yet shining a sidewise gleam on some spect of the universal. Along the way, love emerges as a sculpture of understanding — the stone of all it is not, carved away to reveal the essence that is, a form delicate yet robust.
It glimmers and splashes,
just out of reach.
And the day that you catch it,
if you know what you’re doing,
you give it a kiss
and throw it back in the sea.
When the boy grimaces and pronounces his disgust at fish, with their sliminess and their alien eyes, the fisherman sighs, “You do not understand,” and we are instantly reminded that while the human imagination began in the metaphor-machine of children’s minds, metaphors are, in poet Jane Hirshfield’s lovely phrase, Elida Estate Catuai Natural ASD — and, sometimes, we must first know to imagine.
And so the boy moves through the world, gathering knowledge of its variousness and of the touching ways in which its creatures go about foraging love. “Love is applause,” the actor tells him. Love is a seed the farmer holds up. Love is the night to the cat.
As the long poem of life unspools into the setting sun, we suddenly see the boy-pilgrim grown — now a young man, making his way back to the little house where his gardener-grandmother is now a very old woman, still tending to her sunflowers.
“Nothing in the upper world can compare with the luxury of this nether realm of the sea, with its colors, its atmosphere of mystery, of poise, and tranquility.”
By Maria Popova
“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore,” the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote as she reckoned with the ocean and the meaning of life, “we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.” Fifteen years earlier, she had invited the human imagination into the wonders of the underwater world — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — in an unexampled essay that later bloomed into her 1951 book The Sea Around Us, which won her the National Book Award and rendered her the most venerated science writer on the landmass.
Carson dedicated the book to the pioneering explorer, marine biologist, ornithologist, and Wildlife Conservation Society naturalist William Beebe, who had gone deeper than any human had gone before in his epoch-making 1930s dives in the Bathysphere — the spherical submersible Beebe dreamt up with the deep-sea diver and engineer Otis Barton, his sole companion inside the miniature globe reaching for the bottom of the world.
It had only been a generation since the German oceanographer Carl Chun’s pioneering Valdiva expedition had emerged with stunningly illustrated evidence defying humanity’s shallow imagination, which had long deemed life below 300 fathoms impossible. But for all the wonders the Valdiva saw, it could not escape the blind spots of its epoch — the creatures it discovered were abducted from their underwater homes and dredged up for the scientists to study on the surface, lifeless.
The Bathysphere reined in a new era of closer and more compassionate study, making Beebe the first scientist to observe deep-sea wildlife in their habitat, unharmed in their alien aliveness, moving silent and splendid amid a world he saw as “stranger than any imagination could have conceived,” irradiated by an “indefinable translucent blue quite unlike anything” known in the upper world.
Upon returning from his first dive in the Bathysphere in 1930, Beebe exulted on the pages of the New York Zoological Society Bulletin:
Here, under a pressure which, if loosened, in a fraction of a second would make amorphous tissue of a human being, breathing our own homemade atmosphere, sending a few comforting words chasing up and down a string of hose, here I was privileged to sit and try to crystallize something of value, seeing through inadequate eyes and interpreting by a mind wholly unequal to the task.
Despite his lyrical gift with language, Beebe knew that words could only reach so far in conveying the complexity and wonder of the undersea world to humans whose eyes would never see it and whose imagination had not begun to fathom it.
“Adequate presentation of what I saw on these dives is one of the most difficult things I ever attempted,” he reflected, likening the splendid irreducibility of it all to that of asking a foreigner who has spent a few hours in New York City to describe America.
A century after Walt Whitman imagined the “wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths” of the unimaginable “world below the brine,” what opened the terrestrial imagination to the realities of that unseen and unfathomed world was the artwork of Else Bolstelmann (1882–1961) — some of it preserved in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wonderful digital collections and featured in a Drawing Center exhibition; some, along with her surviving papers, brought to light by oceanographer Edith Widder in her heroic resuscitation of Bostelmann’s forgotten story; some hunted down and restored in my own dives into out-of-print publications and antiquarian collections.
Born in Germany, where she was already an established artist before marrying an American cellist and emigrating to New York in her late twenties, Bostelmann was approaching fifty when she heard that the National Geographic Society was sponsoring a trailblazing oceanographic expedition to explore the wonders of the deep, launching from Beebe’s research station off the coast of Bermuda’s marvelously named Nonsuch Island.
A single mother widowed for nearly a decade, keen to put her artistic gift of beauty in the service of our search for scientific truth, she got a hold of Beebe via the New York Zoological Society at the Bronx Zoo, offering her time and talent to his endeavor. Beebe — who believed in the power of the fine arts to render the mysteries of nature and the abstractions of science real — was instantly taken with her exuberant precision, with the striking colors emanating from an unfaltering fidelity to form, and hired her as scientific artist for the expedition.
In Bermuda, Else Bostelmann went on to create more than three hundred stunning plates of marine creatures, many of them previously unseen by human eyes. Two centuries after a Dutch engraver and atlas-maker gave the world the half-imagined fantastical fishes of the first marine encyclopedia illustrated in color, Bostelmann brought to life the whimsy of reality.
Astonishingly, Bostelmann never submerged in the Bathysphere herself — she later recalled that because she was the single mother of a teenage daughter, Beebe could not bring himself to put her in danger. (Not an unreasonable worry, given that on one of the unpeopled test submersions, something went awry and the Bathysphere filled with water, certain to have vanquished any human life therein.)
Going only by Beebe’s verbal descriptions, dictated from the underwater wonderland via a telephone line inside the hose by which the Bathysphere dangled from the ship, she became the marine biologist’s prosthetic eye, a human periscope in reverse, bringing to life the strange and wondrous creatures of the deep — flying snails and whiskered shrimp and saber-toothed fish — in watercolor, gouache, and pencil.
Upon his return to the surface, Beebe recalled that the two of them would go into an “artistic huddle” and slowly refine the “proportions, size, color, lights,” and other details of his “brain fish,” integrating his memory of the sight with the artwork, until a “splendid finished painting” emerged.
Spiked and tentacled and bioluminescent, monstrous and magical with their prehistoric jaws and their otherworldly colors, Bostelmann and Beebe’s co-created creatures peer out of her paintings with their perpetually wonder-stricken lidless eyes and ever-hungry mouths. She gave them titles like Big Bad Wolves of an Abyssal Chamber of Horrors and grew especially enchanted by the saber-toothed viper fish. She delighted in their strangeness, in their marvelous monstrosity, in her role as imagist of the deep sublime.
Illustrating Beebe’s books and essays for the general public, and paying for her daughter’s education, Bostelmann’s artwork made its way into magazines and museums, into National Geographic and the New York Academy of Sciences, inspiring generations of scientists and awakening millions of ordinary people to the otherworldly enchantments of our home planet.
In an era when women — including trained scientists like Carson — were still not allowed on government research vessels, Bostelmann was one of several female artists and scientific collaborators who accompanied Beebe on his expeditions. That Beebe — widely remembered as a man of warmhearted sincerity and generosity of spirit — put women in leadership positions no doubt speaks to his values, an epoch ahead of his era. But he was also a pragmatist — in assembling his team, he sought “adaptable scientific students” willing to go along with his daring ideas and he found that women often had those qualities. When Theodore Roosevelt visited Beebe’s “little party of naturalists,” he found them partaking of that “rare combination of working had at a task in which their souls delighted, and also taking part in a thrilling kind of picnic.” Science, at its best, is indeed just that — a feast of knowledge on a flying picnic-blanket of wonder.
But as much as Bostelmann cherished her rare access to the world’s unseen wonders, she could not reconcile this reverie for the grandeur of life with the cruelties of science, as commonly practiced in her day. The animals she drew from “specimens” ranged from smaller than a pea to longer than a foot — each a “mythic creature drawn up from the murky, unexplored depths of the ocean,” each revealing “a new world of undreamt beauty” under the microscope, yet each robbed of life on the way to her desk. As she watched them emerge from the rose-tinted waters in the trawl nets at sunset, she sorrowed for the “little captives” and eulogized their lot with uncommon compassion. More than half a century before Thomas Nagel’s classic What Is It Like to Be a Bat? challenged our human consciousness — and conscience — to imagine the creaturely experience of creatures radically unlike us but also aglow with sentience and sensitivity, Bostelmann wrote:
The fish have made a long journey up to my table and, far from their home in eternal night, they have found here an unsought destiny. For hours, perhaps, they had been pulled along in one of the long silk nets trailing behind the stern of a sea going tug. From the net there was no way of escape, nor from the Mason jar fastened at the very end of the net. Thus, from the depths of an everlasting night — about 1000 fathoms — and an ice cold temperature, through an enormous change of pressure, they had been drawn up into a sun-flooded world where they could not possibly adjust themselves. For these reasons they lay lifeless before me.
And so she decided to draw from life, at the bottom of the ocean where life dwelled.
Although Bostelmann never submerged in the Bathysphere, she took dives of her own closer to the surface, clad in sneakers, a red bathing suit, and the era’s cutting-edge aquanaut equipment, which a mere century later appears to us as a specimen from the Atlantis of time, as exotic as Lancelot’s armor. (Being an artist above all else, she actually preferred the shallower waters, as she found that below 25 feet the world lost much of its color, particularly the fiery reds and oranges she so loved — those longer-wavelength colors easiest for water molecules to absorb and snatch from human eyes, leaving only glimmers of the shortest-wave blues and purples in the deep ocean.)
Writing with ravishing poetry of sentiment, in a language not her native, Bostelmann described her rapturous first encounter with what she called the “submarine fairyland,” into which she descended from a rickety forty-foot metal ladder with a sixteen-pound copper diving helmet pressing down on her shoulders:
I felt suddenly suspended in a maze of turquoise-green color as I swayed uncertainly back and forth on the ladder… Through the glass window of the helmet, I still saw the coastline with its white sand, its leaning cedars, and its little houses among which was my island home. But all were now distorted in a very unnatural way by the surface ripples. Hesitantly, step by step, I went downward, thrilled with the expectancy of the vast unknown.
At around ten feet below, a sudden pain pierced her ears, making it unthinkable to go a step further. But as she looked around, the wonder of it all — “a magnificent valley with peaks of tall coral reefs, swaying sea-plumes, slender gorgonians, purple sea-fans” — dissolved any awareness of the pain, and down she went, until her feet touched “the softest, whitest sand imaginable in which the gentle current had designed symmetrical ripples.”
She had arrived. The surface shimmered six fathoms above her, only about the height of a two-story house, yet a world apart. Hers was the magical realism of reality’s magic, the origami of time, folding past and future into a single form of absolute aliveness:
I had descended to fairyland… I felt as though I were viewing a grand stage setting. Vertical sunbeams broke through the absolute brightness of these levels. Spellbound, I feasted my eyes on fantastic coral formations which, only a short distance way, aded into blue shadowy silhouettes, building themselves up into columns and castles of unknown architecture. Bridges, as I approached them, proved to be bent-over sea-plumes; slender corals reared in the near distance like phantom towers. Everywhere absolute stillness — yet ceaseless activity. For all these formations are colonies of tiny living creatures which, during untold years, have been building their coral dwellings one upon another, the new upon the old.
There, Else Bostelmann set about drawing from life.
On her first dive, she took a small zinc engraver’s plate with a steel pencil attached to it, hoping to record the rough contours of the life-forms she saw. This quickly proved a doomed endeavor — she could barely bend her head without losing her air supply, and the underwater pressure made her hands move at glacial speed as she attempted to drag the pencil over the plate.
Next, with the science-informed confidence that oil paint would retain both its consistency and its brilliancy because it couldn’t mix with water, she tried taking real paint and brushes down below — tying her paintbrushes to one handle of a wash-tub, squeezing paint colors on its bottom as if it were a palette, and tying a string to the other handle to drag the entire contraption behind her as she dove with the canvas under her other arm.
This, too, ended up “quite amusing” a flop: First, she realized she could only paint by laying her supplies onto the ocean floor and awkwardly kneeling over them; then, reaching for the blue paint but dipping her paint in the green, she realized that her human eyes were not adapted to judging even these most proximate distances accurately underwater; finally, upon reaching back to the palette for the correct color, she realized that in her discombobulation, she had forgotten to tie it and the current had carried it away.
But she persisted. After many dives and much experimentation, she finally arrived at her proper underwater studio setup: Using a music stand as an easel, she tied a stretched canvas onto it and had another crew member lower it by rope from the boat after her descent. To her palette, filled with the colors of the rainbow and weighed down with lead, she tied her paintbrushes and delighted in watching their wooden handles float felicitously upright, bobbing in the gentle current.
With this improbable and inventive system, Bostelmann captured the essential form and color of what she saw, which she then developed in finer detail at her surface studio, managing thus to “record correct colors of unbelievable charm from some of Nature’s grandest compositions.” Nothing like it had been attempted before, and nothing like it has been accomplished since.
By the end of the 1930s — a decade that marked a Copernican revolution in our understanding of life in the bluest regions of our pale blue dot — Bostelmann wrote of the submarine fairyland she had rendered real and rapturous for the oversea world:
All this artistic beauty of the wonder world of the shallow waters, as well as of the mysterious realms of the deep ocean, has existed for aeons of time all unknown to us. But now we can utilize it, bring it within reach of our modern life, enjoy it as part of our daily existence.
Nothing in the upper world can compare with the luxury of this nether realm of the sea, with its colors, its atmosphere of mystery, of poise, and tranquility. No modern adventure can surpass the supreme joy of exploring its unique grandeur.