Simone de Beauvoir’s Philosophy on Finding Meaning in Old Age

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In the leg­end of the Bud­dha, prince Sid­dhartha encoun­ters the poor souls out­side his palace walls and sees, for the first time, the human con­di­tion: debil­i­tat­ing ill­ness, aging, death. He is shocked. As Simone de Beau­voir para­phras­es in The Com­ing of Age, her ground­break­ing study of the depre­da­tions of grow­ing old, Sid­dhartha won­ders, “What is the use of plea­sures and delights, since I myself am the future dwelling-place of old age?” 

Rather than deny his knowl­edge of suf­fer­ing, the Bud­dha fol­lowed its log­ic to the end. “In this,” de Beau­voir writes iron­i­cal­ly, “he dif­fered from the rest of mankind… being born to save human­i­ty.” We are most­ly out to save our­selves – or our stub­born ideas of who we should be. The more wealth and pow­er we have, the eas­i­er it may be to fight the trans­for­ma­tions of age…. Until we can­not, since “grow­ing, ripen­ing, aging, dying – the pass­ing of time is pre­des­tined.”

When she began to write about her own aging, de Beau­voir was besieged, she says, by “great num­bers of peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly old peo­ple [who] told me, kind­ly or angri­ly but always at great length and again and again, that old age sim­ply did not exist!” The hun­dreds and thou­sands of dol­lars spent to fight nature’s effect on our appear­ance only serves to “pro­long,” she writes, our “dying youth.”

Obses­sions with cos­met­ics and cos­met­ic surgery come from an ageism imposed from with­out by what schol­ar Kath­leen Wood­ward calls “the youth­ful struc­ture of the look” — a harsh gaze that turns the old into “The Oth­er.” The aged are sub­ject to a “stig­ma­tiz­ing social judg­ment, made worse by our inter­nal­iza­tion of it.” Ram Dass sum­ma­rized the con­di­tion in 2019 by say­ing we live in “a very cru­el cul­ture” — an “aging soci­ety… with a youth mythol­o­gy.”

The con­tra­dic­tions can be stark. Many of Ram Dass’ gen­er­a­tion have become valu­able fod­der in mar­ket­ing and pol­i­tics for their reli­a­bil­i­ty as vot­ers or con­sumers, a major shift since 1972. But, for all the focus on baby boomers as a hat­ed or a use­ful demo­graph­ic, they are large­ly invis­i­ble out­side of a cer­tain wealthy class. Old age in the West is no less fraught with eco­nom­ic and social pre­car­i­ty than when de Beau­voir wrote. 

De Beau­voir mov­ing­ly describes con­di­tions that were briefly evi­dent in the media dur­ing the worst of the pan­dem­ic – the iso­la­tion, fear, and mar­gin­al­iza­tion that old­er peo­ple face, espe­cial­ly those with­out means. “The pres­ence of mon­ey can­not always alle­vi­ate” the pains of aging, wrote Eliz­a­beth Hard­wick in her 1972 review of de Beauvoir’s book in trans­la­tion. “Its absence is a cer­tain cat­a­stro­phe.”

The prob­lem, de Beau­voir point­ed out, is that old age is almost syn­ony­mous with pover­ty. The elder­ly are deemed unpro­duc­tive, unprof­itable, a bur­den on the state and fam­i­ly. She quotes a Cam­bridge anthro­pol­o­gist, Dr. Leach, who stat­ed at a con­fer­ence, “in effect, ‘In a chang­ing world, where machines have a very short run of life, men must not be used too long. Every­one over fifty-five should be scrapped.’” 

The sen­ti­ment, expressed in 1968, sounds not unlike a phrase bandied around by busi­ness ana­lysts thanks to Erik Brynjolkfsson’s call for human beings to “race with the machines.” It is, even­tu­al­ly, a race every­one los­es. And the push for prof­itabil­i­ty over human flour­ish­ing comes back to haunt us all. 

We car­ry this ostracism so far that we even reach the point of turn­ing it against our­selves: for in the old per­son that we must become, we refuse to rec­og­nize our­selves.” 

De Beauvoir’s response to the wide­spread cul­tur­al denial of aging was to write the first full-length philo­soph­i­cal study of aging in exis­tence, “to break the con­spir­a­cy of silence,” she pro­claimed. First pub­lished as La vieil­lesse in 1970, the book dared tread where no schol­ar or thinker had, as Wood­ward writes in a 2016 re-appraisal: 

The Com­ing of Age is the inau­gur­al and inim­itable study of the scan­dalous treat­ment of aging and the elder­ly in today’s cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties…. There was no estab­lished method or mod­el for the study of aging. Beau­voir had to invent a way to pur­sue this enor­mous sub­ject. What did she do? …. She sur­veyed and syn­the­sized what she had found in mul­ti­ple domains, includ­ing biol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, and the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al record, draw­ing it all togeth­er to argue with no holds barred that the elder­ly are not only mar­gin­al­ized in con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties, they are dehu­man­ized.

The book is just as rel­e­vant in its major points, argues pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy Tove Pet­tersen, despite some sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions that may not hold up now or didn’t then. But the exclu­sions suf­fered by aging women in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties are still espe­cial­ly cru­el, as the philoso­pher argued. Women are still stig­ma­tized for their desires after menopause and cease­less­ly judged on their appear­ance at all times.

De Beauvoir’s study has been com­pared to the exhaus­tive work of Michel Fou­cault, who exca­vat­ed such human con­di­tions as mad­ness, sex­u­al­i­ty, and pun­ish­ment. And like his stud­ies, it can feel claus­tro­pho­bic. Is there any way out of being Oth­ered, pushed aside, and ignored by the next gen­er­a­tion as we age? “Beau­voir claims that the oppressed are not always just pas­sive vic­tims,” says Pet­tersen, “and that not all oppres­sion is total.” 

We may be con­di­tioned to see aging peo­ple as no longer use­ful or desir­able, and to see our­selves that way as we age. But to whol­ly accept the log­ic of this judg­ment is to allow old age to become a “par­o­dy” of youth, writes de Beau­voir, as we chase after the past in mis­guid­ed efforts to reclaim lost social sta­tus. We must resist the back­ward look that a youth-obsessed cul­ture encour­ages by allow­ing our­selves to become some­thing else, with a focus turned out­ward toward a future we won’t see.

As an old Zen mas­ter once point­ed out, the leaves don’t go back on the tree. The leaves in fall and the tree in win­ter, how­ev­er, are things of beau­ty and promise:

There is only one solu­tion if old age is not to be an absurd par­o­dy of our for­mer life, and that is to go on pur­su­ing ends that give our exis­tence a mean­ing — devo­tion to indi­vid­u­als, to groups or to caus­es, social, polit­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al or cre­ative work… In old age we should wish still to have pas­sions strong enough to pre­vent us turn­ing in on our­selves. One’s life has val­ue so long as one attrib­ut­es val­ue to the life of oth­ers, by means of love, friend­ship, indig­na­tion, com­pas­sion.

Bor­row de Beauvoir’s The Com­ing of Age from the Inter­net Archive and read it online for free. Or pur­chase a copy of your own.

via The Mar­gin­a­lian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ram Dass (RIP) Offers Wis­dom on Con­fronting Aging and Dying

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Inter­ests Grad­u­al­ly Wider and More Imper­son­al”

Life Lessons From 100-Year-Olds: Time­less Advice in a Short Film

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


The Atomic Café: The Cult Classic Documentary Made Entirely Out of Nuclear Weapons Propaganda from the Cold War (1982)

Some assume that the term “nuclear fam­i­ly” refers to the Amer­i­can house­hold as con­ceived of in the 1950s: a work­ing father, stay-at-home moth­er, and 2.3 kids under one sub­ur­ban roof. This is a mis­con­cep­tion — “nuclear” sim­ply implies an exclu­sion of extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers — but nev­er­the­less an evoca­tive one. For in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, the zenith of that fam­i­ly arrange­ment coin­cid­ed with the zenith of nuclear weapon­ry. Nukes, one heard, that had won the war, at least against Japan, and nukes that would thence­forth secure the free world against the Red Men­ace.

Instill­ing this per­cep­tion required the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of no small amount of pro­pa­gan­da, espe­cial­ly in the Cold War. It is out of just such pro­pa­gan­da, drawn from news­reels, tele­vi­sion broad­casts, and oth­er forms of media, that Kevin Raf­fer­ty, Pierce Raf­fer­ty, and Jayne Loader made their acclaimed doc­u­men­tary The Atom­ic Café.

It came out in 1982, when the pub­lic’s assump­tions of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary benev­o­lence — and its patience with the coun­try’s seem­ing­ly per­ma­nent arms race against the Sovi­et Union — were run­ning low. These decades-old clips of stren­u­ous­ly pious politi­cians, drawl­ing bomber pilots, ram­bling Bab­bitts, and civ­il defense-ready nuclear (in both sens­es) fam­i­lies could hard­ly have met with more intense cyn­i­cism.

“I was an exact con­tem­po­rary of those kids in this old doc­u­men­tary footage,” writes Roger Ebert in his review The Atom­ic Café. “Life mag­a­zine ran blue­prints for fall­out shel­ters, and Estes Kefau­ver barn­stormed the nation with warn­ings about stron­tium 90 in the milk sup­ply.” In one scene “girls in home ec class­es dis­play their canned goods designed for nuclear sur­vival, and it is clear from their faces that they have no clue of how they would sur­vive nuclear war, and lit­tle hope of doing so.” The film as a whole evokes a time when the Unit­ed States “spent a good deal of its resources on address­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nuclear war, how­ev­er use­less­ly.” We no longer hear much about that pos­si­bil­i­ty, per­haps because it has gen­uine­ly dimin­ished, or per­haps because — as view­ers of The Atom­ic Café will sus­pect even today — the pro­pa­gan­dists are busy con­vinc­ing us of some­thing else entire­ly.

The Atom­ic Café has been put on YouTube by the New York film dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­ny Kino Lor­ber.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How a Clean, Tidy Home Can Help You Sur­vive the Atom­ic Bomb: A Cold War Film from 1954

U.S. Det­o­nates Nuclear Weapons in Space; Peo­ple Watch Spec­ta­cle Sip­ping Drinks on Rooftops (1962)

Pro­tect and Sur­vive: 1970s British Instruc­tion­al Films on How to Live Through a Nuclear Attack

Watch Chill­ing Footage of the Hiroshi­ma & Nagasa­ki Bomb­ings in Restored Col­or

See Every Nuclear Explo­sion in His­to­ry: 2153 Blasts from 1945–2015

J. Robert Oppen­heimer Explains How He Recit­ed a Line from Bha­gavad Gita — “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroy­er of Worlds — Upon Wit­ness­ing the First Nuclear Explo­sion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Christopher Hitchens’ Final Interview: Hear the Newly-Released Uncut Conversation with Richard Dawkins

Nev­er was there such an exhil­a­rat­ing time and place to be inter­est­ed in athe­ism than the inter­net of ten or fif­teen years ago. “Peo­ple com­piled end­less lists of argu­ments and coun­ter­ar­gu­ments for or against athe­ism,” remem­bers blog­ger Scott Alexan­der. One athe­ist news­group “cre­at­ed a Dewey-Dec­i­mal-sys­tem-esque index of almost a thou­sand cre­ation­ist argu­ments” and “painstak­ing­ly debunked all of them.” In turn, their cre­ation­ist arch-ene­mies “went through and debunked all of their debunk­ings.” Read­ers could enjoy a host of athe­ism-themed web comics and “the now-infa­mous r/atheism sub­red­dit, which at the time was one of Reddit’s high­est-ranked, beat­ing top­ics like ‘news,’ ‘humor,’ and — some­how — ‘sex.’ At the time, this seemed per­fect­ly nor­mal.”

This was the cul­ture in which Richard Dawkins pub­lished The God Delu­sion, in 2006, and Christo­pher Hitchens pub­lished his God Is Not Great: How Reli­gion Poi­sons Every­thing in 2007. “I’m not just doing what pub­lish­ers like and com­ing up with a provoca­tive sub­ti­tle,” Alexan­der quotes Hitchens as say­ing.  “I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integri­ty. It says we can’t be moral with­out ‘Big Broth­er,’ with­out a total­i­tar­i­an per­mis­sion, means we can’t be good to one anoth­er with­out this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love some­one whom we fear — the essence of sado­masochism, the essence of abjec­tion, the essence of the mas­ter-slave rela­tion­ship and that knows that death is com­ing and can’t wait to bring it on.”

Dawkins and Hitchens became known as two of the “Four Horse­men of the Non-Apoc­a­lypse,” a group of pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als that also includ­ed Sam Har­ris and Daniel Den­nett. The label stuck after all of them sat down for a two-hour con­ver­sa­tion on video in the fall 2007, dur­ing which each man laid out his cri­tique of the reli­gious world­view. Four years lat­er, Dawkins and Hitchens sat down for anoth­er record­ed con­ver­sa­tion, this time one-on-one and with a much dif­fer­ent tone. Hav­ing suf­fered from can­cer for more than a year, Hitchens seemed not to be long for this world, and indeed, he would be dead in just two months. But his con­di­tion hard­ly stopped him from speak­ing with his usu­al inci­sive­ness on top­ics of great inter­est, and espe­cial­ly his and Dawkins’ shared bête noire of fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gion.

Dawkins, a biol­o­gist, sees in the pow­er grant­ed to reli­gion a threat to hard-won sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge about the nature of real­i­ty; Hitchens, a writer and thinker in the tra­di­tion of George Orwell, saw it as one of the many forms of total­i­tar­i­an­ism that has ever threat­ened the intel­lec­tu­al and bod­i­ly free­dom of humankind. In this, Hitchens’ final inter­view (which was print­ed in Hitchens’ Last Inter­view book and whose uncut audio record­ing came avail­able only this year), Dawkins express­es some con­cern that he’s become a “bore” with his usu­al anti-reli­gious defense of sci­ence. Non­sense, Hitchens says: an hon­est sci­en­tist risks being called a bore just as an hon­est jour­nal­ist risks being called stri­dent, but nev­er­the­less, “you’ve got to bang on.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Does God Exist? Christo­pher Hitchens Debates Chris­t­ian Philoso­pher William Lane Craig (2009)

Is There an After­life? Christo­pher Hitchens Spec­u­lates in an Ani­mat­ed Video

Christo­pher Hitchens: No Deathbed Con­ver­sion for Me, Thanks, But it was Good of You to Ask

Mas­ter Cura­tor Paul Hold­en­gräber Inter­views Hitchens, Her­zog, Goure­vitch & Oth­er Lead­ing Thinkers

The Last Inter­view Book Series Fea­tures the Final Words of Cul­tur­al Icons: Borges to Bowie, Philip K. Dick to Fri­da Kahlo

Richard Dawkins on Why We Should Believe in Sci­ence: “It Works … Bitch­es”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Dolly Parton Reads Free Bedtime Stories to Kids: Watch Readings from Goodnight with Dolly

How­ev­er old you may be, you’re nev­er too old to have a chil­dren’s book read aloud to you by a paja­ma clad Dol­ly Par­ton.

So snug­gle up!

Every episode of Good­night with Dol­ly finds the coun­try music icon in bed, glam­orous­ly made up as ever, read­ing glass­es perched on her nose.

She intro­duces her­self not as Dol­ly Par­ton, but the Book Lady, an hon­orif­ic bestowed by the child ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the Imag­i­na­tion Library, the non-prof­it she found­ed in 1995 to fos­ter children’s love of books and read­ing.

The selec­tions are all titles that Imag­i­na­tion Library par­tic­i­pants have received free in the mail, with the Book Lady’s com­pli­ments.

Once things get rolling, the cam­era shifts to the illus­tra­tions, with Dol­ly’s zesty nar­ra­tion as voice over.

She low­ers her voice to play Grand­pa in the late Floyd Cooper’s Max and the Tag-Along Moon and the freight train in the 90th anniver­sary edi­tion of Wat­ty Piper’s The Lit­tle Engine That Could.

If her dra­mat­ic recita­tions occa­sion­al­ly include a bun­gled prepo­si­tion, we can’t imag­ine authors tak­ing umbrage.

In addi­tion to the mil­lions of chil­dren who ben­e­fit from Imag­i­na­tion Library mem­ber­ship, authors and illus­tra­tors whose titles select­ed for inclu­sion reap incred­i­ble rewards in the form of increased vis­i­bil­i­ty, sales, sta­tus, and of course, the good feel­ing that comes from being part of such a wor­thy project.

And we sin­cere­ly hope even the prick­li­est gram­mar stick­lers won’t blow a gas­ket over the odd “ain’t” and region­alisms born of Dolly’s East Ten­nessee moun­tain roots. In addi­tion to com­ing from an authen­tic place, they’re deliv­ered with a lot of heart and zero affect.

Though a word of cau­tion to par­ents plan­ning to let Dol­ly take over tonight: the series may be billed as bed­time sto­ries, but Parton’s mis­chie­vous sense of humor is liable to have a non-soporif­ic effect.

“Are you still awake?” she crows direct­ly into the cam­era after There’s a Hole in the Log on the Bot­tom of the Lake, author-illus­tra­tor Loren Long’s crowd pleas­ing com­ic spin on the cumu­la­tive camp song sta­ple. “I want to throw you in a lake if you don’t get in bed!”

The Book Lady is also fond of shar­ing a high ener­gy snip­pet of what­ev­er song the evening’s tale has put her in mind of.

Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Mar­ket Street, with award win­ning illus­tra­tions by Chris­t­ian Robin­son, inspires a few lines from Poor Folks Town, from 1972.

Come on down

Have a look around

Rich folks livin’ in a poor folks town

We got no mon­ey but we’re rich in love

That’s one thing that we’ve got a‑plenty of

So come on down have a look around

At rich folks livin’ in a poor folks town

(“If that won’t put you to sleep, I don’t know what will,” she teas­es, after.)

After Dol­ly bids her lis­ten­ers good­night, the book’s author or illus­tra­tor is usu­al­ly giv­en a chance to have a word with the par­ents or care­givers, to stress how read­ing aloud deep­ens famil­ial bonds and share child­hood mem­o­ries of being read to.

De la Peña, whose book fea­tures a grand­moth­er point­ing out the sort of non-mon­e­tary rich­es Dol­ly’s moth­er also val­ued, takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to thank the self-effac­ing star’s efforts to “reach work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties” — pre­sum­ably through rep­re­sen­ta­tion, as well as books intend­ed to cul­ti­vate a life­long love of read­ing.

Enjoy a playlist of Good­night with Dol­ly episodes here.

Learn more about the Imag­i­na­tion Library here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Dol­ly Parton’s Imag­i­na­tion Library Has Giv­en Away 186 Mil­lion Free Books to Kids, Boost­ing Lit­er­a­cy World­wide

Dol­ly Parton’s “Jolene” Slowed Down to 33RPM Sounds Great and Takes on New, Unex­pect­ed Mean­ings

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


How Cinema Inspired Edward Hopper’s Great Paintings, and How Edward Hopper Inspired Great Filmmakers

Edward Hop­per is as Amer­i­can as blue jeans, Coca-Cola, and urban alien­ation, and Amer­i­can in essen­tial­ly the same way: his work is root­ed deeply enough in Amer­i­can cul­ture to be iden­ti­fi­able with it, yet shal­low­ly enough to allow adapt­abil­i­ty into many oth­er cul­tures as well. “All the paint­ings of Edward Hop­per could be tak­en from one long movie about Amer­i­ca, each one the begin­ning of a new scene.” These words come from the Ger­man film­mak­er Wim Wen­ders, who paid direct trib­ute to Hop­per a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago in The End of Vio­lence, and more recent­ly re-cre­at­ed a host of his works in the 3D instal­la­tion Two or Three Things I Know About Edward Hop­per.

Wen­ders may be the par­a­dig­mat­ic Hop­per fan of our time, in part because he makes movies, and in part because he isn’t Amer­i­can. That the influ­ence of Hop­per, the most cin­e­mat­ic of all Amer­i­can painters, man­i­fests in films from all over the world is made clear in the Great Art Explained video essay above. (It sup­ple­ments a pre­vi­ous episode on Hop­per’s Nighthawks.)

Its cre­ator James Payne turns up Hop­per-inspired imagery in the work of such Amer­i­can auteurs as Jules Dassin, Woody Allen, John Hus­ton, Ter­rence Mal­ick, and David Lynch — but also, and even more rich­ly, in the work of such for­eign auteurs as Alfred Hitch­cock, Dario Argen­to, Rain­er Wern­er Fass­binder, Michelan­ge­lo Anto­nioni, and Roy Ander­s­son.

“Hop­per’s vision of Amer­i­can life has had a huge impact on how the rest of the world pic­tures the Unit­ed States,” says Payne. “It is a world that, today, we still call ‘Hop­peresque.’ He is what we think of as a quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can artist, yet he was also a major influ­ence on so many non-Amer­i­can film­mak­ers who saw an inten­si­ty in Hop­per, a sense of empti­ness, and a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that we can all under­stand.” Such artists, in film or oth­er media, “see that the psy­chol­o­gy behind a Hop­per paint­ing can be trans­lat­ed into any cul­ture, and any lan­guage” — includ­ing the lan­guage of K‑pop, itself well on the way to becom­ing world-dom­i­nat­ing cul­tur­al form.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Edward Hop­per “Sto­ry­board­ed” His Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks

How Edward Hopper’s Paint­ings Inspired the Creepy Sus­pense of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Win­dow

Sev­en Videos Explain How Edward Hopper’s Paint­ings Expressed Amer­i­can Lone­li­ness and Alien­ation

What Makes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks a Great Paint­ing?: A Video Essay

Edward Hopper’s Cre­ative Process: The Draw­ing & Care­ful Prepa­ra­tion Behind Nighthawks & Oth­er Icon­ic Paint­ings

10 Paint­ings by Edward Hop­per, the Most Cin­e­mat­ic Amer­i­can Painter of All, Turned into Ani­mat­ed GIFs

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Watch a Jaw-Dropping Visualization of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” Solo

John Coltrane talked about his play­ing in edu­ca­tion­al terms, see­ing him­self as a stu­dent and, through his play­ing, as a teacher of new musi­cal forms and pos­si­bil­i­ties. His most endur­ing les­son may come from what some crit­ics call his first tru­ly icon­ic and most influ­en­tial album, 1960’s Giant Steps. On the record­ing’s title com­po­si­tion, Coltrane meant to chal­lenge him­self, and end­ed up chal­leng­ing gen­er­a­tions of musi­cians.

“The under­ly­ing har­mon­ic move­ment of Coltrane’s 16-bar com­po­si­tion — often called the ‘Coltrane Changes’ — has long been a set­tled mod­ule in jazz edu­ca­tion ped­a­gogy,” writes Stu­art Nichol­son in an essay for Jazz­wise. Cit­ing Coltrane schol­ar and biog­ra­ph­er Lewis Porter, Nichol­son calls the com­po­si­tion “effec­tive­ly an étude — or a thor­ough study — of third-relat­ed chord move­ment”: 26 chords and 10 key changes between 3 keys, B, G, and Eb.

This was new ter­ri­to­ry; with the title track to Giant Steps, Coltrane left the blues, which he’d stretched to the lim­it on Blue Train (his only record as a band­leader for Blue Note). He was recov­er­ing from his great­est life les­son — get­ting fired from Miles Davis’ band and get­ting clean — and fol­low­ing through on a real­iza­tion he’d had in the ear­ly fifties after join­ing Dizzy Gille­spie’s band: “What I did­n’t know with Diz,” he said, “was that what I had to do was real­ly express myself. You can only play so much of anoth­er man.”

Coltrane’s “oth­er man” was Char­lie Park­er, but as he moved away from Park­er as hero and began to study under Monk and Miles, he devel­oped his own impro­vi­sa­tion­al style, dubbed “sheets of sound,” and his own approach to play­ing chord pro­gres­sions: the “Coltrane changes.” On “Giant Steps,” Coltrane pushed the dia­ton­ic scale almost to break­ing (a cre­ative intu­ition giv­en that “dia­ton­ic” derives from a Greek word mean­ing “to stretch” or “extend”). Coltrane stretched, but he did­n’t pull his changes out of thin air.

Many of the ideas were already there in the canon — in Jerome Kern’s 1917 “Till the Clouds Roll By” and Duke Elling­ton’s “Blue Rose,” notes Carl Woideck for the Library of Con­gress. “Not rec­og­nized at the time, the sec­ond half of ‘Giant Steps’ was tak­en direct­ly from a pas­sage in the­o­rist Nico­las Slonim­sky’s ‘The­saurus of Scales and Melod­ic Pat­terns’ which vis­its the same three keys that the first half of Coltrane’s piece does.”

It took a mind and will like Coltrane’s to draw these threads togeth­er into the har­mon­ic com­plex­i­ty of “Giant Steps.” The com­po­si­tion’s “relent­less chord changes of key cre­ate a har­mon­ic obsta­cle course that is dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate, more so at this rapid tem­po,” Woideck writes. This is espe­cial­ly so for soloists, as pianist Tom­my Flana­gan found out when he almost lost the thread in his solo sec­tion.

In the visu­al­iza­tion above by Har­lan Broth­ers, we see Coltrane sail through his solo, bounc­ing off his band while they work through the changes. “Instead of just visu­al­iz­ing the sax solo,” writes Broth­ers, “I thought it would be super fun to be able to see how the entire quar­tet inter­act­ed,” includ­ing Flana­gan, bassist Paul Cham­bers, and drum­mer Art Tay­lor. See Coltrane’s changes hit like col­ored drops of rain in a down­pour in the ani­ma­tion and learn more about how it was made at Broth­er’s YouTube page.

Coltrane’s com­plex­i­ty is daunt­ing for the most accom­plished musi­cians. How much more so for non-musi­cians? It can seem like “you need a doc­tor­ate of music to go any­where near his record­ings,” Nichol­son writes. But “noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.” With its danc­ing lines and cir­cles, Broth­er’s visu­al­iza­tion gives us anoth­er way to appre­ci­ate the “sheer joy of music mak­ing and the pow­er and ener­gy of his play­ing” that inspires stu­dents, seri­ous fans, and new­com­ers alike through “uni­ver­sal val­ues that still speak to us now.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How John Coltrane Intro­duced the World to His Rad­i­cal Sound in the Ground­break­ing Record­ing of “My Favorite Things”

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Mean­ing of Music in the Human Expe­ri­ence: Lis­ten to One of His Final Inter­views (1966)

John Coltrane Draws a Mys­te­ri­ous Dia­gram Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal & Mys­ti­cal Qual­i­ties of Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Jordan Peele as Auteur of the Film Nope — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #131


Jor­dan Peele’s launch from a sol­id com­e­dy base with Com­e­dy Cen­tral’s Key & Peele show to the unex­pect­ed hor­ror film Get Out was so impres­sive that he’s gen­er­at­ed a huge amount of good will that allows him to play the full-on auteur with huge bud­gets. Did that pay off with his third film, the mon­ster movie Nope?

Your Pret­ty Much Pop host Mark Lin­sen­may­er is joined by Lawrence Ware (phi­los­o­phy prof. and enter­tain­ment writer), Sarahlyn Bruck (nov­el­ist and writ­ing prof.), and Nicole Pomet­ti (media artist and pod­cast­er) to sec­ond guess Peele’s var­i­ous cre­ative deci­sions.

A few arti­cles we reviewed include:

Fol­low us @law_writes, @sarahlynbruck, @remakespodcast, @MarkLinsenmayer.

Hear more Pret­ty Much Pop. Sup­port the show and hear bonus talk­ing for this and near­ly every oth­er episode at or by choos­ing a paid sub­scrip­tion through Apple Pod­casts. This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts.

Vienna’s Albertina Museum Puts 150,000 Digitized Artworks Into the Public Domain: Klimt, Munch, Dürer, and More

Though it may not fig­ure promi­nent­ly into the aver­age whirl­wind Eurail trip across the con­ti­nent, Vien­na’s role in the devel­op­ment of Euro­pean cul­ture as we know it can hard­ly be over­stat­ed. Grant­ed, the names of none of its cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions come mind as read­i­ly as those of the Pra­do, the Uffizi Gallery, or the Lou­vre. But as muse­ums go, Vien­na more than holds its own, both inside and out­side the neigh­bor­hood apt­ly named the Muse­um­squarti­er — and not just in the phys­i­cal world, but online as well. Recent­ly, the Alberti­na Muse­um in Vien­na put into the pub­lic domain 150,000 of its dig­i­tized works, all of which you can browse on its web site.

“Con­sid­ered to have one of the best col­lec­tions of draw­ings and prints in the world,” says, the Alberti­na boasts “a large col­lec­tion of works by Albrecht Dür­er (1471–1528), a Ger­man artist who was famous for his wood­cut prints and a vari­ety of oth­er works.” Here on Open Cul­ture we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured the genius of Dür­er as revealed by his famed self-por­traits. We’ve also fea­tured visu­al exege­ses of the art of Vien­na’s own Gus­tav Klimt as well as Edvard Munch, two more recent Euro­pean artists of great (and indeed still-grow­ing) repute, works from both of whom you’ll find avail­able to down­load in the Alberti­na’s online archive.

Those inter­est­ed in the devel­op­ment of Dür­er, Klimt, Munch, and oth­er Euro­pean mas­ters will espe­cial­ly appre­ci­ate the Alberti­na’s online offer­ings. As an insti­tu­tion renowned for its large print room and col­lec­tions of draw­ings, the muse­um has made avail­able a great many sketch­es and stud­ies, some of which clear­ly informed the icon­ic works we all rec­og­nize today. But there are also com­plete works as well, on which you can focus by click­ing the “High­lights” check­box above your search results. To under­stand Europe, you’d do well to begin in Vien­na; to under­stand Europe’s art — includ­ing its pho­tog­ra­phy, its posters, and its archi­tec­ture, each of which gets its own sec­tion of the archive — you’d do well to begin at the Alberti­na online.


Relat­ed con­tent:

The Genius of Albrecht Dür­er Revealed in Four Self-Por­traits

136 Paint­ings by Gus­tav Klimt Now Online (Includ­ing 63 Paint­ings in an Immer­sive Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty Gallery)

Explore 7,600 Works of Art by Edvard Munch: They’re Now Dig­i­tized and Free Online

30,000 Works of Art by Edvard Munch & Oth­er Artists Put Online by Norway’s Nation­al Muse­um of Art

Take Immer­sive Vir­tu­al Tours of the World’s Great Muse­ums: The Lou­vre, Her­mitage, Van Gogh Muse­um & Much More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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