When Sci-Fi Legend Ursula K. Le Guin Translated the Chinese Classic, the Tao Te Ching

Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”

Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”

Perhaps no Chinese text has had more lasting influence in the West than the Tao Te Ching, a work so ingrained in our culture by now, it has become a “changeless constant,” writes Maria Popova. “Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.” It speaks directly to us, we feel, or at least, that’s how we can feel when we find the right translation.

Admirers of the Taoist classic have included John Cage, Franz Kafka, Bruce Lee, Alan Watts, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom were deeply affected by the millennia-old philosophical poetry attributed to Lao Tzu. That’s some heavy company for the rest of us to keep, maybe. It’s also a list of famous men. Not every reader of the Tao is male or approaches the text as the utterances of a patriarchal sage. One famous reader had the audacity to spend decades on her own, non-gendered, non-hierarchical translation, even though she didn’t read Chinese.




It’s not quite right to call Ursula Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching a translation, so much as an interpretation, or a “rendition,” as she calls it. “I don’t know Chinese,” she said in an interview with Brenda Peterson, “but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation.” She used the Carus as a “touchstone for comparing other translations,” and started, in her twenties, “working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.”

Le Guin drew out inflections in the text which have been obscured by translations that address the reader as a Ruler, Sage, Master, or King. In her introduction, Le Guin writes, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” To immediately get a sense of the difference, we might contrast editions of Arthur Waley’s translation, The Way and Its Power: a Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, with Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way.

Waley’s translation “is never going to be equaled for what it does,” serving as a “manual for rulers,” Le Guin says. It was also designed as a guide for scholars, in most editions appending around 100 pages of introduction and 40 pages of opening commentary to the main text. Le Guin, by contrast, reduces her editorial presence to footnotes that never overwhelm, and often don’t appear at all (one note just reads “so much for capitalism”), as well as a few pages of endnotes on sources and variants. “I didn’t figure a whole lot of rulers would be reading it,” she said. “On the other hand, people in positions of responsibility, such as mothers, might be.”

Her version represents a lifelong engagement with a text Le Guin took to heart “as a teenage girl” she says, and found throughout her life that “it obviously is a book that speaks to women.” But her rendering of the poems does not substantially alter the substance. Consider the first two stanzas of her version of Chapter 11 (which she titles “The uses of not”) contrasted with Waley’s CHAPTER XI.

Waley

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the vessel depends.

Le Guin

Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where is it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.

Le Guin renders the lines as delightfully folksy oppositions with rhyme and repetition. Waley piles up argumentative clauses. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny,” Le Guin comments in her note,” a quality that doesn’t come through in many other translations. “He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.”

Such images captivated the earthy anarchist Le Guin. She drew inspiration for the title of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, perhaps showing how she reads her own interests into a text, as all translators and interpreters inevitably do. No translation is definitive. The borrowing turned out to be an example of how even respected Chinese language scholars can misread a text and get it wrong. She found the “lathe of heaven” phrase in James Legge’s translation of Chuang Tzu, and later learned on good authority that there were no lathes in China in Chuang Tzu’s time. “Legge was a bit off on that one,” she writes in her notes.

Scholarly density does not make for perfect accuracy or a readable translation. The versions of Legge and several others were “so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension,” writes Le Guin. But as the Tao Te Ching announces at the outset: it offers a Way beyond language. In Legge’s first few lines:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.

Here is how Le Guin welcomes readers to the Tao — noting that “a satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible — in the first poem she titles “Taoing”:

The way you can go 
isn’t the real way. 
The name you can say 
isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed: 
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul 
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul 
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin, 
but different in name, 
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries! 
The door to the hidden.

All images of the text courtesy of Austin Kleon. 

Related Content: 

Ursula K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

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

Saint John Coltrane: The San Francisco Church Built On A Love Supreme

Little of San Francisco today is as it was half a century ago. But at the corner of Turk Boulevard and Lyon Street stands a true survivor: the Church of St. John Coltrane. Though officially founded in 1971, the roots of this unique musical-religious institution (previously featured here on Open Culture) go back further still. “It was our first wedding anniversary, September 18, 1965 and we celebrated the occasion by going to the Jazz Workshop,” write founders Franzo and Marina King on the Church’s web site. “When John Coltrane came onto the stage we could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit moving with him.” Overcome with the sense that Coltrane was playing directly to them, “we did not talk to each other during the performance because we were caught up in what later would be known as our Sound Baptism.”

Or as Marina puts it in this new short documentary from NPR’s Jazz Night in America, “The holy ghost fell in a jazz club in 1965, and our lives were changed forever.” This was the year of Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme, a jazz album that, in the words of The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, “isn’t merely a collection of performances. It’s both one unified composition and, in effect, a concept album. And the core of that concept is more than musical — it’s the spiritual, religious dimension.”




Coltrane, as the documentary tells it, composed the suite in isolation, determined to go cold-turkey and kick the heroin habit that got him fired from Miles Davis’ band. In the process he underwent a “spiritual awakening,” which convinced him that his music could have a much higher purpose.

It was Coltrane’s early death in 1967 that clarified the Kings’ mission in life, eventually prompting them to convert the latest in a series of jazz spaces they’d been running into a proper house of worship. “John Coltrane became their Christ, their God,” writes NPR’s Anastasia TsioulcasA Love Supreme “became their central text, and ‘Coltrane consciousness’ became their guiding principle.” Over the past 50 years, their church has endured its share of hardships. In the early 1980s a lifeline appeared in the form of the African Orthodox Church, whose leaders wanted to bring it into the fold but had, as Fanzo remembers it, one condition: “John Coltrane cannot be God, okay?” Then the Kings remembered a remark Coltrane conveniently made in a Japanese interview to the effect that, one day, he’d like to be a saint. Thenceforth, St. Coltrane it was: not bad at all for a sax player from North Carolina.

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The History of Spiritual Jazz: Hear a Transcendent 12-Hour Mix Featuring John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock & More

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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 or on Facebook.

Alan Watts Reads “One of the Greatest Things Carl Jung Ever Wrote”

Carl Jung founded the field of analytical psychology more than a century ago, and many reference his insights into the human mind and condition still today. Alan Watts certainly did his bit to keep the Jungian flame alive, whatever the outward differences between a Swiss psychiatrist and an English interpreter of Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, especially of the Zen variety. Both men believed in casting a wide spiritual net, all the better to expose the common core elements of seemingly disparate ancient traditions. And in so doing they could hardly afford to ignore the religious underpinnings of the European civilization, broadly speaking, from which they emerged. In fact, Watts became an ordained Episcopal priest at the age of 30 — though, owing to the complexities of his beliefs as well as his personal life, he resigned the ministry by age 35.

But Watts’ investment in certain tenets of Christianity endured, and he named as one of Jung’s greatest writings a lecture delivered to a Swiss clergy group. “People forget that even doctors have moral scruples and that certain patient’s confessions are hard even for a doctor to swallow,” begins the speech as Watts reads it aloud in the video above. “Yet the patient does not feel himself accepted unless the very worst in him is accepted too. No one can bring this about by mere words. It comes only through reflection and through the doctor’s attitude towards himself and his own dark side.” To help another person, in other words, one must first accept that person as he is; but to accept another person as he is first requires taking oneself straight, less-than-admirable qualities and all.




According to Watts, Jung himself demonstrated this rare self-awareness. “He knew and recognized what I sometimes call the element of irreducible rascality in himself,” says Watts in a talk of his own previously featured here on Open Culture. “He knew it so strongly and so clearly, and in a way so lovingly, that he would not condemn the same thing in others, and would therefore not be led into those thoughts, feelings, and acts of violence towards others which are always characteristic of the people who project the devil in themselves upon the outside, upon somebody else, upon the scapegoat.” As Jung puts it to his clerical audience, “In the sphere of social or national relations, the state of suffering may be civil war, and this state is to be cured by the Christian virtue of forgiveness and love of one’s enemies.”

What Christianity holds as true of the outer world goes just as well, Jung argues, for the inner one. “This is why modern man has heard enough about guilt and sin. He is sorely beset by his own bad conscience and wants, rather, to know how he is to reconcile himself with his own nature, how he is to love the enemy in his own heart and call the wolf his brother.” He “does not want to know in what way he can imitate Christ, but in what way he can live his own individual life, however meagre and uninteresting it may be.” Only by being allowed to follow this “egoism” to its conclusion of “complete isolation” can he “get to know himself and learn what an invaluable treasure is the love of his fellow beings”; it is only “in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures.” Without knowing our own natures, we can hardly expect even the most time-tested belief systems to put an end to the civil wars inside us.

Related Content:

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The Wisdom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Provoking Animations

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 or on Facebook.

The Anti-Gluttony Door in Portugal’s Alcobaça Monastery Shamed Plump Monks to Start Fasting

Consider that you eat the sins of the people

—inscription carved above the entrance to the Monastery of Alcobaça‘s refectory

Apparently, the Monastery of Alcobaça‘s resident monks were eating plenty of other things, too.

Eventually their reputation for excessive plumpness became problematic.

A hefty physique may have signified prosperity and health in 1178 when construction began on the UNESCO World Heritage site, but by the 18th-century, those extra rolls of flesh were considered at odds with the Cistercian monks’ vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.




Its larders were well stocked, thanks in part to the rich farmland surrounding the monastery.

18th-century traveler William Beckford described the kitchen in Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha:

On one side, loads of game and venison were heaped up; on the other, vegetables and fruit in endless variety. Beyond a long line of stoves extended a row of ovens, and close to them hillocks of wheaten flour whiter than snow, rocks of sugar, jars of the purest oil, and pastry in vast abundance, which a numerous tribe of lay brothers and their attendants were rolling out and puffing up into a hundred different shapes, singing all the while as blithely as larks in a corn-field.

Later he has the opportunity to sample some of the dishes issuing from that kitchen:

The banquet itself consisted of not only the most excellent usual fare, but rarities and delicacies of past seasons and distant countries; exquisite sausages, potted lampreys, strange messes from the Brazils, and others still stranger from China (edible birds’ nests and sharks’ fins), dressed after the latest mode of Macao by a Chinese lay brother. Confectionery and fruits were out of the question here; they awaited us in an adjoining still more spacious and sumptuous apartment, to which we retired from the effluvia of viands and sauces.

Later in his travels, he is taken to meet a Spanish princess, who inquires, “How did you leave the fat waddling monks of Alcobaça? I hope you did not run races with them.”

Perhaps such tattle is what convinced the brass that something must be done.

The remedy took the form of a porta pega-gordo (or “fat catcher door”), 6′ 6″ high, but only 12.5” wide.

Keep in mind that David Bowie, at his most slender, had a 26” waist.

Allegedly, each monk was required to pass through it from the refectory to the kitchen to fetch his own meal. Those who couldn’t squeeze through were out of luck.

Did they have to sit in the refectory with their faces to the walls, silently eating the sins of the people (respicite quia peccata populi comeditis) while their slimmer brethren filled their bellies, also silently, face-to-the-wall, as a reader read religious texts aloud from a pulpit?

History is a bit unclear on this point, though Beckford’s enthusiasm waned when he got to the refectory:

…a square of seventy or eighty feet, begloomed by dark-coloured painted windows, and disgraced by tables covered with not the cleanest or least unctuous linen in the world.

According to a German Wikipedia entry, the monks passed through the porta pega-gordo monthly, rather than daily, a more manageable mortification of the flesh for those with healthy appetites.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

If you are assembling a bucket list of destinations for when we can travel freely again, consider adding this beautiful Gothic monastery (and the celebrated pastry shop across the street). Your choice whether or not to suck it in for a photo in front of the porta pega-gordo.

Related Content:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Draw the Buddha: Explore an Elegant Tibetan Manual from the 18th-Century

Some religions prohibit the depiction of their sacred personages. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t quite so strict, but it does ask that, if you’re going to depict the Buddha, you do it right. Hence aids like the Tibetan Book of Proportions, which provides “36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures.” That description comes from the Public Domain Review, where you can behold many of those pages. Printed in the 18th century, “the book is likely to have been produced in Nepal for use in Tibet.” Now you’ll find it at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which had made the book free to read at its digital collections.

To read it properly, of course, you’ll have to know your Newari script and Tibetan numerals. But even without them, anyone can appreciate the elegance of not just the book’s recommended proportions — all presented on a standardized and notated grid — but of the book itself as well.




By the time this volume appeared, the printing used for texts related to Tibetan Buddhism had long since shown itself to be a cut above: take the 15th-century collection of recitation texts, previously featured here on Open Culture, printed forty years before the Gutenberg Bible. Only a printing culture that had mastered this level of detail could produce a book like the Tibetan Book of Proportions, visual exactitude being its entire raison d’être.

“The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Gupta rule, from the 4th to 6th century,” says the Public Domain Review. During that Indian empire’s dominance, the importance of such depictions extended even beyond proportions to details like “number of teeth, color of eyes, direction of hairs.” Surely when it comes to showing one who has attained nirvana — or a bodhisattva, the designation for those on their way to nirvana — one can’t be too careful. Nevertheless, artworks in the form of the Buddha (of which the Victoria and Albert Museum offer a small sampling on their web site) have taken different shapes in different times and places. No matter how well-defined the ideal, the earthly realm always finds a way to introduce some variety.

via Public Domain Review

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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.

How Tibetan Monks Use Meditation to Raise Their Peripheral Body Temperature 16-17 Degrees

Tibetan monks in remote regions of the Himalayas have long claimed near miraculous powers through yogic practices that resemble nothing you’ll find offered at your local gym, though they may derive from some similar Indian sources. One such meditative practice, a breathing exercise known as tummo, tum-mo, or g-tummo, supposedly generates body heat and can raise one’s peripheral body temperature 16-17 degrees—a distinctly advantageous ability when sitting outside in the snow-capped mountains.

Perhaps a certain amount of skepticism is warranted, but in 1981, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson was determined to take these ancient practices seriously, even though his first encounters with western practitioners of tummo produced results he deemed “fraudulent.” Not ready to toss centuries of wisdom, Benson decided instead to travel to the source after meeting the Dalai Lama and receiving permission to study tummo practitioners in Northern India.




Benson’s research became a 20-year project of studying tummo and other advanced techniques while he also taught at the Harvard Medical School and served as president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, where he believes the study of meditation can “uncover capacities that will help us to better treat stress-related illnesses.” The claims of monks who practice tummo have been substantiated in Benson’s work, showing, he says, “what advanced forms of meditation can do to help the mind control physical processes once thought to be uncontrollable.”

In his own experimental settings, “Benson found that [Tibetan] monks possessed remarkable capacities for controlling their oxygen intake, body temperatures and even brainwaves,” notes Aeon. Another study undertaken in 2013 by Maria Kozhevnikov, cognitive neuroscientist at the National University of Singapore, “corroborated much of what Benson had observed, including practitioners’ ability to raise their body temperatures to feverish levels by combining visualization and specialized breathing.”

In the short documentary film above—actually a 7-minute trailer for Russ Pariseau’s feature-length film Advanced Tibetan Meditation: The Investigations of Herbert Benson MD—we get a brief introduction to tummo, a word that translates to “inner fire” and relates to the ferocity of a female deity. Benson explains the ideas behind the practice in concise terms that sum up a central premise of Tibetan Buddhism in general:

Buddhists feel the reality we live in is not the ultimate one. There’s another reality we can tap into that’s unaffected by our emotions, by our everyday world. Buddhists believe this state of mind can be achieved by doing good for others and by meditation. The heat they generate during the process is just a by-product of g Tum-mo meditation

Perhaps centuries-old non-European practices do not particularly need to be debunked, demystified, or validated by modern scientific medicine to keep working for their practitioners; but doctors have significantly benefited those in their care through an acceptance of the healing properties of, say, psilocybin or mindfulness, now serious subjects of study and clinical treatment in top Euro-American institutions. Just as this research is being popularized among both the medical establishment and general public, we may someday see a surge of interest in advanced tantric practices like tummo.

via Aeon

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

Isaac Newton Theorized That the Egyptian Pyramids Revealed the Timing of the Apocalypse: See His Burnt Manuscript from the 1680s

Today one can behold the pyramids of Giza and feel the temptation to believe that the ancient Egyptians knew something we moderns didn’t. Just imagine, then, what it must have felt like in the 17th century, when the recovery of lost ancient knowledge was still very much an active enterprise. Back then, no less formidable a mind than Sir Isaac Newton suspected that to understand the pyramids would be to understand much else besides, from the nature of gravity — a subject on which he would become something of an authority — to Biblical prophecy. The key he reckoned, lay in an ancient Egyptian unit of measurement called the royal cubit.

“Establishing the precise length of the Egyptian cubit would allow him to reconstruct in turn other ancient measures, crucially the sacred cubit of the Hebrews, and so be able to reconstruct with precision a building that was, to Newton, of much greater import even than the Great Pyramid: the Temple of Solomon,” says Sotheby’s.




There, a few pages of Newton’s notes on the subject (burnt at the edges, which legend has it happened when his dog knocked over a candle) recently sold for £378,000, but you can still view them online. Given that Ezekiel describes the Temple of Solomon as the setting of the Apocalypse — the end of the world being another subject of Newtonian interest“an exact knowledge of the Temple’s architecture and dimensions was therefore needed to correctly interpret the Bible’s deep and hidden meanings.” It would also reveal the eventual timing of the the Apocalypse.

Newton’s belief that “the ancient Egyptians possessed knowledge that had been lost in the intervening centuries,” as Smithsonian.com’s Livia Gershon puts it, did not set him far apart from mainstream European scholarship at the time. He also thought, Gershon writes, “that the ancient Greeks had successfully measured Earth’s circumference using a unit called the stade, which he believed was borrowed from the Egyptians. By translating the ancient measurement, Newton hoped to validate his own theory of gravity,” as he ultimately did, though not, perhaps, in the manner he first expected to. We must, it seems, consider the pyramids, alongside the Philosopher’s stone, the South Sea Company, and toad-vomit plague cures, as another example of the great genius’ occasionally excessive enthusiasms — albeit an unusually powerful one.

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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.

A Quay Brothers Animation Explains Anamorphosis, the Renaissance Illusion That Hides Pictures within Pictures

First appearances can be deceiving.

Take physicist Emmanuel Maignan’s 1642 fresco in a corridor of Rome’s Trinità dei Monti monastery.

Viewed head on, it appears to be a somewhat unconventional landscape in which one of the few remaining branches of a mutilated tree spreads over a city, far in the distance. Streaky clouds suggest heavy weather is brewing.

Stroll to the end of the corridor and take another look. You’ll find that the tree has contracted, and the clouds have reconfigured themselves into a portrait of Saint Francesco of Paola, praying beneath its boughs.

It’s a prime example of oblique anamorphosis, an image that has been deliberately distorted by an artist well versed in perspective, with the end result that the image’s true nature will only be revealed to those viewing the work from an unconventional point.




The Quay Brothers‘ documentary short, above, a collaboration with art historian Roger Cardinal, uses a combination of their delightfully creepy signature puppet stop motion, as well as animated 3-D cut outs, to lift the curtains on how the human eye can be manipulated, using principles of perspective.

Anamorphosis may not seem like such a feat in an age when a number of software programs can provide a major assist, but why would Renaissance artists put themselves to so much extra trouble?

The Quay Brothers delve into this too.

Perhaps the artist was injecting a bit of social criticism, like Hans Holbein the Younger, whose 1533 portrait, The Ambassadors, includes a secret anamorphic skull. This could be taken as a jab at the excesses of the wealthy young diplomats who provide the painting’s subject, except that the one who commissioned the work, Jean de Dinteville, prized the motto “Memento mori.

Maybe he knowingly ordered up the naked death’s head to go along with his ermine and bling, an example of having one’s cake and eating it too, and yet another dizzying head trip for those viewing the painting from the intended angle.

(Betcha didn’t have to work too hard to guess the skull’s location, though…)

Or an artist might choose to employ anamorphosis as a brown paper wrapper of sorts, as in the case of Erhard Schön‘s erotic woodblock prints.

Elsewhere, the goal was to emphasize patience, reflection, and cleaving to a pious path by rewarding those who craned their necks toward a spiritual peephole with an appropriately religious view.

(Pity the poor pilgrim who stepped up expecting Erhard Schön…)

For a 21st-century take on anamorphic art, have a look at the work of the graffiti collective TRULY | Urban Artists here.

The Quay Brothers’ short film, “De Artificiali Perspectiva, or Anamorphosis,” has been made available on The Met Museum’s YouTube channel.

via Aeon

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The Anatomical Drawings of Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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