“The way things were, the way we made things, it turns out, none of it was inevitable — none of it is the way things have to be.”
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” Keats wrote in the closing lines of his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in the spring of 1819, in the spring of modern science. As astronomy began to replace the old superstitions, and as alchemy emerged from the primordial waters of chemistry, humanity was blossoming with new information about reality. Ten years earlier, when Keats was a teenager, Dalton had at last confirmed the existence of the atom — the great dream Democritus had dreamt civilizations earlier; the dream Aristotle, drunk on power and certitude, had squashed with his theory of the four elements. This beautiful truth was buried in a Grecian Urn, and then laid to rest by Aristotle’s theory of the four elements. Two thousand years later, the kisses of chemistry resurrected it.
Our species’ story is punctuated by a thousand similar atoms of experiences. While truth may be beauty in the universe, it can often seem like beauty hidden in human behavior. Even on the miniature timescale of our own lifetimes — these grunts in the story of the world — it can take us years or decades of hindsighted reflection to arrive at the truth of our experience, any experience, and all the more so the greater its complexity and its toll on us.
Two hundred springtimes after Keats, David Byrne explores this facet of the human condition in his felicitously uncategorizable book A History of the World (in Dingbats) (public library) — a playful yet poignant meditation, in words and drawings, on the human truths unveiled as the world came unworlded by the global pandemic that became the great shared experience of our lifetimes.
Radiating from the pages, delightfully designed and typeset by Alex Kalman, is Byrne’s buoyant vision for the new world, a world of magnified mutuality and widespread poetry of possibility; a vision for life not merely restored to how it used to be but reset, recalibrated, revitalized — life that is a little bit more alive.
In the first section, titled “Sleeping Beauty,” he writes with an eye to the history of the atom:
Some ideas, connections and perspectives have been seen throughout history. Then they often fall asleep. Brilliant ideas, stories, techniques, and inventions can disappear, sometimes for very long periods. They lie dormant until somebody wakes them up.
There are many sleepers. They surround us in peace, quiet, and are unrecognized, just like mountains, oceans, forests, or remote areas. Concrete, steam engines, clocks — all created and forgotten.
Observing that this happens as much in art as in science — it happened to Blake, until Anne Gilchrist wrested him from Romantic obscurity; it happened to Bach, until Albert Schweitzer wrested him from classical obscurity — Byrne adds:
There are many others who lie in slumber among us and all around us. Some of them are known unknowns, like the missing works of Aristotle or Shakespeare — we know of their existence, but they are lost. Others are the unknown unknowns — works and insights so invisible to us that we have forgotten they existed.
Everywhere you look, there are beautiful insights, wonders and miracles waiting for your gentle touch. We may finally be able remove the veil and look around as we enter a new world.
And so, dingbats — those odd glyphs born as meaningless graphical elements to give typesetters and printmakers in Keats’s era a way to liven up their layouts, which later took on a life of their own as an increasingly elaborate symbolic language, then morphed into an early computer font. Byrne originally created the images in this book as a visual library of dingbat inspired drawings for digital-age typesetters, printmakers and editors behind Reasons to Be Cheerful.
However, his love for drawing and lifelong passion soon led him to become a fervent artist. “Once open, the faucet flowed,” he writes. It was an amalgamation between Codex Seraphinianus, E.E. Cummings’s little-known philosophical line drawings.
In the time of COVID, these postmodern dingbats flooded his mind and his sketchbook with “thoughts about one’s body, one’s mental state, one’s priorities and values, one’s household routines, the world beyond one’s house or apartment,” about “what really matters” — his own thoughts, but thoughts he intuited others living through “this surreal, tragic, revelatory, and unsettling experience” were thinking, and others who had lived through other hardships over the millennia had thought.
He eventually noticed the patterns in his drawings, which were grouped into thought and emotion categories. Themes began to emerge, contouring our collective fears and desires, mapping our transformation as we incline together toward a more possible and supranormative future that is not — for it cannot be, we learned — a mere recreation and renormalization of the past.
These pictorial messages from our past selves and our future selves reveal a sort of abstract record that reveals the emotions beneath, around, and beyond concrete events. The poetic truth hidden beneath facts. An authentic history. History is more than what happens. It’s what survived the wrecks of chance and judgment.
At the center of the book is a subtle meditation on the power of the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works, what the world is and should be and could be — whatever shape these stories may take: “propaganda and parables, delight and deception, mystery and manipulation.”
Echoing James Baldwin’s penetrating insistence that “nothing is fixed” and Richard Powers’s electrically worded warning that “this fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is… not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet,” Byrne writes in the introduction:
We tell our own stories about the history of the universe.
Even though writing may have slowed the process down, it is not impossible to tell stories about the world. They can be constantly revised and modified. History is not what happened, but it is what we agree happened — shaped by our biases and self-serving interests.
Stories are lessons we send to ourselves — some remain vibrant and relevant while others are only useful for a moment. Stories serve many purposes, some of which are beyond our reach, sometimes for good or bad, but often both.
In the second section of drawings, clustered around the subject of “fermentation” — a process of organic chemistry that destroys matter to release energy, from which Byrne draws an existential metaphor for “a kind of coming together, conjunction, and collaboration, resulting in merging and transformation” — he reflects:
It is the same in the realm of thought and feeling —
Emotional fizziness, intellectual disturbance
Get drunk on love, and you’ll find new insight.
There is no brain inside a box that can be separated from the body, senses and billions of microbes living within it.
The need for love, sex or hunger may cause us to feel less rational.
Although we may be living in an imaginary world, it allows us the freedom to move, to sing and to perform a multitude of other tasks that computers may not be capable of without programming.
In the third cluster, titled “Bridge to Mind,” he considers the assemblage of life-artifacts we all live with — those emblems of our past selves that we amass in the form of photographs and postcards and books and the small blue vial of golden confetti from the wedding of a long-dead friend — and ponders the eternal mystery of what makes us and our younger selves the “same” person despite a lifetime of physical, psychological, and situational changes. A generation after Joan Didion counseled that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” he wonders:
What was my identity then? Who was I then?
Would the person I’m with like me?
Are we experiencing forward momentum as it feels to us or moving in the opposite direction?
Echoing Rilke’s century-old wisdom on the combinatorial nature of personhood and creativity, he adds:
Every book I’ve read, every street, face, and song. I’m made of people and things outside myself, beyond myself, and beyond my own control.
The miracle is here.
In another section, under the cluster-heading “Cityhead,” he writes:
Our city is ours. These are the things we created, including our clothes, hairstyles and buildings.
Everything in the right place. Everything is labeled.
Only you can find the way — in the city in your head.
This is how we replicate these methods for naming and categorizing objects on the outside. The template acts as a shield against the chaos that is constantly changing and provides a constant filter.
Both freedom and confinement can be found in the categories. There are hierarchies that restrict freedom, and geometries that allow us to be free. Organized and chaotic, passionate and inconsistent.
In the epilogue, echoing Baldwin’s abiding reminder that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” Byrne writes:
In the new world the rules have changed — or at least there is the possibility of change.
The way things were, the way we made things, it turns out, none of it was inevitable — none of it is the way things have to be.
It is possible to be something else.
Complement A History of the World (in Dingbats) — the visual and somatic delights of which any summary and screen diminishes — with Byrne’s poetic celebration of the widest perspective with art by Maira Kalman (mother of this book’s designer, as it happens), then revisit Rebecca Solnit on rewriting the past’s broken stories for a more possible future.
Giving = Being Loving
Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. Every dollar counts.
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