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Carolyn and I both appreciate William Blake’s divinely inspired artwork and magnificent poetry.
Born in London in 1757, Blake was an English poet, painter, prophet, and printmaker known for his extraordinary visionary paintings, lithographs, drawings, and numerous volumes of beautiful mystical poems.
Blake attended school just long enough to learn how to read and write. He read widely on his own and was exposed to many bound books and prints by his parents. At the age of ten, his parents arranged for him to take drawing classes, and he went on to become a professional engraver. In 1779 he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he studied for six years.
From a young age, and throughout his life, Blake claimed to see visions of a spiritual nature. The visions were often associated with religious themes and imagery; he claimed to see angels too. As a Romantic artist and poet, Blake stressed the primacy of individual imagination and inspiration to the creative process. He believed that imaginative insight was the only way to remove the veil of rational thought that obscures the true nature of reality, claiming that “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Blake’s extraordinary paintings depict powerful biblical and literary scenes, glorious angels, and radiant illuminated beings, while his poems speak out against social injustices and express mystical visions. Blake illustrated his poems and created beautiful books, such as Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, by integrating writing and painting into a single creative process and using innovative production techniques that combined image and text in single compositions.
Blake’s spiritual visions and insights were central to his creativity, and in his work, he created a complex and unique mythology, with a pantheon populated by deities such as Orc, Urizen, and Enitharmion. Blake illustrated spectacular grand narratives of his own design that were played out in a universe that seemed to exist in a separate reality.
Blake didn’t have it easy. His contemporaries considered him insane, and his lack of commercial success meant he lived in relative poverty. But today he is appreciated as a seminal figure in the history of poetry and visual art of the Romantic Age. Blake died in 1827, with his beloved wife by his side.
Some quotes that William Blake is remembered for include:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Marc Chagall was born Moishe Shagal in 1887. He was born into a devoutly Jewish Lithuanian family in Belarus, which was a part of the Russian empire, and throughout his life he lived in Russia, France, and the United States.
In 1907 Chagall went to St. Petersburg, Russia to study painting and drawing, and he relocated in Paris as a teenager, to develop his artistic style. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the modernism movement strove to create forms of art that reflected the newly emerging industrial world, and Chagall experienced modernism’s “golden age” in the City of Lights.
Chagall is considered a pioneer of modernism, as well as a major Jewish artist. His artwork has been associated with a number of different styles, and he created works in a wide range of mediums, including painting, drawing, stained glass, book illustration, stage sets, ceramics, and tapestries. Some of the recurring themes in Chagall’s paintings include village scenes, peasant life, musicians, dancing, and circuses, with romantic and spiritual overtones.
In the late 1950s, Chagall learned the art of creating with stained glass, and he designed a number of windows at different international locations, including the Cathedral of Metz in France and the United Nations building in New York. Chagall’s gorgeous stained-glass windows are enchantingly beautiful, as the medium’s capacity for brilliant color seems perfectly suited for his celestial and religious imagery.
Chagall’s paintings are housed in a variety of locations around the world, including the Musée Marc Chagall in Nice, France, which Chagall helped to design. Throughout his 75-year career, Chagall produced an astonishing 10,000 works, with dozens of notable paintings. Chagall died in France in 1985. After he died, a stranger said the Jewish prayer for the dead (the kaddish) over his coffin. Chagall is remembered as a great pioneer of modern art and one of its most brilliant figurative painters.
Carolyn created a tribute to Chagall with her painting After Chagall. Many people have stated that Carolyn’s art reminds them of Chagall’s work.
Some quotes that Marc Chagall is remembered for include:
Great art picks up where nature ends.
If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.
In our life there is a single color, as on an artist palette which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.
Color is all. When color is right, form is right. Color is everything, color is vibration like music; everything is vibration.
In the arts, as in life, everything is possible provided it is based on love.
Another brilliant artist of legendary proportions that Carolyn and I both admire is the late Leonard Cohen. Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist, whose emotionally powerful work explored such themes as romance, isolation, sexuality, loss, politics, and death. His husky voice and soulful words have touched the hearts of millions, and he continues to soothe and inspire us with his wildly innovative songs and mesmerizing poetry.
Cohen was a masterful poet; he had 17 collections of poetry published in his lifetime, and he didn’t begin his music career until he was 33. Cohen graduated from McGill University in 1952 and spent some time in graduate school at Columbia University, but he wasn’t happy there; he described his academic experience as “passion without flesh, love without climax.” In 1957 Cohen left school to pursue a career as a poet and novelist; he began working various odd jobs so that he could focus on his creative writing.
Disappointed with his lack of success as a writer, in 1967 Cohen moved to New York City to reinvent himself as a folk music singer-songwriter. He began hanging out with artist Andy Warhol and mixing with his associated creative community. Popular singers such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez started covering some of his songs around this time, translating his poetry into music. After performing at a few folk festivals, Cohen came to the attention of a Columbia Records producer who signed him to a record deal, and his first album was released that same year. Cohen released 14 studio albums and eight live albums during the course of a recording career lasting almost 50 years, and a posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, was released in 2019.
Cohen was a deeply contemplative man, who sought the advice and guidance of spiritual leaders throughout the world. He spent much of his life as a spiritual seeker, alternating periods of deep study of the Jewish Torah with long retreats at Zen monasteries. He had ancestral roots in religion, and his deep personal sense of spirituality was expressed in his most well-known song, Hallelujah, which was the result of a long and profound spiritual journey; it took him years to write the revered classic, filling notebook after notebook with rejected lyrics.
Cohen ran into financial difficulties later in life due to missing money that his ex-manager had stolen, and in 2008 he embarked on his first world tour in fifteen years. He performed his final time in New Zealand in 2013. Appreciation for Cohen’s songs spans across generations, as he had the ability to reach people of all ages, and although I never saw him perform, Carolyn saw him numerous times, and so did my mom, who is also a great admirer.
Cohen was immensely creative and, in addition to his poetry, prose, and music, he also produced countless sketches, drawings, and lithographs, some of which are collected in his book The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings. Cohen died in 2016, at the age of 82. His legacy is enormous; he is recognized as one of the most influential musicians of our time. His albums have sold millions of copies, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Some quotes that Leonard Cohen is remembered for include:
Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
You look around you and see a world that doesn’t make sense; you raise your fist or you say ‘hallelujah.
Like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it. — Cohen describes his writing process
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.
Carolyn added: “David Campagna and I experienced Leonard at many concerts, with seats right next to his performance. At one point he looked into David’s eyes, which were tearing, smiled his half smile, and fell backwards, his eyes also full of tears.“
“Then a few months later, while David was at Mt. Sinai Hospital in LA, Leonard said ‘Hi bro’ I ‘They are just hanging us on.’ Then David brought my book The Divine Kiss to Leonard the next week, while dragging himself across the room attached to a chemo machine. Leonard remarked what an act of passion it was that the book was dedicated in David’s honor. I’m not sure if they saw each other again, but Leonard’s family estate does have that book, thanks to David’s heroism.”
Bob Dylan is often regarded as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, and he has been a favorite musician of both Carolyn and mine for decades. With a prolific career spanning more than 60 years, Dylan has profoundly influenced music and popular culture in many ways, with his unique poetic gifts, acute political awareness, and natural storytelling abilities.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan’s grandparents were Jewish refugees from Russia and Lithuania, who arrived in the United States around the turn of the 20th Century.
While attending Hibbing High School, Dylan performed in several bands. He played cover songs by Elvis Presley and Little Richard in a band called The Golden Chords, and his performance of Rock and Roll is Here to Stay with Danny & the Juniors at his high school talent show was so loud that the principal cut the microphone during mid-performance.
In 1959 Dylan enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he studied American folk music. Dylan started performing at coffee shops around this time, and he began introducing himself as “Bob Dylan” to give himself anonymity and recreate his persona. He used various aliases initially in his career, such as “Elston Gunn” and “Robert Dillion,” but Bob Dylan is the one that stuck.
In 1960, after his first year in college, Dylan dropped out of school, and a year later he traveled to New York City where he went to perform, and he visited his music idol Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill in the hospital. In 1961 Dylan began playing in clubs around the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan and often accompanied other folk musicians on the harmonica. When Dylan was 19, he performed at the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, which was started by our beloved friend Jai Italiaander and her husband.
That same year Dylan played the harmonica on an album by Carolyn Hester, which brought his work to the attention of the album’s producer, who signed Dylan on to Columbia Records. Dylan’s first album, Bob Dylan, consisted of traditional folk, blues and gospel songs, with only two original compositions. The album sold just enough copies to break even, but Dylan was starting to become better known.
Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963, and his music— often labeled as “protest songs,” with lyrics that questioned the social and political status quo— became more popular. This album contained his well-known song Blowin’ in the Wind, which was partly derived from the melody of a traditional slave song. Along with the politically charged The Times They Are a Changin, these songs became anthems for the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Dylan’s revolutionary third album Bringing it all Back Home, which was released in 1965, featured his first recordings using electric instruments, and with free-association lyrics that were reminiscent of beat poetry. Using electric instruments with folk music caused some controversy within the folk music establishment, but Dylan’s popularity continued to soar. Dylan has since gone on to sell more than 125 million records, making him one of the bestselling musicians of all time. To date, Dylan has released 39 studio albums, 95 singles, and 15 live albums.
Dylan has strong spiritual beliefs and he has “always thought that there’s a superior power.” Although Dylan was raised in a small, close-knit Jewish community, and even had his Bar Mitzvah when he was 13, he converted to Christianity in the late 1970s and has released three popular albums of contemporary gospel music.
Dylan’s lyrics have received detailed attention from academics and poets. In 1998 Stanford University sponsored the first international academic conference on Dylan’s work, and in 2004 Harvard Classics professor Richard Thomas created a seminar on Dylan’s song lyrics, that put him in the context of classical poets like Virgil and Homer.
Dylan has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has won numerous other prestigious awards, including 10 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Golden Globe Award, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. Dylan has also published eight books of drawings and paintings, and his watercolor and acrylic work has been exhibited in major art galleries around the world.
Some of the quotes that Bob Dylan is known for include:
There is nothing so stable as change.
I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.
I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.
I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.
I define nothing, not beauty not patriotism. I take each thing as it is, without prior rules about what it should be.
Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.
You’re going to die. You’re going to be dead. It could be 20 years, it could be tomorrow, anytime. So am I. I mean, we’re just going to be gone. The world’s going to go on without us. All right now. You do your job in the face of that, and how seriously you take yourself you decide for yourself.
I was systematically reading through Hermann Hesse’s novels when I first met Carolyn in 1983, and we have both really enjoyed his inspiring books and other creative output.
Hesse was a brilliant German-Swiss novelist, poet, and painter who lived between 1877 and 1962. Some of his most well-known books include Siddhartha, Demian, Steppenwolf, and Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, which are my favorites as well. Each book explores a similar theme, of an individual’s efforts to break free from the established modes of civilization, and begin a quest for self-knowledge and spiritual understanding.
Hesse was born in Calw, Germany and he later became a citizen of Switzerland. Hesse began working in a bookstore in Tübingen as a teenager, and at the end of his twelve-hour shifts, he worked on his own writing. His first publication came in 1896, with his poem Madonna in a Viennese magazine, and later that year this was followed by the publication of a small volume of his poetry titled Romantic Songs. Hesse’s first poetry collection wasn’t met with much success— it only sold 54 copies in two years— and Hesse’s mother didn’t like the poems, calling them “vaguely sinful,” which was upsetting to Hesse.
In 1899 Hesse began working at another bookstore in Basel, and spent much time alone, engaged in self-exploration. Due to an eye condition, in 1900 he was exempted from compulsory military service, and he suffered from nerve disorders and persistent headaches throughout his life.
In the early years of the last century, Hesse published more poems and some short prose in journals. In 1904 Hesse’s novel Peter Camenzind was published, and this was a breakthrough novel for him, as from this point on, Hesse could now earn a living as a writer. The novel became popular throughout Germany, and the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud praised Peter Camenzind as one of his favorite novels.
Hesse’s parents had a profound influence on his spirituality, and he said of his parents that, “their Christianity, one not preached but lived, was the strongest of the powers that shaped and molded me.” Self-exploration and spiritual development became important themes in many of Hesse’s writings. There was a ‘quest for enlightenment or self-realization’ theme in his books Siddhartha, Journey to the East, and Narcissus and Goldmund, and he often drew from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern philosophies in his novels. Hesse saw value in the varied forms of spiritual expression, and said, “For different people, there are different ways to God.”
Hesse is the author of 29 books. He also began painting when he was in his early 40s, and he created a legacy of around 3000 beautiful watercolors. The book Trees: An Anthology of Writings and Paintings collects Hesse’s poems and essays on the subject of trees and is accompanied by 31 of his watercolor illustrations, and the book Hesse as Painter collects 20 of his watercolors.
In 1946 Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his book Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game. However, despite Hesse’s status as a Nobel laureate, when Hesse died in 1962, his work wasn’t very well known in the United States. In fact, in the obituary that The New York Times published after Hesse’s death, said that his work was largely “inaccessible” to American readers.
This all changed in the mid-1960s when Hesse’s books suddenly became bestsellers in the U.S., and within the span of a few years, he became the most widely read and translated European author of the 20th century. The revival in popularity of Hesse’s works has been credited to their association with some of the popular themes of the 1960s counterculture, and according to Bernhard Zeller’s autobiography on Hesse, “in large part, the Hesse boom in the United States can be traced back to enthusiastic writings by two influential counterculture figures: Colin Wilson and Timothy Leary.”
Hesse’s work has had a considerable cultural influence. The band Steppenwolf took its name from Hesse’s novel with that title, and there is also a theater in Chicago called The Steppenwolf Theater. Throughout Germany, many schools are named after Hesse. Hesse’s novel Siddhartha required reading in my high school English class, which is how I first discovered his work.
Some quotes that Hermann Hesse is remembered for include:
“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”
Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.
Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.
Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours.
I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.”
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong but sometimes it is letting go
Carolyn and I have both seem evidence of Hesse’s influence in one another’s writings. On the back cover of my first book, Brainchild, Carolyn wrote. “Brown is the Hesse of our time.” Similarly, in the introduction to Carolyn’s book The Alchemy of Possibility, I wrote, “Following the tradition of William Blake and Hermann Hesse, The Alchemy of Possibility is a poetic blend of mysticism and imagination.”
British writer, philosopher, and social satirist Aldous Huxley’s work has had a profound impact on Carolyn and I, and our dear friends Oz Janiger and Laura Huxley told us wonderful stories about their precious time with him.
Aldous Leonard Huxley was born in 1894 in Surrey, England. He was born into an intellectually active family; his father was a schoolteacher and writer, and his mother founded an independent girls’ boarding and day school. Aldous was the grandson of the famous zoologist Thomas Huxley, who was an early advocate for Darwin’s theory of evolution, and his brothers Julian and Andrew became noteworthy biologists.
Aldous’ father, Leonard Huxley, had a well-equipped botanical laboratory where Aldous began his science education as a child. His brother Julian described him as someone who “frequently contemplated the strangeness of things.”
Aldous faced some serious challenges as a teenager. In 1908 his mother died, and in 1911 he contracted an eye disease that caused the surface of his eyes to become inflamed. This ocular inflammation left him almost blind for around three years, and then he partially recovered, with one eye just capable of light perception, and the other with about 5 percent of normal vision. Unable to pursue a career in medicine, as he had initially intended, due to his loss of sight, Huxley studied English literature at Oxford from 1913 to 1916.
After graduating from Oxford, Aldous taught French for a year at Eton College in Berkshire. One of his students at the time was a young fellow named Eric Blair, who also went on to become a well-known writer; he took the pen name George Orwell and wrote the classic dystopian novel 1984.
In 1916 Aldous edited the Oxford Poetry journal, and he completed his first (although unpublished) novel at the age of 17. In 1921 Aldous published his first novel, Crome Yellow, which, like the novels that followed— Antic Hay in 1923, Those Barren Leaves in 1925, and Point Counter Point in 1928, were social satires.
In 1919 Aldous married his first wife, Maria Nys, and they had one child together, Matthew (who Carolyn and I met at a conference during the 1990s). Aldous and Maria lived with Matthew in Italy during the 1920s, where Aldous would spend time with his friend, English novelist and poet D. H. Lawrence.
In 1932 Aldous published his most well-known work, Brave New World, a dystopian novel about a World State in the future, where citizens are environmentally engineered into an intelligence-based social hierarchy. The book has since become a classic of modern literature— it ranked number 5 on a list of the 100 best-selling English-language novels of the 20th Century — and carried a profound warning about the dangers of social control that seem especially relevant today.
In 1937 Aldous moved to Los Angeles with his wife Maria, where he worked as a screenplay writer for Hollywood films. Aldous received screen credit for Pride and Prejudice in 1940, and he worked on a number of other films, including Jane Eyre in 1944. In 1955 Aldous’ wife Maria died.
Aldous grew interested in philosophical mysticism and in 1945 he published The Perennial Philosophy, which explores the common ground between Eastern and Western mysticism. Our beloved friend Laura Huxley first met Aldous in 1948, when she was pursuing an idea for a film, and although the film was never produced, they stayed close and were married in 1956. Laura was married to Aldous for the last 7 years of his life.
In 1953 Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond introduced Aldous to a psychedelic medicine, mescaline, and he had a powerful mystical and transcendent experience that became the basis for his revolutionary book The Doors of Perception. It’s a slim volume, just 63 pages, but it had a powerful cultural impact and is generally regarded as one of the most important books on psychedelic mysticism. The popular rock band The Doors took their name from the title of Huxley’s book.
In 1962 Aldous published his final novel, Island, a utopian fantasy about a shipwrecked journalist on a fictional island, which incorporates the insights that he gained from his mystical experiences, and provides a wonderful alternative future to his dystopian vision in Brave New World. During his lifetime, Aldous published more than 50 books, and a large selection of poetry, short stories, articles, philosophical treatises, and screenplays.
Aldous died in 1963, on the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On his deathbed, Aldous asked Laura to administer LSD to him and he died while undergoing a psychedelic experience, as Laura read to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Laura wrote about this experience, and her final days with Aldous, in her much-loved book This Timeless Moment.
Laura shared a favorite story with me about Aldous. She told me about this one time that Aldous was at a meeting of professional scientists, and how he was asked what final words of advice he could offer after a lifetime of inquiry. His response was, “I’m very embarrassed because I worked for forty years. I studied everything around. I did experiments. I went to several countries. And all I can tell you is to be just a little kinder to each other.”
Some of the quotes that Aldous is known for include:
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.
Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.
The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.
That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.
Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.
The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.
There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.
I wish so much that I had had an opportunity to interview Aldous, but I was only 2 years old when he died.