Why Is This the Greatest Living Poet’s Favorite Painting?

Poets quite often make the best art critics. The same aesthetic antennae attuned to language and meaning come into play when diving into the meaning of visual art. So, when Irish poet Seamus Heaney, 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (among a slew of other prizes), talked to More Intelligent Life magazine about his personal “seven wonders of the world,” it was interesting that he picked as his favorite work of art Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ (shown above). Called by many the greatest poet alive today and the most important poet of the last half century, Heaney knows that his pronouncements carry a lot of weight. So, why is this the greatest living poet’s favorite painting?


For an artist so connected to his native land of Ireland, Heaney reveals a startlingly cosmopolitan side in his selections. Aside from Heaney’s favorite beach, Portstewart in County Derry, “the first place where [he] encountered the ocean” that “retains for [him] the aura of original wonder and, of course, there was the mystery of the courting couples in the dunes,” Heaney’s six other wonders hail from Europe, Russia, and even America. His favorite journey trekked around the Peloponnese toplaces with mythic names—Argos, Nemea, where Heracles wrestled with the lion” and Arcadia, the poet’s ultimate destination. Although Heaney calls Russia’s St. Petersburg his favorite city, he tabs the Orologio in Bologna, Italy, as his favorite hotel, the Pantheon in Rome as his favorite building, and the view of San Francisco from Grizzly Peak Boulevard as his favorite view, which gave him a huge sense of the wonder of what man and woman have built. It was a moment of epiphany, something akin to Wordsworth’s revelation on Westminster Bridge.”

When it comes to places, Heaney spreads the wealth far and wide, seeking the monumental, yet when it comes to art, Heaney finds a whole cosmos in the tiniest image. della Francesca’s Flagellation measures a mere 23 by 32 inches, but it hits Heaney’s consciousness like a mountain. “I’m choosing a work of art that I don’t quite understand,” Heaney begins enigmatically. “If you see other representations of Christ being scourged, he is right at the front. But Piero della Francesca puts him way down at the vanishing point of the perspective, and it gives the painting an aura of the uncanny; a sense of Christian iconography, but defamiliarized. There’s a mysteriousness about it, and yet a complete clarity. I’d known it from reproductions for years, but when I first came across it in the paint—and there’s a lucent quality about the actual paint—it really made a memorable impact.”

Heaney touches upon all the standard talking points of the Flagellation: the idiosyncratic placement of the title act, the overall uncanny feel, and the tension between clarity and mysteriousness. But coming from a poet, all of those talking points take on a different significance. By choosing a work he self-admittedly doesn’t “quite understand,” Heaney shows a very poetic comfort with uncertainty. Just as poet Archibald MacLeish wrote “A poem should not mean/but be” as the standard modernist poet’s company line, Heaney adapts that modernist creed to della Francesca’s Renaissance masterpiece. Don’t try to make the painting “mean,” Heaney suggests, just let it “be,” and “be” with it yourself.

And, yet, Heaney’s restless mind can’t simply stand aside. Part of “being” with the painting as a poet is allowing your imagination to roam through the landscape of the painting, which looks to modern eyes like something out of a De Chirico painting, until you remember that the chronology (and the influence) flows in the other direction. As Heaney writes in his signature poem, “Digging,”  he takes his pen and “digs” into the painting with it. The way that this five and a half century old painting still “defamiliarizes” Christian iconography for Heaney—turning over familiar ground like a spade cutting into soil—refreshes that story for the poet the way a farmer renews the earth by plowing.

Just as della Francesca digs into the familiar story of the Passion, Heaney in his brief statement digs into the familiar image from art history books and makes it fresh again. Poets such as Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Peter Schjeldahl have always stood at the forefront of modern art criticism, so it’s no surprise that Heaney makes such a modernist, yet “old school” pick. I only wish that “Famous Seamus” would venture into art criticism more and share some more of the insights he digs up.

[Image: Piero della Francesca. The Flagellation of Christ, circa 1455–1460. Image source.]

[Many thanks to friend Dave, the second greatest living poet, for passing on this story to me.]

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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