The Only Surviving Manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost Gets Published in Book Form for the First Time




In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake adds a note to the text that became a famous adage about John Milton’s Paradise Lostthe 10,000-line, 17th century blank verse epic about the war between heaven and hell and the failed testing of God’s premium product, human beings. Milton “wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote Devils & Hell,” Blake declared, “because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” The statement inspired “other Romantic and Gothic writers to view Satan as a hero,” the British Library writes.

Blake himself illustrated Paradise Lost in three separate commissions over the course of his career as an engraver and printer. His deep admiration for the poem helped it become a “Bible of the Romantic movement,” writes the manuscript publisher SP Books in their introduction to a rare new book publication of the only surviving manuscript of the work.


Only 1,000 numbered, large format copies of this printing are available. (We do hope a subsequent edition will appear, maybe with a transcription and annotations. But it will not be as beautiful as this sky-blue cloth-covered book with Blake’s full-color illustrations.)

The book preserves the only part of the poem that survives in manuscript: 798 lines from Book One of Paradise Lost. These are not in Milton’s hand — he had been blind since 1652, and the poem was first published in 1667. He conceived the epic in his 50s, his career in government over after the English Civil Wars and the brief period of the Cromwells’ Protectorate ended in the Restoration of Charles II. “Milton composed ‘Paradise Lost’ aloud, in bed or (per witnesses) ‘leaning backwards obliquely in an easy chair,'” Lauren Christensen writes at The New York Times, “memorizing the stanzas to be transcribed in another’s hand.”

These first few hundred lines show why Satan seems so noble to Milton’s readers; speeches by and about him portray his doomed campaign as a righteous assault on heavenly tyranny. The Romantics’ use of Paradise Lost reflects their own preoccupations, while also echoing contemporary suspicions of the poem. “The authorities were concerned,” for example, Tom Paulin notes at The London Review of Books, by an image in Book One describing Satan:

as when the sun new ris’n
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change

Perplexes monarchs.

“According to Milton’s early biographer, the Irish republican John Toland, Charles II’s Licenser for the Press regarded these lines as subversive,” Paulin points out, “and wanted to suppress the whole poem.” It’s surprising he was able to publish at all. Milton had vociferously supported the Puritan revolutionaries who overthrew the king’s father, Charles I, and removed his head. Milton later published several pamphlets in defense of regicide. In 1660, when Richard Cromwell’s Protectorate fell apart and Charles II returned, Milton’s works were banned by royal decree and the poet went into hiding until a general pardon.

Later critics have pointed to Milton’s political writings as evidence that he knew exactly whose party he was of. California State University’s Michael Bryson has gone so far as to argue that Milton was a secret atheist. In any case, he was a passionate believer in the overthrow of kings and the establishment of republics (for which he has become a libertarian hero). Paulin sums up the critical case for Paradise Lost as an allegory for the “lost cause” of the revolution:

Milton knew that the poem he was dictating to his amaneuensis would be scrutinized by the recently restored monarch’s Licenser of the Press, so he coded the English people’s formation of a republic as the creation of the “heavens and earth.” The idea passed the censor by, just as it has passed by many readers, but it was nonetheless Milton’s founding intention in composing his epic.

The charge that Milton made Satan a hero is hard to ignore when, reading Book One, we find the poet giving the Chief of Fallen Angels the best lines, as anyone who’s read Paradise Lost will remember. If you haven’t, just see the classic example below.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

Learn more about this rare manuscript edition at The New York Times‘ review and purchase one (if one remains) at SP Books.

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

Color Footage of the Liberation of Paris, Shot by Hollywood Director George Stevens (1944)




The above footage of Paris’ liberation in August 1944 looks and feels not dissimilar to a Hollywood movie. Part of its power owes to its being in color, a vanishingly rare quality in real film of World War II. But we must also credit its having been shot by a genuine Hollywood filmmaker, George Stevens. Having got his start in pictures as a teenager in the early nineteen-twenties (not long before making the cinematic-historical accomplishment of figuring out how to get Stan Laurel’s light-colored eyes to show up on film), Stevens became a respected director in the following decade. Swing Time, Gunga Din, The More the Merrier: with hits like that, he would seem to have had it made.

But it was just then, as F. X. Feeney tells it in the DGA Quarterly, that the war became unignorable. “The dangerous artistry of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 valentine to Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will, moved Stevens to volunteer for frontline service in World War II despite his being old enough to dodge a uniform and sit things out.”


In vivid color, Stevens and his U.S. Army Signal Corps crew shot “the D-Day landings, where he was one of the first ashore; the liberation of Paris; the snowy ruins of bombed-out villages en route to the Battle of the Bulge; and, most unforgettably, the liberation of the death camp at Dachau.” (Even the celebratory events in Paris had their harrowing moments, such as the sniper attack captured at 11:54.)

Stevens went to war a filmmaker and came home a filmmaker. The long postwar act of his career opened with no less acclaimed a picture than I Remember Mama, and went on to include the likes of A Place in the Sun, Shane, and The Diary of Anne Frank, whose material no doubt resonated even more with Stevens given what he’d seen in Europe. Not all of it, of course, was the aftermath of death and destruction. These Paris liberation clips alone offer glimpses of such admirable figures as resistance fighter Simone Segouin, Generals de Gaulle and Leclerc, and even Lieutenant Colonel Stevens himself. He appears presiding over the shoot just as he must once have done back in California — and, with the war’s end in sight, as he must have known he would do again.

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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.

Karl Marx & the Flaws of Capitalism: Lex Fridman Talks with Professor Richard Wolff




Lex Fridman, a Russian-American computer scientist and artificial intelligence researcher, hosts a popular podcast where he often interviews academics and helps them reach a surprisingly large audience. In recent weeks, he’s had long and wide-ranging conversations with NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin (on the history of Russia and the Ukraine war), and Stanford historian Norman Naimark (on genocide). Above you can now find his conversation with Marxist economist, Richard Wolff.

Fridman prefaces the lengthy conversation by saying, “This is a heavy topic, in general, and for me personally, given my family history in the Soviet Union, in Russia and Ukraine. Today, the words Marxism, Socialism and Communism are used to attack and divide, much more than to understand and learn. With this podcast, I seek the latter. I believe we need to study the ideas of Karl Marx, as well as their various implementations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries…. We need to consider seriously the ideas we demonize, and to challenge the ideas we dogmatically accept as true, even when doing so is at times unpleasant and dangerous.”

You can listen to their engaging conversation above, or find it on various podcasts platforms. Along the way, Wolff underscores the glaring deficiencies of capitalism, and why populists on the left and right are now looking for alternatives. And Fridman asks whether capitalism, despite its faults, may still be the best option we have. Wolff and Fridman undoubtedly have different worldviews, but the conversation is civil and deep, and worth your time.

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The Oldest House in New York City: Meet the Wyckoff House (1652)

Most 21st-century Brooklyn public elementary schoolers have taken or will take a field trip to the Wyckoff House, a modest wooden cabin surrounded by tire shops and fast food outlets.

The oldest building in NYC by a longshot, it was also the first structure in the five boroughs to achieve historic landmark status.

Primary sources place the original occupants, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff and his wife, Grietje Van Ness-Wyckoff, in the original part of the house around 1652. A single room with a packed earth floor, unglazed windows, a large open hearth, and doors at either end, it would have been pretty tight quarters for a family of 13, as host Thijs Roes of the history series New Netherland Now notes, during his above tour of the premises.


Two parlors were added in the 18th-century, and three bedrooms in the early 19th. Typical Dutch Colonial features include an H frame structure, shingled walls, split Dutch doors, and deep, flared “spring” eaves.

Its survival is a miracle in a metropolis known for its constant flux.

In the early 20th-century, descendants of Pieter and Grietje partnered with community activists to save the home from demolition, eventually donating it to the New York City Parks Department.

A late 70s fire (possibly not the first) necessitated major renovations. (And last year, flooding from Hurricane Ida clobbered its HVAC and electrical system, putting a temporary kibosh on public visits to the interior.)

Back in 2015, Roes’ companion, architectural historian Heleen Westerhuijs, was invited to inspect the attic, where she discovered impressive original beams alongside 20th-century reinforcements.

While the directors of the homestead actively recognize the community that now surrounds it with events like an upcoming celebration of Haitian culture and Vodou, and hands on activities include urban farming and composting, the original settlers of New Netherland (aka New Amsterdam, aka New York City) remain a major focus.

Any American or Canadian with the surname Wyckoff (or one of its more than 50 variants) can and should consider it their ancestral home, as they are almost certainly descended from Pieter and Grietje. While many thousands now bear the name, Pieter was the first. Volunteer genealogist Lynn Wyckoff explains:

After the English assumed control of New Netherland, residents practicing patronymics (a naming system that utilized one’s father’s name in place of a surname) were required to adopt, or freeze, surnames that could be passed down each generation. Pieter Claesen chose the name Wykhof, which most of his descendants have spelled Wyckoff. Despite many unfounded claims over the years regarding both Pieter’s ancestry and choice of surname, there is no record of Pieter’s parentage; but there is substantial evidence that he chose the name Wykhof in recognition of a farm by the same name outside of Marienhafe, Germany where his family were likely tenants.

A handful of Wyckoff family members left comments on the New Netherland Now video, including Donald, who wrote of his visit:

It was an odd  feeling to touch the hand-hewn surface of a supporting beam cut and installed by my ancestor, hundreds of years ago.  Since I am a Wyckoff, I was allowed to see some of the “off tour” bits of the house.  I live over 3k miles away, so my feet will probably never touch the ground there again.  But I’m glad NY and a lot of wonderful people have maintained my ancestral home so well and for so many years.  Hopefully it has many hundreds of years of life remaining so that people can recall a time when Flatbush was more of a farm than a city.

If you are a Wyckoff (or one of its variants), you’re invited to keep the Wyckoff Association’s family tree up to date by sending word of births, deaths, marriages, and any pertinent genealogical details such as education, military service, profession, places of residence and the like.

Explore a collection of educational activities, lessons, and color pages related to the Wyckoff House here.

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Ayun Halliday is the author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Her family’s trips to the Wyckoff House were included in the latest, NYC museum-themed issue of her zine, the East Village Inky. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Rapper Post Malone Performs a 15-Song Set of Nirvana Songs, Paying Tribute to Kurt Cobain

Nirvana’s cultural staying power is a testament to the cross-generational magic that happened when Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselić, and Dave Grohl played together for only a handful of years in the 90s. Their influence goes far deeper than 90s nostalgia for a grunge trend or the celebrity status of the late Cobain. Now almost 30 years after the frontman’s 1994 suicide, we see that influence on a generation born too late to see him live — one influenced more by hip hop than guitar rock and far less interested in challenging the capitalist status quo.

For artists like rapper Post Malone, born July 4, 1995, Cobain is a major songwriting influence, even if Post Malone’s music sounds little like Nirvana. “I loved Kurt so much,” says Malone, “and he’s been such an inspiration to me, musically.” To prove his love, he’s tattooed Cobain on “two different parts of his body,”  Sheldon Pearce writes at The New Yorker, though Cobain might not have “reciprocated the love — the rapper’s stint shilling for Bud Light probably wouldn’t fly, and Cobain once said white artists should leave rap to Black artists because ‘the white man ripped off the Black man long enough.'”


But that’s the thing about idols: once they’re gone, they no longer get a say in who worships them and how. Last year, Post delivered a Nirvana tribute to benefit the UN’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization. He did so respectfully. Backed by Travis Barker on drums, Brian Lee on bass, and Nic Mack on guitar, he honored Cobain by donning a flower print dress, and by asking his daughter, Francis Bean Cobain, for permission to do the 15-song set. “I could never want to offend anybody,” he told Howard Stern, “by trying to show support, so I just wanted to make sure that everything was okay — and it was okay, and we raised money for a good cause, and we got to play some of the most f*cking epic songs ever.”

Courtney Love expressed support, writing, “Goosebumps… Go have a margarita Post Malone. Nothing but love from here.” Grohl and Novoselić also gave Malone their full approval. The former Nirvana bassist wrote that he was “holding emotions back the whole show.” In a later interview, Grohl commented, “Even the die-hard Nirvana people that I know were like, ‘dude, he’s kind of killing it right now.'” And they were right. Above, see the one-off band play “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” “Come As You Are,” “About a Girl,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” and more classic Nirvana songs. The livestream raised $500,000 (including matching funds from Google) to help fight COVID-19 around the world.

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

Beautiful Taschen Art Books on Sale Through Sunday: 25%-75% Off

FYI, from now until Sunday, the art book publisher Taschen is running a summer sale, letting you enjoy up to 75% off of hundreds of display copies of fine arts books–some of which we’ve featured here before. Some titles include:

Enter the sale here. And keep in mind that some of the books sell out quickly.

Note that Taschen is a partner of ours. So if you purchase a book, it helps support Open Culture.

If you would like to get Open Culture post’s via email, please sign up for our free email newsletter here.

And if you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

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Computer Scientist Andrew Ng Presents a New Series of Machine Learning Courses–an Updated Version of the Popular Course Taken by 5 Million Students

Back in 2017, Coursera co-founder and former Stanford computer science professor Andrew Ng launched a five-part series of courses on “Deep Learning” on the edtech platform, a series meant to “help you master Deep Learning, apply it effectively, and build a career in AI.” These courses extended his initial Machine Learning course, which has attracted almost 5 million students since 2012, in an effort, he said, to build “a new AI-powered society.”

Ng’s goals are ambitious, to “teach millions of people to use these AI tools so they can go and invent the things that no large company, or company I could build, could do.” His new Machine Learning Specialization at Coursera takes him several steps further in that direction with an “updated version of [his] pioneering Machine Learning course,” notes Coursera’s description, providing “a broad introduction to modern machine learning.” The specialization‘s three courses include 1) Supervised Machine Learning: Regression and Classification, 2) Advanced Learning Algorithms, and 3) Unsupervised Learning, Recommenders, Reinforcement Learning. Collectively, the courses in the specialization will teach you to:

  • Build machine learning models in Python using popular machine learning libraries NumPy and scikit-learn.
  • Build and train supervised machine learning models for prediction and binary classification tasks, including linear regression and logistic regression.
  • Build and train a neural network with TensorFlow to perform multi-class classification.
  • Apply best practices for machine learning development so that your models generalize to data and tasks in the real world.
  • Build and use decision trees and tree ensemble methods, including random forests and boosted trees.
  • Use unsupervised learning techniques for unsupervised learning: including clustering and anomaly detection.
  • Build recommender systems with a collaborative filtering approach and a content-based deep learning method.
  • Build a deep reinforcement learning model.

The skills students learn in Ng’s specialization will bring them closer to careers in big data, machine learning, and AI engineering. Enroll in Ng’s Specialization here free for 7 days and explore the materials in all three courses. If you’re convinced the specialization is for you, you’ll pay $49 per month until you complete the three-course specialization, and you’ll earn a certificate upon completion of a hands-on project using all of your new machine learning skills. You can sign up for the Machine Learning Specialization here.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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

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The Otherworldly Art of William Blake: An Introduction to the Visionary Poet and Painter

Given his achievements in the realms of both poetry and painting, to say nothing of his compulsions to religious and philosophical inquiry, it’s tempting to call William Blake a “Renaissance man.” But he lived in the England of the mid-eighteenth century to the near mid-nineteenth, making him a Romantic Age man — and in fact, according to the current historical view, one of that era’s defining figures. “Today he is recognized as the most spiritual of artists,” say the narrator of the video introduction above, “and an important poet in English literature.” And whether realized on canvas or in verse, his visions have retained their power over the centuries.

That power, however, went practically unacknowledged in Blake’s lifetime. Most who knew him regarded him as something between an eccentric and a madman, a perception his grandly mystical ideas and vigorous rejection of both institutions and conventions did little to dispel.


Blake didn’t believe that the world is as we see it. Rather, he sought to access much stranger underlying truths using his formidable imagination, exercised both in his art and in his dreams. Cultivating this capacity allows us 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.”

Those words come from one of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” Despite being one of his best-known poems, it merely hints at the depth and breadth of his worldview — indeed, his view of all existence. His entire corpus, written, painted, and printed, constitutes a kind of atlas of this richly imagined territory to which “The Otherworldly Art of William Blake” provides an overview. Though very much a product of the time and place in which he lived, Blake clearly drew less inspiration from the world around him than from the world inside him. Reality, for him, was to be cultivated — and richly — within his own being. Still today, the chimerical conviction of his work dares us to cultivate the reality within ourselves.

Related content:

Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fantastical “Illuminated Books”: The Images Are Sublime, and in High Resolution

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William Blake’s Hallucinatory Illustrations of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

William Blake Illustrates Mary Wollstonecraft’s Work of Children’s Literature, Original Stories from Real Life (1791)

William Blake: The Remarkable Printing Process of the English Poet, Artist & Visionary

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.

What Is the House of the Rising Sun?: An Introduction to the Origins of the Classic Song

Everyone knows the song, a warning from a man or woman returning to the place that will destroy them. Yet they cannot turn back. The tragedy of “House of the Rising Sun” lies in its inevitability. “The narrator seems to have lost his free will,” writes Jim Beviglia, caught, perhaps, in the grip of an unbeatable addiction. As soon as we hear those first few notes, we know the story will end in ruin. But what kind of ruin takes place there? Is the House of the Rising Sun a brothel or a gambling den, or both? Was it a real place in New Orleans? Maybe a pub in England? Or a place in the anonymous songwriter’s imagination?

Eric Burdon and the Animals, who popularized the song worldwide when they recorded and released it in 1964, didn’t know. Even Alan Lomax couldn’t suss out the song’s origin, though he tried, and suspected it may have originated with an English farm worker named Harry Cox who sang a song called “She Was a Rum One” with a similar opening line.


Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan played “House of the Rising Sun” in coffeehouses. Burdon himself picked the song up from the English folk scene, and the Animals first covered the slow, sinister tune when they opened for Chuck Berry because they knew they “couldn’t outrock” the guitar great.

“House of the Rising Sun” has been recorded by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, and virtually every other artist concerned with American roots music. “It’s so deep in the heart of this culture,” says New Orleans guitarist Reid Netterville, who finds that people from all over the world know the lyrics when he plays the song on street corners. Since the Animals’ recording, it has become “one of the single most performed songs in music history,” notes Polyphonic in the video at the top, “with renditions in every genre you can think of, from metal to reggae to disco.”

Maybe audiences around the world connect with this tale of ruin and despair because its setting is so mysterious and yet so perfectly placed. Burdon himself, who visits New Orleans often, gets invited to all sorts of strange places in the city, he says, purporting to be the titular “House”: “I’d go to women’s prisons, coke dealers’ houses, insane asylums, mens’ prisons, private parties. They just wanted to get me there.” The ambiguity between the real and the symbolic makes the song adaptable to any number of different kinds of voices. “It’s been described as an abstract metaphor but also a reference to real historical places,” notes Polyphonic, and it’s gone from the lament of a “ruined” female narrator to a dissolute male voice with only a change in pronouns.

While there may be a handful of spurious claimants to the title of real House of the Rising Sun, the origin of the song remains unknown. But its allure is not a mystery. The house is “a place of vice, a place of darkness and foreboding” — a place that we both can’t seem to resist and that we’d do best to stay clear of. We’ll always have curiosity about the dark corners of the world; the warning of “House of the Rising Sun” will always be pertinent, and mothers, often tragically to no avail, will always tell their children about it, wherever and whatever that den of sin may be….

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

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The Biology of Bonsai Trees: The Science Behind the Traditional Japanese Art Form

The art of bonsai originated in China. As subsequently refined in Japan, its techniques produce miniature trees that give aesthetic pleasure to people all around Asia and the wider world beyond. This appreciation is reflected in the couple-on-the-street interview footage incorporated into “The Biology Behind Bonsai Trees,” the video above from Youtuber Jonny Lim, better known as The Backpacking Biologist. Not only does Lim gather positive views on bonsai around Los Angeles, he also finds in that same city a bonsai nursery run by Bob Pressler, who has spent more than half a century mastering the art.

Even Pressler admits that he doesn’t fully understand the biology of bonsai. Lim’s search for scientific answers sends him to “something called the apical meristem.” That’s the part of the tree made of “stem cells found at the tips of the shoots and roots.” Stem cells, as you may remember from their long moment in the news a few years ago, have the potential to turn into any kind of cell.


The cells of bonsai are the same size as those of regular trees, research has revealed, but thanks to the deliberate cutting of roots and resultant restriction of nutrients to the apical meristem, their leaves are made up of fewer cells in total. Lim draws an analogy with baking cookies of different sizes: “The components are exactly the same. The only difference is that bonsais have less starting material.”

Having gained his own appreciation for bonsai, Lim also waxes poetic on how these miniature trees “still grow on the face of adversity, and they do so perfectly.” But as one commenter replies, “Why recreate adversity?” Claiming that the process is “crippling trees for just aesthetics,” this individual presents one of the known cases against bonsai. But that case, according to the experts Lim consults, is based on certain common misconceptions about the processes involved: that the wires used to position limbs “torture” the trees, for example. But as others point out, do those who make these anti-bonsai arguments feel just as pained about the many lawns that get mown down each and every week?

Related content:

The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

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What Makes the Art of Bonsai So Expensive?: $1 Million for a Bonsai Tree, and $32,000 for Bonsai Scissors

The Art of Creating a Bonsai: One Year Condensed Condensed Into 22 Mesmerizing Minutes

Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

A Digital Animation Compares the Size of Trees: From the 3-Inch Bonsai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

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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Hear a Neuroscientist-Curated 712-Track Playlist of Music that Causes Frisson, or Musical Chills

Image by Wikimedia Commons

This Spotify playlist (play below) contains music by Prince and the Grateful Dead, Weezer and Billie Holliday, Kanye West and Johannes Brahms, Hans Zimmer and David Bowie, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Radiohead. Perhaps you’d expect such a range from a 712-track playlist that runs nearly 66 hours. Yet what you’ll hear if you listen to it isn’t just the collection of a modern-day “eclectic” music-lover, but a neuroscientist-curated arrangement of pieces that all cause us to experience the same sensation: frisson.

As usual, it takes a French word to evoke a condition or experience that other terms simply don’t encompass. Quoting one definition that calls frisson “a sudden feeling or sensation of excitement, emotion or thrill,” Big Think’s Sam Gilbert also cites a recent study suggesting that “one can experience frisson when staring at a brilliant sunset or a beautiful painting; when realizing a deep insight or truth; when reading a particularly resonant line of poetry; or when watching the climax of a film.”


Gilbert notes that frisson has also been described as a “piloerection” or “skin orgasm,” about which researchers have noted similar “biological and psychological components to sexual orgasm.” As for what triggers it, he points to an argument made by musicologist David Huron: “If we initially feel bad, and then we feel good, the good feeling tends to be stronger than if the good experience occurred without the preceding bad feeling.” When music induces two sufficiently different kinds of emotions, each is heightened by the contrast between them.

Contrast plays a part in artistic power across media: not just music but film, literature, drama, painting, and much else besides. But to achieve maximum effect, the artist must make use of it in a way that, as Gilbert finds argued in a Frontiers in Psychology article, causes “violated expectation.” A frisson-rich song primes us to expect one thing and then delivers another, ideally in a way that produces a strong emotional contrast. No matter your degree of musicophilia, some of the 712 tracks on this playlist will be new to you, allowing you to experience their version of this phenomenon for the first time. Others will be deeply familiar — yet somehow, after all these years or even decades of listening, still able to bring the frisson.

via Big Think

Related content:

Music That Helps You Write: A Free Spotify Playlist of Your Selections

How Good Are Your Headphones? This 150-Song Playlist, Featuring Steely Dan, Pink Floyd & More, Will Test Them Out

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Why Do Sad People Like to Listen to Sad Music? Psychologists Answer the Question in Two Studies

The Distortion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Created “a McDonald’s Generation of Music Consumers”

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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