How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.
Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”
At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.
from “CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY”
by Walt Whitman
Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west — sun there half an hour high — I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future.
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
It avails not, time nor place — distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.
For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Mar 2020 | 5:49 pm(NZT)
“I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances,” Charles Darwin wrote in the spring of 1864 to a young and obscure German correspondent who had just sent him two folios of his stunningly illustrated studies of tiny single-celled marine organisms — a masterwork that enchanted Darwin as one of the most majestic things he had ever seen.
But Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the term ecology and become a preeminent champion of evolution, could not banish the unbanishable: Months earlier, on his thirtieth birthday, Anna, the love of his life, had been snatched from him by a sudden death medicine failed to explain; the couple were about to be married that summer after a long engagement, having finally scraped together enough to start a family when Ernst received his first academic appointment.
In the wake of his fathomless bereavement, the young marine biologist applied the Joan Didion method of dealing with grief by motion and headed for France. Pacing the beaches of Nice, his mind on an irretrievable elsewhere and his heart a menacing vacuity, he stopped mid-stride — something had clutched his attention with the claim only wonder can lay on the worst-stung soul: afloat near the surface of the tide pool was a jellyfish — a medusa species he had never seen before.
Haeckel had fallen under the spell of medusae ten years earlier, at twenty, while accompanying a mentor on a fishing and research expedition. He had exulted in a letter to his parents:
You cannot believe what new things I see and learn here every day; it exceeds by far my most exaggerated expectations and hopes. Everything that I studied for years in books, I see here suddenly with my own eyes, as if I were cast under a spell, and each hour, which brings me surprises and instruction, prepares wonderful memories for the future.
The jellyfish the boat pulled up staggered Haeckel’s imagination with both their otherworldly beauty and the unsolved scientific mysteries they held: He knew that polyps were thought to develop from jellyfish eggs and wondered whether this might suggest that these complex translucent marvels themselves evolved from such simple organisms. But when he posed “this rather forward question” to his mentor, he was surprised to receive only excited bafflement — the elder scientist admitted that the origin of the species was completely unknown.
Now, a decade and a devastation later, Haeckel surrendered to this early enchantment to steady himself on the parallel bannisters of wonder and discovery, of aesthetic splendor and scientific challenge. In The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (public library), Robert J. Richards argues that “Haeckel’s science and his legacy for modern evolutionary theory display the features they do because of his tragic sense of life,” and considers how this young man’s deeply human coping mechanism for his personal devastation shaped his scientific outlook and his artistic imagination:
Ernst Haeckel experienced the passion for transcendence through a love that lifted him to ecstasy and then crushed him in despair. This experience invaded his insistently rational attitudes, even transforming his science into a means for escaping the grasping hand of mortality.
With the extinction of love came emptiness, a void that quickly filled with the miasma of great stridency, bitterness, and ineluctable sadness, which not even friends… could clear away. Through this acid mist, Haeckel resolved to devote himself single-mindedly to a cause that might transcend individual fragility. He would incessantly push the Darwinian ideal and oppose it to those who refused to look at life, to look at death, face on.
Haeckel spent the next fifteen years studying and illustrating these strange and beautiful creatures — creatures evocative of trees and mushrooms, of ovaries and spaceships — naming the most beautiful of the species he encountered for his lost beloved: Mitrocoma Annae — “Anna’s headband.”
A generation before his marine biology colleague and compatriot Carl Chun hired an artist to illustrate the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Haeckel himself illustrated the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea jellyfish — a multi-part catalogue of more than six hundred medusa species. Tucked into his otherwise coolly scientific prose is a deeply personal ember of his grief:
Mitrocoma Annae belongs to the most charming and delicate of all the medusae. It was first observed by me in April 1864, in the Bay of Villafranca near Nice… The movement of this wonderful Eucopide offered a magical view, and I enjoyed several happy hours watching the play of her tentacles, which hang like blond hair-ornaments from the rim of the delicate umbrella-cap and which with the softest movement would roll up into thick short spirals… I name this species, the princess of the Eucopiden, as a memorial to my unforgettable true wife, Anna Sethe. If I have succeeded, during my earthly pilgrimage in accomplishing something for natural science and humanity, I owe the greatest part to the ennobling influence of this gifted wife, who was torn from me through sudden death…
When Haeckel, almost fifty, was able to built a house of his own in Jena, he adorned its walls with frescoes of medusae and called it Villa Medusa.
Anyone who has suffered savaging personal loss knows intimately that moment — a moment that can last months, years, a lifetime — when it seems like the only way to lose one’s suffering is to lose oneself. Perhaps what drew Haeckel to these particular creatures was their particular evolutionary biology, which dissolves the very notion of a self. In their complex life-cycles, the concept of individuality ceases to make sense — the psychological reality of our human existence, in which we spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, is a physiological reality for jellyfish. (The great scientist and poet Lewis Thomas would explore this a century after Haeckel in The Medusa and the Snail — one of the profoundest, most beautiful things ever written about the paradoxes of the self.) Some jellyfish species pulse into existence via a process of alternating generation — the adult animals swim untethered and reproduce sexually, but the larvae that emerge from their fertilized eggs become hydra-like creatures that root to the seafloor, asexually sprouting buds that then restart the cycle by developing into the drifting, mate-seeking grown jellyfish. Some exist as specialized parts of a vast colonial animal, in which individuals become organs — reproductive, digestive, motive — of this collective being.
For Haeckel, much of the medusae’s enchantment and consolation radiated from this very unselfing. Likening them to bouquets of flowers endowed with “an intricate structure indicating a most interesting and rather advanced division of labor,” he wrote:
Think of a delicate slim bouquet of flowers, the leaves and colored buds of which are as transparent as glass, a bouquet that winds through the water in a graceful and lively fashion — then you’ll have an idea of these wonderful, beautiful, and delicate colonial animals.
In this flowering collectivism Haeckel found not only solace for the aches of the self but affirmation of the central ideas that animated him into becoming one of the most ardent and effective advocates for Darwin’s evolutionary theory against the era’s ferocious tide of dogmatic opposition. Darwin, who had waded through his own fathomless loss when his daughter Annie died despite his every effort to save her, placed at the center of his scientific work the notion of natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Such an understanding, scientific or personal, renders death not a slight by fate but an ally of nature, part of the impartial laws holding the universe together — mortality unmoored from morality and metaphysics. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin whispered to himself in the closing pages of a book bellowing a new scientific truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of nature.
A century later, picking up where Haeckel left off and wresting ecology from the insular vernacular of science to embed it into the popular lexicon, Rachel Carson — another visionary marine biologist who lived between the tragic and the transcendent — reaffirmed that grandeur in a pioneering masterwork of scientific poetics, writing that “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
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Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Mar 2020 | 5:07 pm(NZT)
To be human is to be a miracle of evolution conscious of its own miraculousness — a consciousness beautiful and bittersweet, for we have paid for it with a parallel awareness not only of our fundamental improbability but of our staggering fragility, of how physiologically precarious our survival is and how psychologically vulnerable our sanity. To make that awareness bearable, we have evolved a singular faculty that might just be the crowning miracle of our consciousness: hope.
Hope — and the wise, effective action that can spring from it — is the counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility. It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes.
How to harness that uniquely human paradox in living more empowered lives in even the most vulnerable-making circumstances is what the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in the 1968 gem The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (public library), written in an era when both hope and fear were at a global high, by a German Jew who had narrowly escaped a dismal fate by taking refuge first in Switzerland and then in America when the Nazis seized power.
In a sentiment he would later develop in contemplating the superior alternative to the parallel lazinesses of optimism and pessimism, Fromm writes:
Hope is a decisive element in any attempt to bring about social change in the direction of greater aliveness, awareness, and reason. But the nature of hope is often misunderstood and confused with attitudes that have nothing to do with hope and in fact are the very opposite.
Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene made his poetic case for our sense of mortality as the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives, Fromm argues that our capacity for hope — which has furnished the greatest achievements of our species — is rooted in our vulnerable self-consciousness. Writing well before Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, Fromm (and all of his contemporaries and predecessors, male and female, trapped in the linguistic convention of their time) may be forgiven for using man as shorthand for the generalized human being:
Man, lacking the instinctual equipment of the animal, is not as well equipped for flight or for attack as animals are. He does not “know” infallibly, as the salmon knows where to return to the river in order to spawn its young and as many birds know where to go south in the winter and where to return in the summer. His decisions are not made for him by instinct. He has to make them. He is faced with alternatives and there is a risk of failure in every decision he makes. The price that man pays for consciousness is insecurity. He can stand his insecurity by being aware and accepting the human condition, and by the hope that he will not fail even though he has no guarantee for success. He has no certainty; the only certain prediction he can make is: “I shall die.”
What makes us human is not the fact of that elemental vulnerability, which we share with all other living creatures, but the awareness of that fact — the way existential uncertainty worms the consciousness capable of grasping it. But in that singular fragility lies, also, our singular resilience as thinking, feeling animals capable of foresight and of intelligent, sensitive decision-making along the vectors of that foresight.
Man is born as a freak of nature, being within nature and yet transcending it. He has to find principles of action and decision making which replace the principles of instinct. He has to have a frame of orientation that permits him to organize a consistent picture of the world as a condition for consistent actions. He has to fight not only against the dangers of dying, starving, and being hurt, but also against another danger that is specifically human: that of becoming insane. In other words, he has to protect himself not only against the danger of losing his life but also against the danger of losing his mind. The human being, born under the conditions described here, would indeed go mad if he did not find a frame of reference which permitted him to feel at home in the world in some form and to escape the experience of utter helplessness, disorientation, and uprootedness. There are many ways in which man can find a solution to the task of staying alive and of remaining sane. Some are better than others and some are worse. By “better” is meant a way conducive to greater strength, clarity, joy, independence; and by “worse” the very opposite. But more important than finding the better solution is finding some solution that is viable.
As we navigate our own uncertain times together, may a thousand flowers of sanity bloom, each valid so long as it is viable in buoying the human spirit it animates. And may we remember the myriad terrors and uncertainties preceding our own, which have served as unexpected awakenings from some of our most perilous civilizational slumbers. Fromm — who devoted his life to illuminating the inner landscape of the individual human being as the tectonic foundation of the political topography of the world — composed this book during the 1968 American Presidential election. He was aglow with hope that the unlikely ascent of an obscure, idealistic, poetically inclined Senator from Minnesota by the name of Eugene McCarthy (not to be confused with the infamous Joseph McCarthy, who stood for just about everything opposite) might steer the country toward precisely such pathways to “greater strength, clarity, joy, independence.”
McCarthy lost — to none other than Nixon — and the country plummeted into more war, more extractionism, more reactionary nationalism and bigotry. But the very rise of that unlikely candidate contoured hopes undared before — hopes some of which have since become reality and others have clarified our most urgent work as a society and a species. Fromm writes:
A man who was hardly known before, one who is the opposite of the typical politician, averse to appealing on the basis of sentimentality or demagoguery, truly opposed to the Vietnam War, succeeded in winning the approval and even the most enthusiastic acclaim of a large segment of the population, reaching from the radical youth, hippies, intellectuals, to liberals of the upper middle classes. This was a crusade without precedent in America, and it was something short of a miracle that this professor-Senator, a devotee of poetry and philosophy, could become a serious contender for the Presidency. It proved that a large segment of the American population is ready and eager for Humanization… indicating that hope and the will for change are alive.
Having given reign to his own hope and will for change in this book “appealing to the love for life (biophilia) that still exists in many of us,” Fromm reflects on a universal motive force of resilience and change:
Only through full awareness of the danger to life can this potential be mobilized for action capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing society… One cannot think in terms of percentages or probabilities as long as there is a real possibility — even a slight one — that life will prevail.
Complement The Revolution of Hope — an indispensable treasure rediscovered half a century after its publication and republished in 2010 by the American Mental Health Foundation — with Fromm on spontaneity, the art of living, the art of loving, the art of listening, and why self-love is the key to a sane society, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and Rebecca Solnit on the real meaning of hope in difficult times.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Mar 2020 | 4:53 pm(NZT)
“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” Maya Angelou wrote in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had. “We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” In that same cultural season, from a college commencement stage, Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings that “true adulthood is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory.”
It is tempting, for it is flattering, to think of ourselves as trees — as firmly rooted and resolutely upward bound; as creatures destined, in Mary Oliver’s lovely words, “to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.” But even if the highest compliment a great poet can pay a great woman is to celebrate her as a human tree, we are not trees — we don’t branch and root from a single point, we don’t grow linearly; we disbark ourselves at will, at the flash and flutter of a heart, self-grafting every love and loss we live through; our growth-rings are often ungirdled by self-doubt, by regress, by the fits and starts by which we become who and what we are: fragmentary but indivisible. The difficulty of growing up, the hard-won glory of it, lies in the self-tessellation.
That is what Rebecca Solnit explores in a passage from Recollections of My Nonexistence (public library) — her splendid memoir of longings and determinations, of resistances and revolutions, personal and political, illuminating the kiln in which one of the boldest, most original minds of our time was annealed.
Three quarters into the book and half a lifetime into her becoming, Solnit writes:
Growing up, we say, as though we were trees, as though altitude was all that there was to be gained, but so much of the process is growing whole as the fragments are gathered, the patterns found. Human infants are born with craniums made up of four plates that have not yet knit together into a solid dome so that their heads can compress to fit through the birth canal, so that the brain within can then expand. The seams of these plates are intricate, like fingers interlaced, like the meander of arctic rivers across tundra.
The skull quadruples in size in the first few years, and if the bones knit together too soon, they restrict the growth of the brain; and if they don’t knit at all the brain remains unprotected. Open enough to grow and closed enough to hold together is what a life must also be. We collage ourselves into being, finding the pieces of a worldview and people to love and reasons to live and then integrate them into a whole, a life consistent with its beliefs and desires, at least if we’re lucky.
Complement this fragment of Solnit’s wholly vitalizing Recollections of My Nonexistence with philosopher Alain de Botton on the measure of existential maturity and poet Ross Gay on what it means to grow up, then revisit Solnit’s increasingly timely antidote to the defeatism of despair in difficult times and her wonderful letter to children about reading as self-creation and self-consolation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Mar 2020 | 11:28 am(NZT)
We make things and seed them into the world, never fully knowing — often never knowing at all — whom they will reach and how they will blossom in other hearts, how their meaning will unfold in contexts we never imagined. (W.S. Merwin captured this poignantly in the final lines of his gorgeous poem “Berryman.”)
Today I offer something a little apart from the usual, or sidelong rather, amid these unusual times: A couple of days ago, I received a moving note from a woman who had read Figuring and found herself revisiting the final page — it was helping her, she said, live through the terror and confusion of these uncertain times. I figured I’d share that page — which comes after 544 others, tracing centuries of human loves and losses, trials and triumphs, that gave us some of the crowning achievements of our civilization — in case it helps anyone else.
Meanwhile, someplace in the world, somebody is making love and another a poem. Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known — an entropic spectacle insentient to questions of blame and mercy, devoid of why.
In four billion years, our own star will follow its fate, collapsing into a white dwarf. We exist only by chance, after all. The Voyager will still be sailing into the interstellar shorelessness on the wings of the “heavenly breezes” Kepler had once imagined, carrying Beethoven on a golden disc crafted by a symphonic civilization that long ago made love and war and mathematics on a distant blue dot.
But until that day comes, nothing once created ever fully leaves us. Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating across coteries and countries and continents. Meanwhile, people live and people die — in peace as war rages on, in poverty and disrepute as latent fame awaits, with much that never meets its more, in shipwrecked love.
I will die.
You will die.
The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us.
What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Mar 2020 | 6:21 am(NZT)
In the waning winter of 1864, Charles Darwin opened a package that stopped his breath. “It is one of the most magnificent works which I have ever seen,” he exulted in his response to the sender — a young, still obscure German marine biologist by the name of Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the word ecology a century before the great marine biologist Rachel Carson made it a household word in catalyzing the environmental movement. Haeckel would become a naturalist, a philosopher, and the greatest champion of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas; he would name and describe thousands of previously undiscovered animal species; he would coin and crown an entire kingdom, Protista.
Barely thirty, impelled by the peculiar boldness that comes from personal despair so grave that one feels one has nothing left to lose, Haeckel had decided to share with the esteemed and controversial Darwin the work to which he had devoted years: his studies of radiolarians — tiny single-cell marine organisms with mineral skeletons of striking geometries — in two handsome folio volumes, which Haeckel had illustrated with delicate, detailed, hauntingly beautiful copper-etched drawings.
Haeckel had come under the spell of radiolaria during his yearlong scientific studies and travels in Italy at the age of twenty-five — the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species — and had since diverted all of his scientific passion and artistic training toward these miniature masterworks of nature. “I had no idea that animals of such low organization could develope such extremely beautiful structures,” Darwin gushed. He ended his rapturous reply to Haeckel with these bittersweet words:
I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances.
The painful remembrance: On the day of Haeckel’s thirtieth birthday the previous month, Anna Sethe — the love of his life, whom he was finally about to marry upon receiving his first gainful academic appointment, after a four-year engagement — died suddenly, of a ruptured appendix. Haeckel — who considered himself “decidedly a ‘Leptoderm,’ that is, ‘thin-skinned,’” and therefore susceptible to “much more suffering and, also, more intense joy than the run of men” — was unpeeled by grief. “Dark melancholy has replaced my former cheerful joy in life,” he confided in Darwin, aware of the elder scientist’s own devastating experience of loss.
The search for transcendence became Haeckel’s survival mechanism for this fathomless personal tragedy — the transcendence he found in nature, in its breathtaking complexity and breathtaking simplicity, in its every microscopic detail magnified to reveal millennia of meticulous craftsmanship and refinement by the forces of evolution.
A century and a half after they so enchanted Darwin, French artist Zöe Almon Job has set Haeckel’s radiolaria drawings in motion and in thought in a lovely animated reflection on the relationship between aloneness and togetherness, on the delicate symbioses of nature and their subtler existential undertones illuminating the totality of being, in which even the most isolated existence is an emissary of our natural interconnectedness.
Complement with the great naturalist John Muir, a contemporary of Haeckel’s, on the transcendent interconnectedness of nature and poet Howard Nemerov’s Haeckel-like geometric-existential poem about the interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit these stunning and sensual illustrations of cephalopods from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, by a contemporary and compatriot of Haeckel’s.
Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Mar 2020 | 5:13 am(NZT)
It is our biological destiny to exist — and then not. Each of us eventually returns their stardust to the universe, to be constellated into some other ephemeral emissary of spacetime. Eventually, our entire species will go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo and the Romantics; eventually, our home star will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, taking with it everything we have ever known — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the guillotine and the perfect Fibonacci sequence of the pine cone.
Meanwhile, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we busy ourselves with survival and with searching for beauty, for truth, for assurance between the bookends. The feeling of that search is what we call meaning; the people who light our torches to help us see better, who transmit our discoveries from one consciousness to another, are what we call artists. Artists are also the ones who help reconcile us to the fragility that comes with our creaturely nature and strews our search with so much suffering. Suffering — biological and psychological, in private and en masse — has always accompanied our species, as it has every species. But we alone have coped by transmuting our suffering into beauty, by making symphonies and paintings and poems out of our fragility — beauty that does not justify the suffering, but does make it more bearable, does help the sufferers next to us and after us, in space and in time, suffer less, in ways the originating consciousness can never quantify in the receiving, never estimate their reach across the sweep of centuries and sufferings.
Few search-artists have served as greater agents of transmutation than Jane Hirshfield — a poet of optimism and of lucidity, a champion of science and an ordained Buddhist, a poet who could write “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance,” a poet who can balance and steady us against those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another” with her wondrous new collection Ledger (public library)
As we wake in another, searching for sense and stability, practicing the practice of life within chaos theory, I asked Jane to read for us one of the most beautiful and perspectival poems from this miraculous book — a poem of consolation by way of calibration; an invitation to broaden our perspective — scientific, temporal, and humanistic — and weigh the immediate against the eternal.
TODAY, ANOTHER UNIVERSE
by Jane Hirshfield
The arborist has determined:
senescence beetles canker
quickened by drought
but in any case
not prunable not treatable not to be propped.
The branch from which the sharp-shinned hawks and their mate-cries.
The trunk where the ant.
The red squirrels’ eighty-foot playground.
The bark cambium pine-sap cluster of needles.
The Japanese patterns the ink-net.
The dapple on certain fish.
Today, for some, a universe will vanish.
then just another silence.
The silence of after, once the theater has emptied.
Of bewilderment after the glacier,
the species, the star.
Something else, in the scale of quickening things,
will replace it,
this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.
A quarter century later, the poem echoes Hirshfield’s short, stunning poem “Jasmine” from her indispensable 1997 collection The Lives of the Heart — one of the truest, most beautiful perspectives ever polished in language:
by Jane Hirshfield
Almost the twenty-first century” —
how quickly the thought will grow dated,
Our hopes, our future,
will pass like the hopes and futures of others.
And all our anxieties and terrors,
nights of sleeplessness,
will appear then as they truly are —
Stumbling, delirious bees in the tea scent of jasmine.
Complement this fragment of Hirshfield’s altogether re-saning Ledger with other poetic masterpieces of perspective — “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “A Brave and Starling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Immortality” by Lisel Mueller, “Cold Solace” by Anna Belle Kaufman, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, “The Everlasting Self” by Tracy K. Smith, “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson — then revisit physicist Brian Greene on the poetry of existence and the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives amid an impartial universe.
Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Mar 2020 | 6:59 am(NZT)
Years before Walter Lippmann explored stereotypes and the psychology of prejudice, rooted in the disquieting fact that “we do not first see, and then define, [but] define first and then see,” and decades before Hannah Arendt observed that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed” before she drew on this insight to illuminate the relationship between loneliness and tyranny, the trailblazing anthropologist, sociologist, and folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons (November 27, 1875–December 19, 1941) took up these deep-rooted, interleaved questions in her prolific and prescient body of work.
A graduate of Barnard College, Parsons used her family wealth to fund the anthropology department at Columbia University during its wartime downturn and helped found The New School — New York’s iconic haven of intellectual freedom and progressive thinking. Greatly influenced by Margaret Fuller, Parsons not only advocated for but modeled women’s equal intellectual participation in culture, seeing difference not as a point of weakness but as a fulcrum of strength. In an era when social science was still emerging from the primordial waters of metaphysics onto the firm ground of methodology and was often tainted with the pseudosciences that gave rise to eugenics, in an era when very few women were accredited field researchers and published scholars, Parsons researched, wrote, and published more than a dozen deeply insightful works challenging many of the era’s damaging givens. Making Native American tribes the focus of her research, she saw native societies not as “primitive” cultures that had to be leveled with “civilization,” as the normative view of the era dictated, but as alternative models of social organization and cultural practices, valid in their own right and in many ways superior to those of her own society — cultures that had a great deal to teach, rather than be taught, about how to live.
Parsons was drawn to this inquiry into alternative cultural models by her early and growing skepticism about her own culture’s problematic tendencies and the trajectory on which they were setting society. She became a radical voice of dissent, writing critically, with tremendous psychosocial insight and foresight, about the early signs of what would fester into some of the most troubling, oppressive, and dangerous realities of our own time. Of her many then-controversial works, the one that now stands as nothing short of prophetic is her 1916 book Social Rule: A Study of the Will to Power (public library) — an unheard admonition bellowing in the gun barrel of time, presaging the exploitation of the psychological vulnerabilities of the human animal that gave rise to the various totalitarian regimes that came to plague the globe in the century since, spurred the most concentrated genocide in the history of our species, and the continues to foment the maladies of racism, sexism, and nationalism still fraying the fabric of our shared humanity.
Parsons begins with the elemental question of why we are so impelled to divide the world into categories and classes, and why we derive such pleasure from ranking our own above others, despite the enormous collective cost of these divisions:
In any study of the relations between personality and social classification the queries arise why the social categories are alike so compulsive to the conservative-minded and so precious, why they are given such unfailing loyalty, why such unquestioning devotion? To offset the miseries they allow of or further, the tragedies they prepare, what satisfaction do they offer? Do they serve only as measures against change, as safeguards to habit, — this raising barriers between those most apt to upset one another’s ways, the inevitably unlike, the unlike in sex, in age, in economic or cultural class?
Well before Lippmann observed that “the systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society,” Parsons locates the answer to the paradox in precisely this self-securing social function of labels:
The social categories are no doubt a safeguard against the innovations personality untrammelled would be up to, and this protection is by no means a trifling social function;… they are an unparalleled means of gratifying the will to power as it expresses itself in social relations.
The preeminent function of social classification appears therefore to be social rule… Classification is nine-tenths of subjection. Indeed to rule over another successfully you have only to see to it that he keeps his place — his place as a male, her place as a female, his or her place as a junior, as a subject or servant or social “inferior” of any kind, as an outcast or exile, a ghost or a god.
Classification, Parsons observes, is not just what we do with others but what we do with ourselves in our struggle for belonging and self-inclusion — a struggle that sometimes metastasizes into a tendency toward punitive exclusion directed at those we place outside the boundaries of our self-elected classifications. In a sentiment of chilling relevance to a common malfunction of twenty-first-century identity politics — a necessary healing of painful historical exclusions in many ways, but also one, like all compensatory advancements, in danger of over-compensating by veering into an unhealing direction of further divisiveness — Parsons adds:
Self-control is a means to controlling other people. So is self-classification. The feeling of having our class back of us gives us self-assurance… we enhance our sense of power. Similarly, by declassifying or demoting others or by suspending their regular classification, so to speak, we get a pleasurable sense of our own power.
With the eye to the history of civilizations, Parsons argues that “the bulk of our surplus energy, energy beyond that applied to sustaining life,” is exerted on subjugating others. Having long advocated for women’s equal inclusion in the intellectual, creative, and political spheres of society, she observes that even the classification feminist has been hijacked and contorted to work in a direction opposite to its intended purpose. Three years before women finally won the right to vote, and half a century after Walt Whitman insisted that “the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman,” Parsons writes:
Even the woman movement we have called feminism has not succeeded by and large in giving women any control over men. It has only changed the distribution of women along the two stated lines of control by men, removing vast numbers of women from the class supported by men to the class working for them.
The main objective of feminism in fact may be defeminisation, the declassification of women as women, the recognition of women as human beings or personalities. It is not hard to see why the classification of women according to sex has ever been so thorough and so rigid. As long as they are thought of in terms of sex and that sex the weaker or the submissive, they are subject by hypothesis to control… The more thoroughly a woman is classified the more easily is she controlled.
Economic caste distinctions, Parsons argues, operate along similar lines of social function. Decades before the golden age of consumerism opened its post-industrial jaws into gaping income inequality and swallowed the century, she writes:
Through consumption a still greater measure of difference is achieved. This achievement is particularly characteristic of course in the class that can best afford to elaborate its consumption, the capitalist class, but within the labour class too different standards of living, i. e. of consuming make for caste demarcations.
Conspicuous consumption, conspicuous waste is in all classes a manifestation of the will to power.
In another passage of extraordinary prescience, penned in the midst of one World War, decades ahead the unfathomed next, and a century before the xenophobic border catastrophes of our own time, Parsons considers nationalistic tendencies and the social domination of immigrants as particularly perilous expressions of this destructive will to power:
Naturalisation, as it is called in political terms, or, more comprehensively, assimilation is a complex process of classification which has of course more than one end… Making citizens is an outlet for the energy of many groups of the native born. When the outlet is denied them, when foreigners are considered too disparate for assimilation to become possible or when immigrants have resisted assimilation en masse by living in segregated communities, the native born are gravely concerned. They feel thwarted and they look for relief. Restriction of immigration is one of their favourite self-relief measures.
With a condemnatory eye toward a harsh immigration bill that had just been proposed, aiming to bar Hindus from entering the United States and to require an English literacy test from other immigrants, Parsons observes that such efforts to legalize discrimination are not just a momentary flinch from the terrors of a war-torn world but emblematic of a deeper, darker human folly — an observation that the following century, with its Japanese internment camps and Mexican border wall, would prove grimly astute:
This campaign against hyphenated Americans is an outcome of a particular state of panic, to be sure, but it must also be viewed as a consistent, if acute, part of the ordinary American attitude towards the immigrant. Or, to speak more justly, of the articulate Anglo-Saxon American’s attitude.
Far ahead of her time, Parsons argued for the respect and inclusion not only of the various races and the two sexes, but also — long before homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder, the term LGBTQ coined, and the trans identity proudly claimed — for the rights of gender-nonconforming persons: “men-women or women-men, the unsexed.” She widened the circle of empathy and creaturely dignity to non-human animals, inveighing against cruelty and slaughter, and correctly terming the captivity of wild animals in zoos, circuses, and royal courts a form of “enslavement.”
Finally, turning to the essential humanistic lens that must govern all science — for she had seen science warped and politicized in fueling the racist ideologies that set her world ablaze with war, hatred, and exclusion — Parsons ends the book with an admonition we are yet to heed and a vision we are yet to realize — a vision for a world where science becomes not a tool of subjugation and extractionism but an emissary of the wonder of nature and human nature; a world in which diversity becomes not a point of divisiveness but a crowning glory of our interconnected fates:
Unless our culture does develop along certain lines, principally along the line of a greater tolerance for the individual variation, a greater respect for personality, scientific applications to society may indeed prove unimaginable tyranny. Aside from this possible turn of culture, however, there is another social relief in sight. Applied science will be concentrated more and more upon nature. This diversion of energy from controlling the animate or the moral to controlling the inanimate or the non-moral is in fact in process; it is already one of the most characteristic features of modern life. Thanks to the mechanical inventions it resulted in, it has led to innumerable new fields of work and play — for children, for women, and for other subject classes. It is transforming child-bearing and the education of children. It has meant public hygiene. Some day it may mean social art. It has transformed belief in the mystical efficacy of staying home into concern over home conditions. It has meant improving neighbourhoods (rather than regulating neighbours). It has directed attention from the ethics of proprietorship to the ethics of use. It has meant the preservation of natural resources, substituting here as elsewhere the idea of collective ownership for the theory of natural rights and private property. It has meant a world-wide system of communication and transportation. Some day it will mean industrial democracy. Some day it will mean the disappearance of nationalisation as it is now understood and the disappearance of national wars. Through lessening interest not only in political boundaries but in all social boundaries it will force a condition of greater social tolerance in general, precluding the individual from masking an attitude of arrogance or tyranny under a social classification. In it, in the concentration of our energy upon bettering nature rather than upon bettering man, or, shall we say, in bettering human beings through bettering the conditions they live under, in such outlets for effort and ambition I find the opportunity par excellence for a greater measure of social freedom.
Complement with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, a cultural descendent of Parsons, on the sane society and what will save us from ourselves, then revisit James Baldwin’s classic “Stranger in the Village,” exploring these complex issues along the tightrope between conviction and nuance the way only Baldwin can.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Mar 2020 | 5:43 am(NZT)
“How should we like it were stars to burn with a passion for us we could not return?” asked W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) in “The More Loving One” — one of the greatest, most largehearted poems ever written. The son of a physicist, Auden wove science throughout much of his poetry — sometimes playfully, sometimes poignantly, always as a finely polished lens on the deepest moral and humanistic questions with which we live and for which we die. At the heart of his scientific poetics was the understanding that the eternal tension between knowledge and the unknown, enveloped in our ambivalent longings, is what makes us human.
Nowhere do these tessellated ideas and sensibilities come together more vibrantly than in his 1961 poem “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics,” found in his indispensable Collected Poems (public library) and brought to life by musician Josh Groban at the third annual Universe in Verse.
Following theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s ardent case for the interbelonging of art and science, and reading to the background of an Auden portrait painted by astrophysicist, novelist, and poetry enchantress Janna Levin, Groban prefaced his reading of Auden with a remarkable personal story about his own great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather — a 17th-century German rebel astronomer and theologian, who allowed his scientific understanding of the cosmos to expand his spiritual life rather than contracting it with fear and dogma as the era’s church did — the same era in which Kepler’s revolutionary astronomy thrust his mother into a witchcraft trial.
Enjoy, and consider joining us in atoms for the fourth annual Universe in Verse, exploring the most fundamental question of existence: What is life?
AFTER READING A CHILD’S GUIDE TO MODERN PHYSICS
by W.H. Auden
If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.
Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.
Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.
Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths — but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?
This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.
It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.
For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist correction of the history of science, Krista Tippett reading “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, and astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, and Whitman’s classic “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Mar 2020 | 3:11 pm(NZT)
“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in contemplating the mightiest force of resistance in times far more troubled than ours, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” To Whitman, who declared himself “the poet of the woman the same as the man,” the gravest weakness of democracy was the artificial, culturally manufactured inequality of the genders, which he recognized not only as a corruption of democracy but as a corruption of nature. Equality for him, be it of the genders or the races, was never a matter of politics — that plaything of the human animal — but a matter of naturalness. Because he saw how thickly interleaved our individual dignities are, how interdependent our flourishing — saw that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — he took it upon himself, a century and a half before his society did, to save democracy from politics, standing up for the rightful balance of dignity and power. Anne Gilchrist — the unheralded genius whom Whitman admired as “a sort of human miracle” belonging “to the times yet to come” — spoke for the epochs when she asked: “Who but he could put at last the right meaning into that word ‘democracy,’ which has been made to bear such a burthen of incongruous notions?”
Whitman threw himself at righting — naturalizing — the gender imbalance of democracy not despite his maleness but precisely because of it. At the heart of his devotion to equality was an astute insight into the paradox of power: the understanding that no socially and politically marginalized group — not even a biological majority — moves to the center solely by its own efforts; it takes a gravitational pull by those kindred to the cause who are already in relative positions of power or privilege. It was a countercultural understanding in his time, and remains a countercultural understanding in ours, its negation ahistorical: Citizens helped us immigrants obtain legal rights and protections; white women like astronomer Maria Mitchell and literary titan Margaret Fuller were on the ideological front-lines of abolition, some even on the literal front-lines of the Civil War.
Long before the term feminism wove itself into the modern lexicon, America’s most celebrated poet (though perhaps the second-greatest) became an outspoken feminist. In his 1888 poem “America” — a reading of which is the only surviving recording of his voice — Whitman eulogized his homeland as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons.” He added this poem to his continually revised and expanded Leaves of Grass in the final years of his life, but coursing through it was the pulse-beat of a longtime conviction: As a young man, Whitman was greatly influenced by Margaret Fuller — one of the central figures Figuring — whose epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century catalyzed American women’s emancipation movement. Clippings of Fuller’s columns for the New-York Tribune, where she became the first female editor of a major American newspaper and America’s first foreign war correspondent, were found among Whitman’s papers after his death.
Nearly two decades after Fuller radicalized society, but long before her legacy helped women win the right to vote, Whitman composed a remarkably prescient essay on the obstacles to democracy, included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).
Insisting that no democratic society could exist in which women are not afforded the same rights as men, he wrote:
I have sometimes thought… that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.
Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.
A century before Adrienne Rich argued for literature as a force of women’s empowerment and a form of resistance to male capitalist society, Whitman called for the creation of a new American literature that would be as much an original art form as a tool of social change. Among “the most precious of its results,” Whitman envisioned, would be “achieving the entire redemption of woman… and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race.” Art, he resolutely believed, was the ultimate catalyst for social transformation and betterment:
The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.
Whitman’s first serious biographer, the great nature writer John Burroughs, notes in his exquisitely beautiful and loving portrait of the poet, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), that Whitman always heralded woman as man’s equal and never his plaything, property, or unpaid domestic servant, always as capable of embodying the qualities Whitman most celebrated in human nature. Burroughs wrote:
I sometimes meet women whom I say are of the Whitman type — the kind of woman he invoked and predicted… They are cheerful, tolerant, friendly, think no evil, meet high and low on equal terms; they walk, row, climb mountains; they reach forth into the actual world of questions and events, open-minded, sympathetic, frank, natural, good-natured… in short, the large, fresh, wholesome open-air natures whose ideal so completely possessed Walt Whitman.
Burroughs placed the equality of men and women as the crowning achievement of a more Whitmanesque society — the more democratic society of the future:
The more democratic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the more tolerant, fraternal, sympathetic we become, the more we are ready for Whitman; the more we inure ourselves to the open air and to real things, the more we value and understand our own bodies, the more the woman becomes the mate and equal of the man, the more social equality prevails, — the sooner will come to Whitman fullness and fruition.
Whitman himself had written in Leaves of Grass:
The race is never separated — nor man nor woman
All is inextricable — things, spirits, nature, nations,
you too — from precedents you come.
The creation is womanhood;
Have I not said that womanhood involves all?
Have I not told how the universe has nothing better
than the best womanhood?
Complement with Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for humanity, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it takes to be an agent of change, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Mar 2020 | 2:50 pm(NZT)
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie,” naturalist Sy Montgomery wrote in her breathtaking inquiry into how Earth’s most alien creature illuminates the wonders of consciousness. “To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege… an uplink to universal consciousness.”
A century before her, and decades before the great marine biologist, conservation pioneer, and poetic science writer Rachel Carson invited the popular imagination undersea for the first time through the valve of science — the fathoming that gave rise to the environmental movement — the German marine biologist Carl Chun (October 1, 1852–April 11, 1914) led a pioneering deep-sea expedition that upended, with the most spectacular findings, the long-held belief that life could not exist below 300 fathoms.
In the summer of 1898, Chun and his team embarked on what became known as the Valdivia expedition, plunging below 500 fathoms — depths the British-led Challenger expedition, which had laid the foundation of oceanography sixteen years earlier, had failed to reach — and emerging eight months later with marvels beyond the wildest human imaginings and the most daring scientific speculations, creatures too strange and otherworldly even for Jules Verne’s fantastical worlds: cosmoses of bioluminescent fish, swimmers navigating the inky blackness of the depths with senses other than sight, fleshy pulsating supernovae of crimson, gilled and frilled and tentacled wonders that seemed to belong to the “other spheres” Whitman imagined when he contemplated “the world below the brine.”
Chun spent the remainder of his life bringing the world’s awed attention to the unfathomed wonderland he had discovered, in twenty-four rigorously detailed volumes, some featuring arresting, almost erotic illustrations by the artist Friedrich Wilhelm Winter — none more arresting than those found in the 1910 treasure Cephalopod Atlas, a surviving copy of which has been digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Library.
Among Winter’s stunning, sensual illustrations — which I have restored and made available as prints, benefiting Greenpeace and their inspired endeavor to protect the increasingly human-savaged habitats of these living wonders — is one of a creature Chun was the first to describe: a small, black cephalopod with branchial hearts and a light gonad that appears to shine just above its stomach. He named it Vampyroteuthis infernalis, “vampire squid from hell.”
Complement with an animated primer on what makes the octopus consciousness so extraordinary and a little boy’s disarming case against eating octopuses (I’ll take the PSA opportunity here to remind folks that “octopus” comes from Greek, not from Latin; the correct plural is therefore “octopuses,” not “octopi”), then revisit British artist Sarah Stone’s trailblazing natural history paintings of exotic and endangered species from the previous century, French artist Paul Sougy’s vintage scientific diagrams of plants and animals from the following century, and Sy Montgomery’s lovely contemporary meditation on how to be a good creature.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Mar 2020 | 5:32 pm(NZT)
In her stunning “Hymn to Time,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed how death and chance course through “space and the radiance of each bright galaxy,” through our “eyes beholding radiance” — death and chance meaning death and life, for each of us is a wonder of improbability made by an immense Rube Goldberg machine of chance: If the Big Bang had churned out just a little more antimatter than matter, if the ratio of hydrogen and helium in the baby universe had been only a little bit different, if our Pale Blue Dot had snapped into orbit just a little bit closer to or farther from our life-warming home star, if the ratio of mutual attraction had been just a little bit different when your parents crossed orbits, if they had put on a different record and cross-pollinated gene pools on a different night, you would not exist. As the physicist Brian Greene put it in his poetic inquiry into what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives in an impartial universe, “by the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”
Most of us, if at all aware of the glorious accident we experience as our own existence, are only dimly aware of it and only as an abstraction. Not so for the great physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) — one of the vastest scientific minds of the past century, and one of the most humanistic.
When Dyson’s father — the English composer George Dyson — was a young music teacher, his closest friend — a lanky classicist who taught at the same school — was drafted into the British army during WWI and sent to fight in Paris. One day, this exceedingly tall young man stuck his head to look out from the trench. A German sniper killed him instantly. His sister, with whom he’d been incredibly close, was grief-stricken. So was his best friend. The grief brought the two together. A year after his death, they were married. When they had their first child, they named him for the slain hero: Freeman. Freeman Dyson lived out his entire life — a life of nearly a century, a life that lived through humanity’s darkest hour and through some of our most dazzling triumphs: the discovery of the double helix, the Moon landing, the birth of the Internet, the detection of gravitational waves, the signing of the Paris Agreement — never losing sight of the double-edged sword of chance that had made his own life possible by his uncle’s death. It informed his entire personal cosmogony, as a scientist and a humanist. Viewed in this light, this light of ultimate lucidity, all of our conflicts and combats — international or interpersonal — appear not only unnatural but anti-natural, foolish squanderings of the brief and improbable life that chance has dealt us, vandalized verses from the sacred poetry that is the book of nature.
Upon receiving the heart-sinking news of Freeman Dyson’s death, I expressed my condolences to his son — the science historian and splendid writer George Dyson, named for his grandfather. He responded with the above photograph from the family archives — a charming embodiment of the playfulness and free-spirited good nature that endowed Freeman Dyson’s brilliant mind with such coruscating creativity. When I remarked that something so utterly delightful — both the captured moment and the whole existence of the man — should be the product of chance in the shape of a bullet, he sent me a letter, found in an abandoned family trunk and shared here with his kind permission, which his grandfather had written to another friend fighting in the trenches of France, also a classicist — one who would, unlike the slain Freeman Atkey, survive to become an eminent Dante scholar.
In the hindsight of history, both Dyson’s personal history and our cultural history, the letter staggers the imagination with its account of the unimaginable and its subtle hope for a different future governed by different human choices — a stirring reminder that choice is the necessary reality-shaping counterpart to chance.
99th Infantry Brigade
I got what purports to be your address a little while ago and I am sending this scribble there in the hope that it will find you, and find you well and flourishing, “as it leaves me at present.” When next we meet there will be no end to the tales I have to tell you. Even in my palmiest days I was never so fluent as I shall be if and when I come back. I am now something of a specialist in trench warfare, having written the only booklet on grenade fighting which the war office has as yet permitted to see daylight. I run the grenadiers of my brigade and I am at present learning a fair stretch of front from that point of view. I am billeted with two or three other officers in what is left of a little cottage about 3/4 mile behind a fairly hot corner of this country. We are continually under shell fire in this sense, that the friendly Hun shells the immediate neighborhood every day. Just at this moment he has unfortunately caught a squad of men in the road outside with appalling results. Our own guns are blazing away like mad, so that you can’t hear yourself think. There are six aeroplanes up above and the German is making little white puffs of shrapnel all around them. The trenches are simply vile in this weather. Between knee-deep and thigh deep in mud, in addition to the havoc wrought by the Bosch. I was in a fairly heavy bombardment of them two days ago. Everybody retires to dugouts, and even down there, 20 feet below ground sometimes, the shock blows the candles out. Your old friend Dante had a very amateur conception of Hell. I could improve on it vastly.
Still we are, by some providence, alive, and hope to remain so. These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee. [Freeman] Atkey is, as you doubtless know, out here somewhere, but I have not come across him yet. He is well according to the latest news and not unhappy. The rest of our merry Marlborough “push” are scattered goodness knows where. I wonder if we shall ever have that Reunion dinner that we sometimes talk about.
I hear pretty regularly from “Thornhanger” and gather that a school is no place to be in in these days. Let me know what you and yours are doing. I saw and enjoyed the big London Zeppelin raid, but it’s child’s play to this! — Odd that I should have written that last sentence. It is now a half-hour later. Just where the dash is came a six-incher 10 yards to our left which finished the remaining windows and sent us to the cellar. A second one 10 yards to our right has fallen in an old barn, killed a horse and badly wounded three men. Enough for today. We must eat a humble tea and go on hoping for the best. Good luck to you,
Freeman Dyson began the preface to the wondrous collection of his own letters — the epistolary autobiography Maker of Patterns (public library) — with a sentiment of striking complementarity to his grandfather’s wartime lament:
In March 2017, when this book was almost finished, my wife received a message from our twelve-year-old granddaughter: “We are all metaphors in this dark and lonely world.” Our daughter added her own comment, “The sentiment is tempered by the fact that she has a pink Afro.” The pink Afro displays a proud and joyful spirit, masking the melancholy thoughts of a teenager confronting an uncertain future. Our granddaughter is now emerging into a world strikingly similar to the world of 1936 into which I came as a twelve-year-old. Both our worlds were struggling with gross economic inequality, stubbornly persistent poverty, brutal dictators on the rise, and small wars presaging worse horrors to come. I too was a metaphor for a new generation of young people without illusions. Her declaration of independence is a pink Afro. Mine was a passionate pursuit of mathematics.
Recounting how he fell under the spell of mathematics and physics through the work of the great English mathematician G.H. Hardy and quantum physics pioneer Paul Dirac, whose lectures plunged the young Dyson into “the strange new world of quantum physics, where strict causality is abandoned and atomic events occur by chance,” he adds:
The idea that chance governs nature was then still open to question. In the world of human affairs, Lev Tolstoy asked the same question, whether free choice prevails. While Dirac proclaimed free choice in the world of physics, Tolstoy denied it in the world of history. The idea that Dirac called causality, Tolstoy called Providence. At the end of his War and Peace, he wrote a long philosophical discussion, explaining why human free will is an illusion and Providence is the driving force of history. When I was a student in Cambridge, the same Providence that had destroyed Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812 was destroying Hitler’s army in Russia in 1943. I was reading Tolstoy and Dirac at the same time.
If Dyson’s physics danced with chance, his humanism always landed on the side of conscious and conscientious choice. Three decades after a human finger trembling with the toxic thrill of nationalism fired the odd bullet to which Dyson owes his life, three years after humanity had savaged itself with another World War, and shortly after his “flash of illumination on the Greyhound bus,” the 25-year-old physicist attended a sermon by the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at Princeton’s university chapel. In a letter to his family, he summed up the sentiments that had resonated with his own convictions:
Just as the individual man can save his soul only by ceasing to worry about himself and immersing his actions in some larger ends, so also we shall stand a better chance of saving our civilisation if we do not worry too much over the imminent destruction of the little bit of it to which we happen to belong.
Dyson would later recount his father’s fighting strategy during the war — the supreme, most humanistic possible response to inhumanity, for we best survive by making art when life unmakes us:
My father… understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music… as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is to behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler.
Complement with Freeman Dyson’s poignant admonition about how our self-expatriation from history shallows our present, then savor more of this uncommon mind, whose improbable existence will never again recur in all the possible configurations of chance and choice across all the rest of time and space, on the pages of Maker of Patterns.
Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Mar 2020 | 9:18 am(NZT)
“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands,” the poet May Sarton wrote as she contemplated the cure for despair amid a dark season of the spirit. But what does it take to perch that precarious if in the direction of the light? When we are in that dark and hollow place, that place of leaden loneliness and isolation, when “the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” as William Styron wrote in his classic account of the malady — an indiscriminate malady that savaged Keats and savaged Nietzsche and savaged Hansberry — what does it take to live through the horror and the hollowness to the other side, to look back and gasp disbelievingly, with the poet Jane Kenyon: “What hurt me so terribly… until this moment?”
During a recent dark season of the spirit, a dear friend buoyed me with the most wonderful, hope-giving, rehumanizing story: Some years earlier, when a colleague of hers — another physicist — was going through such a season of his own, she gave him an amaryllis bulb in a small pot; the effect it had on him was unexpected and profound, as the effect of uncalculated kindnesses always is — profound and far-reaching, the way a pebble of kindness ripples out widening circles of radiance. As the light slowly returned to his life, he decided to teach a class on the physics of animation. And so it is that one of his students, Emily Johnstone, came to make Bloom — a touching animated short film, drawing from the small personal gesture a universal metaphor for how we survive our densest private darknesses, consonant with Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place… to make us warm in the coldest season.”
Complement with Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression and Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, then revisit “Having It Out with Melancholy” — Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression.
Source: Brain Pickings | 28 Feb 2020 | 4:45 pm(NZT)
A century before computing pioneer Alan Turing comforted his dead soul-mate’s mother, and perhaps himself, with the insistence that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” and generations before Rilke defiantly refused to become “one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) appointed himself the poet of the body and the poet of the soul in one of the most famous opening lines in all of poetry, from one of the most beloved poems in his Leaves of Grass — a poem that has helped Holocaust survivors survive and continues to help generations endure the small everyday terrors of life.
That timeless, generous poem came alive at The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island in partnership with Pioneer Works — in a soulful performance by designer, artist, architect, inventor, and poet of matter Neri Oxman.
Half a century after Rachel Carson made ecology a household word, Oxman coined the term material ecology — a term Whitman would have cherished — to describe her singular work weaving the structures, systems, and aesthetics of nature, from silkworms to honeybees to the human breath, into our built environment. That term became the title of a visionary Museum of Modern Art exhibition by curator Paola Antonelli, making Oxman the first designer working in material science to have a major exhibition at a major New York art museum, a century and a half after Whitman envisioned museums as places to teach us “the infinite lessons of minerals… wood, plants, vegetation.” At the time of her Universe in Verse performance, she had just given birth to her first child — that supreme attunement of the body and the soul in the poetry of being, an embodied consecration of Whitman’s conviction, thoroughly countercultural in his day, that “it is as great to be a woman as to be a man” and that “there is nothing greater than the mother of men.”
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.
Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosom’d night — press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds — night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night — mad naked summer night.
Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset — earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow’d earth — rich apple-blossom’d earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love — therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love.
Couple with poet Sarah Kay’s wondrous performance from the same show, then revisit other timeless treasures from the full-scale Universe in Verse: Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Krista Tippett reading “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, and astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, and Whitman’s classic “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
Whitman-era portrait of Neri Oxman by Brooklyn Tintype
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Feb 2020 | 4:22 pm(NZT)
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his gorgeous Nobel Prize acceptance speech a lifetime after the boyhood revelation that to be an artist, to be a vessel of the creative impulse conveying one human essence to another, is to be the hand through the fence.
Around the same time, another literary artist who made art with her hands — the poet and potter M.C. Richards (July 13, 1916–September 10, 1999) — shone her mind of immense brightness and penetration on the elusive, mysticism-cloaked reality of what it actually means to be an artist in her 1964 counterculture classic Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (public library), exploring what the wheel teaches about inner wholeness and the poetry of personhood.
Richards — who relinquished a tenure-track position at a major university to join the faculty at the experimental Black Mountain College, becoming the school’s most beloved teacher — writes:
The creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present. With food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch. We are not craftsmen only during studio hours. Any more than a man is wise only in his library. Or devout only in church. The material is not the sign of the creative feeling for life: of the warmth and sympathy and reverence which foster being; techniques are not the sign; “art” is not the sign. The sign is the light that dwells within the act, whatever its nature or its medium.
Half a century later, artist and MacArthur fellow Teresita Fernández would echo this sentiment in what remains one of the most insightful and inspiring commencement addresses ever given.
As our personal universes expand, if we keep drawing ourselves into center again and again, everything seems to enhance everything else… The activity seems to spring out of the same source: poem or pot, loaf of bread, letter to a friend, a morning’s meditation, a walk in the woods, turning the compost pile, knitting a pair of shoes, weeping with pain, fainting with discouragement, burning with shame, trembling with indecision.
Two and a half millennia after Pythagoras weighed the meaning of wisdom, and in consonance with philosopher-of-forms Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of creative work as “acts that amplify,” Richard places this creative integration at the heart of human wisdom:
Wisdom is a state of the total being, in which capacities for knowledge and for love, for survival and for death, for imagination, inspiration, intuition, for all the fabulous functioning of this human being who we are, come into a center with their forces, come into an experience of meaning that can voice itself as wise action.
Centering is a magnificent, inspiriting read in its entirety. Complement this small fragment with James Baldwin on what it means to be an artist, in an interview conducted while Richards was composing her book, and E.E. Cummings’s irreverently insightful take on the same slippery question from the same era, then revisit Kahlil Gibran on why we create and Franz Kafka on the point of making art.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Feb 2020 | 2:00 pm(NZT)
“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan observed as she beheld impermanence and transcendence at the foot of a mountain. “By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws,” the poetic physicist Brian Greene wrote in his beautiful meditation on our search for meaning in a cold cosmos, “we are here.”
And then we are not.
We die. All of us — atoms to atoms, stardust to stardust, the mountain to the sea — you and I. The dual awareness of our improbable life and our inevitable death is what allows us to animate the interlude with love and beauty, with poems and fairy tales and poems, with general relativity and Nina Simone. It is what puts into perspective just how fleeting and vacant and self-embittering all of our angers and blames and resentments are in the end — what beckons us, instead, to “leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.”
That is what the late, great Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — one of the most original, deepest-seeing poets of our time — explores with great subtlety and profundity disguised as levity in the poem “Immortality” from her final poetry collection, the Pulitzer-winning masterpiece Alive Together (public library).
by Lisel Mueller
In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the world.
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.
As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.
(Two centuries earlier, William Blake explored the same eternal subject though the same creature in his short existentialist poem “The Fly.”)
In the front matter of this altogether miraculous book, where an epigraph would ordinarily appear, Mueller offers a short poem that becomes a kind of chorus line for the entire collection, but emerges as an especially harmonizing counterpart to “Immortality” in particular:
by Lisel Mueller
How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness
and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:
as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
Complement these fragments of the wholly transcendent Alive Together with physicist Alan Lightman on our yearning for immortality in a universe governed by decay, Pico Iyer on finding beauty in impermanence, and Marcus Aurelius on mortality as the key to living fully, then revisit Barbara Ras’s bittersweet, buoyant, perspective-calibrating poem “You Can’t Have It All” and Marilyn Nelson’s magnificent ode to how we fill our impermanence with importance, “Faster Than Light.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Feb 2020 | 5:13 pm(NZT)
“Praised be the fathomless universe, for life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,” Walt Whitman wrote as he stood discomposed and delirious before a universe filled with “forms, qualities, lives, humanity, language, thoughts, the ones known, and the ones unknown, the ones on the stars, the stars themselves, some shaped, others unshaped.” And yet the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability. Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapses, coruscating with the ultimate question: What is all this?
That is what physicist and mathematician Brian Greene explores with great elegance of thought and poetic sensibility in Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (public library). Nearly two centuries after the word scientist was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville when her unexampled book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences brought together the separate disciplinary streams of scientific inquiry into a single river of knowledge, Greene draws on his own field, various other sciences, and no small measure of philosophy and literature to examine what we know about the nature of reality, what we suspect about the nature of knowledge, and how these converge to shine a sidewise gleam on our own nature. With resolute scientific rigor and uncommon sensitivity to the poetic syncopations of physical reality, he takes on the questions that bellow through the bone cave atop our shoulders, the cave against whose walls Plato flickered his timeless thought experiment probing the most abiding puzzle: How are we ever sure of reality? — a question that turns the mind into a Rube Goldberg machine of other questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? How did life emerge? What is consciousness?
Although science is Greene’s raw material in this fathoming — its histories, its theories, its triumphs, its blind spots — he emerges, as one inevitably does in contemplating these colossal questions, a testament to Einstein’s conviction that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.”
Looking back on how he first grew enchanted with what he calls “the romance of mathematics” and its seductive promise to unveil the timeless laws of nature, Greene writes:
Creativity constrained by logic and a set of axioms dictates how ideas can be manipulated and combined to reveal unshakable truths.
The appeal of a law of nature might be its timeless quality. But what drives us to seek the timeless, to search for qualities that may last forever? Perhaps it all comes from our singular awareness that we are anything but timeless, that our lives are anything but forever.
We emerge from laws that, as far as we can tell, are timeless, and yet we exist for the briefest moment of time. We are guided by laws that operate without concern for destination, and yet we constantly ask ourselves where we are headed. We are shaped by laws that seem not to require an underlying rationale, and yet we persistently seek meaning and purpose.
Somewhere along the way of our seeking, at one life-point or another, against one wall or another, we all arrive at what David Foster Wallace, vanquisher of euphemism, called “the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” Insisting that from that recognition arises our shimmering capacity for creativity, for beauty, for meaning-making, Greene endeavors to explore “the breathtaking ways in which restless and inventive minds have illuminated and responded to the fundamental transience of everything” — minds ranging from Shakespeare to Wallace, from Sappho to Einstein.
A century after Rachel Carson observed (in a trailblazing essay that pioneered the very genre of poetic science writing in which Greene himself dwells) that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” he writes:
In the fullness of time all that lives will die. For more than three billion years, as species simple and complex found their place in earth’s hierarchy, the scythe of death has cast a persistent shadow over the flowering of life. Diversity spread as life crawled from the oceans, strode on land, and took flight in the skies. But wait long enough and the ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision. The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of any given life is a foregone conclusion.
Despite how we may distract ourselves from that omnipresent conclusion, we live terrified of our own erasure, but that very terror impels us to more-than-exist — to live, to love, to compose poems and symphonies and equations. With an eye to “the inner life that comes hand in hand with our refined cognitive capacities,” Greene writes:
The mental faculties that allow us to shape and mold and innovate are the very ones that dispel the myopia that would otherwise keep us narrowly focused on the present. The ability to manipulate the environment thoughtfully provides the capacity to shift our vantage point, to hover above the timeline and contemplate what was and imagine what will be. However much we’d prefer it otherwise, to achieve “I think, therefore I am” is to run headlong into the rejoinder “I am, therefore I will die.”
Perhaps our creative forays, from the stags at Lascaux to the equations of general relativity, emerge from the brain’s naturally selected but overly active ability to detect and coherently organize patterns. Perhaps these and related pursuits are exquisite but adaptively superfluous by-products of a sufficiently large brain released from full-time focus on securing shelter and sustenance… What lies beyond question is that we imagine and we create and we experience works, from the Pyramids to the Ninth Symphony to quantum mechanics, that are monuments to human ingenuity whose durability, if not whose content, point toward permanence.
One aspect of Greene’s argument, however, deserves more nuanced consideration: Historically, every time we humans have assumed that a certain feature or faculty is ours alone in the whole of “Creation” — sentience, tools, language, consciousness — we have been wrong. Greene makes the baseline assumption that we alone are aware of our own finitude. “It is only you and I and the rest of our lot,” he asserts, “that can reflect on the distant past, imagine the future, and grasp the darkness that awaits.” But what of elephants and their capacity for grief, deep and documented? What is grief if not a savaging consciousness of the fact that death severs the arrow of time, that what once was — living, beloved — will never again be, while we are left islanded in the present, shipwrecked by an absence?
Still, unblunted by this marginal error of exclusivity is Greene’s astute insight into the elemental equivalence: we are doomed to decay, and so we cope by creating. He highlights two factors that jointly gave rise to the self-awareness seeding our terror and to our wondrous reach for transcendence: entropy and evolution. Across three hundred pages, he fans out the fabric of our present understanding, deftly untangling then interweaving the science of everything from black holes to quanta to DNA, tracing how matter made mind made imagination, probing the pull of eternity and storytelling and the sublime, and arriving at a final chapter lyrically titled “The Nobility of Being,” in which he contemplates how these processes and phenomena, described and discovered by minds honed by millennia of evolution, converge to illuminate our search for meaning:
Most of us deal quietly with the need to lift ourselves beyond the everyday. Most of us allow civilization to shield us from the realization that we are part of a world that, when we’re gone, will hum along, barely missing a beat. We focus our energy on what we can control. We build community. We participate. We care. We laugh. We cherish. We comfort. We grieve. We love. We celebrate. We consecrate. We regret. We thrill to achievement, sometimes our own, sometimes of those we respect or idolize.
Through it all, we grow accustomed to looking out to the world to find something to excite or soothe, to hold our attention or whisk us to someplace new. Yet the scientific journey we’ve taken suggests strongly that the universe does not exist to provide an arena for life and mind to flourish. Life and mind are simply a couple of things that happen to happen. Until they don’t. I used to imagine that by studying the universe, by peeling it apart figuratively and literally, we would answer enough of the how questions to catch a glimpse of the answers to the whys. But the more we learn, the more that stance seems to face in the wrong direction.
Echoing W.H. Auden’s stunning ode to our unrequited love for the universe, he adds:
Looking for the universe to hug us, its transient conscious squatters, is understandable, but that’s just not what the universe does.
Even so, to see our moment in context is to realize that our existence is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.
We exist because our specific particulate arrangements won the battle against an astounding assortment of other arrangements all vying to be realized. By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.
In the final pages, Greene both affirms and refutes Borges’s refutation of time, guiding us, perishable miracles that we are, to the wellspring of meaning in an impartial universe and ending the book with the word — a curious word, improbable for a physicist — on which Whitman perched his entire cosmogony:
Whereas most life, miraculous in its own right, is tethered to the immediate, we can step outside of time. We can think about the past, we can imagine the future. We can take in the universe, we can process it, we can explore it with mind and body, with reason and emotion. From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used creativity and imagination to shape words and images and structures and sounds to express our longings and frustrations, our confusions and revelations, our failures and triumphs. We have used ingenuity and perseverance to touch the very limits of outer and inner space, determining fundamental laws that govern how stars shine and light travels, how time elapses and space expands — laws that allow us to peer back to the briefest moment after the universe began and then shift our gaze and contemplate its end.
As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery. Instead, certain special collections of particles can think and feel and reflect, and within these subjective worlds they can create purpose. And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward. That is the noble direction to look. It is a direction that forgoes ready-made answers and turns to the highly personal journey of constructing our own meaning. It is a direction that leads to the very heart of creative expression and the source of our most resonant narratives. Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul.
Until the End of Time, a splendid and invigorating read in its entirety, left me with the evolutionary miracle of Shelley on my mind — a fragment from the last poetic work he published before he met his own untimely finitude in the entropic spectacle of a sudden storm on the Italian gulf, long before humanity had fathomed entropy and evolution:
Talk no more
Of thee and me, the future and the past…
Earth and ocean,
Space, and the isles of life or light that gem
The sapphire floods of interstellar air,
This firmament pavilioned upon chaos…
Of suns and worlds, and men and beasts, and flowers
With all the violent and tempestuous workings
By which they have been, are, or cease to be,
Is but a vision: all that it inherits
Are motes of a sick eye, bubbles and dreams;
Thought is its cradle and its grave, nor less
The future and the past are idle shadows
Of thought’s eternal flight — they have no being.
Nought is but that it feels itself to be.
Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Feb 2020 | 4:21 pm(NZT)
“True adulthood,” Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings in her 2004 Wellesley College commencement address, “is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.” Four years later, in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had, Maya Angelou wrote: “I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.”
Perhaps the most difficult beauty and the hardest-won glory of true adulthood is the refusal, vehement and countercultural and proud, to relinquish our inner magnolias as we grow older, declining to sacrifice them at the altar-register of a culture that continually robs us of our self-worth and tries to sell it back to us at the price of the latest product.
That is what poet Ross Gay intimates in the one hundredth “essayette” in The Book of Delights (public library) — the inspired yearlong experiment in willfully expanding the everyday capacity for joy and wonder that he undertook on his forty-second birthday, the record of which became one of the most wonderful and wonder-full books of 2019.
In the entry for July 27 (the eve of my own birthday, as it happens), he echoes poet May Sarton’s life-earned observation that “sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination,” and writes under the heading “Grown”:
I suspect it is simply a feature of being an adult, what I will call being grown, or a grown person, to have endured some variety of thorough emotional turmoil, to have made your way to the brink, and, if you’re lucky, to have stepped back from it — if not permanently, then for some time, or time to time. Then it is, too, a kind of grownness by which I see three squares of light on my wall, the shadow of a tree trembling in two of them, and hear the train going by and feel no panic or despair, feel no sense of condemnation or doom or horrible alignment, but simply observe the signs — light and song — for what they are — light and song. And, knowing what I have felt before, and might feel again, feel a sense of relief, which is cousin to, or rather, water to, delight.
Complement this small fragment of the enormously delightful Book of Delights with Alain de Botton on what existential maturity really means and Mary Oliver’s life-affirming, light- and delight-giving poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Bill T. Jones’s stunning Universe in Verse performance of Gay’s “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Feb 2020 | 4:03 pm(NZT)
“Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” a trio of psychologists wrote in their wonderful inquiry into limbic revision and how love rewires the brain. But whom we love equally depends on who we are and who we want to become. Love, like time, is as much a function of us as we are a function of it.
An especially striking illustration of this equivalence, both for its intensity and its unexpectedness, comes from the adolescent love letters the future Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) to his teacher, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, collected and translated by Amy Richlin two millennia later in Marcus Aurelius in Love (public library) — a most improbable addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.
Fatherless since childhood, Marcus Aurelius was raised by his wealthy single mother, Domitia Lucilla. In 139, she hired Fronto — an African immigrant to Rome who described himself as “a Libyan of the Libyan nomads,” by then one of the era’s preeminent orators — to teach her eighteen-year-old son the art of rhetoric in preparation for his political career.
Across caste and rank, across twenty-some years of age difference, the two Marcuses fell in love.
For six years, until Marcus Aurelius’s socially necessitated marriage, they lived in close proximity and exchanged letters of devotion and tenderness, laced with intellectual admiration and erotic longing. Although their love was edged with danger under Roman law, it was not its same-sex nature that imperiled them — a grown man charged with seducing an adolescent male could be charged with adultery, the penalty for which was exile or death. But the seduction, if the term applies to their case at all, flowed the other way: Marcus Aurelius inundated Fronto with ardor that at first received only a timorous echo.
In the preface to the collection, Richlin draws on the early Stoic philosophers’ forgotten axioms of sexuality to provide the deeper cultural context beneath the shallow reach of Roman law:
Zeno (335–263 BCE) and his successor, Chrysippus (280–207 BCE), argued that sex between human beings who have learned the proper principles of respect and true friendship is a good thing, and that the ideal society would be one in which sex was enjoyed freely, without propertarian bonds of marriage. In particular, the young person just turning toward philosophy, the prokopton, should be trained by his mentor first through a sexual relationship, which should grow into an understanding of philosophy.
And so it did for Marcus Aurelius and his mentor-turned-paramour.
It was through the portal of intellectual reverence that the young man marched his heart into love. By the end of 139, he had already become besotted with Fronto. After receiving one of his tutor’s essays, he exults:
Should I not burn with love of you when you’ve written this to me? What should I do? I can’t stop.
Soon, the young man began addressing his beloved as “my Fronto,” unselfconsciously calling him “my number one delight,” “my dearest and most loving,” “my biggest thing under heaven,” “breath of my life.” Fronto, at first, met this ardor with considerable reserve — self-restraint, perhaps — but it was an ambivalent reserve. Aware that Marcus was being courted by another man — not uncommon practice in their time and place — and that this suitor already considered him his “He-Sweetheart,” Fronto writes:
You seem likely, dear Boy, to want to understand… why, pray, I who am not in love strive so eagerly to gain the same Things that Lovers do. So will I tell you first how that may be. By Zeus, that Fellow who is so very a Suitor was not born with a sharper Pair of Eyes than I who am no Lover, yet I in fact am sensible of your Beauty no less than the rest; I might say, more acutely so than your Suitor.
Me you approach not at your Peril, nor at the Cost of any Harm will you keep Company with me; nay, ’twill do you every Good. Indeed, Beauties are help’d and benefitted more by those who love them not, as green Shoots are help’d by the Waters. For Springs and Rivers love not green Shoots, yet in their going near and their flowing past do they make them to flower and to bloom.
Fronto’s conflicted push-pull message achieved none of the push. With the same stubborn optimism and imperviousness to adversity that would one day make him a great Stoic and a great emperor, Marcus responds:
Go ahead, as much as you like, threaten me, accuse me… with whole clumps of arguments, but you will never put off your Suitor — I mean me. Nor will I proclaim it any less that I love Fronto, or will I be less in love, because you’ve proven, and with such strange and strong and elegant expressions, that those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.
Two millennia later, W.H. Auden would echo this sentiment in his stunning poem “The More Loving One.”
Marcus accelerates the propulsion of his undeterred ardor:
God, no, I am dying so for love of you, and I’m not scared off by this doctrine of yours, and if you’re going to be more ripe and ready for others who don’t love you, I will still love you as long as I live and breathe.
Socrates didn’t burn more with desire for Phaedrus than I’ve burned during these days — did I say days? I mean months — for the sight of you. Your letter fixed it so a person wouldn’t have to be Dion to love you so much — if he isn’t immediately seized with love of you.
And then, in a touchingly innocent closing line, he adds:
My lady mother says hello.
On Fronto’s birthday, Marcus writes:
Because I love you next to my own self, I want to make a wish for myself on this day.
In an imaginative romp through the intellectual and spiritual epicenters of the ancient world, he gathers a posy of blandishments and beneficences for his beloved:
I go down to Athens, and on bended knee I beseech and beg Minerva that whatever I may ever learn about letters should above all journey from Fronto’s mouth to my heart.’ Now I return to Rome, and I call on the gods of roads and voyages with wishes that every trip I take may be with you beside me, and that I may not be worn out so frequently by such ferocious longing. In the end I ask all the guardian gods of all the nations, and Jupiter himself, who thunders over the Capitol Hill, to grant us that I should celebrate this day, on which you were born for me, along with you, and a happy, strong you.
Fronto did not remain unresponsive. “With good reason I’ve devoted myself to you,” he eventually writes, “considering your love for me, which I feel so lucky to have.” Whatever the nature and magnitude of his own feelings may have been, he makes no pretense of denying that he loves being so loved:
Good-bye, Caesar, and love me the most, as you do. I truly love to pieces every little letter of every word you.
Plucked from antiquity when the manuscript was discovered in 1815, and reanimated by Richlin’s painstaking scholarship despite missing pages, illegible handwriting, and untranslatable sentiments, the forty-six letters collected in Marcus Aurelius in Love radiate a testament to an elemental fact I have observed elsewhere: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.
For a further testament across time and space, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s passionate epistolary longing for Nathaniel Hawthorne, then revisit the grown Marcus Aurelius, his wisdom having ripened under Fronto’s formative sun, on the key to living with presence and how to begin each day with unassailable serenity.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Feb 2020 | 4:58 pm(NZT)
Among the oddities of my childhood in communist Bulgaria was my mother’s collection of cacti. Against the chipped grey concrete of our apartment building, these improbable emissaries of another climate from another world stood as spiked sentinels of a fantastical optimism at the portal to another life.
Each winter, we brought the entire ensemble — dozens of them, all kinds of shapes and sizes and species — indoors; each summer, we carefully arranged them back on the tiny balcony overlooking the grey parking lot. My mother even tried her hand at grafting, without much success — but I vividly remember my astonishment at seeing the thick spiny skin open into the softest, most succulent flesh I had ever seen — softer than the inside of the cucumbers from my grandmother’s garden, moister than the vermillion interior of my thumb the time I pressed it into the knife’s blade accidentally flipped upside down.
I loved their geometric elegance, the splendid shock of their rare blossoms, their quiet resilience. I felt a deep affinity with these strange, otherworldly creatures — the child who also had to learn to thrive on being underwatered, the child longing for thick-skinned spiny armor to protect the inner succulence from the intemperate climate and violent dust-storms of its local environment. (Many years later, well into adulthood, I would discover and fall in love with a charming children’s book embracing this very metaphor.)
Imagine, then, my delight at chancing upon the forgotten 1841 gem Illustrations from a Descriptive Iconography of Cacti by the French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire (November 1, 1800–June 22, 1871), who spent his entire personal and professional life under the enchantment of cacti, dying in poverty and without renown despite his voluminous publications and the number of genera he named, including the famed Christmas Cactus. (A plant, as it happens, about a hundred million years older than Christ.) His successor at the horticultural journal Lemaire edited for the last seventeen years of his life lamented that “posterity will esteem M. Lemaire more highly than did his contemporaries.” May we so do.
His 1841 classification of cacti features a dozen beautifully colored and detailed engravings of some of the most notable species, which I have restored, digitized, and made available as prints, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on how a rare night-blooming cactus reconciles us to the universe, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s gorgeous illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, published in Lemaire’s era, and Elizabeth Blackwell’s trailblazing illustrated botany of medicinal plants from the previous century.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Feb 2020 | 5:04 pm(NZT)