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Seneca on Science, Nature, and the Key to a Fulfilled Human Destiny

“The mind enjoys the complete and perfect benefit of its human destiny only when… entering the secret heart of nature.”


Seneca on Science, Nature, and the Key to a Fulfilled Human Destiny

Until the word scientist was coined for the polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, the term for those who devoted their lives to the contemplation and investigation of the wonder of reality was natural philosopher — the study of nature fell within the domain of philosophy and was indivisible from the humanistic concerns of morality.

Two millennia ago, when the universe revolved around an Earth many still considered flat, before anything was known of galaxies or genomes, of atoms or antibodies, the great Stoic philosopher Seneca placed what we now call science — that shimmering systematic curiosity about how nature works — at the heart of a fulfilling life. In a selection of advice to his pupil Lucilius, grouped under the heading Natural Questions and included in Seneca’s altogether indispensable Dialogues and Letters (public library), he considers how the passion to know reality on its own terms — the passion we call science — focuses a life:

If I had not been admitted to these studies it would not have been worth while being born.

I see my soul reflected in Nature by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

For Seneca, the study of nature is the closest we get to a true theology — a way of reclaiming God:

I myself am grateful to nature, both when I view it in the aspect which is open to everyone, and when I have entered into its mysteries: when I learn what is the material substance of the universe; who is its author or guardian; what god is; whether he is entirely wrapped up in himself or sometimes has regard for us as well; whether he creates something daily or has created it only once; whether he is part of the world or he is the world; whether he can make a decision today and modify in some respect the law of fate, or whether to have done things that need to be changed is a diminution of his grandeur and a confession of his error.

Crucially, pursuing questions about how the world works invites us to unself, thus saving us from the greatest flaw of character — our compulsive self-reference, which worms our capacities for selflessness, compassion, generosity, love, and all the moral virtues.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Addressing his pupil, Seneca intimates that eradicating evil in ourselves is not enough — we must also generate good, and the highest good is self-transcendence, which the study of nature affords us more readily than any other means:

You have avoided the faults of the soul. You don’t have a deceitful air; your speech is not adapted to someone else’s wishes; your heart is not veiled; you do not suffer from greed, which denies to itself what it has taken from everyone else, nor extravagance, which wastes money shamefully only to recover it even more shamefully, nor ambition, which will raise you to a worthy status only through unworthy means. So far you have achieved nothing; and though you have escaped many evils, you have not yet escaped yourself.

[…]

The mind enjoys the complete and perfect benefit of its human destiny only when it has spurned every evil, seeking the heights and entering the secret heart of nature.

Couple with a beautiful Victorian perspective on the spirituality of nature and our responsibility to wonder, then revisit Seneca on creativity, gratitude, the antidote to anxiety, and the key to resilience in the face of loss.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: The Marginalian | 7 Feb 2023 | 7:11 am(NZT)

In Search of the Sacred: Pico Iyer on Our Models of Paradise

“The thought that we must die… is the reason we must live well.”


In Search of the Sacred: Pico Iyer on Our Models of Paradise

“The mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” Milton wrote in his immortal Paradise Lost. With these human minds, arising from these material bodies, we keep trying to find heaven — to make heaven — in our myths and our mundanities, right here in the place where we are: in this beautiful and troubled world. We give it different names — eden, paradise, nirvana, poetry — but it springs from the selfsame longing: to dwell in beauty and freedom from suffering.

With soulful curiosity channeled in his ever-lyrical prose, Pico Iyer chronicles a lifetime of pilgrimages to some of Earth’s greatest shrines to that longing in The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise (public library).

Art by Gilbert James from a 1900 English edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyām.

He begins in Iran, replete with monuments to Omar Khayyām, who built “a paradise of words” with his poems while revolutionizing astronomy — a place of uncommon beauty and uncommon terror, with roots as deep as the history of the written word, and living branches as tangled as the most contradictory impulses of human nature:

After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict — and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences. And the natural place to embark upon such an inquiry — should we discard the notion of heaven entirely? — seemed to be the culture that had given us both our word for paradise and some of our most soulful images of it.

In Jerusalem, he walks through the Damascus Gate to find himself in “something as irreducible as life.” He visits the Himalayas and North Korea. As he travels, he is reminded of the seventeen years he spent at a Benedictine monastery in the mountains of California — an experience that forever imprinted him with the voice of inner stillness and the awareness that presence is the fundamental portal to the sacred:

Days, sometimes weeks, in the silence had given me a taste of what lies on the far side of our thoughts. Who we become — cease to become — when we put all ideas and theories behind us. I went often through pages of Thomas Merton there, but they seemed to belong to the cacophony below the stillness; the golden pampas grass in front of me, the dry hills beyond, the fleecy clouds stealing up the hillside — not what I thought about them — were the truth.

He arrives at the oceanic idyll of Sri Lanka in the lull of ceasefire after twenty years of violent fighting between the separatists and the government, not long after a deadly tsunami devastated the island. Over and over, he finds himself contemplating the interplay of beauty and brutality, in nature and human nature, reading the solution to the riddle in the still stone countenances of the statues in a local temple:

The Buddhas… stared at me impassively. Onto the quiet faces in the sun I could project anything I needed. Our one task is to make friends with reality, I could imagine them whispering — which is to say, with impermanence and suffering and death; the unrest you feel will always have more to do with you than with what’s around you. In one celebrated story, the Buddha had come upon a group of picnickers who were enraged because they’d just been robbed. “Which,” he’d famously asked, “is more important? To find the robbers or to find yourself?”

Walking through a cemetery in conflicted Kashmir, he thinks about the bygone people buried under the stone inscriptions, and about the mercy of being blind to our own fates:

I’d long been drawn to graveyards in the places where cultures cross if only because headstones put every kind of division in its place.

[…]

Few of them had probably seen what was coming: our lives can only be half known insofar as their final act, which seems to put all that has come before in place, is always hidden, and we seldom wish to think of it. We step out of the play with no chance to think back on it — and even as we’re trying to make sense of life, things are shifting, falling away from us on every side. The older I got, the more I began to feel that almost everything that had happened to me, good or bad, seemed to have come out of nowhere. As Leonard Cohen, faithful for life to the Old Testament, put it in one of his final songs, we’re “none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.”

Liminal Days by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

He visits another cemetery atop the sacred mountain three hours from his home in Japan, accompanied by the poems of Emily Dickinson — that supreme patron saint of death, who believed that “wonder is not precisely knowing and not precisely knowing not.” In consonance with poet Mark Doty’s Whitman-fomented insistence that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death,” Iyer arrives at the deepest yearning of our paradisal pursuits while walking the ghostly cemetery, aware that in the Japanese vision of an afterlife, the transience of things — the transience of us — is “not a cause for grief so much as a summons to attention.” He reflects:

The thought that we must die, I might have heard the two hundred thousand graves saying, is the reason we must live well.

Complement The Half Known Life with Tolstoy’s vision of the afterlife and Iyer on finding beauty in impermanence and luminosity in loss, then savor this poetic meditation on how to live and how to die.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: The Marginalian | 5 Feb 2023 | 3:07 pm(NZT)

The Unphotographabe: Walt Whitman on Birds Migrating at Midnight

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — Saturdays, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.


The Unphotographabe: Walt Whitman on Birds Migrating at Midnight

There is singular magic to seeing a mass of creatures move in unison along the vector of a common purpose, as if commanded by a single mind. In those ultimate instances of unselfing, we are reminded that all of nature is one grand synchrony, in which we are mere particles existing in conviviality and consanguinity with every other particle.

A century and a half before Richard Powers painted in words the majestic migration of sandhill cranes, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) channels one such spectacle of humbling grandeur in Specimen Days (public library) — the exquisite collection of prose fragments that also gave us his reflections on democracy, music, and the wisdom of trees.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Under the heading “BIRDS MIGRATING AT MIDNIGHT,” Whitman writes:

Did you ever chance to hear the midnight flight of birds passing through the air and darkness overhead, in countless armies, changing their early or late summer habitat? It is something not to be forgotten. A friend called me up just after 12 last night to mark the peculiar noise of unusually immense flocks migrating north (rather late this year.) In the silence, shadow and delicious odor of the hour, (the natural perfume belonging to the night alone,) I thought it rare music. You could hear the characteristic motion — once or twice “the rush of mighty wings,” but oftener a velvety rustle, long drawn out — sometimes quite near — with continual calls and chirps, and some song-notes. It all lasted from 12 till after 3. Once in a while the species was plainly distinguishable; I could make out the bobolink, tanager, Wilson’s thrush, white-crown’d sparrow, and occasionally from high in the air came the notes of the plover.

Complement with Whitman, shortly after his paralytic stroke, on what makes life worth living and his eternal advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, then revisit other enchanting Unphotographables: Henry Williamson on the transcendence of a winter storm; Jack Kerouac on the self-revelation of the windblown world; Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the sea and the stars; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: The Marginalian | 5 Feb 2023 | 10:24 am(NZT)



The Ants, the Bees, and the Blind Spots of the Human Mind: How Entomologist Charles Henry Turner Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Evolution of Intelligence and Emotion

“The handicaps under which Dr. Turner’s work was accomplished were many, and were modestly and bravely met.”


The son of a nurse and a church janitor, entomologist Charles Henry Turner (February 3, 1867–February 14, 1923) died with a personal library of a thousand books, having published more than fifty scientific papers, having named his youngest son Darwin, and having revolutionized our understanding of the most abundant non-human animals on Earth by pioneering a psychological approach to insect learning, devoting his life to discovering “stubborn facts that should not be ignored.”

Charles Henry Turner

Without a proper laboratory, without access to research libraries and university facilities, he became the first human being to prove that insects can hear and distinguish pitch, and the first scientist to achieve Pavlovian conditioning in insects, training moths to beat their wings whenever they heard his whistle and concluding that “there is much evidence that the responses of moths to stimuli are expressions of emotion.”

Moths by the Australian teenage sisters Helena and Harriet Scott, 1864. (Available as a print, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

He studied the brains of birds, the web-making habits of spiders, the growth of grape-vine leaves, and why antlions feign death. He volunteered at the Cincinnati Observatory. He discovered new species of aquatic invertebrates. But insects were his great love. He constructed elaborate apparatuses and painstakingly painted tiny cardboard discs to conduct the first controlled studies of color vision and pattern recognition in honeybees, dismantling the scientific dogma of his day by proving that bees see color and create “memory pictures” of their environment. He illuminated sex differences in ant intelligence, musing that “the males seem unable to solve even the simplest problems.” Kneeling patiently for hours, he built intricate obstacle courses and mazes to study how twelve different species of ants navigate space. Two generations before E.O. Wilson, he concluded:

Ants are much more than mere reflex machines; they are self-acting creatures guided by memories of past individual (ontogenetic) experience.

Through a multitude of exquisitely designed experiments, he discovered that ants, bees, and wasps learn, remember, and recognize landmarks to get home rather than move by mindless instinct as previously thought. Observing and testing how gallery spiders weave and reweave their webs when destroyed, he challenged centuries of assumption about instinct versus intelligence by concluding that “an instinctive impulse prompts gallery spiders to weave gallery webs, but details of construction are the products of intelligent action.”

Spiders by the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone. (Available as a print.)

Radiating from his vast body of work is revolutionary evidence against the prior belief that insects are insentient machines operating solely by kinesis and reflex — evidence that these simple-seeming animals are endowed with memory, problem-solving ability, learning, and even feeling, intimating a whole new way of thinking about the evolution of intelligence, emotion, and cognition.

Between experiments and observations, Turner became a prominent Civil Rights leader in St. Louis, developing the first social services for African Americans in the area. Bridging his scientific and humanistic work, he wrote:

Prejudice is older than this age. A comparative study of animal psychology teaches that all animals are prejudiced against animals unlike themselves, and the more unlike they are the greater the prejudice… Among men, however, dissimilarity of minds is a more potent factor in causing prejudice than unlikeness in physiognomy.

Dr. Turner in his later years.

Despite his groundbreaking research, despite being the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and to publish a paper in the esteemed journal Science, Turner was turned away from every university post he applied to on account of his race. With the bittersweet recognition that his life was at the mercy of his time, he decided to shape the landscape of possibility for the next generation and became a science teacher in the first black high school west of Mississippi, all the while continuing his rigorous independent research. Upon his death in 1923, a colleague reflected:

The handicaps under which Dr. Turner’s work was accomplished were many, and were modestly and bravely met.

Complement with the kindred story of how Turner’s contemporary Edmonia Lewis blazed the way for women of color in art, then revisit the fascinating science of how nonhuman animals perceive and navigate the world.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 3 Feb 2023 | 2:45 pm(NZT)

The Remarkable Story of the Dawn Redwood: How a Living Fossil Brought Humanity Together in the Middle of a World War

How an ancient survivor of the unsurvivable became a triumph of the human spirit in a divided world.


Sixty million years ago, when tropical climes covered the Arctic, a small redwood species developed an unusual adaptation that shaped its destiny: Despite being a conifer — needle-leaved trees that are usually evergreen — it became deciduous, losing all of its needles during the months-long lightless winter to conserve energy, then growing vigorously in the bright summer months — the fastest-growing of the redwoods. With this uncommon competitive edge, it conquered large swaths of the globe, spreading the seeds of its handsome cones across North America and Eurasia. But when the global climate plunged into the Ice Age, its victory march came to an abrupt halt.

We know this because, at the peak of WWII, Japanese paleobotanist Shigeru Miki discovered fossils of this small, mighty redwood species. Nothing like it had ever been described in the botanical literature, so he deemed it extinct, naming it Metasequoia after its kinship to Earth’s most majestic tree.

Metasequoia in winter. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

The World War was still raging when a Chinese forester traveling through Central China in the winter of 1941 came upon a majestic old tree of a kind he had never seen before. There was a small shrine at its foot, where locals had been lighting votives and leaving offerings for decades. They called it, he learned, shui-sa, or “water fir,” for its love of moist soil — a name he had never heard before. Because the tree was already denuded of needles for its seasonal hibernation, he was unable to collect a proper specimen for identification — but he told other foresters and botanists of it, until word reached Zhan Wang, director of China’s Central Bureau of Forest Research.

Intrigued by this unheard of species, Wang set out to see it for himself and to collect specimens, which he shared with colleagues. One of them was Hsen Hsu Hu. A diligent paleobotanist, he had read of Miki’s fossil discovery five years earlier. As soon as he saw the peculiar needle pattern, Hu recognized the “water fir” as a Metasequoia.

Metasequoia needles and bark. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

Here was a living fossil — a lovely ghost of evolution that had somehow survived the unsurvivable.

Across the flaming divide that placed China and Japan on opposite sides of the World War, a small group of scientists had transcended the deadly artifice of borders and the ugliness of weapons to remind the world that the human longing for truth and beauty is greater than our foibles.

The first Chinese person to be awarded a Ph.D. in botany from Harvard University, Hu still maintained a relationship with Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum — one of the world’s largest living museums of trees. As news of this ancient tree began making international headlines, lauded by journalists as a “living vestige of younger world,” “as remarkable as discovering a living dinosaur,” the director of the Harvard arboretum cobbled together funds for a collecting expedition in China across the ashen world — one of the last collaborations between Chinese and Western scientists before the Chinese Revolution dropped its leaden wall for decades.

Metasequoia cones. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

As soon as the samples arrived at Harvard, the arborists planted several trees on Massachusetts soil — the first to grow in North America in more than two million years — and began distributing a kilogram of precious seeds to universities and botanical gardens across the globe. Hundreds of human hands from different nations and different creeds pressed them into moist soil, until this global effort to reanimate a ghost of evolution populated parks all over the world with Metasequoia.

Perhaps due to the rich orange color its feathery needles turn before falling, perhaps in homage to its improbable chance at a new day in the epochal calendar of existence, it became known as dawn redwood.

Metasequoia needles in autumn. (Photograph: Arnold Arboretum)

In the 1950s, a retired forester planted eight in Oregon; the fire chief of a California county planted one at the fire department headquarters; eventually, many more were seeded across California and the Pacific Northwest. In the 1970s, New York City community garden patron saint Liz Christy planted one at the iconic Bowery community farm-garden now bearing her name. Today, dawn redwoods rise from the heart of London and thrive in Istanbul’s arboretum. Three stand sentinel over Strawberry Fields — the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. In the final years of the twentieth century, it was declared “the tree of the century.”

The year of the living fossil’s discovery, Einstein’s voice unspooled from the British radio waves, passionate and accented, to make a case for “the common language of science” as the only impartial understanding that can save humanity from itself. Each dawn redwood rising from a patch of spacetime somewhere on this divided and indivisible world is a living monument to what is truest and most beautiful in the human spirit.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 1 Feb 2023 | 1:16 pm(NZT)



The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

“The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.”


The Two Objects of the Good Life: Mary Shelley’s Father on the Relationship Between Personal Happiness, Imagination, and Social Harmony

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote as he reflected on how to stop limiting your happiness. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

A century and a half before him, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) — father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — examined the building blocks of the good life in The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — the book he began writing when his wife, the radical and far-seeing political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, was pregnant with the daughter whose birth would kill her.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

In a sentiment David Foster Wallace would echo in his own radical reflection on the true value of education, Godwin writes:

The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.

A century and a half before Martin Luther King, Jr. incited us to see our “inescapable network of mutuality,” Godwin insists:

In society the interests of individuals are intertwisted with each other, and cannot be separated. Men should be taught to assist each other. The first object should be to train a man* to be happy; the second to train him to be useful, that is, to be virtuous.

But he also acknowledges the inescapable contradictions of human nature and considers the soundest strategy for their reconciliation:

All virtue is a compromise between opposite motives and inducements. The man of genuine virtue, is a man of vigorous comprehension and long views. He who would be eminently useful, must be eminently instructed. He must be endowed with a sagacious judgement, and an ardent zeal.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In Bible Stories — a series for children he wrote under a pseudonym when his radical philosophy rendered him a pariah — Godwin considered the common variable beneath the twin pillars of the good life, central to both morality and love:

Imagination is the ground-plot upon which the edifice of a sound morality must be erected. Without imagination we may have a certain cold and arid circle of principles, but we cannot have sentiments: we may learn by rote a catalogue of rules, and repeat our lessons with the exactness of a parrot, or play over our tricks with the docility of a monkey; but we can neither ourselves love, nor be fitted to excite the love of others.

Pair with Nietzsche on how to find yourself and the true value of education, then revisit Godwin on how to raise an intelligent child and his advice to activists.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 31 Jan 2023 | 1:32 pm(NZT)

Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

Living into the risk and responsibility of the multiple identities we carry.


Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society

“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” the young poet Nikki Giovanni told the elder James Baldwin in their historic intergenerational conversation. Perhaps it is because we are such strangers to ourselves — so opaque in our own motives and vulnerabilities, so haunted by confusion and self-contradiction — that we so bruisingly misunderstand and mistreat others, so readily seize on their otherness, lashing our confusions at them, so readily forget that diversity and difference are the reason life exists.

The antidote to that reflex is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) considers in an interview found in Black Women Writers at Work (public library) — the superb collection that also gave us Maya Angelou on writing and our responsibility to our creative gifts.

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

A generation after Hannah Arendt’s insight into the power and opportunity of the outsider position, and an epoch before the term intersectionality existed, Lorde considers the challenge of the multiple identities we each inhabit, which further alienate us from each other for as long as they remain unreconciled and unintegrated within us:

When you are a member of an out-group, and you challenge others with whom you share this outsider position to examine some aspect of their lives that distorts differences between you, then there can be a great deal of pain. In other words, when people of a group share an oppression, there are certain strengths that they build together. But there are also certain vulnerabilities. For instance, talking about racism to the women’s movement results in “Huh, don’t bother us with that. Look, we’re all sisters, please don’t rock the boat.” Talking to the black community about sexism results in pretty much the same thing. You get a “Wait, wait… wait a minute: we’re all black together. Don’t rock the boat.” In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.

Considering her own responsibility to that recognition and that reconciliation, she adds:

My responsibility is to speak the truth as I feel it, and to attempt to speak it with as much precision and beauty as possible.

Complement with Lorde on kinship across difference, feeling as an antidote to fearing, and turning fear into creative fire, then revisit Bear and Wolf — a tender illustrated fable about walking side by side in otherness.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 30 Jan 2023 | 6:33 am(NZT)

The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

“The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.”


The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

It is a gladness to be able to call one’s daily work a labor of love, and to have that labor put food on the table the way any work does, dishwashing or dentistry. And yet such labors of diligence and devotion — the kind William Blake called “eternal work” — are somehow different, different and more vulnerable, for they enter the world in a singular spirit and are recompensed in a singular spirit, distinct from dentistry or dishwashing.

That spirit is the spirit of a gift — not the transaction of two commodities but the interchange of two mutual generosities, passing between people who share in the project of a life worth living.

A year before I was born, the poet Lewis Hyde taxonomized that vital and delicate distinction between work and labor in his eternally giving book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (public library) — a timeless inquiry into what it takes to harmonize “the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture.”

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Hyde writes:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. “Getting the program” in AA is a labor. It is likewise apt to speak of “mourning labor”: when a loved one dies, the soul undergoes a period of travail, a change that draws energy. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them… We wake up to discover the fruits of labor.

At the heart of the distinction is the recognition that those fruits are offered to the world not as a service or a transaction but as a gift — “the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.” The challenge arises when we try to reconcile the spiritual ecosystem of gifts with the material market economy within which they dwell — the economy of sustenance and solvency of which every modern person partakes just in the course of staying alive.

An epoch before Patreon and Kickstarter and Substack, Hyde issues a clarion call for honoring the gifts we receive:

If we really valued these gift labors, couldn’t we pay them well? Couldn’t we pay social workers as we pay doctors, pay poets as we do bankers, pay the cellist in the orchestra as we pay the advertising executive in the box seat? Yes, we could. We could — we should — reward gift labors where we value them. My point here is simply that where we do so we shall have to recognize that the pay they receive has not been “made” the way fortunes are made in the market, that it is a gift bestowed by the group. The costs and benefits of tasks whose procedures are adversarial and whose ends are easily quantified can be expressed through a market system. The costs and rewards of gift labors cannot.

Art by William Blake for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment that gladdens those of us who offer the fruits of our labors freely and are sustained by what is given freely in return, he adds:

The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation… The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.

The Gift remains a vitalizing read, all the more nourishing and necessary in our present culture that so commodifies creative labor and our market economy that so devalues those works of thought and tenderness that most help us live our lives: music, poetry, philosophy, art. Complement these fragments from it with some Hyde-fomented thoughts on music and the price of what we cherish, then revisit the story of how Van Gogh found his gift that revolutionized art and how Jeanne Villepreux-Power turned her gift into a breakthrough of science.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 28 Jan 2023 | 7:47 am(NZT)

Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does.”


Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence supposes good will,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.” Yet our efforts to define and measure intelligence have been pocked with insensitivity to nuance, to diversity, to the myriad possible ways of paying attention to the world. Within the human realm, there is the dark cultural history of IQ. Beyond the human realm, there is the growing abashed understanding that other forms of intelligence exist, capable of comprehending and navigating the world in ways wildly different from ours, no less successful and no less poetic. One measure of our own intelligence may be the degree of our openness to these other ways of being — the breadth of mind and generosity of spirit with which we recognize and regard otherness.

The science-reverent English artist James Bridle invites such a broadening of mind in Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (public library). He writes:

The tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flowered everywhere.

[…]

There are many ways of “doing” intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially… Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does; it is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act. We have already learned — from the gibbons, gorillas and macaques — that intelligence is relational: it matters how and where you do it, what form your body gives it, and with whom it connects. Intelligence is not something which exists just in the head — literally, in the case of the octopus, who does intelligence with its whole body. Intelligence is one among many ways of being in the world: it is an interface to it; it makes the world manifest.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, 1909. (Available as a print and as a cutting board, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Borrowing ecological philosopher David Abram’s notion of “the more-than-human world,” he adds:

Intelligence, then, is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized, in all the multiple forms that it takes. The task is to figure out how to become aware of it, to associate with it, to make it manifest. This process is itself one of entanglement, of opening ourselves to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more-than-human world, much deeper and more extensive than those which can be performed in the artificial constraints of the laboratory. It involves changing ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours, rather than altering the conditions of our non-human communicants.

[…]

To think of intelligence in this way is not to reduce its definition, but to enlarge it. Anthropocentric science has argued for centuries that redefining intelligence in this way is to make it meaningless, but this is not the case. To define intelligence simply as what humans do is the narrowest way we could possibly think about it — and it is ultimately to narrow ourselves, and lessen its possible meaning. Rather, by expanding our definition of intelligence, and the chorus of minds which manifest it, we might allow our own intelligence to flower into new forms and new emergent ways of being and relating. The admittance of general, universal, active intelligence is a necessary part of our vital re-entanglement with the more-than-human world.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the emergence of a new branch on the tree of life — a “mechanical kingdom” of our own making, comprising our machines governed by a “self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race” — Bridle offers an optimistic implication of this redefinition for the future of what we now call “artificial intelligence”:

If intelligence, rather than being an innate, restrictive set of behaviours, is in fact something which arises from interrelationships, from thinking and working together, there need be nothing artificial about it all. If all intelligence is ecological — that is, entangled, relational, and of the world — then artificial intelligence provides a very real way for us to come to terms with all the other intelligences which populate and manifest through the planet.

What if, instead of being the thing that separates us from the world and ultimately supplants us, artificial intelligence is another flowering, wholly its own invention, but one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a greater accommodation with the world? Rather than being a tool to further exploit the planet and one another, artificial intelligence is an opening to other minds, a chance to fully recognize a truth that has been hidden from us for so long. Everything is intelligent, and therefore — along with many other reasons — is worthy of our care and conscious attention.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, Ursula K. Le Guin on the poetry of penguins, and Marilyn Nelson’s spare, splendid poem about octopus intelligence, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 27 Jan 2023 | 6:21 am(NZT)

What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

On remaining in loving contact with the intangible, immutable part of the self.


What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

One of the hardest things in life is watching a loved one’s mind slowly syphoned by cognitive illness — that haunting ambiguous loss of the familiar body remaining, but the person slowly fading into otherness, their very consciousness frayed and reconstituted into that of a stranger.

How to go on loving this growing stranger is the supreme challenge of accompanying a precious human being through the most disorienting experience in life — the great open question pocked with guilt but pulsating with possibility.

The poet and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores how to step into that possibility with uncommon sensitivity and tenderness in one of the diary entries collected in the altogether magnificent The House by the Sea (public library).

May Sarton

Sarton was thirty-three when she met Judith Matlack, twelve years her senior. May and Judy fell in love — a love consecrated in Sarton’s almost unbearably beautiful poetry collection Honey in the Hive. When they separated thirteen years later, they remained not only friends but nothing less than family to each other.

Judy was not yet seventy when dementia began fraying her mind. Uncoupled and childless, she moved into a nursing home. Sarton visited regularly. Once she settled into her house by the sea in Maine, she often had Judy stay with her for several days at a time. During one of these visits, with Judy particularly disoriented, unable to hold a conversation, wandering into the neighbors’ yards, Sarton offers a passage of tender assurance:

Death comes by installments but sometimes the first installments can be very steep, perhaps much more painful to those around them than to the person. I do cherish her so; can one maintain the image of love when so much has gone?” I guess the answer to that question is, yes, because when one has lived with someone for years, as I did with Judy, something quite intangible is there, as though in the bloodstream, that no change in her changes.

Couple with Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most beautiful and redemptive life-advice you’ll ever receive — then revisit Sarton on how to live with tenderness in a harsh world.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 26 Jan 2023 | 3:29 am(NZT)

Turning Loss and Loneliness into Wonder: How the Victorian Visionary Marianne North Revolutionized Art and Science with Her Botanical Paintings

A vibrant foray into “a perfect world of wonders” fueled by the bittersweet dimension of life.


Marianne North (October 24, 1830–August 30, 1890) was twenty-six and had just lost her mother to a long tortuous illness when her father took her to an oasis of wonder in the heart of London — Kew Gardens, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth: a lush affirmation of life bustling with life-forms beyond the wildest imagination. In the majestic half-acre glass-and-iron palm house full of tropical plants, Marianne found a portal to another world. She fell under the spell of the exotic red Amherstia nobilis — “one of the grandest flowers in existence,” which made her “long to see the tropics,” she would recall a lifetime later, having obeyed the siren song of that longing and made of it a revolution.

Amherstia nobilis, Singapore, 1876. (© RBG Kew)

Over the next three decades, Marianne North would defy the central conventions of her era — an era in which women were expected to marry, were neither permitted nor practically able to travel alone, had access to no formal education in either art or science, and were excluded from scientific and artistic societies. She would go on to traverse the world, painting the living world she saw. Enduring storms and snakes, typhus and broken bones, unimaginable heat and long stretches without access to clean drinking water, she visited Egypt and South Africa, Borneo and Sicily, India and California, Chile and Australia, immortalizing nearly a thousand plants — plants the vast majority of our species had never seen and would never see with their own eyes, plants new to most botanists, and even some plants never before seen.

Marianne North in South Africa, 1883.
Nymphaea stellata, South Africa. (© RBG Kew)

She painted unlike any other botanical artist of her time. Rather than isolated specimens rendered in pencil or watercolor, her plants came alive in oil amid the integrated context of their native ecosystems. In an era before photography was a portable instrument of science, the precision of her paintings and their transportive power twined to make for a revolution in both botany and fine art. Enchanted by her work, Francis Galton and Charles Darwin came to see her as a peer and soon became close friends.

Night-flowering lily and ferns, Jamaica. (© RBG Kew)

Marianne’s first great creative love was not art but music — she trained to be a vocalist, but when her sonorous contralto voice broke and broke her dreams along with it, she found an alternate portal to beauty in painting, widened with wonder by her passion for plants. Her father, who never remarried, was the great champion and comrade of her calling. At their home in Hastings, he built three small greenhouses and populated them with exotic plants that sang to the young Marianne’s imagination as she tended to them alongside her father. “He was from first to last the one idol and friend of my life,” she would later recall, “and apart from him, I had little pleasure and no secrets.” She vowed never to leave his side.

After her sister married, father and daughter set out to travel Europe and the Middle East together, sharing a lively and generous curiosity in how other cultures live and what other lands are lush with. Taken with this “never-ending series of wonders,” Marianne captured what she saw in delicate and detailed watercolors.

In 1868, a new vista of the imagination burst open when Marianne, almost entirely self-taught, received her first lesson in oil painting from one of Australia’s most esteemed artists. She found it wildly addictive — “a vice, like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one.” It was also a revelation for botanical art, because oil preserves pigment perfectly, whereas the traditionally used watercolor fades and yellows with time.

Water lily (Nymphaea lotus), India. (© RBG Kew)

But only a year after this creative awakening, Marianne was struck by the greatest loss of her life — her father went to sleep and never again awoke. She was overcome by a profound existential loneliness, feeling as though she had been left entirely alone in the world. She would never cease grieving him. “I have no love to give you or anyone — it is all gone with him,” she would tell a suitor years later.

Just like her contemporary Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology while turning his personal tragedy into transcendent art for science, Marianne leaned on the only consolation she knew — nature’s steadfast beauty and the fragile, tenacious wonder of plants. She left Hastings forever and set out to visit all the lands that had enraptured her imagination ever since that long-ago visit to Kew Gardens with her father. She never married — wonder became her primary relationship.

Mount Fujiyama framed by wisteria, Japan. (© RBG Kew)

She traveled to America first, determined to capture its “natural abundant luxuriance,” and was awed by the redwoods of California, making an impassioned and prescient plea to save them from destruction. Epochs ahead of the modern environmental movement, a century before Rachel Carson cautioned that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Marianne North sorrowed to see the quarrying and chemicalizing of nature:

It broke one’s heart to think of man, the civiliser, wasting treasures in a few years to which savages and animals had done no harm for centuries.

On Christmas Eve 1871, she arrived in Jamaica — the portal into the tropics of her dreams. She found herself wonder-smitten by the majestic palms — some of Earth’s most ancient tree species, and some of the most otherworldly. She also found herself “alone and friendless.” But everywhere she went, Marianne seemed to attract kindness and sympathy with the sincerity of her pursuit — almost immediately “a young Cuban engineer appeared from the moon or elsewhere,” helped her with her boat, and shepherded her to her next destination, where she was met with more friendliness from strangers. Even so, her days were mostly solitary, but filled with wonder. “I was in a state of ecstasy and hardly knew what to paint first,” she wrote in her diaries, collected in Abundant Beauty: The Adventurous Travels of Marianne North, Botanical Artist (public library).

Cocoa tree (Theobroma Cacao), 1867. (© RBG Kew)

For a year, she lived in hut in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, painting incessantly amid “all these wonders seeming to taunt us mortals for trespassing on fairies’ grounds, and to tell us they were unapproachable.” Assaulted by armies of Earth’s most bloodthirsty ticks, she found them “worth bearing for the sake of the many wonders and enjoyments of the life I was leading in that quiet forest-nook” — a life that was for her “a series of wonders and endless beauties,” to be savored and celebrated in paint.

Old banyan trees, Java. (© RBG Kew)
Sacred lotus (Nelumbium speciosum), Java. (© RBG Kew)

In Java, she found “a perfect world of wonders.” Her passionate curiosity and amiable humor were always at her side:

The lycopodiums were in great beauty there, particularly those tinted with metallic blue or copper colour; and there were great
metallic arums with leaves two feet long, graceful trees over the streams with scarlet bark all hanging in tatters, and such huge black apes! One of these watched and followed us a long while, seeming to be as curious about us as we were about him. When we stopped he stopped, staring with all his might at us from behind some branch or tree-trunk; but I had the best of that game, for I possessed an opera-glass and he didn’t, so could not probably realise the whole of our white ugliness.

Everywhere she went, she walked for hours into the wilderness, often without companions. “Every day’s ramble showed me fresh wonders,” she wrote in what may be the single best summation of her life, and of any life well lived.

Marianne North by Julia Margaret Cameron.

When Marianne finally returned to England after many years of rambles, she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker — the founding father of geographical botany, Darwin’s closest friend, and the longtime director of Kew Gardens — and offered to donate her paintings, by then numbering several hundred and featuring plants wholly alien to European eyes. Hooker heartily agreed and a dedicated gallery for her work was built at Kew Gardens, which Marianne herself funded and helped design.

With her health failing, Marianne began composing an account of her extraordinary life, entrusting the manuscript to Hooker, by then her oldest friend. It was posthumously published as Recollections of a Happy Life (public library | public domain).

Today, several exotic plant species bear her name — including Nepenthes northiana (the tropical pitcher plant that was her greatest botanical infatuation), Areca northiana (a palm), Crinum northianum (also known as Seashore Lily or Asiatic Poison Lily), Kniphofia northiae (the vibrant red-hot poker beloved by gardeners), and Chassalia northiana (a blue-berried tropical plant only named in 2021) — as well as the entire genus Northia, containing some of Earth’s most ravishing flowering plants and so named by Hooker himself.

To this day, the North Gallery at Kew Gardens remains the only permanent solo exhibition by a woman in Great Britain.

Nepenthes northiana — a pitcher plant native to Borneo. (© RBG Kew)

Complement with the stunning botanical paintings of the artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson, and this sensuous botanical art inspired by the scandalous scientific poetry of Darwin’s grandfather, which popularized the Linnaean classification system of nature, then savor the wondrous work of North’s marine counterpart — the scientific artist Else Bostelmann, who brought the submarine wonderland to human eyes.

HT Sheril Kirshenbaum


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 24 Jan 2023 | 5:45 am(NZT)

Rootedness and Reclaiming God

“Everything we do matters, and matters wondrously.”


Rootedness and Reclaiming God

There is a peculiar existential loneliness that entombs us whenever we lose our sense of connection to the web of being — the self begins to feel like a twig torn from the tree of life, and something inside us withers with longing. We are left without sanctuary — a word that comes from the Latin sanctorium: a repository for holy things. The word “holy” shares its own Latin root with “whole” and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things. When we lose that sense of connection, that sense of belonging to the sanctorium of life, we are left less whole.

Naturalist and ecological philosopher Lyanda Lynn Haupt offers a remedy for this in Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit (public library) — a lovely lens on “how to live on our broken, imperiled, beloved earth.” She writes:

Rootedness is a way of being in concert with the wilderness — and wildness — that sustains humans and all of life.

[…]

The word rooted’s own root is the Latin radix, the center from which all things germinate and arise. The radix is the radical — the intrinsic, organic, fervent heart of being and action. Rooted lives are radically intertwined with the vitality of the planet. In a time that evokes fear and paralysis, rooted ways of being-within-nature assure us that we are grounded in the natural world. Our bodies, our thoughts, our minds, our spirits are affected by the whole of the earthen community, and affect this whole in return. This is both a mystical sensibility and a scientific fact. It is an awareness that makes us tingle with its responsibility, its beauty, its poetry. It makes our lives our most foundational form of activism. It means everything we do matters, and matters wondrously.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

For those of us who live with secular rationality and a tenderness for life, that sense of wonder and connection is a kind of spirituality — the fundament of the sacred, in which the everyday holiness of this world comes alive.

Haupt gives shape to the way in which “apprehension of life’s radical interconnection” — whether we call it rootedness, or belonging, or love — reclaims the meaning of “God” for us who don’t abide by religion:

When the fraught name God comes up in conversation or reading, I always remind myself that whatever the source or language used, we are at root on common ground — invoking the graced, unnamable source of life, the sacredness that cradles and infuses all of creation, on earth and beyond. I know that prayer is the lifting of our hearts, our thoughts, and even our bodies in conversation, or contemplation, or remembrance, or supplication, or gratitude within this whole, requiring no dogma, only openness. Hildegard counseled, “To be alive is to give praise.”

Complement with poet Diane Ackerman’s wonderful personal religion of “the Earth ecstatic” and the young poet Marissa Davis’s exquisite ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, then revisit the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on science, transcendence, and our spiritual connection to nature.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 23 Jan 2023 | 7:15 am(NZT)

Against the Cult of Originality: Emerson on the True Nature of Genius

“Great genial power… consists… in being altogether receptive.”


Against the Cult of Originality: Emerson on the True Nature of Genius

The best things in life we don’t choose — they choose us. A great love, a great calling, a great illumination — they happen unto us, like light falling upon that which is lit. We have given a name to these unbidden greatnesses — genius, from the Latin for “spirit,” denoting the spirit of a universe we can only submit to but cannot govern.

A generation after Wordsworth defined the proof of genius as “the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) took up the mystery of genius — where it comes from, how it shapes the lives it befalls, and what it demands of them — in a wonderful essay on another great poet — Shakespeare — found in his indispensable Essays (public library).

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a resounding answer to the abiding question of whether genius is born or made, Emerson writes:

There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say, “I am full of life, I will go to sea, and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany, and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:” no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.

In a sentiment James Baldwin would echo in his own superb meditation on Shakespeare, in which he observed that “the greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” Emerson adds:

Every master has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he wrought in.

Altarpiece by Hilma af Klint, 1907. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This recognition that art works with the raw materials of life undermines the cult of originality, which is itself the great hubris of the creative spirit — as Mark Twain wrote to Helen Keller, “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Stripping true creativity of this fetish for originality, Emerson anticipates Oscar Wilde’s insistence that creativity is the product of “the temperament of receptivity” and observes:

Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.

Couple with Schopenhauer on the crucial difference between genius and talent, then revisit Emerson on becoming your most authentic self and the key to living with presence.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 22 Jan 2023 | 7:46 am(NZT)

The Unphotographable: The Moon, the Tide, and the Living Shore

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — Saturdays, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.


The Unphotographable: The Moon, the Tide, and the Living Shore

“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore,” Rachel Carson wrote in her stunning meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life, “we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.”

That mystery comes alive through the lens of the humble, miraculous oyster in the opening pages of Rowan Jacobsen’s altogether wonderful book The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World (public library), modeled on John Steinbeck’s forgotten masterpiece The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Jacobsen writes:

When the full moon hauls back the waters, they emerge, a glittering band along the shore, like doubloons washed up from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. They close their shells tight and, for a few hours, become land. Bears slip out of the cedary woods and trundle over them, picking at small fish that lingered too long. From a distance you might think they were glinting rocks, just another cobbly beach, rather than acres of living coastline. But if you stepped out of your boat and explored, old shells popping softly beneath your boots, you’d smell their salt-spray aroma and hear the crackling of receding water droplets and know that they were the living sea itself, holding on to the land to keep it from squirming away. And if you sat down among them and pried open some shells and tipped the briny flesh into your mouth, you might get some sense of how it had always been.

Then the moon lets go and the water returns, snaking along the low points, bubbling up like springs from under the shells. Soon they are covered, and they phase back to their other existence. They open their shells and drink in the sea. The bears withdraw and sixteen-armed purple sea stars pull their way up the tide’s advancing edge, gobbling as they go. Tiny creatures hunker down beneath the shells, within the shells, spinning out little lives in a biogenic world. For a few hours, they disappear beneath the waves. And if you arrived at high water and didn’t take the time to poke around, or if you were from some place where the land and the water have already come unglued and you assumed that the world you knew was the one that had always been, then you’d probably keep on going, and you’d never even know they existed at all.

Complement with the optimism of the oyster, then revisit other enchanting Unphotographables: Henry Williamson on the transcendence of a winter storm; Jack Kerouac on the self-revelation of the windblown world; Richard Powers on the majestic migration of sandhill cranes; Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the sea and the stars; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: The Marginalian | 21 Jan 2023 | 10:18 pm(NZT)

The Footpath to Yourself: Robert Macfarlane on Landscape as a Lens on Inner Life

“Paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”


The Footpath to Yourself: Robert Macfarlane on Landscape as a Lens on Inner Life

“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his soulful Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But paths are more than metaphors — they do lead places and, along the way, do reveal us to ourselves in ways inconceivable at the outset, unattainable at home.

That is what the poetic nature writer (and spell-writer, and songwriter) Robert Macfarlane explores in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (public library) — the final book in his trilogy on landscape as a lens on inner life, exploring “the relationship between paths, walking and the imagination” through his experience of walking more than one thousand miles along ancient paths, only to find himself delivered more fully in the present.

Art by Arthur Rackham for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, 1906. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

He writes:

Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own… Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people. Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear: overgrown by vegetation, ploughed up or built over (though they may persist in the memorious substance of land law). Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths need walking.

In consonance with Thomas Bernhard’s observation that “there is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking,” he considers an ancient creative relationship:

The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature — a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.

Cemetery paths by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

This natural narrative undertone to paths has an even deeper effect on the fundaments of the psyche, for in walking we get to reexamine the story of the self as the landscapes we move through mirror us back to ourselves, magnified and transformed. Macfarlane considers the particular rewards of trodden paths which generations have walked as channels of self-discovery:

These are the consequences of the old ways with which I feel easiest: walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.

[…]

Paths run through people as surely as they run through places… I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, can “enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.”

Complement with the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark’s wonderful prose poem “In Praise of Walking” — which Macfarlane led me to through a fractal branching of the literary path he treads — then revisit Macfarlane’s splendid inquiry into the wonderland beneath our feet.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: The Marginalian | 20 Jan 2023 | 6:41 am(NZT)

How to Be with Each Other’s Suffering: Elie Wiesel on the Antidote to Our Paralysis in the Face of World-Overwhelm

“I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence.”


How to Be with Each Other’s Suffering: Elie Wiesel on the Antidote to Our Paralysis in the Face of World-Overwhelm

There is a phenomenon in forests known as inosculation — the fusing together of separate trees into a single organism after their branches or roots have been entwined for a long time. Sometimes, one of the former individuals may be cut or broken at the base, but it remains fully alive through its sinewy fusion with the former other. This is no longer symbiosis between two distinct organisms but a hybrid new organism fully sharing in the resources of life.

Everything alive has the potential for inosculation in one form or another. That, perhaps, is what the great naturalist John Muir meant when he observed that when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” To be proper citizens of that universe is to recognize ourselves as particles of it, indelibly linked to every other particle — particles each minuscule but majestic with possibility; it is to recognize that, as Dr. King observed, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Few have captured the responsibility and power of that mutuality more passionately, nor lived them more fully, than Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928–July 2, 2016).

Elie Wiesel

In Conversations with Elie Wiesel (public library), the Biblical question Cain poses to God after killing Abel — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — becomes a lens on what makes for brotherhood in the broadest humanistic sense. Wiesel reflects:

We are all our brothers’ keepers… Either we see in each other brothers, or we live in a world of strangers… There are no strangers in a world that becomes smaller and smaller. Today I know right away when something happens, whatever happens, anywhere in the world. So there is no excuse for us not to be involved in these problems. A century ago, by the time the news of a war reached another place, the war was over. Now people die and the pictures of their dying are offered to you and to me while we are having dinner. Since I know, how can I not transform that knowledge into responsibility? So the key word is “responsibility.” That means I must keep my brother.

Whenever we quiet the voices of so-called civilization — the voices of selfing and hard-edged individualism — that sense of the interconnectedness of life and of lives becomes audible. And yet we are habitually deafened to it by a kind of desensitization — the kind the poet May Sarton so poignantly captured as she contemplated how to live with tenderness in a harsh world. Much of it, Wiesel observes, is a form of paralysis that comes from the sheer mismatch between the scale of the problems the world hurls at us and our individual locus of agency — a particular pathology of the information age, further exploited by the news media and their crisis-mongering. Wiesel considers the consequence:

We are careless. Somehow life has been cheapened in our own eyes. The sanctity of life, the sacred dimension of every minute of human existence, is gone. The main problem is that there are so many situations that demand our attention. There are so many tragedies that need our involvement. Where do you begin?

With an eye to a central problem of our time — how to live with wisdom in the age of information — he adds:

We know too much. No, let me correct myself. We are informed about too many things. Whether information is transformed into knowledge is a different story, a different question.

He traces the emotional attrition that happens when we are bombarded with news of crises and traumatic events — at first deeply moved and invested in allaying the suffering we see, we grow exhausted by trauma-sighting and help-canvassing, just as news of the latest calamity or injustice is piling atop the previous one:

You couldn’t take it. There is a need to remember, and it may last only a day or a week at a time. We cannot remember all the time. That would be impossible; we would be numb. If I were to remember all the time, I wouldn’t be able to function. A person who is sensitive, always responding, always listening, always ready to receive someone else’s pain… how can one live?

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The antidote to this paralysis, Wiesel argues, is small action — a testament to Hannah Arendt’s conviction that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of… boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” A century and a half after Van Gogh insisted that “however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth… steps in and does something,” Wiesel insists on choosing from among the innumerable causes soliciting your attention and aid just one in which to get involved — an act seemingly small that, on the cumulative scale of humanity, moves the world.

The greatest challenge facing us all, however, is how to be with each other’s suffering. In consonance with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s insight that “when you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence,” Wiesel considers the wellspring of universal love and brotherhood:

I believe in dialogue. I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence. I would like my students to be presence whenever people need a human presence. I urge very little upon my students, but that is one thing I do. To people I love, I wish I could say, “I will suffer in your place.” But I cannot. Nobody can. Nobody should. I can be present, though. And when you suffer, you need a presence.

[…]

If there is a governing precept in my life, it is that: If somebody needs me, I must be there.

Brother’s keeper — inosculation at work. (Photograph: @lily_kdwong.)

Couple this fragment of the wholly vitalizing Conversations with Elie Wiesel with Wiesel’s stirring Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, then revisit Nick Cave on the antidote to our existential helplessness and the pioneering X-ray crystallographer and peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale on moral courage and our personal power.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 17 Jan 2023 | 5:00 am(NZT)

The Symphony of Belonging: Alfred Kazin on Music as Spiritual Homecoming

On the emotional machinery that suspends us between rapture and tears.


“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” It is a wonderful metaphor in part because it dances with the literal: So often, what strums the resonance of our identity most powerfully is music — that most expansive and embodied repository of memory, the memory that strings the narrative of selfhood we call identity.

Music as a fundament of identity and a portal to spiritual homecoming is what Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explores in a passage from A Walker in the City (public library) — his absolutely wonderful inquiry into loneliness, otherness, and belonging.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a symphony. (Available as a print.)

Looking back on his childhood as the son of Russian Jewish refugees, in an era of routine discrimination and othering, he recounts how music filled his home with a sense of belonging, of homecoming, invoking the world his parents had left behind and rooting his own young self in a sense of communion with some greater whole:

You could melt their hearts with it; the effect of the violin on almost everyone I knew was uncanny. I could watch them softening, easing, already on the brink of tears — yet with their hands at rest in their laps, they stared straight ahead at the wall, breathing hard, an unforeseen smile of rapture on their mouths. Any slow movement, if only it were played lingeringly and sagely enough, seemed to come to them as a reminiscence of a reminiscence. It seemed to have something to do with our being Jews. The depths of Jewish memory the violin could throw open apparently had no limit — for every slow movement was based on something “Russian,” every plaintive melody even in Beethoven or Mozart was “Jewish.” I could skip from composer to composer, from theme to theme, without any fear, ever, of being detected, for all slow movements fell into a single chant of der heym and of the great Kol Nidre sung in the first evening hours of the Day of Atonement, in whose long rending cry — of contrition? of grief? of hopeless love for the Creator? — I relived all of the Jews’ bitter intimacy with death.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. (Available as a print.)

In a testament to the elemental fact that music is the most spiritual and the most spiritualizing of the arts, the one that most directly touches the mystery of aliveness, he adds:

Then I cranked up the old brown Victor, took our favorite records out of the red velvet pleated compartments, and we listened to John McCormack singing Ave Maria, Amelita Galli-Curci singing Caro Nome… and Alma Gluck singing Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. The high point was Caruso singing from La Juive. He inspired in my father and mother such helpless, intimidated adoration that I came to think of what was always humbly referred to as his golden voice as the invocation of a god. The pleasure he gave us was beyond all music.

Complement with other great writers on the singular power of music, the neurophysiology of how music moves us, and the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe, then join me in reckoning with our shared responsibility in the fate of music in our own time.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 16 Jan 2023 | 5:29 am(NZT)

How to Be Less Harsh with Yourself (and Others): Ram Dass on the Spiritual Lessons of Trees

A simple perspective shift that reorients the roots of being.


Hermann Hesse believed that trees are our greatest spiritual teachers. Walt Whitman cherished them as paragons of authenticity amid a world of mere appearances. Remembering his most beloved friend, he wrote that she was “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.” I too consider the people I most love my human trees — people firmly rooted in a foundation of moral beauty, relentlessly reaching for the light, bent into their particular beloved shape by the demands and traumas of their particular lives.

Ram Dass

A century after Whitman, Ram Dass (April 6, 1931–December 22, 2019) drew on the human-tree analogy in a soulful invitation to treat ourselves — and each other — with the same nonjudgmental spaciousness with which we regard trees. Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, he writes:

Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

Art by Corinna Luyken from The Tree in Me

In his landmark 1971 book Be Here Now (public library), he leans on trees for a different metaphor in considering the stages of our spiritual development:

When a tree is very small we protect it by surrounding it with a fence so that animals do not step on it. Later when the tree is bigger it no longer needs the fence. Then it can give shelter to many.

Our spiritual growth, Ram Dass observes, follows a similar pattern. The fence is the community of support, sangha in the Buddhist tradition: the kindred spirits with whom we surround ourselves when we are still vulnerable, still finding our rootedness — a lovely reminder of that mycelial connection that binds us to each other, just like the mycorrhizal network undergirds the forest with its web of communication and nutrition.

Complement with Paul Klee on how an artist is like a tree and artist Art Young’s wondrous century-old silhouettes of trees at night as a lens on human experience, then revisit Ram Dass on love.

HT swissmiss


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 14 Jan 2023 | 11:24 am(NZT)

A Responsibility to Wonder: Pioneering Neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington on the Spirituality of Nature

“We have, because human, an inalienable prerogative of responsibility which we cannot devolve…not… even upon the stars. We can share it only with each other.”


A Responsibility to Wonder: Pioneering Neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington on the Spirituality of Nature

To be fully awake to life is a matter of ceaselessly digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder” — a matter of living, in the astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s immortal words, with “a responsibility to awe.” Out of that responsibility arises a kind of quietly rapturous spirituality — a way of moving through the world wonder-smitten by reality.

The great English neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington (November 27, 1857–March 4, 1952), laureate of the 1932 Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking discoveries of the function of neurons, termed this orientation “Natural Religion” and explored its rewards in his 1937 Gifford Lectures, later published as Man on His Nature (public library | public domain) — a book composed in the epoch when every woman was a “man,” yet replete with dazzling universal wisdom on our human experience of being material creatures moving through a cold cosmos as living hearths of consciousness.

Charles Scott Sherrington

Sherrington’s Natural Religion is rooted in Natural Science — in the living reality of this world, governed by the fundamental laws of the universe. Tracing the astonishing process by which we came to be — primordial matter becoming atoms becoming living cells becoming bodies crowned with minds — he writes:

We dismiss wonder commonly with childhood. Much later, when life’s pace has slackened, wonder may return. The mind then may find so much inviting wonder the whole world becomes wonderful. Then one thing is scarcely more wonderful than is another. But, greatest wonder, our wonder soon lapses. A rainbow every morning who would pause to look at? The wonderful which comes often or is plentifully about us is soon taken for granted. That is practical enough. It allows us to get on with life. But it may stultify if it cannot on occasion be thrown off. To recapture now and then childhood’s wonder, is to secure a driving force for occasional grown-up thoughts.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. (Available as a print.)

Wonder, Sherrington argues, is the appropriate mood with which to approach the workings of our improbable planet and their echo in the workings of the exquisite cathedral of chemistry and chance that is a human being. That is where traditional religions have both thrived and fallen short, emotionally compelling in their humanistic self-reference, yet limiting of wonder, which has to do with what lies beyond ourselves:

Anthropomorphism is perforce charged with the human and the personal, and the great historical religions are frankly anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism with its lien on the personal is always quick with emotion… Commonly the human is the strongest source of emotive appeal to human kind. Human doings, human feelings, human hopes and fears move man as does nothing which is not human. The great religions as part of their anthropomorphism cultivate the Deity as a personal Deity. That for their followers forms an element fraught with emotional drive of power, for some minds, elsewise unattainable… This source of emotional strength Natural Religion is without, for it sublimes personal Deity to Deity wholly impersonal.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to the “sacred curiosity” that is the hallmark of human consciousness, Sherrington mounts a defense of the emotional dimension of a spirituality grounded in science:

Surely Truth, Beauty, Charity provide passion… Natural Religion has not forgone emotion. It has simply taken for itself new ground of emotion, under impulsion from and in sacrifice to that one of its values Truth. Its view of the world and of itself is based upon the purview of what by its lights it can accept as true. In that way, for it, much that is comfortable in other religions lapses. If you will, man’s situation is left bleaker. One feature of that situation is that the human mind, such as it is, is left the crown of mind to which human life in all its needs has direct access. Compared with a situation where the human mind beset with its perplexities had higher mind and higher personality than itself to lean on and to seek counsel from, this other situation where it has no appeal and no resort for help to beyond itself, has, we may think, an element of enhanced tragedy and pathos. To set against that, it is a situation which transforms the human spirit’s task, almost beyond recognition, to one of loftier responsibility. It elevates that spirit to the position of protagonist of a virility and dignity which otherwise the human figure could not possess. It raises the lowliest human being conjointly with the highest, Prometheus-like, to a rank of obligation and pathos which neither Moses in his law-giving nor Job in all his suffering could present. We have, because human, an inalienable prerogative of responsibility which we cannot devolve, no, not as once was thought, even upon the stars. We can share it only with each other.

Complement with quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger, who was inspired by Sherrington, on mind and matter and the great Lewis Thomas on the miraculous in a material world, then revisit Rachel Carson, writing the year Sherrington returned his borrowed stardust to the universe, on the sense of wonder as the antidote to self-destruction.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 13 Jan 2023 | 11:58 am(NZT)

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower: Rilke’s Timeless Spell for Living Through Difficult Times

“What is it like, such intensity of pain?”


Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower: Rilke’s Timeless Spell for Living Through Difficult Times

There are times in life when the firmament of our being seems to collapse, taking all the light with it, swallowing all color and sound into a silent scream of darkness. It rarely looks that way from the inside, but these are always times of profound transformation and recalibration — the darkness is not terminal but primordial; in it, a new self is being born, not with a Big Bang but with a whisper. Our task, then, is only to listen. What we hear becomes new light.

A century ago, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) extended a timeless invitation to listening for the light in his poem “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower,” translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows in their altogether indispensable book In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus (public library).

I read it here accompanied by another patron saint of turning darkness into light — Bach, and his Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, performed by Colin Carr:

LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELL TOWER
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Quiet friend who has come so far,

feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Complement with the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön on transformation through dark times, Emily Dickinson’s darkness-inspired ode to resilience, and Rebecca Solnit on hope in the dark, then revisit Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, the lonely patience of creative work, and the difficult art of giving space in love.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: The Marginalian | 12 Jan 2023 | 5:25 am(NZT)











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