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The Merger Self, the Seeker Self, and the Lifelong Challenge of Balancing Intimacy and Independence

The Merger Self, the Seeker Self, and the Lifelong Challenge of Balancing Intimacy and Independence

Each time I see a sparrow inside an airport, I am seized with tenderness for the bird, for living so acutely and concretely a paradox that haunts our human lives in myriad guises — the difficulty of discerning comfort from entrapment, freedom from peril. It is a paradox rooted in the early development of the psyche and most poignantly manifested in our intimate relationships as we confront over and over the boundary between where we end and the other begins, the challenge of balancing intimacy and independence.

Pulsating beneath the paradox are two opposing forces — one tugging us toward the comfort of the known, the safety of the terminal, the other beckoning us to fly into the open sky of the unknown, with all its sunlit freedoms and its storming dangers. In her 1976 book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (public library), Gail Sheehy (November 27, 1936–August 24, 2020) explores these “two sets of forces always at loggerheads inside us over the questions of how far and how fast we shall grow,” terming them the Merger Self and the Seeker Self.

Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy

She writes:

Our Merger Self… is the universal wish to be attached to another, to restore somehow the beatific closeness with mother, for in that fusion would lie perfect harmony, absolute safety, and endless time. The Merger Self is born of the frustration with our early discovery that we are indeed separate and distinct from our caregiver. It triggers a desire to totally incorporate the other, any “other” who becomes the source of love and pleasure… The Merger Self then, in its constant effort to restore closeness, desires always a safe, tight fit.

The Seeker Self is driven by the opposite wish: to be separate, independent, to explore our capacities and become master of our own destiny. This impulse is fueled in early childhood by our delight in awakening capabilities.

But for all its problematic clinginess, the Merger Self is also crucial for the “temporary fusions” upon which empathy is founded — the ability “to reach out and empathize with others, to feel as they might feel without letting our own reality intrude” — and upon which all love rests; for all its seeming strength and self-reliance, the Seeker Self can thrust us into selfishness and solipsism. Only by balancing the two can we achieve what Carl Jung called individuation, Abraham Maslow called self-actualization, and Sheehy calls simply authenticity — “the arrival at that felicitous state of inner expansion in which we know of all our potentialities and possess the ego strength to direct their full reach.” She considers the necessary calibration at the heart of the balance:

If the Merger Self is indulged too early, it can lead us into a no-risk, no-growth position. But once we are beyond the suspicion, or the fear, of letting our distinctiveness be lost in attachments to others, it is our merger side that enables us to love intimately, share unselfishly, express tenderness, and experience empathy.

If the Seeker Self is left unbridled, it will lead us to a self-centered existence in which genuine commitments can have no place, and in which efforts to achieve individual distinction are so strenuous that they leave us emotionally impoverished.

It is only by getting the two sides to work in concert that eventually one becomes capable of both individuality and mutuality.

Art from An ABZ of Love

In the remainder of Passages (which I discovered through a sidewise mention in The Middle Passage), Sheehy goes on to explore how the balance of these two aspects of the psyche affects everything from romantic relationships to professional actualization across the various stages of life as we dismantle our projections and complexes, relinquish our compulsions and conditioning, and recover our authenticity. Observing that “the major task of midlife is to give up all our imagined safety providers and stand naked in the world, as the rehearsal for assuming full authority over ourselves,” she considers the ultimate payoff of this painful, redemptive process:

One of the great rewards of moving through the disassembling period to renewal is coming to approve of oneself ethically and morally and quite independent of other people’s standards and agenda. By giving up the wish that one’s parents were different and by navigating through various lifestyles to that point of dignity worth defending, one can achieve… arrival at that final stage of adult development, in which one can give a blessing to one’s own life.

Complement with Kahlil Gibran on the challenge of balancing intimacy and independence, the key to which Schopenhauer so poignantly captured in his parable of the porcupine dilemma, then revisit Rilke on the difficult art of giving space in love.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 22 Apr 2024 | 9:55 am(NZT)

Facts about the Moon: Dorianne Laux’s Stunning Poem about Bearing Our Human Losses When Even the Moon Is Leaving Us

Facts about the Moon: Dorianne Laux’s Stunning Poem about Bearing Our Human Losses When Even the Moon Is Leaving Us

“Hearing the rising tide,” Rachel Carson wrote in her poetic meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life, “there are echoes of past and future: of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before… of the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future.” There is indeed in the physics of the tides — that gravitational dialogue between our planet and its only satellite — something of the existential, something reminding us how transient all things are, how fluid the future, how slippery our grasp of anything we hold on to, how relational every loss.

The tides bridge the earthly and the cosmic, science and symbol: They cause drag that slows down our planet’s spin rate; because gravity binds the two, as the Earth loses angular momentum, the Moon overcompensates in response; as it speeds up, it begins slipping out of our gravitational grip, slowly moving away from us. The prolific English astronomer Edmund Halley first began suspecting this haunting fact in the early 18th century after analyzing ancient eclipse records. It took another quarter millennium and a giant leap into the cosmos for his theory to be tested against reality in a living poem of geometry and light: When Apollo astronauts placed mirrors on the surface of the Moon and laser beams were aimed at them from Earth, it was revealed that the Moon is indeed drifting away from us, at the precise rate of 3.8 centimeters per year. The Moon, born of the body of the Earth billions of years ago, is drifting away at more than half the rate at which a child grows.

If even the Moon is leaving us — “that best fact, the Moon,” in Margaret Fuller’s exultant words — what is there to hold on to? How are we to bear our ordinary human losses, the worst facts of our lives?

Those questions, immense and intimate, come alive in the stunning title poem of Dorianne Laux’s’ collection Facts About the Moon (public library), stunningly performed by Debbie Millman at the seventh annual Universe in Verse on the eve of the 2024 total solar eclipse.

FACTS ABOUT THE MOON
by Dorianne Laux

The moon is backing away from us
an inch and a half each year. That means
if you’re like me and were born
around fifty years ago the moon
was a full six feet closer to the earth.
What’s a person supposed to do?
I feel the gray cloud of consternation
travel across my face. I begin thinking
about the moon-lit past, how if you go back
far enough you can imagine the breathtaking
hugeness of the moon, prehistoric
solar eclipses when the moon covered the sun
so completely there was no corona, only
a darkness we had no word for.
And future eclipses will look like this: the moon
a small black pupil in the eye of the sun.
But these are bald facts.
What bothers me most is that someday
the moon will spiral right out of orbit
and all land-based life will die.
The moon keeps the oceans from swallowing
the shores, keeps the electromagnetic fields
in check at the polar ends of the earth.
And please don’t tell me
what I already know, that it won’t happen
for a long time. I don’t care. I’m afraid
of what will happen to the moon.
Forget us. We don’t deserve the moon.
Maybe we once did but not now
after all we’ve done. These nights
I harbor a secret pity for the moon, rolling
around alone in space without
her milky planet, her only child, a mother
who’s lost a child, a bad child,
a greedy child or maybe a grown boy
who’s murdered and raped, a mother
can’t help it, she loves that boy
anyway, and in spite of herself
she misses him, and if you sit beside her
on the padded hospital bench
outside the door to his room you can’t not
take her hand, listen to her while she
weeps, telling you how sweet he was,
how blue his eyes, and you know she’s only
romanticizing, that she’s conveniently
forgotten the bruises and booze,
the stolen car, the day he ripped
the phones from the walls, and you want
to slap her back to sanity, remind her
of the truth: he was a leech, a fuckup,
a little shit, and you almost do
until she lifts her pale puffy face, her eyes
two craters and then you can’t help it
either, you know love when you see it,
you can feel its lunar strength, its brutal pull.

Complement with a poetic meditation on moonlight and the magic of the unnecessary, Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s beguiling woodcut moonscapes, the story of the first surviving photograph of the Moon, and Patti Smith’s haunting reading of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” then revisit Dorianne Laux’s love letter to trees.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 20 Apr 2024 | 1:28 am(NZT)

Shame and the Secret Chambers of the Self: Pioneering Sociologist and Philosopher Helen Merrell Lynd on the Uncomfortable Path to Wholeness

Shame and the Secret Chambers of the Self: Pioneering Sociologist and Philosopher Helen Merrell Lynd on the Uncomfortable Path to Wholeness

There are certain experiences that shatter the eggshell of the self and spill the yolk of the unconscious, slippery and fertile, aglow with potential for growth. Shame is one of them — an experience private and powerful, rife with the most elemental questions of who we are and where we belong. At its core is a peculiar form of inner conflict, in which one part of the self gasps with revulsion at the choices of another, exposing the fundamental incoherence of our inner lives and the longing for what D.H. Lawrence called “living unison,” exposing the unsteady foundations of reality itself.

The pioneering sociologist and philosopher Helen Merrell Lynd (March 17, 1896–January 30, 1982) examines shame as a singular lens on the self, and on the human potential for integration and transformation, in her revelatory 1958 book On Shame and the Search for Identity (public library) — an investigation of the disconnect between the people we think ourselves to be and the people we act ourselves into being, inviting a proper understanding of shame as a pathway toward a more conscious and coherent self.

Art by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

Lynd writes:

Shame is an experience that affects and is affected by the whole self. This whole-self involvement is one of its distinguishing characteristics and one that makes it a clue to identity… In this moment of self-consciousness, the self stands revealed. Coming suddenly upon us, experiences of shame throw a flooding light on what and who we are and what the world we live in is.

Those experiences that involve the whole self are particularly vulnerable to our compulsion for categories and labels, born of an anxiety to contain the in the finite the infinities of the mind, to wrest order from the chaos of the heart. With an eye to the challenge of comprehending and communicating such complex experiences — experiences like love, wonder, longing, self-respect, and shame — Lynd cautions against the limiting nature of labels:

Reliance on accepted categories and methods may mean that certain phenomena essential for understanding identity escape attention. In the present climate of psychological thought any observed human characteristic speedily acquires a label, which encases it within one of the experimentalists’ or the clinicians’ categories. Extensive as these categories are, applied to some life situations they may be more constricting than informing.

Certain pervasive experiences, not easily labeled, may slip through the categories altogether or, if given a location and a name, may be circumscribed in such a way that their essential character is lost. Habituation to such usage may blind us still further to the necessity of searching more deeply into the nature of these experiences.

To look more closely at experiences “hard to isolate and confine,” she argues, is to look into the very nature of the self, into what William James called the “blooming buzzing confusion” of consciousness. Lynd writes:

It is no accident that experiences of shame are called self-consciousness. Such experiences are characteristically painful. They are usually taken as something to be hidden, dodged, covered up — even, or especially, from oneself. Shame interrupts any unquestioning, unaware sense of oneself. But it is possible that experiences of shame if confronted full in the face may throw an unexpected light on who one is and point the way toward who one may become. Fully faced, shame may become not primarily something to be covered, but a positive experience of revelation.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Part of what makes shame so misunderstood and underinvestigated is that it is often conflated with guilt. Although the two may complement and reinforce one another, guilt tends to arise from the feeling of wrongdoing, of having transgressed a boundary, while shame stems from the feeling of falling short, of failing to reach a hope or meet an expectation, which anchors it in a deeper stratum of the personality — for rules and boundaries are externally constructed, while our hopes, expectations, and ideals are the most intimate building blocks of personhood. This is why an apology accepted and pardon granted can vanquish guilt, but they do little to allay shame. Lynd writes:

Guilt can be expiated. Shame, short of a transformation of the self, is retained. This transformation means, in Plato’s words, a turning of the whole soul toward the light.

Drawing on a kaleidoscope of examples from literature — Shakespeare and Sartre, The Bible and Anna Karenina, Virginia Woolf’s diaries and Huckleberry Finn — she observes that shame is most often contrasted not with extrinsic measures like righteousness and approval by others but with the elemental, intrinsic values of truth and honor. It is a mirror held up to the self, brutal and sobering — a revelation of a profound breach between the ideal self, in which our self-image is rooted, and the real self. She writes:

Experiences of shame appear to embody the root meaning of the word — to uncover, to expose, to wound. They are experiences of exposure, exposure of peculiarly sensitive, intimate, vulnerable aspects of the self. The exposure may be to others but, whether others are or are not involved, it is always… exposure to one’s own eyes… Shame is the outcome not only of exposing oneself to another person but of the exposure to oneself of parts of the self that one has not recognized and whose existence one is reluctant to admit.

[…]

The feeling of unexpectedness marks one of the central contrasts between shame and guilt. This unexpectedness is more than suddenness in time; it is also an astonishment at seeing different parts of ourselves, conscious and unconscious, acknowledged and unacknowledged, suddenly coming together, and coming together with aspects of the world we have not recognized. Patterns of events (inner and outer) of which we are not conscious come unexpectedly into relation with those of which we are aware.

This feeling of internal incongruence is the most painful aspect of shame — a vivid reminder that we know ourselves only incompletely and have but marginal control over which parts of us take the reins of personhood at any given moment. (And yet this aspect of self-surprise is something shame shares with some of the most beautiful capacities of consciousness — wonder and delight, also marked by the gasp at another dimension of reality revealed. Homer linked Aidos — the Greek goddess of shame — to awe.) Lynd writes:

Being taken unawares is shameful when what is suddenly exposed is incongruous with, or glaringly inappropriate to, the situation, or to our previous image of ourselves in it… We have acted on the assumption of being one kind of person living in one kind of surroundings, and unexpectedly, violently, we discover that these assumptions are false. We had thought that we were able to see around certain situations and, instead, discover in a moment that it is we who are exposed; alien people in an alien situation can see around us.

What makes shame most unbearable is this feeling of sudden expatriation from reality, which leaves trust — in oneself, in the world — dangerously jeopardized. Paradoxically, it is often not the darkest but the brightest in us that is most vulnerable to shame. Lynd writes:

Part of the difficulty in admitting shame to oneself arises from reluctance to recognize that one has built on false assumptions about what the world one lives in is and about the way others will respond to oneself… Shame over a sudden uncovering of incongruity mounts when what is exposed is inappropriate positive expectation, happy and confident commitment to a world that proves to be alien or nonexistent… Even more than the uncovering of weakness or ineptness, exposure of misplaced confidence can be shameful — happiness, love, anticipation of a response that is not there, something personally momentous received as inconsequential. The greater the expectation, the more acute the shame.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Shame is so difficult to bear because it takes us back to the core vulnerabilities of childhood, that tender need for congruence between the world of our imagination and the real world, the longing for a single world that coheres. Lynd writes:

Basic trust in the personal and in the physical world that surrounds him is the air that the child must breathe if he is to have roots for his own sense of identity and for the related sense of his place in the world. As he gradually differentiates the world of in here from the world of out there he is constantly testing the coherence, continuity, and dependability of both… Expectation and having expectation met are crucial in developing a sense of coherence in the world and in oneself.

Because it is so rooted in our grasp of reality, the shame of having misjudged a situation, misplaced an expectation, miscalculated one’s own merits, is a profound unmooring of the psyche:

What we have thought we could count on in ourselves, and what we have thought to be the boundaries and contours of the world, turn out suddenly not to be the “real” outlines of ourselves or of the world, or those that others accept. We have become strangers in a world where we thought we were at home. We experience anxiety in becoming aware that we cannot trust our answers to the questions Who am I? Where do I belong?

[…]

Because personality is rooted in unconscious and unquestioned trust in one’s immediate world, experiences that shake trusted anticipations and give rise to doubt may be of lasting importance… Shattering of trust in the dependability of one’s immediate world means loss of trust in other persons, who are the transmitters and interpreters of that world. We have relied on the picture of the world they have given us and it has proved mistaken; we have turned for response in what we thought was a relation of mutuality and have found our expectation misinterpreted or distorted; we have opened ourselves in anticipation of a response that was not forthcoming. With every recurrent violation of trust we become again children unsure of ourselves in an alien world.

In the remainder of On Shame and the Search for Identity, Lynd goes on to explore examples of shame and its conciliation across the canon of Western literature, then examines the two natures of shame, what it offers in confronting the tragedy of life, and how to think from parts to wholes. Couple it with Lynd’s contemporary Karen Horney on the conciliation of our inner conflicts, then revisit Ellen Bass’s magnificent poem “How to Apologize.”


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 18 Apr 2024 | 1:31 am(NZT)



The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name

“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her exquisite manifesto for the magic of real human conversation. Each word is a portable cathedral in which we clarify and sanctify our experience, a reliquary and a laboratory, holding the history of our search for meaning and the pliancy of the possible future, of there being richer and deeper dimensions of experience than those we name in our surface impressions. In the roots of words we find a portal to the mycelial web of invisible connections undergirding our emotional lives — the way “sadness” shares a Latin root with “sated” and originally meant a fulness of experience, the way “holy” shares a Latin root with “whole” and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things.

Because we know their power, we ask of words to hold what we cannot hold — the complexity of experience, the polyphony of voices inside us narrating that experience, the longing for clarity amid the confusion. There is, therefore, singular disorientation to those moments when they fail us — when these prefabricated containers of language turn out too small to contain emotions at once overwhelmingly expansive and acutely specific.

Art by Marc Martin from We Are Starlings

John Koenig offers a remedy for this lack in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (public library) — a soulful invitation to “get to work redefining the world around us, until our language more closely matches the reality we experience.”

The title, though beautiful, is misleading — the emotional states Koenig defines are not obscure but, despite their specificity, profoundly relatable and universal; they are not sorrows but emissaries of the bittersweet, with all its capacity for affirming the joy of being alive: maru mori (“the heartbreaking simplicity of ordinary things”), apolytus (“the moment you realize you are changing as a person, finally outgrowing your old problems like a reptile shedding its skin”), the wends (“the frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should… as if your heart had been inadvertently demagnetized by a surge of expectations”), anoscetia (“the anxiety of not knowing ‘the real you'”), dès vu (“the awareness that this moment will become a memory”).

Koenig composites his imaginative etymologies from a multitude of sources: names and places from folklore and pop culture, terms from chemistry and astronomy, the existing lexicon of languages living and dead, from Latin and Ancient Greek to Japanese and Māori. He writes:

In language, all things are possible. Which means that no emotion is untranslatable. No sorrow is too obscure to define. We just have to do it.

[…]

Despite what dictionaries would have us believe, this world is still mostly undefined.

Art by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

There are various words addressing the maddening uncertainty of the two fundamental dimensions of human life: time and love.

ÉNOUEMENT
n. the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, finally learning the answers to how things turned out but being unable to tell your past self.

French énouer, to pluck defective bits from a stretch of cloth + dénouement, the final part of a story, in which all the threads of the plot are drawn together and everything is explained. Pronounced “ey-noo-mahn.”

QUERINOUS
adj. longing for a sense of certainty in a relationship; wishing there were some way to know ahead of time whether this is the person you’re going to wake up next to for twenty thousand mornings in a row, instead of having to count them out one by one, quietly hoping your streak continues.

Mandarin 确认 (quèrèn), confirmation. Twenty thousand days is roughly fifty-five years. Pronounced “kweh-ruh-nuhs.”

There are words that reckon with the challenges of self-knowledge.

AGNOSTHESIA
n. the state of not knowing how you really feel about something, which forces you to sift through clues hidden in your own behavior, as if you were some other person — noticing a twist of acid in your voice, an obscene amount of effort you put into something trifling, or an inexplicable weight on your shoulders that makes it difficult to get out of bed.

Ancient Greek ἄγνωστος (ágnōstos), not knowing + διάθεσις (diáthesis), condition, mood. Pronounced “ag-nos-thee-zhuh.”

ZIELSCHMERZ
n. the dread of finally pursuing a lifelong dream, which requires you to put your true abilities out there to be tested on the open savannah, no longer protected inside the terrarium of hopes and delusions that you started up in kindergarten and kept sealed as long as you could.

German Ziel, goal + Schmerz, pain. Pronounced “zeel-shmerts.”

Art by Paloma Valdivia for Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions

There are words that anchor us in both the smallness and the grandeur of existence, its fierce fragility, its devastating beauty; words tasked with holding the hardest truth — that we are children of chance, born of a billion bright improbabilities that prevailed over the infinitely greater odds of nonexistence, living with only marginal and mostly illusory control over the circumstances of our lives and other people’s choices, forever vulnerable to the accidents of a universe insentient to our hopes.

GALAGOG
n. the state of being simultaneously entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the cosmos, which makes your deepest concerns feel laughably quaint, yet vanishingly rare.

From galaxy, a gravitationally bound system of millions of stars + agog, awestruck. Pronounced “gal-uh-gawg.”

CRAXIS
n. the unease of knowing how quickly your circumstances could change on you—that no matter how carefully you shape your life into what you want it to be, the whole thing could be overturned in an instant, with little more than a single word, a single step, a phone call out of the blue, and by the end of next week you might already be looking back on this morning as if it were a million years ago, a poignant last hurrah of normal life.

Latin crāstinō diē, tomorrow + praxis, the process of turning theory into reality. Pronounced “krak-sis.”

SUERZA
n. a feeling of quiet amazement that you exist at all; a sense of gratitude that you were even born in the first place, that you somehow emerged alive and breathing despite all odds, having won an unbroken streak of reproductive lotteries that stretches all the way back to the beginning of life itself.

Spanish suerte, luck + fuerza, force. Pronounced “soo-wair-zuh.”

MAHPIOHANZIA
n. the frustration of being unable to fly, unable to stretch out your arms and vault into the air, having finally shrugged off the burden of your own weight, which you’ve been carrying your entire life without a second thought.

Lakota mahpiohanzi, “a shadow caused by a cloud.” Pronounced “mah-pee-oh-han-zee-uh.”

Art by Monika Vaicenavičienė from What Is a River?

Emerging from the various entries is a reminder, both haunting and comforting, that despite how singular our experience feels, we are all grappling with just about the same core concerns; that our time is short and precious; that all of our confusions are a single question, the best answer to which is love.

Couple The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows with Consolations — poet and philosopher David Whyte’s lovely meditations on the deeper meanings of everyday words — then revisit artist Ella Frances Sanders’s illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world and poet Mary Ruefle’s chromatic taxonomy of sadnesses.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 13 Apr 2024 | 12:38 pm(NZT)

Home: An Illustrated Celebration of the Genius and Wonder of Animal Dwellings

Home: An Illustrated Celebration of the Genius and Wonder of Animal Dwellings

“There’s no place like home,” Dorothy sighs in The Wizard of Oz. But home is not a place — it is a locus of longing, always haunted by our existential homelessness. “Welcome home!” a cheaply suited broker once exclaimed at me, swinging open the door to a tiny studio as my foot fell on the beige wall-to-wall carpet and my eyes on the two dead roaches embracing in the corner. Between the time I left my family home in Bulgaria in my late teens and the time I settled in Brooklyn in my late twenties, I moved in and out of housing across continents and oceans, cycling through dozens of dwellings. No matter how many books I shelved and how many plants I potted, none ever felt like a home. That took another decade — not because of anything in the house, but because I had finally begun feeling at home in myself.

Other animals don’t anguish with such existential troubles. “They are so placid and self-contain’d,” Whitman wrote. “They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins… Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.” From the moment they are born until the moment they die, other animals are entirely at home in their being, for they don’t suffer the tyranny of a self, with all its restless need for expression and actualization. The homes they build — strange and various, baffling and beautiful in their singularity — reflect that purity of being. No ego and no self-image govern the design — only the exquisite genius of evolution, refining the blueprint over eons to make each home a perfect temple for consecrating each creature’s biological destiny.

The wonder, perfection, and diversity of animal dwellings come alive in artist Isabelle Simler’s book Home (public library) — a vibrant catalogue of nature’s creativity: the miraculous courtship cathedral of the satin bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), the “lace citadel” of the cross orbweaver spider (Araneus diadematus), the “silky apartment” of the comet moth (Argema mittrei), the “mossy miniature home” of the hummingbird (Trochilidae), the “cactus cabin” of the world’s smallest owl, the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi), smaller than a sparrow.

There is emergence incarnate in the termite cathedral, built by millions of blind insects with no leader and no blueprint. There is an affirmation of poet and potter M.C. Potter’s credo that “the creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present” in the case-making caddisfly, housing its larvae in snug cases made of whatever is on hand: bits of wood, grains of sand, shells and pebbles and marine debris stitched together with silk. There is the sheer astonishment of the baya weaver’s nest, meticulously woven from fresh grasses that change color under the sun’s rays.

Nearly a century after Rachel Carson pioneered the then-radical approach of writing about the natural world from the living perspective of each creature, Simler channels each animals’s approach to its home in a short singsong first-person poem.

GRASSY LODGE
of the Eurasian harvest mouse

Micromys minutus

My tail knows each blade of grass
and tethers me safely
as I swing through the air,
a micro-acrobat
dressed in soft skin.
My tangled nest,
woven from grasses,
is shaped like a little ball.
Stem to stalk, stalk to stem,
a bounce or two,
and in between
I rest in my house.

PAPIER-MÂCHÉ HOTEL
of the common wasp

Vespula vulgaris

I nibble the dry bark,
and with my saliva I mush the wood fibers together.
That’s how I make the paper pulp
that I’ll use to build my palace.
The shades of color vary
depending on the tree
I’ve been chewing.
Inside, everything is well organized.
The hexagonal cells are
neatly spread out,
arranged in circular tiers
held by cardboard pillars.
The lightweight nest
is shrouded
in layers of paper,
and so it remains
at the ideal
temperature.

HAUTE COUTURE BEDCHAMBER
of the common tailorbird

Orthotomus sutorius

With three mango leaves
and the tip of my sharp beak,
I fashion my tailor-made house
at the edge of the forest.
Carrying a blade of grass or thread from a web,
I jab, I sew, I flit here and there.
Stitching straight lines or zigzags,
I hem, I make knots, I chirp and cheep.
Finally, I pad out my home with woolly red fibers,
animal hair, and another chirrup or two.

What emerges is a dazzling testament to naturalist Sy Montgomery’s poetic observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Complement Home with The Blue Hour — Simler’s breathtaking celebration of nature’s rarest color — then revisit the sapiens counterpart to these creaturely dwellings in Carson Ellis’s tender illustrated catalogue of the many kinds of human homes.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 Apr 2024 | 1:12 pm(NZT)



The Parts We Live With: D.H. Lawrence and the Yearning for Living Unison

“We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.”


The Parts We Live With: D.H. Lawrence and the Yearning for Living Unison

The great paradox of personhood is that the sum is simpler than its parts. We move through the world as a totality, fragmentary but indivisible, clothed in a costume of personality beneath which roil parts perpetually fighting for power, perpetually yearning for harmony. The person making the choices, the person bearing their consequences, and the person taking responsibility for them are rarely the same person. There is no pain like the pain of watching oneself overtaken by one’s most shameful parts — the chaotic, the compulsive, the ungenerous, the needy, governed by fear and lack, splattering confusion and distress over anyone who comes near.

To live with consciousness is to own all the parts but not be owned by any of them, to choose with clarity and composure which ones to act from. To love fully — oneself, or another — is to accept all the parts and cherish the totality.

D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) captures this with poetic precision in his personal credo, composed in response to the thirteen qualities Benjamin Franklin identified as the wisest parts of personhood — temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

D.H. Lawrence

“The soul has many motions, many gods come and go,” Franklin had observed in recognition of our composite nature. “Know that you are responsible to the gods inside you and to the men in whom the gods are manifest.” Lawrence writes in response:

Here’s my creed, against Benjamin’s. This is what I believe:

“That I am I.”
“That my soul is a dark forest.”
“That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.”
“That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.”
“That I must have the courage to let them come and go.”
“That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.”

There is my creed.

Art by the 16th-century Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is not easy living with those constant visitations from conflicting gods, each with a different dictate, impelling you toward a different path. What makes it all bearable is seeing this constellation of parts as a part of something greater still — a vast and coherent universe governed by immutable laws and immense forces that vanquish the grandiose smallness of the self and its warring fragments, that render life too great and total a miracle to be met with anything but a resounding “yes yes — please.”

Lawrence channels this perspectival consolation in his 1930 book Apocalypse (public library) — a reflection on The Book of Revelation, composed as he lay dying from tuberculosis in a sanatorium, not yet midway through his forties.

Observing that what we most long for is our “living unison,” he writes:

The vast marvel is to be alive… The supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human soul… There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.

Complement with pioneering psychoanalyst Karen Horney on the conciliation of our inner conflicts and Scottish philosopher John Macmurray on the key to wholeness, then revisit Lawrence on the strength of sensitivity and the key to fully living.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 11 Apr 2024 | 4:12 am(NZT)

But We Had Music: Nick Cave Reads an Animated Poem about Black Holes, Eternity, and How to Bear Our Lives

How, knowing that even the universe is dying, do we bear our lives?

Most readily, through friendship, through connection, through co-creating the world we want to live in for the brief time we have together on this lonely, perfect planet.

The seventh annual Universe in Verse — a many-hearted labor of love, celebrating the wonder of reality through science and poetry — occasioned a joyous collaboration with Australian musician and writer Nick Cave and Brazilian artist and filmmaker Daniel Bruson on an animated poem reckoning with this central question of being alive.

BUT WE HAD MUSIC
by Maria Popova

Right this minute
across time zones and opinions
people are
making plans
making meals
making promises and poems

while

at the center of our galaxy
a black hole with the mass of
four billion suns
screams its open-mouth kiss
     of oblivion.

Someday it will swallow
Euclid’s postulates and the Goldberg Variations,
swallow calculus and Leaves of Grass.

I know this.

And still
when the constellation of starlings
flickers across the evening sky,
it is     enough

to stand here
for an irrevocable minute
     agape with wonder.

It is     eternity.

At 7PM EST on April 7, tune into the livestream of the 2024 Universe in Verse, celebrating the science and wonder of eclipses, to hear Nick tell the ecliptic story of marrying the love of his life, alongside a constellation of other dazzling humans bringing to life the science of gravity and relativity, tides and black holes, the formation of the Moon and the chemistry of the Sun, through poems and stories that help us meet reality on its own terms and broaden the terms on which we meet ourselves and each other.

Couple with Daniel Bruson’s breathtaking animation of former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars” from a previous season of The Universe in Verse, then revisit Nick Cave on the art of growing older and the antidote to our existential helplessness.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 7 Apr 2024 | 2:30 am(NZT)

Marie Howe’s Stunning Hymn of Humanity, Animated

“It began as an almost inaudible hum…”


Marie Howe’s Stunning Hymn of Humanity, Animated

I remember singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the choir of the Bulgarian Math Academy as a child. I remember my awe at learning that across centuries of warring nationalisms, this piece of music, based on an old Schiller poem and born of Beethoven’s unimaginable trials, had become the official Hymn of Europe — a bridge of harmony across human divides. I remember wondering as I sang whether music is something we make or something we are made of.

That is what Pythagoras, too, wondered when he laid the foundation of Western music by discovering the mathematics of harmony. Its beauty so staggered him that he thought the entire universe must be governed by it. He called it music of the spheres — the idea that every celestial body produces in its movement a unique hum determined by its orbit.

The word orbit did not exist in his day. It was Kepler who coined it two millennia later, and it was Kepler who resurrected Pythagoras’s music of the spheres in The Harmony of the World — the 1619 book in which he formulated his third and final law of planetary motion, revolutionizing our understanding of the universe. For Kepler, this notion of celestial music was not mere metaphor, not just a symbolic organizing principle for the cosmic order — he believed in it literally, believed that the universe is singing, reverberating with music inaudible to human ears but as real as gravity. He died ridiculed for this belief.

Half a millennium after his death, our radio telescopes — those immense prosthetic ears built by centuries of science — detected a low-frequency hum pervading the universe, the product of supermassive black holes colliding in the early universe: Each merging pair sounds a different low note, and all the notes are sounding together into this great cosmic hum. We have heard the universe singing.

To me, this is what makes music so singular — the way it bridges the cosmic and the human, the ephemeral and the eternal. It is at once the most abstract of the arts, made of mathematics, feeling, and time, and the most concrete in its inescapable embodiment — we sing because we have a body, this bittersweet reminder that we are mortal, and we sing to celebrate that we are alive. Alongside love, music may be our best way of saying “yes” to life, and to our life together — I know from the most etymologically passionate person in my life that the Latin root of the word person means “to sound through,” in turn implying a listener: We sound through to something other than ourselves. When we speak, when we sing, when we channel this sound wave of the soul, we reach beyond the self and partake of the great harmonic of belonging.

That harmonic comes alive with uncommon beauty and ecstatic tenderness in Marie Howe’s poem “Hymn.”

Found in her altogether magnificent New and Selected Poems (public library) and animated here by the talented Ohara Hale (who has previously animated Patti Smith reading Rebecca Elson and Joan as Police Woman singing Emily Dickinson), the poem is an “Ode to Joy” for our own time and for the epochs to come, sonorous with what is best in us, sounding through the possible.

HYMN
by Marie Howe

It began as an almost inaudible hum,
low and long for the solar winds
     and far dim galaxies,

a hymn growing louder, for the moon and the sun,
a song without words for the snow falling,
     for snow conceiving snow

conceiving rain, the rivers rushing without shame,
the hum turning again higher — into a riff of ridges
     peaks hard as consonants,

summits and praise for the rocky faults and crust and crevices
then down down to the roots and rocks and burrows
     the lakes’ skittery surfaces, wells, oceans, breaking

waves, the salt-deep: the warm bodies moving within it:
the cold deep: the deep underneath gleaming: some of us rising
     as the planet turned into dawn, some lying down

as it turned into dark; as each of us rested — another woke, standing
among the cast-off cartons and automobiles;
     we left the factories and stood in the parking lots,

left the subways and stood on sidewalks, in the bright offices,
in the cluttered yards, in the farmed fields,
     in the mud of the shanty towns, breaking into

harmonies we’d not known possible. finding the chords as we
found our true place singing in a million
     million keys the human hymn of praise for every

something else there is and ever was and will be:
     the song growing louder and rising.
          (Listen, I too believed it was a dream.)

Complement with Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” honoring Stephen Hawking, then revisit the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 5 Apr 2024 | 7:43 am(NZT)

William James on Love

“If it comes, it comes; if it does not come, no process of reasoning can force it. Yet it transforms the value of the creature loved.”


William James on Love

Love is a giver and a plunderer, the way it both anneals the self and alters it, the way it moors our wholeness and maps our incompleteness. At its heart is the ecstatic, disorienting recognition that our world is unfinished, that by entering the world of the other we broaden and magnify our own, that in the end there is no world — only a flowing exchange of energy, through which we become more entirely ourselves.

In this transformation, we partake of the miraculous.

The pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) explores this miraculous, world-remaking aspect of love in a passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (public library | free ebook) — the 1902 masterwork based on his Gifford Lectures about science, spirituality, and the human search for meaning, which also gave us James on the four features of transcendent experiences.

Falling Star by Witold Pruszkowski, 1884. (Available as a print.)

Building on his revolutionary 1884 theory of emotion, James observes that feeling is what gives valence and meaning to experience — without it, “no one portion of the universe would then have importance beyond another; and the whole collection of its things and series of its events would be without significance, character, expression, or perspective.” Seeing love as “the most familiar and extreme example of this fact,” he considers its power and its choicelessness:

If it comes, it comes; if it does not come, no process of reasoning can force it. Yet it transforms the value of the creature loved as utterly as the sunrise transforms Mont Blanc from a corpse-like gray to a rosy enchantment; and it sets the whole world to a new tune for the lover and gives a new issue to his life.

Precisely because it lives beyond the reach of reason, love is never attained by willful effort, cannot be bargained for or earned — it is a gift and a miracle that comes unbidden as birdsong, total as a galaxy.

Reflecting on these deepest of human emotions, James writes:

If they are there, life changes. And whether they shall be there or not depends almost always upon non-logical, often on organic conditions. And as the excited interest which these passions put into the world is our gift to the world, just so are the passions themselves gifts — gifts to us, from sources sometimes low and sometimes high; but almost always nonlogical and beyond our control.

The limitations of logic are why we so profoundly fail to imagine what lies on the other side of love’s transformation. The self-limitation of control is the cage of howling loneliness that keeps us from the freedom necessary for love — for love is “a knot made of two intertwined freedoms,” in Octavio Paz’s unforgettable definition. That mysterious aspect of love — unreachable by logic and reason, impervious to will and control — is why our choice in love is largely an illusion, why our slender margin of choice contains only the courage and patience with which we face its trembling uncertainty and choose to love anyway.

Complement with Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love and Christian Wiman on love and the sacred, then revisit William James on the psychology of attention (because, lest we forget, love is “the quality of attention we pay to things.”)


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 4 Apr 2024 | 4:51 am(NZT)

Between Psyche and Cyborg: Carl Jung’s Legacy and the Countercultural Courage to Reclaim the Deeply Human in a Posthuman Age

“A reanimated world is one in which spirit and matter are not just equally regarded but recognized as mutually dependent.”


Between Psyche and Cyborg: Carl Jung’s Legacy and the Countercultural Courage to Reclaim the Deeply Human in a Posthuman Age

“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances… that’s what life is all about, that’s its task,” the young Dostoyevsky exulted in a letter to his brother just after his death sentence was repealed — death, that great clarifying force for what it means to be alive, what the stakes and sanctities of living are.

In the two centuries since, our understanding of what it means to be human, to be mortal and imperfect and ablaze with feeling, has altered dramatically as we have entrusted the cold logic of computation with answering the soul’s cry for connection, for creativity, for meaning — something Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Samuel Butler anticipated in his far-seeing admonition against the dehumanization of humanity in the hands of our machines, something that has metastasized in today’s technocratic cult of posthumanism.

In Jung vs Borg: Finding the Deeply Human in a Posthuman Age, Glen Slater bridges ecology, depth psychology, systems theory, and various post-Cartesian philosophies to explore how this civilizational cult has effected “a widening divide between fabrication and authenticity, a loss of more self-aware and soulful modes of living, and an increase in anxiety and depression,” and what we can do to rewild the psyche and reclaim the soul.

He begins by drawing an analogy between the catalytic impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on awakening the modern ecological conscience and the need for a conscious awakening from the dangerous dream of posthumanism into which Silicon Valley has lulled us. Just as the industrial capitalism of Carson’s era commodified our planet’s ecosystems and elemental resources, Slater observes that digital capitalism has “turned our habits of mind into the earth’s most valuable commodity”; just as Carson pioneered the holistic view of ecology that may be our only path to saving Earth, her contemporary Carl Jung pioneered the holistic view of psychology that might, just might, save the human soul from death by commodification.

Carl Jung

Slater writes:

Whether or not we have turned the ecological corner, there is more consciousness about the way we relate to the world around us and the actions required to avert a climate catastrophe.

However, the world within us, the inner life of thought and emotion, is another matter. Here integrative understanding has been resisted. The human psyche, the ecosystem of the mind, with its own structures and dynamics, our relation to which is surely as significant as our relation to the outer world, now faces its own significant disruption, one that essentially parallels the syndrome Carson described… The depths of human nature are becoming harder to recognize and protect. Abundant information has furthered scientific knowledge but not human understanding. It has instead left us dazed, confused, and disoriented. Attention, motivation, identity, self-image, and the capacity to reason clearly and imagine deeply are all impacted… While the advantages of digital technologies are impressed upon us at every turn, the rapid entry of these technologies into every aspect of life is evidently impacting our ecology of mind.

With an eye to the urgency of “moving beyond objectification of the earth and of the bodies and minds that inhabit it,” he adds:

The technosphere now overlays the ecosphere and we cannot help but inhale its post-industrial gases. Virtuality has begun to displace reality, making the ground of human existence hard to discern… The human psyche and the nature of the whole person are not only suffering in this technospheric environment, the suffering has itself been given over to technological solutions, resulting in a vicious cycle.

[…]

The penchant for digital ways of relating, expanding faith in AI, and the one-sided education designed to service these things are combining to generate reductive conceptions of psychological life. We are, in particular, discounting the deeply human… the essential qualities of human experience, which extend from the instinctual patterns that shape basic behavior to the timeless values that mold the cultural imagination. The deeply human anchors the vertical axis of inner understanding; it grounds the ecology of mind. It is also what connects us to the more-than-human. In our era, however, an almost exclusive dedication to a horizontal axis of data gathering threatens this verticality and grounding. This is leading to a world drowning in information and thirsting for understanding.

Primordial Chaos by Hilma af Klint, 1906-1907. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

At the heart of this civilizational crisis is the systemic compartmentalization of our experience, evident in the core polarities and dichotomies of Western culture — past and future, inner and outer, matter and spirit. Pulsating beneath it all is our dissociation from the life of the body, which connects us to the life of the Earth and the life of the universe. Everything beautiful that we touch and see and hear — birdsong, a sunrise, a kiss — is a bittersweet reminder that we have a body and are therefore mortal. Dissociation thrives on the denial of death that began with our ancestors’ mythologies of immortality and is culminating in Silicon Valley’s lurid and lucrative dreams of redesigning human nature, of downloading the mind onto disembodied machines and reducing the soul to a datum.

Pointing to Jung’s timeless cosmogony of the unconscious as the antidote to this damaging delusion, Slater writes:

Jung’s comprehension of the depths of human nature constitutes an incisive counterpoint to the assumptions of posthumanism and to the dissociative bubble that presently fosters these assumptions… Jung sheds light on the self-regulating nature of the psyche and the archetypal forms behind this — forms we may choose to overlook but cannot ultimately dismiss. These forms pertain to brain structure, anatomy, and evolved patterns of perception and behavior. But they also reflect the larger rhythms of the cosmos and are seemingly woven into the fabric of life itself. Jung pointedly demonstrates that even as we have embraced reason and science, the archetypal world of non-rational impulses and religious ideas have continued to unconsciously influence our thoughts and actions.

Jung’s crowning contribution was to invite an understanding of the psyche as the foundation of all perception, experience, thought, feeling, and action — the wellspring of our humanity. In exploring the psychology of the unconscious with all of its interlaced convolutions — archetypes and complexes, projections and introjections — Jung illuminated the way our dreams and fantasies unconsciously shape the course of our lives, the way our arts and sciences cohere into a vast collective unconscious that shapes the course of our civilization. With an eye to Jung’s legacy, Slater writes:

It is the psyche that contains the pursuit of the angelic, the claims of the animal body, and the structures and dynamics that join the two. It is the psyche that generates and insists upon the symbolic expressions of culture, which are often based on the transformative and aspirational power of ordinary, even elemental, things — mountains and rivers, suns and moons, fire and rain — thereby reminding us of the inextricable bond between mind and world. If cosmic matter has given rise to consciousness, and we are now called to grasp the nature of consciousness, realizing that thinking about our thinking is the necessary companion of any exploration and understanding of the universe that surrounds us, our grasp of the inner world becomes just as vital as our grasp on the outer world — perhaps even more so.

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1573. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Nearly a century after the Swiss poet, philosopher, and linguist Jean Gebser made his exquisite case for the evolution of consciousness, Slater reflects on Jung’s legacy and writes:

Godlike power necessitates godlike responsibility. This begins with self-awareness, which is rooted in a sober consideration of the human psyche, the most critical part of which is shedding light on the shadow side of our willful pursuits… Will and reason alone cannot form a seat of wise agency — a far more expansive consciousness is required.

[…]

An expansion of consciousness is imperative if we are to make responsible use of the transformative power in our hands… With divine guidance largely beyond our secular vision, we are left to look within for something deeper than our controlling inclinations and to look without to perceive the guidance of nature’s intelligence. Guidance must ultimately come from dialogue with these marginalized sources of knowledge and from the cultural imagination, which shapes this dialogue. The result will be a “co-creation” — a partnership between innovation, self-knowledge, and a cosmology befitting this age. Such a co-creative process will mitigate and shape our technologies as well as generate opportunities for spiritual renewal.

Such co-creation, Slater argues, demands a reanimated view of existence — one that “counters the commodification of all things that is currently consuming us,” one that “conveys a confluence of spirit and matter — the very means by which a sense of soul is generated.” He writes:

A reanimated world is one in which spirit and matter are not just equally regarded but recognized as mutually dependent. The great task of this late modern era is thus to bring together what the spiritual preoccupations of the old world and the material focus of the new world have torn apart. The psyche shows us this dependency whenever a person or group attempts to embrace one without the other, in the way the neglected side begins to rule the unconscious… But the earth process itself suggests we rediscover nature as spirit as well as understand it as matter — nature as presence, intelligence, and root source of inspiration and imagination… Both mind and earth are calling for perspectives capable of marrying these dimensions of reality.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Countering this fragmentation of reality requires, above all, learning to resist our dissociative tendencies and trust our emotions — for, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes in her masterwork on the intelligence of the emotions, “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.” Slater considers the building blocks of this self-trust:

Such trust begins with a natural appreciation of emotional intelligence and the guiding potential of this intelligence, which can feel like it emanates from a will of its own. This trust may grow over a long time or it may come as a sudden life-lesson. But few things beyond the contemplation of emotional responses open the door to the deeply human and the awareness of having an inner partner [that] operates apart from conscious, rational direction. To be full of emotion is to be animated by something in spite of ourselves; perhaps this is why we end up regularly conversing with the sadness or anger that grips us. Emotions like these stand in need of negotiation, mollification or perhaps just more attention. Often, when we want to keep moving on, the emotions will not allow it. And sometimes when we would choose to hold back, emotions charge ahead.

Because our emotions are a fundament of our human nature, which is itself a fractal of Nature, they are the raw material for the co-creative process that offers an antidote to the dehumanization of humanity. Slater writes:

We are affected by desire for more satisfying ways of being, outrage about all that is regularly exploited and destroyed, fear of what stresses and overwhelms, and shame about participating in the machinations of it all. To consider the way emotion comes upon us, from a nature we call “ours,” all the while being a branch of Nature itself, calls into question whether these emotions even belong to us or to the sufferings of the world, and we are being directed to feel and respond on its behalf. In other words, our animation may be the world’s way of speaking to us, and thus be an indispensable dimension of the co-creative process. Recognition of the autonomous intelligence of these deep emotional responses may be an invitation to attune ourselves to the presence of the earth’s own intelligence — or intelligences.

It is the psyche that bridges these regions of intelligence, the inner and the outer, the human and the cosmic, death and life. Slater writes:

The psyche, which is obviously grounded in nature, also leads us beyond this ground, into a concern with destiny and leaving some trace of ourselves in service to humanity… We neither have to lean on notions of a spirit that literally departs the body, nor on fantasies of downloading our minds. Rather, we accept that the substance of psychic experience, accumulated over a lifetime, marks everything we do and everyone around us. And such a marking can be dreamed on. Life and death thus intertwine to produce defining qualities of being.

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

In a passage evocative of James Baldwin’s soulful insistence that “it is necessary… to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light,” and that “everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light,” Slater adds:

The wonder of psychological life is that this dimming of the ego-light allows the perception of another light, one that has been in the background all along… Posthumanism brightens the ego-light, the light of the intellect and will that blankets the light of natural consciousness the wise ape presents to us. It fails to reconcile our spiritual reach and our instinctual ground. It cracks cultural vessels that have always incubated this reconciliation and truncates rather than extends the human experiment.

Lensing Jung’s legacy through the light of thinkers as varied as Hannah Arendt, William James, Yuval Harari, and Oliver Sacks, Slater goes on to explore and celebrate the countercultural movement in the margins of this techno-trance — ways of seeing and of being that, unlike posthumanism, refuse to exclude beauty, eros, and transcendence from the human story, a story told in the language of the soul, irreducible to data. Complement Jung vs Borg with Iain McGilchrist on how we render reality, James Bridle on rethinking intelligence, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on bridging the scientific and the sacred, then revisit Jung himself on the most important paradigm for living.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 30 Mar 2024 | 1:27 pm(NZT)

An Ecology of Intimacies

An Ecology of Intimacies

At its best, an intimate relationship is a symbiote of mutual nourishment — a portable ecosystem of interdependent growth, undergirded by a mycelial web of trust and tenderness. One is profoundly changed by it and yet becomes more purely oneself as projections give way to presence and complexes are composted into candid relation.

In his slender and splendid book Twice Alive (public library), poet, geologist, and translator Forrest Gander draws from the natural world a poetic “ecology of intimacies,” reverencing lichens’ “supreme parsimony in drought” and the “long soft sarongs of moss” as a way “to recover the play of life itself.”

An epoch after Beatrix Potter uncovered how lichens reproduce — asexually, scattering living matter from both partners to colonize a new habitat — Gander considers the “theoretical immortality” of such propagation and reflects:

The thought of two things that merge, mutually altering each other, two things that, intermingled and interactive, become one thing that does not age, brings me to think of the nature of intimacy. Isn’t it often in our most intimate relations that we come to realize that our identity, all identity, is combinatory?

I think of Einstein, who considered “combinatory play” the essence of creativity; I think of how love may be the supreme creative act, the way it remakes the self and the world between selves.

Art from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O by Shel Silverstein

In one of the love poems anchoring the books, Gander considers how in such combinatorics of intimacy the partners are “not fused, not bonded, but nested.” Echoing the defiant question Mary McCarthy posed to Hannah ArendtWhat’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were? — he writes:

The reconfiguration is instantaneous
experience. It is being
itself
. But whose being now? Was I
endowed with some special pliability so
that becoming part of you I didn’t pass
through my own nihilation? And what
does the death of who-you-were mean to me
except that now you are present, constantly.

[…]

Without you I survived and with you
I live again in a radical augmentation
of identity because we have
effaced our outer limits, because
we summoned each other. In you,
I cast my life beyond itself.

This radical augmentation of the self is indeed the great recompense of intimacy, not only interpersonal but ecological — how organisms entwine with one another to become a system of interdependence greater and more fully alive than its parts, how grasping this new way of being requires a new way of seeing. Gander writes in another poem:

To see what’s there and not already
patterned by familiarity — for an unpredicted
whole is there, casting a pair of shadows, manipulating
its material, advancing, assembling enough
kinship that we call it life, our life, what
is already many lives, the dimensions of
its magnitude veiled to us as we live it —

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem “Kinship” and Shel Silverstein’s timeless illustrated parable about the secret to nurturing relationships, then revisit this meditation on lichens and the meaning of life.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 Mar 2024 | 2:01 am(NZT)

Love Anyway

You know that the price of life is death, that the price of love is loss, and still you watch the golden afternoon light fall on a face you love, knowing that the light will soon fade, knowing that the loving face too will one day fade to indifference or bone, and you love anyway — because life is transient but possible, because love alone bridges the impossible and the eternal.

I think about this and a passage from Louise Erdrich’s 2005 novel The Painted Drum (public library) flits across the sky of my mind:

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.

This, of course, is what life evolved to be — an aria of affirmation rising like luminous steam from the cold dark silence of an indifferent cosmos that will one day swallow all of it. Every living thing is its singer and its steward — something the poetic paleontologist Loren Eiseley captures with uncommon poignancy in his 1957 essay “The Judgment of the Birds,” found in his altogether magnificent posthumous collection The Star Thrower (public library).

Raven by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

Eiseley recounts resting beneath a tree after a day of trekking through fern and pine needles collecting fossils, dozing off in the warm sunlight, then being suddenly awakened by a great commotion to see “an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak” perching on a crooked branch above. He writes:

Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents. No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death. And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable. The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.

Couple with Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss, then revisit Loren Eiseley on the warblers and the wonder of being.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 23 Mar 2024 | 10:32 am(NZT)

Awakened Cosmos: Poetry as Spiritual Practice

“Poetry is the cosmos awakened to itself.”


Awakened Cosmos: Poetry as Spiritual Practice

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote Whitman, who called himself a kosmos and believed of “the true poems” that “whom they take they take into space to behold the birth of stars.”

Shortly after Whitman returned his borrowed stardust to the universe, when quantum mechanics made it impossible to take seriously the image of the atom as a miniature solar system of electrons orbiting a nucleus but no one yet knew what image to replace it with, quantum pioneer Niels Bohr told quantum pioneer Werner Heisenberg:

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.

Another half century later, after we had split the atom and split the world, James Baldwin insisted that poets are “the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.” And if the truth, the elemental truth, is that we are matter yearning for meaning — “atoms with consciousness,” in the poetic words of the physicist Richard Feynman — then poetry, this supreme instrument of self-knowledge, is the mirror consciousness holds to the cosmos.

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

That is what poet, translator, and Chinese literature scholar David Hinton explores in Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry (public library) — an inquiry into poetry as spiritual practice, lensed through the life of Tu Fu: a man of uncommon depth and breadth of spirit, who lived as an impoverished wanderer through a civil war in the eighth century to become China’s greatest poet.

With an eye to poetry as the language of silence and a portal to unselfing, Hinton writes:

Poetry is the cosmos awakened to itself. Narrative, reportage, explanation, idea: language is the medium of self-identity, and we normally live within that clutch of identity, identity that seems to look out at and think about the Cosmos as if from some outside space. But poetry pares language down to a bare minimum, thereby opening it to silence. And it is there in the margins of silence that poetry finds its deepest possibilities — for there it can render dimensions of consciousness that are much more expansive than that identity-center, primal dimensions of consciousness as the Cosmos awakened to itself. At least this is true for classical Chinese poetry, shaped as it is by Taoist and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist thought into a form of spiritual practice. In its deepest possibilities, its inner wilds, poetry is the Cosmos awakened to itself — and the history of that awakening begins where the Cosmos begins.

Epochs before the poet John Milton introduced the word space into the English lexicon to connote the cosmic expanse, ancient Chinese poets were reckoning with the relationship between the cosmos and the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrow that Taoists placed at the heart of human experience. Hinton writes:

Although ancient Chinese poets and philosophers didn’t describe it in these scientific terms, this same sense of consciousness as the Cosmos open to itself was an operating assumption for them — though perhaps here existence is a better word than Cosmos, as it suggests the sense of all reality as a single tissue. This existence-tissue is the central concern of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (sixth century B.C.E.) — the seminal work in Taoism, the spiritual branch of Chinese philosophy that eventually evolved into Ch’an Buddhism. Lao Tzu called that existence-tissue Tao, which originally meant “Way,” as in a road or pathway. But Lao Tzu used it to describe the empirical Cosmos as a single living tissue that is inexplicably generative… an ontological pathway by which things emerge from the existence-tissue as distinct forms, evolve through their lives, and then vanish back into that tissue, only to be transformed and reemerge in new forms. It is a majestic and nurturing Cosmos, but also a refugee Cosmos: all change and transformation, each of the ten thousand things in perpetual flight, always on its way somewhere else.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is precisely because we are pilgrims of mortality that we so long for refuge and belonging, for something to balance the presence that we are with the void out of which we came and into which we will return. Hinton writes:

The abiding aspiration of spiritual and artistic practice in ancient China was to cultivate consciousness as that existence-tissue Cosmos open to itself, awakened to itself: looking at itself, hearing and touching itself, tasting and smelling itself, and also thinking itself, feeling itself — all in the singular ways made possible by the individuality of each particular person. This is consciousness in the open, wild and woven into the generative Cosmos: wholesale belonging.

[…]

At its deepest level, the tissue of Tao is described by that cosmology in terms of two fundamental elements: Absence (無) and Presence (有). Presence is simply the empirical universe, the ten thousand things in constant transformation, and Absence is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges. And so, Tao is the generative process through which all things arise and pass away — Absence burgeoning forth into the great transformation of Presence… The concepts of Absence and Presence are simply an approach to the fundamental nature of things. In the end, of course, they are the same: Presence grows out of and returns to Absence and is therefore always a manifestation of it. Or to state it more precisely, Absence and Presence are simply different ways of seeing Tao: either as a single formless tissue that is somehow always generative, or as that tissue in its ten thousand distinct and always changing forms.

We now know this to be not only a spiritual truth but a scientific fact — an equation written into the physics and chemistry of what happens when we die. Poetry, too, plays with this equivalence of absence and presence. Because it “articulates the emptiness surrounding the words,” Hinton observes, it “infuses everyday experience with that generative tissue of emptiness” and, in doing so, reveals enlightenment as the basic fabric of our existence in “a vast and indifferent Cosmos, a Cosmos that is in the end impervious to our attempts at wisdom.” He reflects:

A poem is not simply about its apparent content — the particular life-experience described in the poem — as it seems from the perspective of our own cultural assumptions, which is the view we see in a translation of such a poem. It is, instead, about the emptiness surrounding it, each poem revealing that emptiness in a singular way. And what is that emptiness? It is, finally, the wild existence-tissue Cosmos open to itself, awakened to itself in the form of human consciousness.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem that Heals Fish — a tender French picture-book about how poetry works its magic on us

Nearly a century after the titanic poet Muriel Rukeyser observed that “however confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole,” Hinton adds:

However confused and unenlightened our lives may seem, however blind to that everyday enlightenment we may be — we are always already wild consciousness in the open, always already the Cosmos aware of itself, awakened to itself.

[…]

This awakening is the nature of everyday experience, the very fabric of our lives, for in the actual moment of pure perception, there is no self involved. If we look closely at what happens in consciousness, we find nothing more than the perceptual experience itself. It is only upon reflection afterward that we describe it as an “I” hearing — a description dictated not by experience itself, but by a body of philosophical assumptions.

Lao Tzu himself captured this as one of the many paradoxes the Tao Te Ching invites into consciousness:

If you aren’t free of yourself
how will you ever become yourself?

Give up self-reflection
and you’re soon enlightened.
Give up self-definition
and you’re soon apparent.

Knowing not-knowing is lofty.
Not knowing not-knowing is affliction.

The Tao of heaven…
never speaks
and so answers perfectly.

In the remainder of Awakened Cosmos, Hinton leans on Tu Fu’s finest poems to examine the fundaments of memory and identity, the role of generative emptiness in creativity, the way language both limits and liberates our consciousness, and how we make meaning in a meaningless universe. Complement it with a poem about our cosmic destiny and non-speaking autistic poet Hannah Emerson’s “Center of the Universe,” then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent more-than-translation of the Tao Te Ching.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 Mar 2024 | 6:55 am(NZT)

We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt, the Power of Defiant Goodwill, and the Art of Beginning Afresh

“It is when the experience of powerlessness is at its most acute, when history seems at its most bleak, that the determination to think like a human being, creatively, courageously, and complicatedly, matters the most.”


We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt, the Power of Defiant Goodwill, and the Art of Beginning Afresh

“We speak of four fundamental forces,” a physicist recently said to me, “but I believe there are only two: good and evil” — a startling assertion coming from a scientist. Beneath it pulsates the sensitive recognition that it is precisely because free will is so uncomfortably at odds with everything we know about the nature of the universe that the experience of freedom — which is different from the fact of freedom — is fundamental to our humanity; it is precisely because we were forged by these impartial forces, these handmaidens of chance, that our choices — which always have a moral valence — give meaning to reality.

Whether our cosmic helplessness paralyzes or mobilizes us depends largely on how we orient to freedom and what we make of agency. “The smallest act in the most limited circumstances,” Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition, “bears the seed of… boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944. (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive.)

Arendt’s rigorously reasoned, boundlessly mobilizing defiance of helplessness and “the stubborn humanity of her fierce and complex creativity” come abloom in We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience (public library) — Lyndsey Stonebridge’s erudite and passionate celebration of what Arendt modeled for generations and goes on modeling for us: “determined and splendid goodwill, refusing to accept the compromised terms upon which modern freedom is offered and holding out for something new.”

Stonebridge, who has been studying Arendt for three decades, writes:

Hannah Arendt is a creative and complex thinker; she writes about power and terror, war and revolution, exile and love, and, above all, about freedom. Reading her is never just an intellectual exercise, it is an experience.

[…]

She loved the human condition for what it was: terrible, beautiful, perplexing, amazing, and above all, exquisitely precious. And she never stopped believing in a politics that might be true to that condition. Her writing has much to tell us about how we got to this point in our history, about the madness of modern politics and about the awful, empty thoughtlessness of contemporary political violence. But she also teaches that it is when the experience of powerlessness is at its most acute, when history seems at its most bleak, that the determination to think like a human being, creatively, courageously, and complicatedly, matters the most.

She too lived in a “post-truth era,” she too watched the fragmentation of reality in a shared world, and she saw with uncommon lucidity that the only path to freedom is the free mind. Whether she was writing about love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss or about lying in politics, she was always teaching her reader, as Stonebridge observes, not what to think but how to think — a credo culminating in her parting gift to the world: The Life of the Mind.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

In consonance with George Saunders’s lovely case for the courage of uncertainty and his insistence that possibility is a matter of trying to “remain permanently confused,” Stonebridge writes:

Having a free mind in Arendt’s sense means turning away from dogma, political certainties, theoretical comfort zones, and satisfying ideologies. It means learning instead to cultivate the art of staying true to the hazards, vulnerabilities, mysteries, and perplexities of reality, because ultimately that is our best chance of remaining human.

Having “escaped from the black heart of fascist Europe and its crumbling nation states,” having witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and the rise of totalitarian regimes around the world, Arendt never stopped thinking and writing about what it means to be human — an example of what she considered the “unanswerable questions” feeding our “capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

Celebrating Arendt as a “conservationist” who “traveled back into the traditions of political and philosophical thought in search of new creative pathways to the present,” Stonebridge reflects:

Fundamental questions about the human condition are not beside the point in dire political times; they are the point. How can we think straight amidst cynicism and mendacity? What is there left to love, to cherish, to fight for? How can we act to best secure it? What fences and bridges do we need to build to protect freedom and which walls do we need to destroy?

In my own longtime immersion in Arendt’s world, I have often shuddered at how perfectly her indictment of political oppression applies to the tyranny of consumerist society, although Arendt did not overtly address that. In this passage from Stonebridge, one could easily replace “Nazism,” “totalitarianism,” and “the Holocaust” with “late-stage capitalism” and feel the same sting of truth:

Nazism was undoubtedly tyrannical, and self-evidently fascist in its gray-black glamour, racist mythology, and disregard for the rule of law. However, Arendt argued that modern dictatorship had an important new feature. Its power reached everywhere: not a person, an institution, a mind, or a private dream was left untouched. It squeezed people together, crushing out spaces for thought, spontaneity, creativity — defiance. Totalitarianism was not just a new system of oppression, it seemed to have altered the texture of human experience itself.

[…]

The moral obscenity of the Holocaust had to be recognized, put on trial, grieved, and addressed. But it could not be made right with existing methods and ideologies… You cannot simply will this evil off the face of the earth with a few good ideas, let alone with the old ones that allowed it to flourish in the first place. You have to start anew.

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

This belief that “we are free to change the world and to start something new in it” animated Arendt’s life — a freedom she located not in what she termed reckless optimism (the divested shadow side of Rebecca Solnit’s notion of hope as an act of defiance), but in action as the crux of the pursuit of happiness — what Stonebridge so astutely perceives as “the determination to exist as a fully living and thinking person in a world among others.” She writes:

Freedom cannot be forced; it can only be experienced in the world and alongside others. It is on this condition that we are free to change the world and start something new in it.

Echoing Albert Camus’s insistence that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” she adds:

Learning to love the world means that you cannot be pleasantly indifferent about its future. But there is a wisdom in knowing that change has come before and, what is more, that it will keep on coming, often when you least expect it; unplanned, spontaneous, and sometimes, even just in time. That, for Hannah Arendt, is the human condition.

Couple We Are Free to Change the World — a superb read in its entirety — with James Baldwin on the paradox of freedom, John O’Donohue on the transcendent terror of new beginnings, and Bertrand Russell on the key to a free mind, then revisit Arendt on how we invent ourselves and reinvent the world, the power of being an outsider, and what forgiveness really means.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 16 Mar 2024 | 4:24 am(NZT)

Something About the Sky: Rachel Carson’s Lost Serenade to the Science of the Clouds, Found and Illustrated by Artist Nikki McClure

Something About the Sky: Rachel Carson’s Lost Serenade to the Science of the Clouds, Found and Illustrated by Artist Nikki McClure

A version of this essay appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

A cloud is a spell against indifference, an emblem of the water cycle that makes this planet a living world capable of trees and tenderness, a great cosmic gasp at the improbability that such a world exists, that across the cold expanse of spacetime strewn with billions upon billions of other star systems, there is nothing like it as far as we yet know.

Clouds are almost as old as this world, born when primordial volcanos first exhaled the chemistry of the molten planet into the sky, but their science is younger than the steam engine. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the chemist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, still in his twenties, noticed that clouds form in particular shapes under particular conditions. He set out to devise a classification system modeled on the newly popular Linnaean taxonomy of the living world, naming the three main classes cumulus, stratus, and cirrus, then braiding them into various sub-taxonomies.

When a German translation reached Goethe, the polymathic poet with a passion for morphology was so inspired that he sent fan mail to the young man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” then composed a suite of verses for each of the main classes. It was Goethe’s poetry, translating the lexicon of an obscure science into the language of wonder, that popularized the cloud names we use today.

Rachel Carson, 1951

A century and a half later, six years before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with her book Silent Spring and four years after The Sea Around Us earned her the National Book Award as “a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination,” the television program Omnibus approached her to write “something about the sky,” in response to a request from a young viewer.

This became the title of the segment that aired on March 11, 1956 — a soulful serenade to the science of the clouds, emanating Carson’s ethos that “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.”

Although celebrated for her books about the sea, Carson’s literary career had begun in the sky. She was only eleven when her story “A Battle in the Clouds” — a tale inspired by her brother’s time in the Army Air Service during World War I — was published in the popular young people’s magazine St. Nicholas, where the early writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E. E. Cummings also appeared. Despite her family’s meager means — a neighbor would recall stopping by at dinnertime and finding the Carsons gathered around a single bowl of apples — she enrolled in a women’s college aided by a $100 scholarship from a state competition, intent on studying literature at a time when fewer than four percent of women graduated from a four-year university.

And then, the way all great transformations slip in through the backdoor of the mansion of our plans, her life took a turn that shaped her future and the history of literature.

To meet the college science requirement she had put off for a year, Carson took an introductory biology course. She found herself enchanted by both the subject and its teacher: Miss Mary Scott Skinker, who wore miniskirts, taught cutting-edge disciplines like genetics and microbiology, and gave enthralling lectures on evolution and natural history that awakened in her students an awareness of the interdependence of life that would never leave Carson. By nineteen, she had changed her major to biology. But she never lost her love of literature. “I have always wanted to write,” Carson told her lab partner late one night. “Biology has given me something to write about.” She was also writing poetry, submitting it to various magazines, receiving rejection slip after rejection slip.

Somewhere along the way, as she followed in Skinker’s footsteps to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Observatory, then worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, writing reports her boss deemed far too lyrical for a government publication and encouraged her to submit to The Atlantic Monthly, Carson realized that poetry lives in innumerable guises beyond verse, that the task of science is to discover the “wonder and beauty and majesty” inherent in nature. A lifetime later, she would rise from the table she shared with the poet Marianne Moore to receive her National Book Award with these words:

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

If there was poetry in her writing, Carson believed, it was not because she “deliberately put it there” but because no one could write truthfully about nature “and leave out the poetry.”

It was a radical idea — that truth and beauty are not in rivalry but in reciprocity, that to write about science with feeling is not to diminish its authority but to deepen it. Rachel Carson was modeling a new possibility for generations of writers to come, blurring the line between where science ends and poetry begins in the work of wonder.

That was the ethos she took to “the writing of the wind on the sky,” detailing the science of each of the main cloud classes and celebrating them as “the cosmic symbols of a process without which life itself could not exist on earth.”

After coming upon fragments of Carson’s long-lost television script via Orion magazine, the artist Nikki McClure — who, like Carson, grew up in nature, worked for a while at the Department of Ecology, and finds daily delight in watching birds under the cedar canopy by her home — was moved to track down the complete original and bring it to life in lyrical illustrations: Something About the Sky (public library) was born.

Known for her singular cut-paper art, with its stark contrasts and sharp contours, she embraced the creative challenge of finding a whole new technique for channeling the softness of the sky. Using paper from a long-ago trip to Japan and sumi ink she freely applied with brushes, she let the gentle work of gravity and fluid dynamics pool and fade the mostly blue and black hues into textured layers — a process of “possibility and chance.” Then, as she recounts in an illustrator’s note at the back of the book, she “cut images with the paper, not just from it”: “The paper and I had a conversation about what might happen.”

What emerges is a tender visual poem, as boldly defiant of category as Carson’s writing.

Although Carson never wrote explicitly for children, she wrote in the language of children: wonder. Among the boxes of fan mail at the Beinecke is a letter from a geology professor who, after comparing her to Goethe, told her how enthralled his eight-year-old son was with her words.

Less than a year after Something about the Sky aired, Carson adopted her twice-orphaned grand-nephew Roger — the small boy romping across McClure’s illustrations. In what began as an article for Woman’s Home Companion and was later expanded into the posthumously published book The Sense of Wonder, she wrote:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

Couple Something About the Sky with the animated story of how the clouds got their names, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work and the ocean and the meaning of life.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 14 Mar 2024 | 6:15 am(NZT)

George Saunders on How to Live an Unregretting Life

“At the end of my life, I know I won’t be wishing I’d held more back, been less effusive, more often stood on ceremony, forgiven less, spent more days oblivious to the secret wishes and fears of the people around me.”


George Saunders on How to Live an Unregretting Life

The price we pay for being children of chance, born of a billion bright improbabilities that prevailed over the staggering odds of nothingness and eternal night, is the admission of our total cosmic helplessness. We have various coping mechanisms for it — prayer, violence, routine — and still we are powerless to keep the accidents from happening, the losses from lacerating, the galaxies from drifting apart.

Because our locus of choice is so narrow against the immensity of chance, nothing haunts human life more than the consequences of our choices, nothing pains more than the wistful wish to have chosen more wisely and more courageously — the chance untaken, the love unleapt, the unkind word in the time for tenderness. Regret — the fossilized fangs of should have sunk into the living flesh of is, sharp with sorrow, savage with self-blame — may be the supreme suffering of which we are capable. It poisons the entire system of being, for it feeds on the substance we are made of — time, entropic and irretrievable. It tugs at our yearning for, in James Baldwin’s perfect words, “reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error” and stings with the reminder that eventually “one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed.”

Art by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

There is, therefore, no mightier spell against unhappiness than moving through the present in a way that preempts regret in the future — with integrity, with humility, with wholeheartedness.

That is what George Saunders reckons with in some lovely passages from his prophetic 2007 essay collection The Braindead Megaphone (public library).

In one of those tangents that give the essay form its fractal splendor, he writes:

You know that feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away… That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?

[…]

At the end of my life, I know I won’t be wishing I’d held more back, been less effusive, more often stood on ceremony, forgiven less, spent more days oblivious to the secret wishes and fears of the people around me.

In a sentiment he would later deepen in his moving 2013 Syracuse commencement address, he adds:

So what is stopping me from stepping outside my habitual crap?

My mind, my limited mind.

The story of life is the story of the same basic mind readdressing the same problems in the same already discredited ways.

In a wonderful aside from another essay, he offers what may be the best recipe for breaking out of the mind’s recursive and limiting stories:

Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.

Couple with artist Maira Kalman’s illustrated meditation on how to find joy on the other side of remorse and Ellen Bass’s superb poem “How to Apologize,” then revisit George Saunders on the courage of uncertainty.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 Mar 2024 | 4:49 am(NZT)

Cordyceps, the Carpenter Ant, and the Boundaries of the Self: The Strange Science of Zombie Fungi

“It is likely that fungi have been manipulating animal minds for much of the time that there have been minds to manipulate.”


Cordyceps, the Carpenter Ant, and the Boundaries of the Self: The Strange Science of Zombie Fungi

“The mind is its own place,” Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” While this is psychologically true — the mind is, after all, how consciousness renders reality — it is not always physiologically true: The brain and body out of which the mind arises are a physical system, contiguous with every physical force and process that touches it, permeable to myriad invasions and reconfigurations that alter the system and thus transform the mind into a wholly different place.

Nowhere is this haunting vulnerability to transformation starker than in the case of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and the mind of the carpenter ant, challenging our most elemental intuitions about agency, about autonomy, about what a self is.

Part of a group known as “zombie fungi,” Ophiocordyceps hijacks an insect, driving it to disperse the fungus’s spores at the price of its own life. In his altogether fascinating book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (public library), mycologist Merlin Sheldrake details this sinister puppet show of biochemistry:

Once infected by the fungus, ants are stripped of their instinctive fear of heights, leave the relative safety of their nests, and climb up the nearest plant — a syndrome known as “summit disease.” In due course the fungus forces the ant to clamp its jaws around the plant in a “death grip.” Mycelium grows from the ant’s feet and stitches them to the plant’s surface. The fungus then digests the ant’s body and sprouts a stalk out of its head, from which spores shower down on ants passing below. If the spores miss their targets, they produce secondary sticky spores that extend outward on threads that act like trip wires.

Zombie fungi control the behavior of their insect hosts with exquisite precision. Ophiocordyceps compels ants to perform the death grip in a zone with just the right temperature and humidity to allow the fungus to fruit: a height of twenty-five centimeters above the forest floor. The fungus orients ants according to the direction of the sun, and infected ants bite in synchrony, at noon. They don’t bite any old spot on the leaf’s underside. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the ants clamp onto a major vein.

Because the marks left on leaf veins by these death-bites are so distinct, evidence of them can be found in the fossil record as far back as the Eocene, nearly fifty million years ago — the dawn of modern fauna, a time when forests covered the Earth from pole to pole. Sheldrake reflects:

It is likely that fungi have been manipulating animal minds for much of the time that there have been minds to manipulate.

Art by Moomins creator Tove Jansson for a rare 1966 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But unlike the mind-controlling parasite that drives wasps to abandon their colonies, Ophiocordyceps seems to manipulate the mind through the backdoor of the body: Research indicates that the fungus may not have a physical presence in the ant’s brain, instead secreting chemicals that activate the ant’s muscles and steer its central nervous system (which we now know is the evolutionary underpinning of consciousness).

Couple with the new science of how fungi are altering human minds, then revisit Lewis Thomas’s magnificent meditation on how the relationship between a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminates the mystery of the self.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 10 Mar 2024 | 11:28 am(NZT)

Moonlight and the Magic of the Unnecessary

Every night, for every human being that ever was and ever will be, the Moon rises to remind us how improbably lucky we are, each of its craters a monument of the odds we prevailed against to exist, a reliquary of the violent collisions that forged our rocky planet lush with life and tore from its body our only satellite with its miraculous proportions that render randomness too small a word — exactly 400 times smaller than the Sun and exactly 400 times closer to Earth, so that each time it passes between the two, the Moon covers the face of our star perfectly, thrusting us into midday night: the rare wonder of a total solar eclipse.

It is impossible to know this and not see the miraculous in its nightly light.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print.)

Moonlight transforms the landscapes of daytime, dusts them with the numinous.

“The sky was a strange royal-blue with all but the brightest stars quenched, while on either side the mountains were transformed into silver barricades, as their quartz surfaces reflected the moonlight,” Dervla Murphy wrote in Pakistan.

“We found many pleasures for the eye and the intellect… in the play of intense silvery moonlight over the mountainous seas of ice,” Frederick Cook wrote in Antarctica.

“All the bay is flooded with moonlight and in that pale glow the snowy mountains appear whiter than snow itself,” Rockwell Kent wrote in Alaska.

I remember being small and lonely, those infinite summers in the mountains of Bulgaria, waiting for nightfall, waiting for the Moon to cast its soft light upon the sharp edges of tomorrow and give the bygone day something of the eternal.

Moonlight, Winter by Rockwell Kent. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Moonlight transforms the landscapes of the soul: It transported Leonard Cohen to where the good songs come from; Sylvia Plath found in it a haunting lens on the darkness of the mind; for Toni Morrison, loving moonlight was a measure of freedom; for Virginia Woolf, it was a magnifying lens for love as she beckoned her lover Vita to “dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight.”

I have encountered no more beautiful account of this dual transformation than a passage from Watership Down (public library) — the marvelous 1973 novel that began with a story Richard Adams dreamt up to entertain his two young daughters on a long car journey. Nested midway through his allegorical adventure tale of rabbits is Adams’s serenade to moonlight:

The full moon, well risen in a cloudless eastern sky, covered the high solitude with its light. We are not conscious of daylight as that which displaces darkness. Daylight, even when the sun is clear of clouds, seems to us simply the natural condition of the earth and air… We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara by Hasui Kawase, 1931. (Available as a print.)

Adams exults in moonlight as one of those unbidden graces that give ordinary life a “singular and marvelous quality” — a grace that didn’t have to exist and is in this sense unnecessary, like many of the loveliest things in life, which C.S. Lewis captured in asserting that “friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself [and] has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

A century after Walt Whitman exulted that the Moon “commends herself to the matter-of-fact people by her usefulness, and makes her uselessness adored by poets, artists, and all lovers in all lands,” Adams writes:

Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech woods at night. In moonlight, two acres of coarse bent grass, undulant and ankle deep, tumbled and rough as a horse’s mane, appear like a bay of waves, all shadowy troughs and hollows. The growth is so thick and matted that even the wind does not move it, but it is the moonlight that seems to confer stillness upon it. We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. It does not reveal but changes what it covers.

Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens by Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1888/1891. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

These passages from Watership Down reminded me of a kindred reverie Aldous Huxley composed half a century before Adams in his music-inspired meditation on the universe and our place in it, contemplating the Moon as a mirror not of the Sun but of the soul. In a splendid counterpart to Paul Goodman’s spiritual taxonomy of silence, Huxley offers a spiritual taxonomy of moonlight:

The moon is a stone; but it is a highly numinous stone. Or, to be more precise, it is a stone about which and because of which men and women have numinous feelings. Thus, there is a soft moonlight that can give us the peace that passes understanding. There is a moonlight that inspires a kind of awe. There is a cold and austere moonlight that tells the soul of its loneliness and desperate isolation, its insignificance or its uncleanness. There is an amorous moonlight prompting to love — to love not only for an individual but sometimes even for the whole universe.

Phases of the Moon by the self-taught 17th-century artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the story of the first surviving photograph of the Moon, which changed our relationship to the universe, then savor this lovely picture-book about the Moon.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 7 Mar 2024 | 5:59 am(NZT)

The Middle Passage: A Jungian Field Guide to Finding Meaning and Transformation in Midlife

“Our task at midlife is to be strong enough to relinquish the ego-urgencies of the first half and open ourselves to a greater wonder.”


The Middle Passage: A Jungian Field Guide to Finding Meaning and Transformation in Midlife

“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost,” Dante wrote in the Inferno. “The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth,” the visionary Elizabeth Peabody cautioned half a millennium later as she considered the art of self-renewal, “the perilous season is middle age.”

In The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife (public library), Jungian analyst James Hollis offers a torch for turning the perilous darkness of the middle into a pyre of profound transformation — an opportunity, both beautiful and terrifying, to reimagine the patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior acquired in the course of adapting to life’s traumas and demands, and finally inhabit the authentic self beneath the costume of this provisional personality.

Art by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

One has entered the Middle Passage when the demands of the true self press restive and uprising against the acquired persona, eventually colliding to produce untenable psychic ache — a “fearsome clash,” Hollis writes, leaving one “radically stunned into consciousness.” A generation after James Baldwin contemplated how myriad chance events infuse our lives with the illusion of choice, Hollis considers our unexamined conditioning as a root cause of this clash:

Perhaps the first step in making the Middle Passage meaningful is to acknowledge the partiality of the lens we were given by family and culture, and through which we have made our choices and suffered their consequences. If we had been born of another time and place, to different parents who held different values, we would have had an entirely different lens. The lens we received generated a conditional life, which represents not who we are but how we were conditioned to see life and make choices… We succumb to the belief that the way we have grown to see the world is the only way to see it, the right way to see it, and we seldom suspect the conditioned nature of our perception.

Haunting this conditional life are our psychic reflexes — the coping mechanisms developed for the traumas of childhood, which Hollis divides into two basic categories: “the experience of neglect or abandonment” or “the experience of being overwhelmed by life,” each with its particular prognosis. The overwhelmed child may become a passive and accommodating adult prone to codependence, while the abandoned child may spend a lifetime in addictive patterns of attachment searching for a steadfast Other. These unconscious responses adopted by the inner child coalesce into a provisional adult personality still preoccupied with solving the emotional urgencies of early life. Hollis observes:

We all live out, unconsciously, reflexes assembled from the past.

One of Gustave Doré’s 1850s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

Carl Jung termed such reflexes personal complexes — largely unconscious and emotionally charged reactions operating autonomously. Most of life’s suffering stems from the unexamined workings of these complexes and the conditioned choices they lead us to, which further sever us from our true nature. Hollis writes:

Most of the sense of crisis in midlife is occasioned by the pain of that split. The disparity between the inner sense of self and the acquired personality becomes so great that the suffering can no longer be suppressed or compensated… The person continues to operate out of the old attitudes and strategies, but they are no longer effective. Symptoms of midlife distress are in fact to be welcomed, for they represent not only an instinctually grounded self underneath the acquired personality but a powerful imperative for renewal… In effect, the person one has been is to be replaced by the person to be. The first must die… Such death and rebirth is not an end in itself; it is a passage. It is necessary to go through the Middle Passage to more clearly achieve one’s potential and to earn the vitality and wisdom of mature aging. Thus, the Middle Passage represents a summons from within to move from the provisional life to true adulthood, from the false self to authenticity.

The summons often begins with a call to humility — having failed to bend the universe to our will the way the young imagine they can, we come to recognize our limitations, to confront our disenchantment, to reckon with the collapse of projections and the crushing of hopes. But this reckoning, when conducted with candor and self-compassion, can reward with “the restoration of the person to a humble but dignified relationship to the universe.”

This, Hollis argues, requires shedding the acquired personality of what he terms “first adulthood” — the period from ages twelve to roughly forty, on the other side of which lies the second adulthood of authenticity. Bridging the abyss between the two is the Middle Passage. He writes:

The second adulthood… is only attainable when the provisional identities have been discarded and the false self has died. The pain of such loss may be compensated by the rewards of the new life which follows, but the person in the midst of the Middle Passage may only feel the dying… The good news which follows the death of the first adulthood is that one may reclaim one’s life. There is a second shot at what was left behind in the pristine moments of childhood.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller

Hollis envisions these shifting identities as a change of axes, moving from the parent-child axis of early life to the ego-world axis of young adulthood to the ego-Self axis of the Middle Passage — a time when “the humbled ego begins the dialogue with the Self.” On the other side of it lies the final axis: “Self-God” or “Self-Cosmos,” embodying philosopher Martin Buber’s recognition that “we live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe” — the kind of orientation that led Whitman, who lived with uncommon authenticity and made of it an art, to call himself a “kosmos,” using the spelling Alexander von Humboldt used to denote the interconnectedness of the universe reflected in his pioneering insistence that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.” The fourth axis is precisely this recognition of the Self as a microcosm of the universe — an antidote to the sense of insignificance, alienation, and temporality that void life of meaning. Hollis writes:

This axis is framed by the cosmic mystery which transcends the mystery of individual incarnation. Without some relationship to the cosmic drama, we are constrained to lives of transience, superficiality and aridity. Since the culture most of us have inherited offers little mythic mediation for the placement of self in a larger context, it is all the more imperative that the individual enlarge his or her vision.

These shifting axes are marked by several “sea-changes of the soul,” the most important of which is the withdrawal of projections — those mental figments that “embody what is unclaimed or unknown within ourselves,” born of the tendency to superimpose the unconscious on external objects, nowhere more pronounced than in love: What is so often mistaken for love of another is a projection of the unloved parts of oneself.

Drawing on the work of Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, Hollis describes the five stages of projection — a framework strikingly similar to the seven stages of falling in and out of love that Stendhal outlined two centuries ago. Hollis writes:

First, the person is convinced that the inner (that is, unconscious) experience is truly outer. Second, there is a gradual recognition of the discrepancy between the reality and the projected image… Third, one is required to acknowledge this discrepancy. Fourth, one is driven to conclude one was somehow in error originally. And, fifth, one must search for the origin of the projection energy within oneself. This last stage, the search for the meaning of the projection, always involves a search for a greater knowledge of oneself.

The Lovers II by René Magritte, 1928

In consonance with Joan Didion’s piercing insistence that “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs,” Hollis considers the ultimate payoff of this painful turn from illusion to disillusionment:

The loss of hope that the outer will save us occasions the possibility that we shall have to save ourselves… Life has a way of dissolving projections and one must, amid the disappointment and desolation, begin to take on the responsibility for one’s own life… Only when one has acknowledged the deflation of the hopes and expectations of childhood and accepted direct responsibility for finding meaning for oneself, can the second adulthood begin.

The vast majority of our adult neuroses — a somewhat dated term, coined by a Scottish physician in the late eighteenth century and defined by Carl Jung as “suffering which has not discovered its meaning,” then redefined by Hollis as a “protest of the psyche” against “the split between our nature and our acculturation,” between “what we are and what we are meant to be” — arise from the refusal to acknowledge and let go of projections, for they sustain the persona that protects the person and keep us from turning inward to befriend the untended parts of ourselves, which in turn warp our capacity for intimacy with others. Hollis writes:

We learn through the deflation of the persona world that we have lived provisionally; the integration of inner truths, joyful or unpleasant, is necessary to bring new life and the restoration of purpose.

[…]

The truth about intimate relationships is that they can never be any better than our relationship with ourselves. How we are related to ourselves determines not only the choice of the Other but the quality of the relationship… All relationships… are symptomatic of the state of our inner life, and no relationship can be any better than our relationship to our own unconscious.

It is only when projection falls away that we can truly see the other as they are and not as our need incarnate, as a sovereign soul and not as a designated savior; only then can we live into Iris Murdoch’s splendid definition of love as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” and be enriched rather than enraged by this otherness.

Defying the dangerous Romantic ideal of love as the fusion of two souls and echoing Mary Oliver’s tender wisdom on how differences make couples stronger, Hollis writes:

When one has let go of the projections and the great hidden agenda, then one can be enlarged by the otherness of the partner. One plus one does not equal One, as in the fusion model; it equals three — the two as separate beings whose relationship forms a third which obliges them to stretch beyond their individual limitations. Moreover, by relinquishing projections and placing the emphasis on inner growth, one begins to encounter the immensity of one’s own soul. The Other helps us expand the possibilities of the psyche.

[…]

Loving the otherness of the partner is a transcendent event, for one enters the true mystery of relationship in which one is taken to the third place — not you plus me, but we who are more than ourselves with each other.

Art by Shel Silverstein from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O — his allegory of true love

Ultimately, healthy love requires that we cease expecting of the other what we ought to expect of ourselves. In so returning to ourselves from the realm of projection, we are tasked with finally mapping and traversing the inner landscape of the psyche, with all its treacherous terrain and hidden abysses. Hollis writes:

It takes courage to face one’s emotional states directly and to dialogue with them. But therein lies the key to personal integrity. In the swamplands of the soul there is meaning and the call to enlarge consciousness. To take this on is the greatest responsibility in life… And when we do, the terror is compensated by meaning, by dignity, by purpose.

[…]

Our task at midlife is to be strong enough to relinquish the ego-urgencies of the first half and open ourselves to a greater wonder.

In the remainder of The Middle Passage, Hollis goes on to illustrate these concepts with case studies from literature — from Goethe’s Faust to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” — illuminating how personal complexes and projections play out in everything from parenting to creative practice to love, and how their painful renunciation swings open a portal to the deepest and most redemptive transformation. Complement it with Alain de Botton on the importance of breakdowns and Judith Viorst on the art of letting go, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent meditation on menopause as rebirth.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 4 Mar 2024 | 2:48 pm(NZT)

The Ecstasy of Eternity: Richard Jefferies on Time and Self-Transcendence

The Ecstasy of Eternity: Richard Jefferies on Time and Self-Transcendence

This is the great paradox: that human life, lived between the time of starlings and the time of stars, is made meaningful entirely inside the self, but the self is a mirage of the mind, a figment of cohesion that makes the chaos and transience bearable. A few times a lifetime, if you are lucky, something — an encounter with nature, a work of art, a great love — sparks what Iris Murdoch so wonderfully termed “an occasion for unselfing,” dismantling the cathedral of illusion and rendering you one with everything that ever was and ever will be. Because time is the substance of being, past and future meld into one, then vanish altogether. For a moment you become one with the absolute — not a self islanded in time, but an oceanic particle of eternity.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow termed such moments of timelessness and selflessness peak experiences — “the most blissful and perfect moments of life” — and placed them atop his seminal hierarchy of needs, in the realm of transcendence. He believed that every religion arose from them — from “the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer.” After interviewing thousands of people about their peak experiences, Maslow uncovered the core common denominator — a profound sense that the universe is a harmonious totality to which one belongs and of which one is an indelible part, as essential to the integrated whole as any other, existing outside time.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

I know of no more beautiful or deeply felt account of such contact with eternity than the one Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887), patron saint of modern conservation, relays in his altogether breathtaking spiritual autobiography The Story of My Heart (public library).

In the final years of his short life, Jefferies touched transcendence while climbing a hill he climbed regularly. (This is part of the mystery we are — why peak experiences unfold when they do, often in the midst of something familiar, something encountered countless times before without this shimmer of the miraculous.) Crowning his magnificent account of the experience is the revelation that presence — this prayerful attention to the here and now — is the supreme portal to eternity. A generation after Kierkegaard insisted that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity” and a century before Mary Oliver drew on Blake and Whitman to observe that “all eternity is in the moment,” Jefferies reflects:

Realising that spirit, recognising my own inner consciousness, the psyche, so clearly, I cannot understand time. It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus, on earth, now; I exist in it. The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised; in a thousand years it will still be only a moment. To the soul there is no past and no future; all is and will be ever, in now.

And yet it is only through the body — this perishable reliquary of life — that the mind can grasp the abstraction of timelessness; it is only through absolute presence with the aliveness of the moment that the soul can sing with the ecstasy of eternity. Jefferies writes:

I dip my hand in the brook and feel the stream; in an instant the particles of water which first touched me have floated yards down the current, my hand remains there. I take my hand away, and the flow — the time — of the brook does not exist to me. The great clock of the firmament, the sun and the stars, the crescent moon, the earth circling two thousand times, is no more to me than the flow of the brook when my hand is withdrawn; my soul has never been, and never can be, dipped in time. Time has never existed, and never will; it is a purely artificial arrangement. It is eternity now, it always was eternity, and always will be.

Complement these fragments of the wholly soul-slaking Story of My Heart with two centuries of ravishing reflections on time, from Borges to Nina Simone, then revisit Jefferies on nature as a prayer for presence and his contemporary Hermann Hesse on discovering the soul beneath the self.


donating = loving

For seventeen years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the outgrown 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 | 2 Mar 2024 | 2:10 pm(NZT)











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