“One can’t write directly about the soul,”, Virginia Woolf wrote. “Looked at, it vanishes.” So with happiness — as slippery as “the soul,” as certain to crumble upon deconstruction. Philosophers have contemplated its nature for millennia, psychologists have attempted to unearth its existential building blocks and delineate its stages. And yet at the heart of it remains a mystery — wildly various across lives and within any one life, a fickle visitation unbeckonable by external lures, as anyone who has sorrowed on a sunny-skied day knows. “There’s no accounting for happiness,” Jane Kenyon wrote in her sublime poem about the ultimate elusion, “or the way it turns up like a prodigal who comes back to the dust at your feet having squandered a fortune far away.”
One of the simplest, fullest definitions of happiness I’ve encountered comes from Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries on subjects like the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art imbues even the bleakest moments with beauty, and what makes life worth living.
In an entry from October 20, 1876, fifty-seven-year-old Whitman composes his most direct meditation on the meaning of happiness. A century before Mary Oliver contemplated what it takes to inhabit a moment of happiness, he writes:
I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)
What is happiness, anyhow? Is this one of its hours, or the like of it? — so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure — so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt.
Complement this particular fragment of the altogether spirit-quenching Specimen Days with Willa Cather’s delicious definition of happiness, Albert Camus on the antidote to its slipperiness, and Agnes Martin on our greatest obstacle to it, then revisit Whitman on how to live a vibrant and rewarding life.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Feb 2018 | 6:14 pm(NZT)
Months after his death in a plane crash while traveling to negotiate a ceasefire during the budding civil war in Congo, the Swedish diplomat, economist, and author Dag Hammarskjöld (July 29, 1905–September 18, 1961) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld became one of only two people in history awarded the Nobel posthumously. John F. Kennedy considered him the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.
Hammarskjöld left behind a most unusual manuscript, eventually published as Markings (public library) — a compendium of reflections and poems constellating a luminous record of one person’s struggle for a foothold of meaning, radiating universal human truth. Partway between young Tolstoy’s diaries, Walt Whitman’s prose meditations, and artist Ann Truitt’s journals, these fragments of thought and feeling embody what it means for a person who has devoted their life to moral action to also have a rich inner life of contemplation — the rare, bountiful marriage of via activa and via contemplativa, as W.H. Auden observes in his admiring foreword to the book. Hammarskjöld contemplates love, justice, devotion, morality, and empathy, united by a larger inquiry into the nature of being, which he explores through the relationship between self and other, self and world, self and self-containing consciousness.
Writing at the peak of WWII, as he is still orienting himself in his own sense of purpose, thirty-six-year-old Hammarskjöld examines the interplay of emotion and the intellect in how we relate to ourselves and to others:
Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situation of others. What is necessary? — to wrestle with your problem until its emotional discomfort is clearly conceived in an intellectual form — and then act accordingly.
In another entry from the same period, Hammarskjöld considers the dignity in our human capacity for devoting ourselves to the improbable, the unreasonable, that which is bound to break our own hearts:
It makes one’s heart ache when one sees that a man has staked his soul upon some end, the hopeless imperfection and futility of which is immediately obvious to everyone but himself. But isn’t this, after all, merely a matter of degree? Isn’t the pathetic grandeur of human existence in some way bound up with the eternal disproportion in this world, where self-delusion is necessary to life, between the honesty of the striving and the nullity of the result? That we all — every one of us — take ourselves serious is not merely ridiculous.
Four years later, Hammarskjöld echoes young Borges’s insistence on the illusoriness of the self and probes the crux of our self-delusion:
At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the elector and the elected. Only one — which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.
Nowhere does our overinvestment in the I swell to more self-harming proportions than in our relationship with other I’s to whom we feel bound by the threads of deep and demanding emotion — threads on which we pull greedily, unreasonably, unlatching the inevitable Rube Goldberg machine of unmeetable expectation, disappointment, and heartbreak. More than half a century before Hilton Als considered the art of receptivity at the heart of love, Hammarskjöld reflects:
When you have reached the point where you no longer expect a response, you will at last be able to give in such a way that the other is able to receive, and be grateful. When Love has matured and, through a dissolution of the self into light, become a radiance, then shall the Lover be liberated from dependence upon the Beloved, and the Beloved also be made perfect by being liberated from the Lover.
Hammarskjöld finds that what mitigates this tension of need between self and self is a surrender to the relationship between self and nature. “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on,” Whitman exulted in contemplating hat gives life meaning, “[and] have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.” Generations after Whitman, Hammarskjöld writes:
So rests the sky against the earth. The dark still tarn in the lap of the forest. As a husband embraces his wife’s body in faithful tenderness, so the bare ground and trees are embraced by the still, high, light of the morning.
I feel an ache of longing to share in this embrace, to be united and absorbed. A longing like carnal desire, but directed towards earth, water, sky, and returned by whispers of the trees, the fragrance of the oil, the caresses of the wind, the embrace of water and light. Content? No, no, no — but refreshed, rested — while waiting.
In another entry, he considers what it takes to surrender ourselves to Nature’s embrace:
The extrahuman in the experience of the greatness of Nature. This does not allow itself to be reduced to an expression of our human reactions, nor can we share in it by expressing them. Unless we each find a way to chime in as one note in the organic whole, we shall only observe ourselves observing the interplay of its thousand components in a harmony outside our experience of it as harmony.
Landscape: only your immediate experience of the detail can provide the soil in your soul where the beauty of the whole can grow.
Like Whitman, Hammarskjöld saw this harmony between humanity and the natural world as inseparable from, and in some deep sense essential for, the harmony within the human world, between human beings. Two years into his post as Secretary-General of the United Nations, he writes:
Salty and wind-swept, but warm and glittering. Keeping in step with the measure under the fixed stars of the task. How many personal failures are due to a lack of faith in this harmony between human beings, at once strict and gentle.
In his fiftieth year, Hammarskjöld echoes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel’s poignant lament about the loneliness of leadership and reflects:
For him who has responded to the call of the Way of Possibility, loneliness may be obligatory.
That year, Hammarskjöld records a kind of personal resolution, governed by the humanistic ideals that became the animating ethos of his public life:
To remain a recipient — out of humility. And preserve your flexibility.
To remain a recipient — and be grateful. Grateful for being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand.
Markings is a singular and singularly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Nobel laureate André Gide’s rules of moral conduct and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Feb 2018 | 6:50 pm(NZT)
Between the time Albert Einstein composed his courtship letters and Richard Feynman wrote his extraordinary letter to his departed wife, another Nobel-winning physicist contributed to the small and singularly beautiful canon of scientists’ love letters.
Two years after he received the Nobel Prize for his uncertainty principle — a supreme bow before the limits of knowledge, stating that the more precisely we know the position of a given particle, the less precise our measurement of its momentum, and vice versa — Werner Heisenberg (December 5, 1901–February 1, 1976) lurched into the ultimate unknown with absolute certainty: He fell in love.
Troubled by the tensions cusping on war, accused of being a “white Jew” by the Nazi media for teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity in his university course, and feeling like dark political agendas were keeping him from his calling — “the undisturbed inquiry into nature” — Heisenberg found solace in his spiritual practice: playing music (which we now know benefits the brain more than any other activity).
On the evening of January 28, 1937, at a musical gathering where he played piano accompanied by two violinist friends, thirty-five-year-old Heisenberg met twenty-one-year-old Elisabeth Schumacher — a bright and beautiful young woman who had just left art school to pursue a career in publishing. He was instantly taken with her, and she with his Beethoven. (What consonance Heisenberg would have felt in Margaret Fuller’s assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics.”) Brought together by music, Werner and Elisabeth quickly found that their very souls spoke a common language. Fourteen days later, they were engaged. They remained together until death did them part.
In the first of their surviving love letters, collected and edited by their eldest daughter in My Dear Li: Correspondence, 1937–1946 (public library), Heisenberg, elated in his contained way, writes to his mother exactly two weeks after the fateful encounter:
Yesterday — assuming your approval — I became engaged. The friendship with Elisabeth is scarcely fourteen days old and arose out of an, at first, seemingly casual conversation at a social gathering, in which a close affinity of opinions on matters of central importance emerged between the two of us. This mutual understanding, in which one, as it were, only needed to continue a conversation begun a long time ago, soon went so deep that it seemed natural to me to ask Elisabeth whether she would like to be with me forever.
Werner and Elisabeth set their wedding date for April 29 — exactly three months after the day they met — and began planning their life together, peering with the eyes of new love into a shared future of limitless possibility. On March 15, Heisenberg speaks to the sense, familiar to anyone who has ever been in love, of having known the beloved since the dawn of time:
It is strange to think that this is the first letter I am writing to you. For it actually seems to me as though, for many years already, we have been close and acquainted, and the present state of being alone is only a painful interruption in an ever-beautiful, already almost accustomed shared life. I am indebted to you for bringing me so much peace and security and am looking forward with my every thought to the time when, together, we can enjoy the daily changes between the serious and the beautiful. Thank you for everything!
After telling Elizabeth that he has just received a warm congratulatory letter from his friend Wolfgang Pauli — who has in the midst of co-inventing synchronicity with Carl Jung — Heisenberg adds a note of unadorned sweetness:
What might you be doing this evening? I want to get in an hour of piano practice, and then catch up on sleep, and I hope that you too are fully compensating for the shorter periods of sleep over the last few weeks.
Elisabeth, meanwhile, is trapped in a difficult home commanded by a severe, combustible patriarch “dissatisfied with everything,” further riled by his daughter’s impending liberation from his grip. “You need unbelievable inner strength here at home,” she tells Werner, “if you want to drown out the stifling atmosphere.” Five weeks before the wedding, she confides in her beloved:
That is the same old misery here, which I always had from when I was a child. They never understand what brings me the greatest joy in life, and what I love about people. And I am not someone who can enjoy happiness all on my own. How good it is to have you, that you are there, and that I can make you a gift of everything and all that I have.
Good night, love! You are so terribly dear to me, and I find myself almost stranded here without you. I will be with you again in five days. Li.
A day later, she rejoices in the ineffable glory of love:
I have actually not been quite conscious of the fact that these are the first letters we are writing to each other, so much do we already belong together. But today, now, I’m sensing the meagreness of letter writing a bit because my heart is so full, and only such a very small part of it can reach you. And when that is with you, it will have become something quite independent, when in reality it belongs right in the middle of a whole mountain of thoughts and feelings.
The letters flow daily. Heisenberg begins to feel resentful of his work, of how it takes his time and thoughts away from Elisabeth. He tells her:
As soon as you are here again, I want to forget everything that is not only about us. I believe it would be good in general if, during this summer, physics were pushed into a dark corner, to be picked up again later, for first I have more to learn from you than from all the treatises in the world.
Elisabeth’s response presages what would become one of the central pillars of their love and life together — their unconditional support of the other’s fulness of being:
If you wish to take some time off from physics in the summer, dearest, that would naturally be for me a little like being in paradise. And you can be quite sure that I will never be upset later on, when you spend long periods of time on nothing else but physics. It needs you, too — I know that. And I am good on my own, when I know that you love me.
There weeks before the wedding, Elisabeth rejoices at the improbable miracle of two people finding one another:
Love, I often think how strange it is that suddenly everything is on solid ground, all dreams have become reality. How few people have such good fortune!
Werner, meanwhile, struggles to reconcile his trusty faculty of reason with the unreasonableness at the heart of love:
My thoughts are always circling around joining our lives, that common goal in front of us, and it becomes really difficult to wait for the 29th. The truth is I already cannot quite cope without you, although I always remind myself that I have been able to manage for many years and so, according to conventional wisdom, it ought to be possible still. The present mindset is reminiscent of the typical nights before a major tour in the mountains, when you toss and turn in bed in joyful anticipation of the coming morning and with just a little trepidation, lest not all should go well. And only at the moment when you pick up the ice axe in front of the hut do you know that all will go smoothly. How beautiful everything will be, once we are together in the dark by our lake.
There is sweetness even in how benign their first major disagreement is. During a train ride together, when Elisabeth, overcome with joy, began singing, Werner asked her to stop. She took it as a kind of rejection. The next day, in apologizing for having inadvertently hurt her feelings, he self-consciously confesses his pathological reserve and his core insecurity in being “always afraid of showing something animated to people.” Elisabeth — the more unselfconsciously poetic of the two — responds with loving assurance, sharing her own core vulnerability:
Love, I am so incredibly happy about our every time together. I am so aware how we always move forward in our relationship, how it moves us along, one great step each time. And now one can see ever more clearly and with certainty how likely it is that we will reach all that one possibly can reach. And, you know, the times when I am filled with fear that you might be disappointed with me will be rarer and rarer. People have always objected to my intensity; but I know that you only have to take this into your hand for me to become quite tame again. When I am doubtful, it is never about you but stems from the fact that I do not have very much self-esteem. But if you love me properly, then I will get it too… I think I am only able to help by loving you so much that you soon believe it in the deepest reaches of your own heart.
In a letter penned sixteen days before the wedding, “very late and very tired,” Elisabeth lays out the roadmap for their shared life:
Once we have left the chauffeur at the station and then drive on alone into the totally silent wood at dusk, over the peak where we once watched the sunset — my love, then we will have our whole life ahead of us, and I believe it will be good.
We must always support each other a lot, so that we do not let the lived life and reality slip through our hands.
Exactly two weeks before the wedding, Werner shares his own vision for their life — a lovely kind of pre-wedding vow:
That we will be together forever, starting in fourteen days — I cannot quite wrap my mind around it; but if it were not to be, I could not do anything at all with my life anymore. In the beginning I will not do much thinking and simply be happy, realizing, gradually, that you are always with me. But later we will want to be conscious of creating a shared life, mindful that honesty is paramount, that life’s essence should always be clearly noticeable behind the love, or the music, or the work.
A week before the wedding, the couple receives a peculiar gift from Elisabeth’s family — eight volumes of Beethoven piano music for four hands, an inheritance from her grandfather. “I think I will never have enough courage to play them with you!” she sweetly tells Werner. Three days before the start of their new life, Werner shares a sentiment that appears quite dry on the outside but contains at its heart the most meaningful measure of union there is:
I have the firm conviction that we are a good match for each other and that we are better able to do justice to our place in the world by being together.
In the first two years of their marriage, Werner and Elisabeth were inseparable, having little occasion to write letters. At the end of 1937, Elisabeth, pregnant with their first child — which turned out to be children: the twins Wolfgang and Maria — encouraged Werner to take her thirteen-year-old brother skiing. On New Year’s Eve, he writes to his beloved bride from the mountains:
My dear sweet Li… How much beauty the past year has brought me through you! And yet everything up to now strikes me as a mere beginning, only to be followed by even more beauty and togetherness; together we are now able to really shape our lives. I am looking forward so very much to the next period.
As humanity is about to topple into WWII, Elisabeth sends a bittersweet reply:
Thank you a thousand times for your loving, poignant letter. For me too, it is as though everything up to now has only been a beginning, and that so much more, even better, should come out of this last year. But when I dream about it, I often flinch; and I hesitate to look toward the future with hope. It is full of horrible apparitions. I cannot believe that there will not be a high price to pay, considering the way people are living now: arrogantly dismissive, in a frenzied intoxication, mocking God. And then all of us will be in for it, regardless. So I am trying to take hold of the present as much as I possibly can and to be happy with the current riches. And these are good enough to be happy from the bottom of our hearts, right?
They remained happy for forty more years — as new parents during a world war, as lifelong partners in each other’s flourishing — until Heisenberg died at the age of seventy-five. The letters from the first nine years of their relationship, collected in My Dear Li, are strewn with Heisenberg’s reflections on science and life — a rare glimpse of the interior world of a scientist who changed our relationship with the universe. Complement them with the love letters of pioneers in other domains of culture — Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, Franz Kafka, Kahlil Gibran, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, John Cage, and Hannah Arendt — then revisit Heisenberg’s account of Nobel laureate Niels Bohr’s nuanced reflections on science and spirituality and the story of how Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics, told in jazz for kids.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Feb 2018 | 6:00 pm(NZT)
“The gray drizzle induced by depression,” William Styron wrote in his classic memoir of what depression is really like, “takes on the quality of physical pain.” In my own experience, the most withering aspect of depression is the way it erases, like physical illness does, the memory of wellness. The totality of the erasure sweeps away the elemental belief that another state of being is at all possible — the sensorial memory of what it was like to feel any other way vanishes, until your entire being contracts into the state of what is, unfathoming of what has been, can be, and will be. If Emily Dickinson was correct, and correct she was, that “confidence in daybreak modifies dusk,” the thick nightfall of depression smothers all confidence in dawn.
And yet daybreak does come, with a shock and a rapture, to find us asking ourselves in half-belief: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”
This rapturous rehabilitation of hope is what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900), poet laureate of the troubled psyche, describes in the preface to the second edition of his most personal book, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (public library) — a chronicle of “high spirits, unrest, contradiction,” which gave us his vitalizing New Year’s resolution and his famous proclamation that “God is dead.”
Nietzsche writes just before his thirty-seventh birthday:
Gratitude pours forth continually, as if the unexpected had just happened — the gratitude of a convalescent — for convalescence was unexpected. “Gay Science”: that signifies the saturnalia of a spirit who has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure — patiently, severely, coldly, without submitting, but also without hope — and who is now all at once attacked by hope, the hope for health, and the intoxication of convalescence. Is it any wonder that in the process much that is unreasonable and foolish comes to light, much playful tenderness that is lavished even on problems that have a prickly hide and are not made to be caressed and enticed? This whole book is nothing but a bit of merry-making after long privation and powerlessness, the rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of seas that are open again, of goals that are permitted again, believed again.
Nietzsche offers a complementary sentiment in the 268th of the aphorisms collected in the book:
What makes Heroic? — To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.
Complement this particular portion of The Gay Science with poet Jane Kenyon on life with and after depression, Rebecca Solnit on hope in the dark, and Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, then revisit Nietzsche on how to find yourself, what it really means to be a free spirit, and why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Feb 2018 | 11:27 am(NZT)
“The temperament to which Art appeals,” Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, “is the temperament of receptivity.” If art and love are one, as Vincent van Gogh so ardently believed, and if the experience of love — that splendid osmotic permeability of loving and being loved — has taught me anything, it is that Love, too, arises from the temperament of receptivity. But in a culture of hard work, which casts both happiness and love as objects of pursuit, there is little room and even less respect for the requisite softness of being receptive to the supreme gift that can only ever come unbidden.
How to reclaim and redignify this essential receptivity is what Pulitzer-winning writer and longtime New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als explores in his wonderful essay “Lonesome Cowboy” for Rookie on Love (public library) — an anthology of reflections on romance, friendship, and self-care, written for the young but drawing on a wealth of life-earned wisdom, edited by Rookie Magazine founder Tavi Gevinson and featuring contributions by Etgar Keret, Margo Jefferson, Sarah Manguso, Emma Straub, Janet Mock (and one from me).
Half a century after Henry Miller contemplated the paradox of altruism and the osmosis of giving and receiving, Als writes:
The thing seemingly freely given often isn’t. It is rare to receive the gift of love, for instance, from someone who doesn’t want to be celebrated for their generosity in having offered it; altruism is often a dream. But there are those who connect through the truth of love — the irrefutable force of it — establishing a mutual bond grounded in reality and not the theater of the giver’s “I.”
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s insistence that befriending our neediness is essential for lasting happiness, Als adds:
It’s odd, but wouldn’t you say that in our universe of worked-out bodies and worked-out minds, that to be receptive is looked upon as “weak,” a passive vessel for someone else’s love and dreams? So, instead of embracing the generosity inherent in being able to accept love, the receptors among us punish themselves by adopting stereotypical “needy” behavior, warping their instincts to look “active,” the better to satisfy an audience’s view of what it means to be open.
In a lovely complement to Wilde and Van Gogh across space, time, culture, and sensibility, Als draws on classic cinema to illustrate the centrality of receptivity in the parallel experiences of love and art:
How can we reverse the negativity that surrounds being receptive — to love, to someone else’s dreams? What are we supposed to do with this space? Stare down into it? Put flowers in it? Shout out to the less receptive among us that there is nothing wrong with saying what one wants, including love? I don’t know. Just don’t call me until you’re ready to receive, and I’m ready to give. One sees flowers growing around Montgomery Clift’s mouth at the end of that black-and-white masterpiece, A Place in the Sun (1951). The flowers grow in the earth of his receptivity — his openness to the scene, the atmosphere. In all aspects of his work Clift was, to my mind and eye, the greatest film actor this country has ever produced, largely because he jettisoned acting out for acting in. He embodied receptivity.
Watching Montgomery Clift taught me that there is no shame in being receptive to a given situation or person; it is part of my job as an artist, and part of who I am as a man in search of love and its flowers.
Complement this particular fragment of Rookie on Love with German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, Martha Nussbaum on how to know whether you love somebody, Robert Browning on the discipline of saying “I love you” only when you mean it, and Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Feb 2018 | 8:03 pm(NZT)
“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”
Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being merely the rosary of moments the future strings of its pasts. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.
I have long believed that critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Where are we to turn for lucid hope, then, in cultural moments that inflame despair, which so easily metastasizes into cynicism? That is what the inimitable Zadie Smith explores in a piece titled “On Optimism and Despair,” originally delivered as an award acceptance speech and later adapted for her altogether fantastic essay collection Feel Free (public library).
Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.
Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:
My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.
Echoing the great Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel’s reflection on the meaning of human rights in a globalized yet divided world, she adds:
I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. On 10 November The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the fifties, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others. Meanwhile some on the left have time-travel fancies of their own, imagining that the same rigid ideological principles once applied to the matters of workers’ rights, welfare and trade can be applied unchanged to a globalized world of fluid capital.
Smith reframes the question of her shift in literary sensibility not as a decline toward defeatism but as an evolution toward greater complexity and more dimensional awareness of existence:
The art of mid-life is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. This fact, still obscure to the twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one.
In consonance with Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger’s classic humanistic antidote to cynicism, Smith locates our reasons for optimism by widening the pinhole of the present:
Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.
Smith supplements these grounds for hope with a sobering counterpoint to the historical nostalgia so alluring to the hegemony and so ruinous to the rest of us:
Meanwhile the dream of time travel — for new presidents, literary journalists and writers alike — is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now, it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done — or more to the point, what would have been done to me — in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.
But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history.
Applying the tenth of her ten rules of writing — “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” — to life itself, Smith adds:
We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride.
Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:
We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.
He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.
This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s insistence on the moral responsibility of the writer and Ursula K. Le Guin’s conviction that “an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community,” Smith concludes by considering the writer’s role as a bastion of collective memory and an instrument of what is most symphonic in human nature:
People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.
In the remainder of the thoroughly resplendent Feel Free — which includes the fantastic “Find Your Beach” — Smith applies her formidable mind in language to subjects as varied as music, the connection between dancing and writing, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media. Complement this particular part with Simone de Beauvoir on moving beyond the simplistic divide of optimism and pessimism, Toni Morrison on the artist’s task through turbulent moments, and Albert Camus on how to strengthen our spirits in difficult times.
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Feb 2018 | 12:04 pm(NZT)
“The absence of the witch does not invalidate the spell,” Emily Dickinson wrote. So great writers bewitch us with their work long after they have absented themselves from the world. The enduring bewitchment of thirty such titans and trailblazers of the written word, Dickinson herself among them, is what author Taisia Kitaiskaia and artist Katy Horan honor in Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers (public library) — a lovely compendium of impressionistic sketches, fusing biographical facts with flights of the invocational imagination to celebrate such enchantresses of literature as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Octavia Butler, Sappho, Audre Lorde, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Anna Akhmatova, Toni Morrison, and Emily Brontë — women born “before they invented women,” as Ursula K. Le Guin put it in her brilliant unsexing of literature.
Accompanying Kitaiskaia’s wondrous spell for each writer, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s word portrait of the love of her life, are a haunting painted portrait by Horan — a fine artist specializing in folkloric, fairy tale, and mythological art — and a brief list of recommended reading for an initiation into the respective writer’s world. What emerges is a most unusual memorial of talent and a vibrant testament to Toni Morrison’s wisdom from her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Anaïs falls asleep in her sunken glass ship. As she dreams, her many selves rise from her body. They have dark owing hair, and eyes blink slowly all over their faces, chests, and arms. Some collect seashells, others chart the sun’s movement. Some keep house, make lace, pursue lovers. Another operates a printing press. Before dawn, the selves gather around the sleeping Anaïs, kiss each other’s eyelids and mouths, and dive back into the single body like the mermaids they are.
Crossing the street on a rainy day, Virginia leaps easily from one pool of consciousness to another. She loves these puddles, the creatures wrapping around her ankles in each. But before she can get to the next street, Virginia sees her own pool: it floods with rain, rises higher, becomes a deep, turbulent river. She will not survive this one.
Carried along in her river, Virginia’s body becomes a lighthouse — a tower of perception with one large eye, illuminating all she sees with rich, buttery vision, transforming bottom-feeding fish and debris into objects of beauty and meaning.
Before Virginia is pulled under forever, a wolf cub leaps from the lighthouse’s eye, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. This is Virginia’s only child. The wolf daughter fights her way to the bank of the river. She survives.
When she brushes the carpet, Emily imagines she is smoothing the moors for Heathcliff’s perfect feet. He’ll come in, Emily dreams, like the winds she walks against — muscular gusts, clenched hands snarling under her coats.
What do the ants whisper to Emily as they climb the ruined trees outside? She puts her ear to the bark and listens. She will join their palace… She will be their ant queen… She will pit them against other ant queendoms… She will watch their love and war play out.
Emily makes a telescope from ice and twine. Through this tunnel, she stares into her own eye until she sees a galaxy, and through the galaxy until she sees a stranger’s eye.
Octavia takes a break from writing to water her plants. The potted heads, of various races and humanoid species, totter on thick stems and wave their leaves at her as she enters the greenhouse. She feeds them from her pitcher.
Buying groceries, Octavia looks around at the people putting cabbages and apples into their carts, and sees what will one day overtake the innocent scene: communities overpopulating, mutating with violent need for food, power, and sex.
Walking back from the store, Octavia covertly tosses the seeds she always keeps in her pockets into her neighbors’ yards. Seeds that won’t save us but urge, We can do better.
After Stalin threatens her family, Anna fires up the cauldron: in go the ripped pages of forbidden manuscripts. The sodden papers become bandages for the wounded. The bitter broth — gulped down, so the words are never forgotten.
The deaths of Anna’s people are woven into her shawl. She sucks on these silver threads during the famine to stay alive.
Anna waits in line for rations of potatoes, cabbage, and milk. When it’s her turn, the government official slips Anna a strange object. “You must tell our story,” she says. Anna looks down and sees a golden egg. She can hear the wild heart of her nation beating inside.
Sappho is the hot green insect in every jealous quarrel, zinging between you and your lover, agitating the ions, biting your skin and making you seethe, raising the hair on the cat’s back.
Sappho is the beautiful woman you lock eyes with across the party. She has a garland and a sweet voice, and no matter how many times you try to get closer, she eludes you. Finally, she approaches, only to push a piece of papyrus into your hands and slip out the door. All you can make out is you burning in perfect handwriting. The rest of the words are illegible.
Sappho is a pair of wings — pearling between pigeon blue, moody emerald, and golden white — smoldering in a hidden cave. The wings disappear from time to time, reappearing in young girls’ closets. How seriously each girl puts these wings on in the mirror, readying herself for the pain and pleasure of love.
Gertrude is a spider, weaving a web of funhouse mirrors. Flies trap themselves by staring at their warped reflections, which repeat, repeat, repeat.
For Gertrude, each word is a hedgehog in a metal cage. Gertrude bangs at the cages with a stick; the noise is deafening. The hedgehogs grow feathers, slink into worms, shrink into dragon flies — anything to get out. Only then is Gertrude satisfied.
You can still catch glimpses of Gertrude in miniature, living on in her salon’s paintings. There she is, holding hands with Alice B., hobbling off into the shadow of a Cézanne apple. Skiing down the curvy hip of a Matisse nude, yelling with high-pitched glee.
Queen Toni sees — cleaving from the skin of every person — the child they were, their parents, great-grandparents, all the way to the first human. She can see this ancestor’s original hurt, carried around in the generations like a splinter in the spleen.’
With her mind, Toni ferries her people’s unsettled ghosts across hostile rivers, carves smooth blue boats for them to travel in. Builds shelters to cradle their rest before the great migration.
Toni is at velvet ease at her throne. Her supplicants line up to present offerings of rubies, roast duck, wild flowers. But one approaches empty handed: he tells Toni a joke instead. Everyone gasps. Finally, Toni lets out a big, rumbling laugh and joy flushes through the palace.
Complement Literary Witches with an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science and artist Judy Chicago’s iconic tribute to women in creative culture, then revisit the picture-book biographies of remarkable women whose work has transformed our world: Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Nellie Bly, and Virginia Woolf.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Feb 2018 | 5:37 pm(NZT)
“No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings,” physicist David Bohm wrote in examining the nature of creativity, “unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.” And yet, stranded in the purgatory between objective and subjective reality, we are often too blinded by our preconceptions to receive facts as we encounter them, the raw material of reality — something Galileo considered the greatest enemy of critical thinking as he was launching his epoch-making crusade against delusion.
Perched in time between Galileo and Bohm is an improbable kindred spirit: Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), who contemplates what it takes to shift from knowing to seeing, from prejudgment-primed interpretation to apprehension of pure reality, in a passage from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — a book I continue to consider an existential Bible of secular scripture, replete with the great transcendentalist philosopher and poet’s wisdom on the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.
In a journal entry from the thick of winter in 1860, just before he became bedridden with what would be his final illness, the forty-three-year-old Thoreau writes:
A man receives only what he is ready to receive… We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken we hear it not, if it is written, we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain. The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe. By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now.
Complement this particular portion of the endlessly rewarding Journal of Henry David Thoreau with Hegel on the peril of fixed opinions and electromagnetism pioneer Michael Faraday on curing our propensity for self-deception, then revisit Thoreau on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, the spiritual rewards of winter walks, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Feb 2018 | 8:02 pm(NZT)
“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her lyrical love letter to moss. And so it is: Description and observation entwine in the consecrating act of paying attention — the act that swings open the gates of perception and allows us to know the world as it really is, not as we have been conditioned to see it by our narrow frames of reference. Our frames of reference broaden only as we enrich the vocabulary by which we describe, label, and classify what we see — in science, in art, in life.
When Georgia O’Keeffe first arrived in the Southwest, she was arrested by its colors — so utterly novel, so rich and wild and ablaze with hues she had never seen before, that she could not describe them; she could only paint them, igniting the explosion of creativity that made her one of the world’s most influential artists. Long before they could vote, the women of the Harvard College Observatory pioneered a star classification system based on color, which scientists still use today. In her splendid essay on the color blue, Rebecca Solnit celebrated it as “the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.” There is, of course, not one blue but many — perhaps as many as there are emotions. To name each one is to confer reality and validity upon its essence, to burrow deeper into its meaning.
That is what the pioneering German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner (September 25, 1749–June 30, 1817) set out to do two centuries ago, not through the contemplative lens of philosophy but through the observational lens of science.
Werner’s life is a supreme testament to how science works — how it unpeels reality layer by layer, syncopating missteps and leaps as theories are proffered and disproven to narrow down and pave the path to truth. While working as an inspector of mines and a professor of mineralogy, Werner developed a theory known as Neptunism — after the ancient Roman sea god — which held that rocks emerged from the crystallization of salts and other minerals in Earth’s primordial oceans. It was a radical counterpoint to creationist mythology and a stepping stone for later theories of evolution. Although Neptunism was later disproven and replaced by the theory that rocks originated from magmatic activity — a theory known as Plutonism, after Pluto, the ancient ruler of the underworld; alternatively, as Volcanism, after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and volcanos — Werner expounded his theory with enthusiasm so electric that he ignited a widespread passion for the study of geology and planted the seed for the understanding that Earth’s crust is composed of different strata layered over time.
In the final years of his life, by then one of the world’s most prominent geologists, Werner embarked upon a thoroughly different project — the development of a detailed nomenclature of colors. Born within weeks of his compatriot Goethe — who at the selfsame time was hard at work on his theory of color and emotion — Werner devised a classification system based on the colors of minerals that gave a whole new vocabulary of describing the natural world in an era predating the invention of photography, when the written word was the most precise vehicle for conveying visual detail. “It is singular,” Werner wrote in considering the necessity for a nomenclature of colors, “that a thing so obviously useful, and in the description of objects of natural history and the arts, where colour is an object indispensably necessary, should have been so long overlooked.” Nothing like it had existed before — it was not merely a scientific handbook but a field guide to the very art of seeing.
A Scottish botanical painter, Patrick Syme, was so moved by Werner’s classification system — full of lyrical color names like “Flax-Flower Blue,” “Saffron Yellow,” and “Skimmed-milk White” — that he used it to create a series of color charts. Painting each hue alongside Werner’s mineral description, Syme provided one example of the color from the animal kingdom and one from the plant kingdom. Under “Scotch Blue,” for instance, he offers “throat of blue titmouse” and “stamina of bluish purple anemone.”
The result was Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts (public library | public domain) — a book so unexampled in concept and usefulness to both art and science that naturalists and painters flocked to it, Novalis extolled its taxonomical genius, and Darwin brought it on his epoch-making Beagle voyage.
Suspended between art and science, Werner’s original descriptions of the colors — precise yet lovely — could be prompts for writing poetry, an embodiment of Goethe’s assertion that “science arose from poetry, and… when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends.”
- Snow White, is the characteristic colour of the whites; it is the purest white colour; being free of all intermixture, it resembles new-fallen snow.
- Reddish White, is composed of snow white, with a very minute portion of crimson red and ash grey.
- Purplish White, is snow white, with the slightest tinge of crimson red and Berlin blue, and a very minute portion of ash grey.
- Yellowish White, is composed of snow white, with a very little lemon yellow and ash grey.
- Orange-coloured White, is snow white, with a very small portion of tile red and king’s yellow, and a minute portion of ash grey.
- Greenish White, is snow white, mixed with a very little emerald green and ash grey.
- Skimmed-milk White, is snow white, mixed with a little Berlin blue and ash grey.
- Greyish White, is snow white, mixed with a little ash grey.
- Scotch Blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a considerable portion of velvet black, a very little grey, and a slight tinge of carmine red.
- Prussian Blue, is Berlin blue, with a considerable portion of velvet black, and a small quantity of indigo blue.
- Indigo Blue, is composed of Berlin blue, a little black, and a small portion of apple green.
- China Blue, is azure blue, with a little Prussian blue in it.
- Azure Blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a little carmine red : it is a burning colour.
- Ultramarine Blue, is a mixture of equal parts of Berlin and azure blue.
- Flax-Flower Blue, is Berlin blue, with a slight tinge of ultramarine blue.
- Berlin Blue, is the pure, or characteristic colour of Werner.
- Verditter Blue, is Berlin blue, with a small portion of verdigris green.
- Greenish Blue, the sky blue of Werner, is composed of Berlin blue, white, and a little emerald green.
- Greyish Blue, the small blue of Werner, is composed of Berlin blue, with white, a small quantity of grey, and a hardly perceptible portion of red.
Complement Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, which is in the public domain but has been handsomely reissued and color-restored by Smithsonian Books, with Frida Kahlo on the meaning of the colors, Goethe’s diagrams of color perception, and The Black Book of Colors — an empathic invitation to experience the world’s hues as a blind person does.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Feb 2018 | 8:13 pm(NZT)
German geologist Hans Cloos (November 8, 1885–September 26, 1951) belongs atop the hierarchy of great nonfiction writers — a scientist who wrote about his subject matter with a poetic conscience and an expansive sense of aesthetic harmony. Marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, herself a poet laureate of science and the catalyst of the modern environmental movement, was a great admirer of Cloos as a singular writer who “illuminates his scientific fact with rare intuition and perception,” effecting an uncommon enchantment with the living reality of nature. Perhaps because Cloos was also a poet, philosopher, musician, and painter, he wrote beautifully not only about science itself but about the complementarity of science and the arts as a joint mode of knowing reality in its fullest dimensions. That is what he explores in the opening chapter of his lyrical posthumously published autobiography, Conversations with the Earth (public library) — a splendid, underappreciated book, which Carson lauded as “deeply significant, and deserving of wide and thoughtful reading.”
A generation after Bertrand Russell extolled the superiority of “love knowledge” over “power knowledge” in the scientific outlook, Cloos writes:
The present is the era of man. Our struggle for survival dominates the scene; we increase or diminish other forms of life to nourish our own. A thousand other ages have preceded us, a thousand more will follow. The patient earth has offered its growing life thousands upon thousands of times to the warmth of the sun, and it might thrive and be transformed, and eventually vanish to provide space, light, and sustenance for new and different kinds of life. Restlessly the earth has changed, like the ever-moving sea. Lands and mountains rose out of the sea, only to be returned again to the ocean.
But the present is the era of man. Today knowledge reigns supreme. For the first time since its beginning our planet, earth, sees and understands itself. For a billion years the earth rolled on, quite blind and mute. It has used up all this enormous period of time in forming, out of plants and animals, through millions of unfinished experiments, the organ through which it will recognize itself. For a billion years the patient earth amassed documents and inscribed them with signs and pictures which lay unnoticed and unused. Today, at last, they are waking up, because man has come to rouse them. Stones have begun to speak, because an ear is there to hear them. Layers become history and, released from the enchanted sleep of eternity, life’s motley, never-ending dance rises out of the black depths of the past into the light of the present… We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.
While our scientific knowledge of the universe may always remain incomplete, Cloos observes, the path to such knowledge is open to all willing to make the effort. But there is a different mode of knowing the universe that requires a different self-election:
There is another, inner way, a way that is not accessible to everyone. It leads from the unconscious within ourselves to the imponderable and invisible in the earthly environment. It is this way which binds the artist to the world. He who walks this trail sees the beauty of the earth, and hears its music.
Why does man find beauty in a landscape? Is it not because he is a part of nature, inwardly subject to nature’s laws, because he has an unconscious insight into the internal order of the earth, into the rhythm of its repetitions, the harmony of its lines and surfaces and the balanced interplay of its parts? And does not our delight in the contemplation of nature grow out of the harmony between the music of our own soul and the music of the earth?
Nearly a century and a half after Schopenhauer examined the essential difference between how art and science illuminate reality, and a century after Frederick Douglass called for the complementarity of observation and contemplation in cultural progress, Cloos considers the art of speaking of and for nature:
But man, ever the thinking, exploring man who has made it his life’s work and duty to listen to nature’s voice, can scarcely hear “music” every moment of the day. It is human custom, and geology affirms the practice, to explore the natural order by sober, patient observation and by logical deduction, and to describe what has been found os that anyone can readily understand and enjoy it.
The experienced observer does more than merely report and recite. He guides the eager student to an understanding of the earth. He may chart the scientist’s steep, barren road of sober observation and strict deduction, or the artist’s gentle road of contemplation and empathy. And, finally, he may point out his own unique way, the path of the initiated, which leads him from the laboratories and libraries to the meadows and flower gardens of the living earth.
Echoing Carson’s assertion that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Cloos plumbs the elemental core of our relationship with nature:
Two fundamental principles stand out above all others:
As parts of the earth we depend on its inorganic substance and on the eternal change which it undergoes. And as children of the earth we are subordinate, dependent particles in the unceasing stream of life.
A century after Margaret Fuller made her sublime proclamation that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Cloos returns to the essential complementarity of art and science in our quest to know reality at its richest:
How closely akin are music, the purest and most ethereal of the arts, and mathematics, most sober of the sciences, however unlike their forms may be. He who hears the music of the earth will find that pleasure in its melodies is more than a light and gladsome enjoyment. He will find, indeed, that the experience furnishes another and deeper understanding of the language in which the world [speaks] to us.
More than half a century later, Conversations with the Earth remains a beautiful book deserving of a far wider readership. Complement it with Richard Jefferies, another forgotten poet laureate on nature and another of Rachel Carson’s heroes, on how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the Earth, and Loren Eiseley, who remains a gold standard for lyrical science writing, on the relationship between nature and human nature.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Feb 2018 | 8:34 pm(NZT)
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