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Between Mathematics and the Miraculous: The Stunning Pendulum Drawings of Swiss Healer and Artist Emma Kunz

Between Mathematics and the Miraculous: The Stunning Pendulum Drawings of Swiss Healer and Artist Emma Kunz

Emma Kunz (May 23, 1892–January 16, 1963) was forty-six and the world was aflame with war when she became an artist. She had worked at a knitting factory and as a housekeeper. She had written poetry, publishing a collection titled Life in the interlude between the two World Wars. Having lost two of her siblings to childhood illness, then both her surviving brother and her father to suicide when she was seventeen, she had coped with the physical fragility of life and the spiritual difficulty of bearing our mortality by becoming a healer. Her friends called her Penta, from the Pythagorean symbol for health — a pentagram drawn with a single line.

Inspired by the Swiss Renaissance alchemist, philosopher, and physician Paracelsus, who fused the divinations and prophecies with the building blocks of the scientific method in his experiments and observations in chemistry and biology that pioneered the field of toxicology, Penta came to see the physical and spiritual dimensions of reality as one.

Emma Kunz

Like Emily Dickinson, she was inspired by botany, saw in plants a model of the mind a century before the new science of plant intelligence, and filled her garden with medicinal plants to use in tonics and ointments. Like Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin, she found in geometry a poetic form through which to explore metaphysical questions of truth and meaning.

As a schoolchild, she had delighted in using a pendulum to make drawings in her exercise books, but it was not until midlife that she found in this process a portal to a larger world of ideas. In 1938, using a silver pendulum with a jade end she believed was guided by energy fields — a technique she termed radiesthesia — she began making large-scale drawings in pencil and crayon on graph paper, hundreds of them, to divine diagnoses of physical and psychic ailments and heal people, often with results bordering on the miraculous. While working on a drawing, sometimes for two continuous days, she neither slept nor ate, subsisting on water and the spiritual energies she believed guided her.

There is something astral in the exquisite precision of her drawings, emanating the musicality of mathematics and the sacred symmetry of mandalas, emanating the animating force of her practice both as artist and as healer — a search for harmony and transformation, a reverence for the power of connection as an organizing principle of reality. She saw mystery as the key to revelation and sought it in the language of signs and symbols, in the essences and forms of plants and crystals, in the relationships between numbers.

Penta — who appears in Jennifer Higgie’s altogether wonderful The Other Side: A Story of Women in Art and the Spirit World (public library) — considered herself not an artist but a researcher. At the peak of WWII, in the Roman quarry in Würenlos, she discovered a healing mineral she named AION A, after the Greek for “without limits,” still sold in Swiss pharmacies as a remedy for everything from inflammation to arthritis. The quarry is now known as Emma Kunz Grotto.

Penta believed she made her drawings for the twenty-first century. They were never exhibited in her lifetime.

I am haunted by the mirror-image consonance between a photograph of Emma Kunz in her studio and a photograph of Marie Curie in her laboratory — Emma in what could be a lab coat, Marie in a gown more suited to the drawing room, each bent over her worktable, each a woman in search of the elemental, making of herself an instrument of truth.


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 | 27 May 2024 | 4:40 am(NZT)

The New Science of Plant Intelligence and the Mystery of What Makes a Mind

“Every thought that has ever passed through your brain was made possible by plants.”


The New Science of Plant Intelligence and the Mystery of What Makes a Mind

“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Walt Whitman wrote a decade before Darwin gasped at how incomprehensible “the marvelous complexity” of organic beings is, insisting that “each living creature must be looked at as a microcosm — a little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars in heaven.”

And yet this view does not come naturally to us humans, sensemaking creatures compelled to order the universe into comprehensible categories and value ranks, compelled to rank ourselves at the top. Even Darwin had to continually calibrate that impulse. “Never say higher or lower,” he exhorted himself in his marginalia on a book he was reading while working out his evolutionary theory. “Say more complicated.”

The crux of our difficulty is both profound and banal — to understand nature through degrees of complexity rather than levels of hierarchy scaffolded with self-reference is to find ourselves no longer the pinnacle of creation. We are only just beginning to comprehending non-human minds, only just beginning to concede that there are infinitely many other ways of seeing and other ways of being within the same reality; we would sooner grant consciousness to AI, modeled on our own minds arising from nervous systems crowned with brains, than consider different forms of intelligence as portals to a wider conception of consciousness.

Dragon arum (Arum dracunculus) from The Temple of Flora, 1812. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In The Light Eaters: How the Unseen World of Plant Intelligence Offers a New Understanding of Life on Earth (public library), journalist Zoë Schlanger offers a mighty antidote to our tyranny of self-reference through the emerging science of organic beings we have long treated as stage decor for the drama of our earthly lives — a science rife with controversy and confusion, which is always the mark of a paradigm breaking down and breaking open, contouring a new way of thinking about questions of consciousness, communication, memory, gender, personality, interdependence, and agency. Rising from the pages is that rare achievement of meeting otherness on its own terms while broadening and deepening the terms on which we live our human lives. Schlanger draws from the world of plants “a masterclass in living to one’s fullest, weirdest, most resourceful potential,” and a counterpoint to the survival-of-the-fittest model of the natural world, intimating instead that the animating force of life may be not a combat for a kill but “an improvisation, or a collaboration, or something else entirely.”

A quarter millennium after Darwin’s grandfather popularized the young science of botany through poetry, and two centuries after Emily Dickinson wrote that “to be a Flower is profound Responsibility,” Schlanger writes:

A life spent constantly growing yet rooted in a single spot comes with tremendous challenges. To meet them, plants have come up with some of the most creative methods for surviving of any living thing, us included. Many are so ingenious that they seem nearly impossible for an order of life we’ve mostly relegated to the margins of our own lives, the decoration that frames the theatrics of being an animal. Yet there they are all the same, these unbelievable abilities of plants, defying our anemic expectations. Their way of life is so astonishing, I will soon learn, that no one yet really knows the limits of what a plant can do. In fact, it seemed that no one quite knows what a plant really is.

This perplexity, Schlanger observes, is one of the most exciting things to happen in our lifetime — “depending on how comfortable you feel with seismic shifts in what you once thought to be true.” Looking back on the past half-century of botany, she reflects on this generative discomfort:

Controversy in a scientific field tends to be a harbinger of something new, some new understanding of its subject… The more botanists uncovered the complexity of forms and behaviors of plants, the less the traditional assumptions about plant life seemed to apply.

Auriculas from The Temple of Flora, 1812. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

One of those assumptions stems from our basic taxonomic model of life on Earth, separated into six kingdoms — as though plants, animals, fungi, and all the rest are separate and sovereign territories of being, bound by borders and occasionally at war for resources. This tendency to mistake our models of reality for reality itself, universal to the human animal and manifested across all cultures in different ways, and this particular blind spot of Western science, unshared by indigenous and Eastern traditions, have left our view of plants on par with Descartes’s view of non-human animals. An epoch after the poetic naturalist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Schlanger writes:

For us to truly be part of this world, to be awake to its roiling aliveness, we need to understand plants. They suffuse our atmosphere with the oxygen we breathe, and they quite literally build our bodies out of sugars they spin from sunlight. They made the ingredients that first allowed our lives to blink into existence at all. Yet they are not merely utilitarian supply machines. They have complex, dynamic lives of their own.

Out of those lives arose an organizing principle for life on Earth. In a passage that contours the central question of the entire field of plant intelligence — how something without a brain can respond to its conditions in coordinated, adaptive ways that optimize its future — Schlanger writes:

When plants climbed out of the ocean some five hundred million years ago, they arrived in a terrestrial barrens enveloped in an inhospitable fog of carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Inhospitable, that is, to everything but plants. They had already learned to unlock oxygen from the carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean. They adapted the technology to their new world. In a way, they brought the ocean up with them. By incessantly breathing out, those legions of early land plants tipped the balance of gases toward oxygenation. They created the atmosphere we now enjoy. It’s not a stretch to say they birthed the habitable world.

We know this — we know that without the evolution of flowers, we wouldn’t exist; we know that chlorophyll is the crowning molecular miracle of nature, the only thing we know that can convert the inanimate elements of air and light into sugar, that lifeblood of the living world. With an eye to our own embodiment as cathedrals of glucose, Schlanger puts this alchemy in sobering perspective:

We are made of glucose, too. Without a constant supply of the plant sugar, our vital functions would quickly cease. Think about it: every animal organ was built with sugar from plants. The meat of our bones and indeed the bones themselves carry the signature of their molecules. Our bodies are fabricated with the threads of material plants first spun. Likewise, every thought that has ever passed through your brain was made possible by plants.

Page from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium

Drawing on her personal obsession with plants — a portal of wonder and optimism she discovered while suffering the psychic toll of working as a climate journalist — Schlanger seeks out the pioneers of this changing paradigm. She meets a rare-plant botanist on the brink of seventy who climbs down immense volcanic cliffs to save endangered species and self-medicates for the grief of extinction by writing poetry; she chronicles the research that led to the first clear evidence of mechanosensitive ion channels in plants — those rudiments of nervous systems, enabling organisms to experience touch at the cellular level — sparked by botanist Barbara Pickard’s groundbreaking work on plant electricity; she visits with scientists who study the most controversial frontlines of plant intelligence — research that unsteadies our grip on concepts we consider singularly human.

One botanist who studies how sagebrush send distress signals to each other has found that individual plants appear to have different risk tolerance — a metric of personality, the very notion of which in an organism without a brain-based mind challenges our central assumptions about consciousness. Other research on a family of flowering desert shrubs found that female plants heed signals from both male and female plants, but males only heed other males — intimations of preference and judgment, also features of personality and consciousness. Schlanger synthesizes some of the most provocative findings:

Plants could be said to have dialects, and are alert to their contexts enough to know when to deploy them. More than that, they have a clear sense of who is who; who is family, and who is not. They are in touch with their surroundings, and with the fluctuating status of their enemies. Their communication is not just rudimentary but complex and layered, alive with multiple meanings.

In fact, no aspect of this new botany is more paradigm-shifting than the study of plant communication. (Canadian forester Suzanne Simard’s epoch-making research into mycorrhizal tree communication was the fulcrum that began shifting the paradigm.) Schlanger considers how this very notion changes our understanding of nature:

Communication implies a recognition of self and what lies beyond it — the existence of other selves. Communication is the forming of threads between individuals. It’s a way to make one life useful to other lives, to make oneself important to other selves. It turns individuals into a community. If it is true that a whole forest or field is in communication, it changes the nature of that forest or field. It changes the notion of what a plant is.

It also changes the notion of what a mind is. We have taken it to be the product of a brain attached to a nervous system, but perhaps a mind is a complex, self-organizing system networked across the entire organism. Perhaps the whole plant is a mind.

Art by Ofra Amit for The Universe in Verse

Emerging from this particular field of science is a larger lens on the nature of knowledge. A century and a half after astronomer Maria Mitchell contemplated the fate of science, observing that “we reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us,” Schlanger writes:

The world is a prism, not a window. Wherever we look, we find new refractions.

Couple The Light Eaters with the poetic science of the ghost pipe — Earth’s most supernatural plant, which thrives mysteriously without eating light — then revisit this triptych meditation on flowers 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 | 25 May 2024 | 5:13 am(NZT)

No One You Love Is Ever Dead: Hemingway on the Most Devastating of Losses and the Meaning of Life

“We must live it, now, a day at a time and be very careful not to hurt each other.”


No One You Love Is Ever Dead: Hemingway on the Most Devastating of Losses and the Meaning of Life

Along the spectrum of losses, from the door keys to the love of one’s life, none is more unimaginable, more incomprehensible in its unnatural violation of being and time, than a parent’s loss of a child.

Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899–July 2, 1961) was in his twenties and living in France when he befriend Gerald and Sara Murphy. The couple eventually returned to America when one of their sons fell ill, but it was their other son, Baoth, who died after a savage struggle with meningitis.

Upon receiving the news, the thirty-five-year-old writer sent his friends an extraordinary letter, part consolation for and part consecration of a loss for which there is no salve, found in Shaun Usher’s moving compilation Letters of Note: Grief (public library).

Ernest Hemingway

On March 19, 1935, Hemingway writes:

Dear Sara and Dear Gerald:

You know there is nothing we can ever say or write… Yesterday I tried to write you and I couldn’t.

It is not as bad for Baoth because he had a fine time, always, and he has only done something now that we all must do. He has just gotten it over with…

About him having to die so young — Remember that he had a very fine time and having it a thousand times makes it no better. And he is spared from learning what sort of a place the world is.

It is your loss: more than it is his, so it is something that you can, legitimately, be brave about. But I can’t be brave about it and in all my heart I am sick for you both.

Absolutely truly and coldly in the head, though, I know that anyone who dies young after a happy childhood, and no one ever made a happier childhood than you made for your children, has won a great victory. We all have to look forward to death by defeat, our bodies gone, our world destroyed; but it is the same dying we must do, while he has gotten it all over with, his world all intact and the death only by accident.

Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved — a soulful Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss

In a breathtaking sentiment evocative of Anaïs Nin’s admonition against the stupor of near-living, and of poet Meghan O’Rourke’s grief-honed conviction that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Hemingway adds:

Very few people ever really are alive and those that are never die; no matter if they are gone. No one you love is ever dead.

With this, echoing Auden’s insistence that “we must love one another or die,” he comes the closest he ever came to formulating the meaning of life. Like David Foster Wallace, who addressed the meaning of life with such exquisite lucidity shortly before he was slain by depression, Hemingway too would lose hold of that meaning in the throes of the agony that would take his life a quarter century later. Now, from the fortunate platform of the prime of life, he writes:

We must live it, now, a day at a time and be very careful not to hurt each other. It seems as though we were all on a boat together, a good boat still, that we have made but that we know will never reach port. There will be all kinds of weather, good and bad, and especially because we know now that there will be no landfall we must keep the boat up very well and be very good to each other. We are fortunate we have good people on the boat.

Complement with the young Dostoyevsky’s exultation about the meaning of life shortly after his death sentence was repealed, Emily Dickinson on love and loss, Thoreau on living through loss, and Nick Cave — who lived, twice, the unimaginable tragedy of the Murphys — on grief as a portal to aliveness, then revisit the fascinating neuroscience of your brain on grief and your heart on healing.


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 May 2024 | 9:26 am(NZT)



The Messiah in the Mountain: Darwin on Wonder and the Spirituality of Nature

The Messiah in the Mountain: Darwin on Wonder and the Spirituality of Nature

Here we are, matter yearning for meaning, each of us a fragile constellation of chemistry and chance hurtling through a cold cosmos that has no accord for our wishes, takes no interest in our dreams. “I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures,” Willa Cather wrote to the love of her life while watching the transcendent spectacle of Jupiter and Venus rising in the summer sky. “If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.”

That we can wonder is what saves us. The price evolution had us pay for our exquisite consciousness is an awareness of our mortality — an awareness unbearable without the capacity for wonder at the miracle of existing at all, improbable as we each are against the staggering odds of never having been born, alive on an improbable world unlike any other known. Wonder is the religion nature invented long before we told our first myths of prophets and messiahs, the great benediction of our fate as borrowed stardust on short-term loan from an entropic universe.

A century before the pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington formulated his notion of “Natural Religion,” placing at its center our capacity for and responsibility to wonder, before Rachel Carson insisted that wonder is our greatest antidote to self-destruction and that “natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society,” the young Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) discovered that experiences of wonder — which he defined as “a chaos of delight” — are profoundly spiritual and come most readily in raw nature.

Charles Darwin in his twenties

In early 1835, with the Beagle docked in Chile for repairs four years into its voyage, the twenty-six-year-old Darwin hired muleteers and set out to cross the Andes on foot and hoof, relishing the exposed face of Earth’s geologic history in the dramatic landscape. By mid-March, he reached the Piuquenes pass connecting Argentina and Chile and began the trying ascent. Breathing became “deep and laborious.” He felt the tightness in his chest. The mules panted and stopped every fifty feet. But when he stumbled upon some fossil shells on the ridge, he “entirely forgot” the altitude sickness in his delight.

And then, approaching the summit against wind “impetuous and extremely cold,” he encountered something belonging to the enchanting canon of the unphotographable.

Standing there amid the austere beauty of the mountain and the elements in their extreme, with petrified pieces of deep time in his pocket, Darwin touched God.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio, 1893. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In an account later included in his memoir A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World (public library | free ebook), he writes:

When near the summit, the wind, as generally happens, was impetuous and extremely cold. On each side of the ridge we had to pass over broad bands of perpetual snow, which were now soon to be covered by a fresh layer. When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms: the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow, all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah.

Complement with Coleridge’s transcendent experience of a thunderstorm and René Daumal on the mountain and the meaning of life, then revisit Darwin’s deathbed reflection on what makes life worth living and the bittersweet story of his beloved daughter.


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 May 2024 | 4:25 am(NZT)

On Giving Up: Adam Phillips on Knowing What You Want, the Art of Self-Revision, and the Courage to Change Your Mind

“Not being able to give up is not to be able to allow for loss, for vulnerability; not to be able to allow for the passing of time, and the revisions it brings.”


On Giving Up: Adam Phillips on Knowing What You Want, the Art of Self-Revision, and the Courage to Change Your Mind

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Nothing is more vital to the capacity for change than the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind — that stubborn refusal to ossify, the courageous willingness to outgrow your views, anneal your values, and keep clarifying your priorities. It is incredibly difficult to achieve because the very notion of the self hinges on our sense psychological continuity and internal consistency; because we live in a culture whose myths of heroism and martyrdom valorize completion at any cost, a culture that contractually binds the present self to the future self in mortgages and marital vows, presuming unchanging desires, forgetting that who we are is shaped by what we want and what we want goes on changing as we go on growing.

Changing — your mind, your life — is also painfully difficult because it is a form of renunciation, a special case of those necessary losses that sculpt our lives; it requires giving something up — a way of seeing, a way of being — in order for something new to come abloom along the vector of the “endless unfolding” that is a life fully lived, something that leaves your new emerging self more fully met.

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

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips offers a salve for that perennial difficulty in On Giving Up (public library) — an exploration and celebration of giving up as “a prelude, a precondition for something else to happen, a form of anticipation, a kind of courage,” “an attempt to make a different future” that “get us the life we want, or don’t know that we want.”

He considers how countercultural such reframing is:

We tend to value, and even idealize, the idea of seeing things through, of finishing things rather than abandoning them. Giving up has to be justified in a way that completion does not; giving up doesn’t usually make us proud of ourselves; it is a falling short of our preferred selves… Giving up, in other words, is usually thought of as a failure rather than a way of succeeding at something else. It is worth wondering to whom we believe we have to justify ourselves when we are giving up, or when we are determinedly not giving up.

At the heart of the book is the recognition that renunciation is the fulcrum of change. We give things up, Phillips observes, “when we believe we can no longer go on as we are.” (For many, this is the central crisis of midlife.) It is a kind of sacrifice in the service of a larger, better life — but this presumes knowledge of the life we want, and it is often experiences we didn’t know we wanted that end up magnifying our lives in the profoundest ways. (Nothing illustrates this better than The Vampire Problem.)

Phillips considers the paradox:

The whole notion of sacrifice depends upon our knowing what we want… Giving up, or giving up on, anything or anyone always exposes what it is we take it we want… To give something up is to seek one’s own assumed advantage, one’s apparently preferred pleasure, but in an economy that we mostly can’t comprehend, or, like all economies, predict… We calculate, in so far as we can, the effect of our sacrifice, the future we want from it… to get through to ourselves: to get through to the life we want.

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

“I did not know that I could only get the most out of life by giving myself up to it,” the psychiatrist and artist Marion Milner wrote a century ago in her clarifying field guide to knowing what you really want — which is, in the end, the hardest thing in life, for our self-knowledge is cratered with blind spots, clouded by conditioning, and perennially incomplete. Phillips — who draws on Milner’s magnificent book, as well as on Kafka and Judith Butler, Henry and William James, Hamlet and Paradise Lost — observes that, in this regard, giving up is a kind of “gift-giving.” He writes:

Not being able to give up is not to be able to allow for loss, for vulnerability; not to be able to allow for the passing of time, and the revisions it brings.

And what would life be without continual acts of self-revision?

It is our ego-ideals — the stories we tell ourselves and the world about who we are and who we ought to be, fantasies of coherence and continuity mooring us to a static idealized self — that feed what Phillips calls the “tyranny of completion.” But human beings are rough drafts that continually mistake themselves for the final story, then gasp as the plot changes on the page of living. We do this largely because we are captives of comfort in our habits of thought and feeling, victims of certainty — that supreme narrowing of the mind — when it comes to our own desires. That we don’t fully know what we want because we are half-opaque to ourselves, that something we didn’t think we wanted may end up enlarging our lives in unimaginable ways, is a kind of uncertainty that unravels us. But if we can bear the frustration of the figuring, we may live into a larger and more authentic life.

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1550s. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Building upon his excellent earlier writing on why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in love, Phillips writes:

Our frustration is the key to our desire; to want something or someone is to feel their absence; so to register or recognize a lack would seem to be the precondition for any kind of pleasure or satisfaction. Indeed, in this account, frustration, a sense of lack, is the necessary precondition for any kind of satisfaction.

[…]

The traditional story about lack and desire describes a closed system; in this story I can never be surprised by what I want, because somewhere in myself I already know what is missing; my frustration is the form my recognition takes, it is a form of remembering.

Wanting is recovery, not discovery… There is a part of oneself that needs to know what it is doing, and a part of oneself that needs not to… a part of oneself that needs to know what one wants and a part of oneself that needs not to.

It is in the continual investigation of our desires, with all the frustration of our polyphonous parts, that we find the recovery and gift-giving which giving up can bring — a way of giving our lives back to ourselves and giving ourselves forward to our lives. Phillips distills the central predicament:

The question is always: what are we going to have to sacrifice in order to develop, in order to get to the next stage of our lives?

Couple On Giving Up with John O’Donohue on beginnings, Allen Wheelis on how people change, and Judith Viorst on the life-shaping art of letting go, then revisit Phillips on why we fall in love, breaking free from the tyranny of self-criticism, and the relationship between “fertile solitude” and self-esteem.


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 May 2024 | 4:24 am(NZT)



John Gardner on the Key to Self-Renewal Across Life and the Art of Making Rather Than Finding Meaning

“The potentialities you develop to the full come as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges.”


John Gardner on the Key to Self-Renewal Across Life and the Art of Making Rather Than Finding Meaning

A person is not a potted plant of predetermined personality but a garden abloom with the consequences of chance and choice that have made them who they are, resting upon an immense seed vault of dormant potentialities. At any given moment, any seed can sprout — whether by conscious cultivation or the tectonic tilling of some great upheaval or the composting of old habits and patterns of behavior that fertilize a new way of being. Nothing saves us from the tragedy of ossifying more surely than a devotion to regularly turning over the soil of personhood so that new expressions of the soul can come abloom.

In the final years of his long life, former U.S. Secretary of Heath, Education, and Welfare John Gardner (October 8, 1912–February 16, 2002) expanded upon his masterwork on self-renewal in the posthumously published Living, Leading, and the American Dream (public library), examining the deepest questions and commitments of how we become — and go on becoming — ourselves as our lives unfold, transient and tender with longing for meaning.

Butterfly metamorphosis by Philip Henry Gosse from Entomologia terrae novae, 1833. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to the mystery of why some people and not others manage to live with vitality until the end, and to the fact that life metes out its cruelties and its mercies with an uneven hand, Gardner writes:

One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons. Perhaps life just presented them with tougher problems than they could solve. It happens. Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim. Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their self-esteem. You’ve known such people — feeling secretly defeated, maybe somewhat sour and cynical, or perhaps just vaguely dispirited. Or perhaps they grew so comfortable that adventures no longer beckoned.

Recognizing that the challenges we face are both personal and structural, that we are products of our conditions and conditioning but also entirely responsible for ourselves, he adds:

We build our own prisons and serve as our own jailkeepers… but clearly our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us — and self-images — that hold us captive for a long time. The individual intent on self-renewal will have to deal with ghosts of the past — the memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, the accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure — but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable.

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

Of the lessons we learn along the vector of living — things difficult to grasp early in life — he considers the hardest yet most liberating:

You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you, they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

But no learning is harder, or more countercultural amid this cult of achievement and actualization we live in, than the realization that there is no final and permanent triumph to life. A generation after the poet Robert Penn Warren admonished against the notion of finding yourself and a generation before the psychologist Daniel Gilbert observed that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Gardner writes:

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. The purpose is to grow and develop in the dimensions that distinguish humankind at its best.

In a sentiment that mirrors the driving principle of nature itself, responsible for the evolution and survival of every living thing on Earth, he considers the key to that growth:

The potentialities you develop to the full come as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges — and the challenges keep coming, and they keep changing. Emergencies sometimes lead people to perform remarkable and heroic tasks that they wouldn’t have guessed they were capable of. Life pulls things out of you. At least occasionally, expose yourself to unaccustomed challenges.

The supreme reward of putting yourself in novel situations that draw out dormant potentialities is the exhilaration of feeling new to yourself, which transforms life from something tending toward an end into something cascading forward in a succession of beginnings — for, as the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue observed in his magnificent spell against stagnation, “our very life here depends directly on continuous acts of beginning.” This in turn transforms the notion of meaning — life’s ultimate aim — from a product to be acquired into a process to be honored.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Gardner recounts hearing from a man whose twenty-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash. In her wallet, the grief-stricken father had discovered a printed passage from a commencement address Gardner had delivered shortly before her death — a fragment evocative of Nietzsche’s insistence that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.” It read:

Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.

Complement with the pioneering education reformer and publisher Elizabeth Peabody on middle age and the art of self-renewal, the great nonagenarian cellist Pablo Casals on the secret to creative vitality throughout life, and this Jungian field guide to transformation in midlife, then revisit Nick Cave on blooming into the fulness of your potentialities and Simone de Beauvoir on the art of growing older.


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 | 16 May 2024 | 11:22 am(NZT)

Nothing: The Illustrated Story of How John Cage Revolutionized Music and the Art of Listening Through Silence

“We make our lives by what we love.”


Nothing: The Illustrated Story of How John Cage Revolutionized Music and the Art of Listening Through Silence

“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote. Silence is greater than music because it is its central organizing principle, the way the negative space around an object is what gives it a shape, the way you love someone for what they are not — the person who will not break a promise, the person who will not pass a collapsed bicycle without picking it up, the person who will not interrupt your reverie but will instead wait silently beside you until you open your eyes, is a particular kind of person, and it is each other’s particularity that we love. Just as a person is composed of their nos even more so than their yeses, sound becomes music through the silences between its notes — or else it would be noise.

Four days before his fortieth birthday, John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) instantly and permanently broadened the meaning of music by deepening our relationship to silence with the premiere of his now iconic composition 4’33”, inspired by his formative immersion in Zen Buddhism and “performed” by the virtuoso pianist David Tudor in a barn-like concert hall in Woodstock, New York — four minutes and thirty-three seconds of pure silence, suddenly rendering musical the ambient sounds of ordinary life.

Writer Nicholas Day and artist Chris Raschka bring the story of this quiet revolution to life in Nothing: John Cage and 4’33” (public library) — a spare, vibrant serenade to Cage’s masterpiece and its lasting existential echoes, challenging our most basic assumptions about what makes anything itself.

The story begins and ends with Tudor sitting at the piano that fateful summer evening in 1952, but in the smallness and stillness of that moment myriad questions about the nature of sound and the nature of attention come abloom, questions about how to listen and what to listen for, about who it is that does the listening, about the very nature of the self.

In the biographical afterword, Day writes:

What is music?
What is silence?
Can silence be music?
Can music be silence?

[…]

Are there even answers to these questions?
For Cage, the questions were always the important part, because the questions were more interesting than the answers. The questions often led to more questions, instead of answers.

Like Beatrice Harrison, Cage was taken to a concert as a small child and stood in the aisle spellbound through the entire performance. He fell in love with sound long before he took his first music lesson. In a sentiment common to everyone who puts anything of beauty and substance into the world, Cage would later reflect:

We make our lives by what we love.

Complement Nothing with Kay Larson’s exquisite meditation on John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the inner life of artists — one of the finest books I have ever read — and Cage’s symphonic love letters to the love of his life, then revisit other wonderful picture-book biographies of cultural icons: Keith Haring, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Wise Brown, Emily Dickinson, John Lewis, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Wangari Maathai, and Nellie Bly.

Illustrations © Chris Raschka courtesy of Neal Porter Books/Holiday House Publishing; photographs by Maria Popova


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 | 14 May 2024 | 4:30 am(NZT)

What It’s Like to Be a Falcon: The Peregrine as a Portal to a Way of Seeing and a State of Being

“You cannot know what freedom means till you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light.”


What It’s Like to Be a Falcon: The Peregrine as a Portal to a Way of Seeing and a State of Being

We shall never know the sky, you and I — never know how to pierce a mountain with a pupil or sweep a meadow with a wing — and so we shall never know this world in its totality. It is our creaturely destiny to remain earthbound, trapped in frames of reference shaped by our senses, but it is our biological benediction to have a consciousness crowned with an imagination — that periscope of wonder capable of reaching beyond our sensorium, beyond the self, projecting us into other realities and other ways of being.

In the mid-1950s, a near-sighted English office worker set out to do for the sky what Rachel Carson had done for the sea thirty years earlier — invite our human imagination, grounded yet boundless, into the world of another creature dwelling in another sphere. J.A. Baker (August 6, 1926–December 26, 1987) spent a decade following earth’s fastest flying bird on bicycle and on foot, possessed by its “restless brilliance.” When he unloosed The Peregrine (public library) into the atmosphere of culture in 1967 — an atmosphere shaped by the new ecological conscience awakened by Carson’s Silent Spring five years earlier — it was a clarion call and a consecration, entirely original, yet emanating Thoreau’s meticulous observation, Whitman’s ecstatic language, and Carson’s soulful reverence for the realities of nature in all their brutal beauty. An epoch later, it remains an ode to wonder, a field guide to observation as devotional practice, a passionate and poetic reminder that by attending closely and tenderly to any one thing, we recover our natural reverence for everything, our love of the world in all its strangeness and splendor.

Baker writes:

You cannot know what freedom means till you have seen a peregrine loosed into the warm spring sky to roam at will through all the far provinces of light.

Peregrine at Auchencairn by Archibald Thorburn, 1923. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

On the hierarchy of explanation, elucidation, and enchantment to which all writing about the natural world and the science of reality belongs, Baker is a virtuosic enchanter. The writing is at times almost unbearably beautiful — about the bird (“He was a small speck now, like the pupil of a distant eye. Serenely he floated. Then, like music breaking, he began to descend.”), and about the world lensed through the bird (“The day hardened in the easterly gale, like a flawless crystal. Columns of sunlight floated on the land. The unrelenting clarity of the air was solid, resonant, cold and pure and remote as the face of the dead.”) Echoing Carson’s insistence that “it is not half so important to know as to feel” — the ethos that made her own writing so enchanting and unexampled — Baker captures the key to writing at the level of enchantment:

I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behaviour of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded.

Like me, Baker was a latecomer to the love of birds, having long seen them “only as a tremor at the edge of vision.” And then something broke open, broke free. For ten years, he spent his winters “looking upward for that cloud-biting anchor shape, that crossbow flinging through the air,” learning along the way a new way of seeing — the peregrine’s way. (“To see takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote, “like to have a friend takes time.”) In consonance with the most eternal line from The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Baker observes:

The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.

Peregrines from Coloured Illustrations of British Birds and Their Eggs by Henry Leonard Meyer, 1864. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

There is, of course, first the biological marvel of the peregrine’s sight, which renders visible not just to the soul but the eye itself layers of reality invisible to us:

The eyes of a falcon peregrine weigh approximately one ounce each; they are larger and heavier than human eyes. If our eyes were in the same proportion to our bodies as the peregrine’s are to his, a twelve-stone man would have eyes three inches across, weighing four pounds. The whole retina of a hawk’s eye records a resolution of distant objects that is twice as acute as that of the human retina. Where the lateral and binocular visions focus, there are deep-pitted foveal areas; their numerous cells record a resolution eight times as great as ours. This means that a hawk, endlessly scanning the landscape with small abrupt turns of his head, will pick up any point of movement; by focusing upon it he can immediately make it flare up into larger, clearer view.

The peregrine’s view of the land is like the yachtsman’s view of the shore as he sails into the long estuaries. A wake of water recedes behind him, the wake of the pierced horizon glides back on either side. Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water. We who are anchored and earthbound cannot envisage this freedom of the eye. The peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields. He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.

Gyr-falcon and peregrine falcon by Archibald Thorburn, 1915. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

From this astonishing physiology of seeing arises an astonishing way of being, alien to ours — a vivid reminder that this one planet, this common home to every creature that ever was and ever will be, is composed of billions upon billions of different worlds, each particular to the consciousness that inhabits it. In one of the book’s most exquisite passages, Baker slips into the consciousness of the peregrine, body and soul:

Slowly he drifted above the orchard skyline and circled down wind, curving upward and round in long steep glides. He passed from the cold white sky of the south, up to the warm blue zenith, ascending the wind-bent thermal with wonderful ease and skill. His long-winged, blunt-headed shape contracted, dwindled, and darkened to the flinty point of a diamond as he circled high and far over; hanging and drifting above; indolent, watchful, supreme. Looking down, the hawk saw the big orchard beneath him shrink into dark twiggy lines and green strips; saw the dark woods closing together and reaching out across the hills; saw the green and white fields turning to brown; saw the silver line of the brook, and the coiled river slowly uncoiling; saw the whole valley flattening and widening; saw the horizon staining with distant towns; saw the estuary lifting up its blue and silver mouth, tongued with green islands. And beyond, beyond all, he saw the straight-ruled shine of the sea floating like a rim of mercury on the surface of the brown and white land. The sea, rising as he rose, lifted its blazing storm of light, and thundered to freedom to the land-locked hawk… I watched him with longing, as though he were reflecting down to me his brilliant unregarded vision of the land beyond the hill… He sank forward into the wind, and passed slowly down across the sun. I had to let him go. When I looked back, through green and violet nebulae of whirling light, I could just see a tiny speck of dusk falling to earth from the sun, flashing and turning and falling through an immense silence that crashed open in a tumult of shrilling, wing-beating birds.

[…]

Standing in the fields near the north orchard, I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light-drenched prism of the hawk’s mind. Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk. The ground became a branch to my feet, the sun on my eyelids was heavy and warm. Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of the stony places. I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear. I shared the same hunter’s longing for the wild home none can know, alone with the sight and smell of the quarry, under the indifferent sky. I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls. I shared the same strange yearning to be gone. I sank down and slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk.

Couple The Peregrine — one of Werner Herzog’s five requisite books for any filmmaker — with the fascinating science of what it’s like to be an owl, what it’s like to be a whale, and what it’s like to be a dog, then revisit Helen Macdonald’s exquisite recollection of what a hawk taught her about love and loss.


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 | 10 May 2024 | 12:59 pm(NZT)

Flowers for Things I Don’t Know How to Say: A Tender Painted Lexicon of Consolation and Connection

Flowers for Things I Don’t Know How to Say: A Tender Painted Lexicon of Consolation and Connection

“To be a Flower is profound Responsibility,” Emily Dickinson wrote.

From the moment she pressed the first wildflower into her astonishing teenage herbarium until the moment Susan pinned a violet to her alabaster chest in the casket, she filled her poems with flowers and made of them a lexicon of feeling, part code language and part blueprint to the secret chambers of the heart.

The symbolic language of flowers peaked in Dickinson’s time, seeded by Erasmus Darwin’s radical romantic botany a century earlier and popularized by books like The Moral of Flowers, but humans have long heavied flowers with the responsibility of holding what we cannot hold, saying what we cannot say — the funeral wreath, the bridal bouquet, Georgia O’Keefe’s calla lilies channeling the divine feminine, the white hyacinth Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman made the emblem of their uncommon love. We need flowers for the same reason we need poems, or paintings, or songs — because what we can feel will always be infinitely vaster and more complex than what we can name, because words will always break under the weight of the immensities we task them with carrying, will never fully answer the soul’s cry for connection, for consolation, for mercy.

Flowers for the loneliest person you know

Artist Tucker Nichols was in his late twenties when he found himself in a strange hospital room in a strange city with a strange diagnosis that confounded even his doctors. Nobody knew what to say. Nobody knew how to make it okay. As he fumbled his way to remission, he was saved again and again by the power of human connection, by the many languages of solidarity and sympathy when words fall short.

Half a lifetime later, as the pandemic swept the globe with its tidal force of terror and uncertainty, Nichols drew on that experience in a tender gesture of sympathy: He began sending small flower paintings to sick people on behalf of their loved ones. (I am thinking of Walt Whitman and his Civil War hospital visits, writing letters and poems on behalf of wounded and dying soldiers.) He painted for friends, for friends of friends, for strangers. His wife and daughter helped mail the paintings.

Flowers for the nurses who tell you what’s actually happening
Flowers for the neighbor who goes on the same early morning walks even though her dog is gone

As word spread of his project, these intimate and specific consolations began to feel unequal to the scale of suffering — we so easily forget that everyone is suffering in one way or another, often invisibly, always ultimately alone — and so he began painting flowers for entire categories of human experience ranging from the depths of despair to those quiet joys that make life livable.

The result is Flowers for Things I Don’t Know How to Say (public library) — a floral counterpart to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, radiating the recognition that no matter how singular what we feel may seem, and how lonely in its singularity, it is just a garden variety feeling, felt by innumerable others since the dawn of feeling, being felt by someone somewhere right now. Out of that recognition unspool the golden threads of connection that bind us to each other and hammock the free-fall of our fear, our uncertainty, our loneliness.

Flowers for the kind of crying where tears stream straight down without a sound
Flowers for anyone sleeping in a tent on the sidewalk again tonight
Flowers for anyone who can see how good they have it and still find it nearly unbearable
Flowers for the sound of my beloved chewing in the other room

Flowers for anyone in despair

His paintings, loose and bright, become analogues of how abstract yet vivid the most interior experiences are — amorphous shapes saturated with feeling, blurry arrangements of contrasting parts of the self.

Flowers for spectacular failures

Flowers for your terrible predicament
Flowers for the man in the back of the bus listening to music as the city rolls by
Flowers for the inconsolable
Flowers for old people falling in love

Complement Flowers for Things I Don’t Know How to Say with the story of how the evolution of flowers gave Earth its language of love, then revisit The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Art © Tucker Nichols courtesy of Chronicle Books


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 | 9 May 2024 | 2:33 am(NZT)

Nature’s Oldest Mandolin: The Poetic Science of How Cicadas Sing

Nature’s Oldest Mandolin: The Poetic Science of How Cicadas Sing

“The use of music,” Richard Powers wrote, “is to remind us how short a time we have a body” — a truth nowhere more bittersweet than in the creature whose body is the oldest unchanged musical instrument on Earth: a tiny mandolin silent for most of its existence, then sonorous with a fleeting symphony of life before the final silence.

Each summer, cicadas arrive by the billions with their strange red eyes, their mysterious prime-shaped periodic cycles, and their haunting nocturnal emergence, sudden and synchronized. For years they have lived underground, soft milky-white nymphs nursed by endosymbiotic bacteria through their long helpless infancy. And then, as if by some divine signal, when the soil temperature reaches exactly 17.9 °C (64 °F), an obsidian exoskeleton encases their bodies in a flash to accompany them through the brief weeks of maturity as they rise from the underworld in singing search of a mate.

In consonance with pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s insistence that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” we now have a formula for predicting when this massive music festival of yearning will begin: E = (19.465 – t)/0.5136, where E denotes the emergence start date in May and t is the average April temperatures in Celsius.

By early June, they have all emerged, more of them than all the humans who have ever lived; by late July, they have all died.

Transformation of the periodical Cicada Septemdecim. Illustration by Lillie Sullivan, 1898. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

While annual cicada species cover the globe, periodical cicadas — the seven known species of the genus Magicicada, which emerge from the ground every 13 or 17 years in broods defined by geography and periodicity — are native only to North America. The English were staggered to encounter them when they first arrived. In 1633, the the governor of the young Plymouth Colony in New England marveled at the “numerous company of Flies which were like for bigness unto wasps or Bumble-Bees” that rose from the ground to feast on the trees and “made such a constant yelling noise as made the woods ring of them, and ready to deafen the hearers.”

Cicada by Edward Donovan, 1800. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Despite having no voice — no vocal chords, no lungs — cicadas are the loudest male chorus on Earth, their courtship serenades approaching the decibel level of a jet engine thanks to some of the most extraordinary acoustics in nature.

The body of a male cicada resembles a wood instrument. On each side of the hollow abdomen is a tymbal — a mesh of miniature ribs woven into a hard membrane, strummed whenever the singer flexes his synchronous flight muscles. Unlike locusts, which make sound by rubbing their legs against their wings and with which they were long conflated — it was only in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae that Linnaeus named the cicada as a different insect — cicadas sing the way humans do: with their whole body.

Art from A Monograph of Oriental Cicadidæ by William Lucas Distant, 1889. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Some find their music menacing, some mesmerizing. The Greeks considered it almost divine. When Pythagoras discovered the mathematics of harmony, a cicada sitting on a harp came to symbolize the science of music. Homer’s highest praise for orators was to compare them to cicadas. Anacreon, celebrated as the finest lyric poet of his civilization, reverenced them in verse:

Sweet prophet of summer, loved of the Muses,
Beloved of Phoebus who gave thee thy shrill song,
Old age does not wear upon thee;
Thou art earth-born, musical, impassive, without blood.
Thou art almost a god.

Epochs later, Lord Byron — poet laureate of the grandiose, otherwise blind to the grandeur of smallness — rhapsodized about these tiny “people of the pine” that “make their summer lives one ceaseless song.”

But no one has written more poetically about the biological reality of the cicada than the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930) — the forgotten pioneer who planted the seed for the youth climate action movement by introducing nature study to school curricula at the dawn of the twentieth century, making wonder a public good.

Anna Botsford Comstock circa 1900

In 1903, Comstock wrote and illustrated Ways of the Six-Footed (public library | public domain) — a lyrical field guide to the world of insects, doing for entomology what Carl Sagan would do for astronomy two generations later. Celebrating the commonest male cicada of summer as the greatest of “the insect troubadours,” Comstock writes:

This musician… is an interesting-looking fellow, with a stout body and broad, transparent wings quite ornately veined… The cicada whose song is the most familiar to us is the “dog-day harvest-fly” or “Lyreman.” It resembles the seventeen-year species, except that it is larger and requires only two or three years in the immature state, below ground, instead of seventeen. The Lyreman when seen from above is black, with dull-green scroll ornamentation; below he is covered with white powder. He lives in trees; hidden beneath the leaves, this arboreal wooer sends forth a high trill, which seems to steep the senses of the listener in the essence of summer noons. If you chance to find a Lyreman fallen from his perch and take him in your hand, he will sing and you can feel his body vibrate with the sound. But it will remain a mystery where the musical instrument is situated, for it is nowhere visible to the uninitiated. However, if you place him on his back, you may see directly behind the base of each hind leg a circular plate, nearly a quarter of an inch in diameter; beneath each of these plates is a cavity across which is stretched a partition made up of three distinct kinds of membranes for the modulation of the tone; at the top of each cavity is a stiff, folded membrane which acts as a drumhead; but it is set In vibration by muscles instead of drumsticks, and these muscles move so rapidly that we cannot distinguish the separate vibrations. Thus, our Lyreman is provided with a very complicated pair of kettledrums, which he plays with so much skill that his music sounds more like that of a mandolin than of a drum.

[…]

Surely a new interest attaches to this summer-day song when we realize that it has pleased the human ear since the dim age of Homer. The cicada’s kettledrums are perhaps the only musical instruments now in use that have remained unchanged through a thousand centuries since they were first mentioned.

Cicada speciosa by Charles Dessalines d’Orbigny, 1861. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music as a property of the universe and this lovely vintage parable about another music-making insect, then revisit Anna Botsford Comstock’s beautiful meditation on winter trees as a portal to aliveness.


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 | 6 May 2024 | 5:41 am(NZT)

The Universe in Verse Book

“We need science to help us meet reality on its own terms, and we need poetry to help us broaden and deepen the terms on which we meet ourselves and each other. At the crossing point of the two we may find a way of clarifying our experience and of sanctifying it.”


The Universe in Verse Book

Seven years after the improbable idea of cross-pollinating poetry and science came abloom on a Brooklyn stage in a former warehouse built in Whitman’s lifetime, after it traveled to the redwoods of Santa Cruz and the sunlit skies of Austin, The Universe in Verse has become a book — fifteen portals to wonder, each comprising an essay about some enchanting facet of science (entropy and dark matter, symmetry and the singularity, octopus intelligence and the evolution of flowers), paired with a poem that shines a sidewise gleam on these concepts (Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath, Tracy K. Smith and Marie Howe).

It was a joy to write, and a joy to collaborate with two of the most thoughtful and talented people I know: The print book features original art by Ofra Amit (who painted my favorite piece in A Velocity of Being), and the audiobook features my favorite voice in the universe — the magnificent Lili Taylor.

For a sense of the spirit of it, here is my introduction as it appears in the book:

We live our human lives in the lacuna between truth and meaning, between objective reality and subjective sensemaking laced with feeling. All of our longings, all of our despairs, all of our reckonings with the perplexity of existence are aimed at one or the other. In the aiming is what we call creativity, how we contact beauty — the beauty of a theorem, the beauty of a sonnet.

The Universe in Verse was born in 2017 as a festival of wonder: stories from the history of science — the history of our search for truth and our yearning to know nature — told live onstage alongside readings of illustrative poems — those emblems of our search for meaning and our yearning to know ourselves. Year after year, thousands of people gathered to listen, think, and feel together — a congregation of creatures concerned with the relationship between truth and beauty, between love and mortality, between the finite and the infinite.

Poetry may seem an improbable portal into the fundamental nature of reality — into dark matter and the singularity, evolution and entropy, Hubble’s law and pi — but it has a lovely way of sneaking ideas into our consciousness through the back door of feeling, bypassing our ordinary ways of seeing and relating to the world, our biases and preconceptions, and swinging open another gateway of receptivity. Through it, other scales of time, space, and significance — scales that are the raw material of science — can enter more fully and more faithfully into our worldview, depositing us back into our ordinary lives broadened and magnified so that we can return to our daily tasks and our existential longings with renewed resilience and a passion for possibility.

Poetry and science — individually, but especially together — are instruments for knowing the world more intimately and loving it more deeply. We need science to help us meet reality on its own terms, and we need poetry to help us broaden and deepen the terms on which we meet ourselves and each other. At the crossing point of the two we may find a way of clarifying our experience and of sanctifying it; a way of harmonizing the objective reality of a universe insentient to our hopes and fears with the subjective reality of what it feels like to be alive, to tremble with grief, to be glad. Both are occupied with helping us discover something we did not know before — something about who we are and what this is. Their shared benediction is a wakefulness to reality aglow with wonder.

The Universe in Verse: 15 Portals to Wonder through Science & Poetry comes out October 1 and is now available for pre-order. Signed copies are available exclusively at McNally Jackson. A portion of my author’s proceeds goes toward a new Universe in Verse fund at The Academy of American Poets, supporting poets who steward science and celebrate the realities of nature in their work.


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 | 2 May 2024 | 12:11 am(NZT)

The Work of Art: Inside the Creative Process of Beloved Artists, Poets, Musicians, and Other Makes of Meaning

The Work of Art: Inside the Creative Process of Beloved Artists, Poets, Musicians, and Other Makes of Meaning

“The true artist,” Beethoven wrote in his touching letter of advice to a young girl aspiring to be an artist, “is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.” The choreographer Martha Graham called this particular shade of sadness “divine dissatisfaction.” It is something quite different from the small mean voice of the internal critic — it is rather a matter of “making your unknown known,” as Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her magnificent letter of advice on the creative life to the young Sherwood Anderson, “and keeping the unknown always beyond you”; a matter of unselfing into something larger while remaining authentically oneself. Creativity, after all, is just our best sensemaking mechanism for what this is and what we are. We create — a poem or a theorem, a novel or a song — in order to explain the world to ourselves and explain ourselves to the world.

Because we are half-opaque to ourselves, because we are bathing in the mystery and confusion of consciousness amid a universe governed by forces beyond the reach of our control and comprehension, the work of art is cratered with exasperation and self-doubt, with failures and false starts. And yet the very existence of this cathedral of truth and beauty we call culture is evidence that somehow, again and again, through depressions and wars, pandemics and heartbreaks, artists have managed to keep faith in the creative process, to keep showing up for the mundane work that makes the magic, that makes the meaning, that makes life livable and more alive.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s preliminary drawings for The Little Prince, 1943. (Morgan Library and Museum.)

The strange self-salvation by which artists do that is what magazine editor turned painter Adam Moss explores in The Work of Art: How Something Comes from Nothing (public library) — a revelatory window on the creative process at the crossing point of the mystical and the methodical through conversations with and reflections by some of the most beloved artists of our time — poets, painters, novelists, musicians, filmmakers, playwrights, architects, chefs — each centered on how a particular work came to be. What emerges is “a celebration of the art that happens when instinct meets rigor,” resinous with the passion and persistence necessary for making any idea come aflame with life.

A century after Graham Wallace pioneered the first systematic theory of the stages of the creative process, Moss — a self-admitted “freak for the zealous pursuit of the better” — reflects on the psychological common thread across these investigations:

Art requires access to the imagination, a notoriously difficult place to visit. The imagination fuels an idea. The artist acts urgently, often impulsively, on that idea but brings conscious rigor to the evaluation of what the imagination has spewed. Ultimately, experience, intellect, insight, and drive enable them to shape the work and then to edit it over and over, until that idea has been turned into a finished work. Each stage — the imagining, judging, and shaping — is important; one way or another, each entered these conversations… Influences are absorbed and thrown over… Constraints and circumstances (timing, luck, allies) create structures that allow accidents to happen. Along the way, there is making and destroying, self-sabotage, doubt and despair, but the unifying fact of this book is that successful creators do not give up, even when the thwarting seems insurmountable.

This unrelenting persistence is what prompted Albert Camus to write as passionately as he did about the importance of stubbornness of creative work, which Nobel laureate Louise Glück echoes in speaking with Moss about the making of her strange and splendid poem “The Wild Iris” shortly before her death:

The really hard thing about writing is how much patience you need to have. I mean, you can will things, but whenever I’ve tried to do that, the poem just goes to hell. Becomes a contrivance. An arrangement made with a mind instead of a discovery. If you want a discovery that will surprise you, too, you just have to wait… What’s needed is not diligence or intelligence. What’s needed is an intervention of something outside yourself, better than yourself, but with access to yourself… The gift I have is stubbornness. And patience.

Virginia Woolf’s writing table by Maira Kalman from Still Life with Remorse

Because, as the psychiatrist Eric Berne observed, “the eternal problem of the human being is how to structure his waking hours,” and because, as Borges knew, time is the substance of we are made of, one thing that emerges again and again is the importance of understanding your chronobiology and putting it in the service of the work. (The question of how artists structure their time is its own canon, sending an entire branch of social science in search of the psychology of the ideal daily routine for creative work). Michael Cunningham considers a temporal structure common to many writers:

I need to write first thing in the morning. I need to segue from sleep and dreams directly into this invented world of mine because part of the deal is maintaining, for several years, your belief in this world, and if I were to even run a few errands before I got to work, I’d get derailed. I’d get so lost in the realness of the real world that when I turned on the computer and looked at what I’d been writing, I’d think, ‘Well, this isn’t as deep as the dry cleaner’ — or the drugstore, or wherever else I’ve just been.

I write for about four, five hours, after which there’s nothing there anymore. But I also learned that for me it was going to be much more helpful to think in terms of time spent, as opposed to page limit — because if you just have to produce words and you write too much of what you know isn’t working — and there are those days — then you are in danger of losing faith in your book. But if I am in my chair, ready to write whatever arrives — ten pages or one sentence — I’ve fulfilled my commitment.

Emily Dickinson at work. Detail from art by Ofra Amit for The Universe in Verse.

Although there are unifying themes, each conversation offers a particular tessera for the psychic mosaic of creative work — from poet Marie Howe (who discusses the making of her stunning poem “Singularity”), the urgency of self-forgetfulness as an antidote to the self-consciousness at the root of our suffering; from musician Moses Sumney, the transmutation of loneliness into fuel for the creative force on the other end of which is connection; from novelist Michael Cunningham, the capacity for self-surprise and the willingness to let the work take you where you couldn’t have willfully gone; from composer Stephen Sondheim, the fusion of “meticulous precision with a remarkable flexibility”; from artist Kara Walker, the importance of feeling new to yourself at the outset of each project, however predicated on your expertise it may be; from broadcaster Ira Glass, the wearying but necessary will to be always at war with mediocrity; from filmmaker Sofia Coppola, the inevitability of self-doubt and the willingness to endure it in order to better understand yourself through the creative process; from chef Samin Nosrat, the vital balance of beginner’s mind and pattern recognition honed on experience; from composer Nico Muhly, the importance of embracing your particularity and finding your own planet, even if it is “a planet most people will never live on.”

Another of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s preliminary drawings for The Little Prince. (Morgan Library and Museum.)

The Work of Art is a magnificent read in its entirety, lush with ephemera from the understory of creativity — discarded drafts, handwritten journal pages, preliminary sketches and prototypes, notes from the subconscious scribbled in the middle of the night. Complement it with Nick Cave on the role of faith in creativity, Lucille Clifton on the vital balance of intellect and intuition in making art, Rilke on the relationship between love, eros, solitude, and creativity, and David Bowie’s advice to artists.


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 May 2024 | 12:10 am(NZT)

The Wild Iris: Nobel Laureate Louise Glück on the Door at the End of Your Suffering

“Whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice.”


The Wild Iris: Nobel Laureate Louise Glück on the Door at the End of Your Suffering

A handful of times a lifetime, if you are lucky, an experience opens a trapdoor in your psyche with its almost unbearable beauty and strangeness, its discomposing unlikeness to anything you have known before. Down, down you go into the depths of the unconscious, dark and fertile with the terror and longing that make for suffering, the surrender that makes for the end of suffering, not in resignation but in faith. It is then that the still, small voice of the soul begins to sing; it is then that the trapdoor becomes a portal into a life larger, truer, and more possible — a kind of rebirth.

Nobel laureate Louise Glück (April 22, 1943–October 13, 2023) captures the essence of such experiences, the way they sober us to being mortal and to being alive, with an image of piercing originality in the title poem of her 1992 collection The Wild Iris (public library).

THE WILD IRIS
by Louise Glück

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water.

Couple with Ursula K. Le Guin on suffering and getting to the other side of pain, then revisit Glück’s love poem to life at the horizon of death.


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 | 30 Apr 2024 | 9:17 am(NZT)

The Paradise Notebooks: A Poet and a Geologist’s Love Letter to Life Lensed Through a Mountain

The Paradise Notebooks: A Poet and a Geologist’s Love Letter to Life Lensed Through a Mountain

How astonishing to remember that nothing has inherent color, that color is not a property of objects but of the light that falls upon them, reflected back. So too with the light of the mind — it is attention that gives the world its vibrancy, its kaleidoscopic beauty. The quality of attention we pay something or someone is the measure of our love. And because every littlest thing is, as John Muir observed, “hitched to everything else in the universe,” when we pay generous and unalloyed attention to anything, we are learning to love everything; we are learning that all around and within this world there is another, numinous and resinous with wonder, shimmering with a sense of the miraculous.

That recognition and its ample rewards animate The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles across the Sierra Nevada (public library) — the soulful chronicle of thirteen summer days the poetic geologist Richard J. Nevle and the Buddhist poet Steven Nightingale spent walking across one of the world’s most majestic mountains with their wives and teenage daughters, recording and reflecting on those devotional acts of pure attention in diary entires, essays, and poems that interleave science and spirit, observation and metaphor, grandeur and smallness. What emerges is a love letter to “a tender whole that is so much sweeter than the sum of its lonely parts.”

One of Japanese artist Chiura Obata’s 1930s paintings of Yosemite

Nevle — who was first enchanted by the distant contour of the mountains when he was five but did not see them fully until he began his doctoral studies in geology eighteen years later — writes:

Many claim to have found God in the mountains. I don’t know what God is, but I admit to having sought her there too. Whatever my search, I have found that the pursuit of scientific inquiry — its own, necessarily limited kind of truth-seeking — can be as much an act of devotion as it is scholarly meditation. For to pay attention to the world, to seek its stories, to run your fingers along some crack of rock or furrow of tree bark, to admire a raptor in flight, to look, closely, at the construction of a previously unencountered wildflower — to wonder and to seek answers to how these things might have come to be in the world — are themselves acts of devotion, ways of knowing, ways of longing for communion.

Nightingale harmonizes:

Each world bears all the worlds we might find within it. If you understand one outcropping of stone, or one wildflower, or one hummingbird — if we see our way along the tracery of cause and effect, the mystery of change and recreation — then we are led to everything we see, and everything we are.

It is no accident that Virginia Woolf arrived at her epiphany about the unity of being while looking at a flower, that Oliver Sacks grasped deep time while walking in a forest, that Mary Oliver contacted the interconnectedness of life while observing an owl: It is beauty that beckons our attention, and it is attention that lets us see the world whole. Nightingale considers the common root of these experiences, these revelations of wholeness:

In most cultures, in every century, beauty is bound up with unity. Beauty illuminates the affinity, the inner relation, the resemblance, the kinship, the concord and identity of things. We are all trained to tell things apart. In the experience of beauty, we learn to tell things alike; to move from the darkness of oneself to a sympathy, an open rapport; a longed — for, conscious union with the world. Beauty is a lucid and graceful assembly of forms that calls the mind close to life, our bodies close to the earth, and all of us closer to one another.

[…]

There is nothing more powerful than the movement toward beauty. As we walked, this thought sustained us. What we needed was to keep moving: one more day, and in each day, all day, one more step. It struck me as the simplest rule of life and of reflection: keep moving. Stay in readiness. Cultivate openness, clarity, affection, an easygoing revelry of the senses, a trust in our luck that we are here on earth at all, that we have this moment at all. Movement along a trail is movement within the mind. In the long run, the revelation of beauty is not a matter of chance: it is the centermost surety in life.

Beauty matters because it swings open the doors of perception, and it is by seeing — by taking in what is there, incorporating it into our inner world — that we can begin to comprehend and connect, out of which the sense of belonging arises. Nightingale reflects:

This is true for everyone, wherever we are: what we see is the preface to what we can see. Beyond that preface, with work and love, is what we can come to understand. If we can understand, then we can live. In the Sierra, we understood that we might, after all, belong here with tree and rock and time and light. We might, for a brief spell of years, have the luck to find a home here by following the beauty that beckons us.

One of Wilson Bentley’s “miracles of beauty”

Observing the delicate fragility of a single ice crystal, and thinking about Wilson Bentley’s snowflakes, he adds:

The world around us is not what we see. It holds a life-giving, gift-giving, invisible order everywhere and always. It is an order of musical and exultant beauty. It has a mysterious and radiant splendor. Everywhere we look, if we would look, the natural world is making beauty, without fanfare, and the work is so plain, intelligent, playful, and devoted, that there is only one word for it: cosmic.

Throughout their journey, what kindles this sense of the cosmic are encounters with the earthly, in all its glorious smallness and specificity — a mountain chickadee hardly larger than a grape, singing in its “husky, harsh-sweet voice”; clouds “tangerine then crimson then lavender then gray”; a nutcracker harvesting ninety thousand whitebark seeds in a single year with its bill “black as obsidian”; a yellow-legged frog “as small as a baby’s hand, as still as a Buddha”; an aspen with its aria of color sung by chloroplasts that outnumber the stars in the Milky Way one hundredfold; a prairie falcon slicing through the clear blue with its speckled body, evoking a rush of astonishment that “such a wholly perfect thing could exist.” Nevle writes:

There is something numinous and joyful in these encounters, a way in which the boundary between the world we sense and the world that is beyond our senses becomes, for the briefest of moments, thin — almost transparent.

Punctuating the poems and essays are diary entries raw with aliveness. On the second day of the expedition, Nevle records:

Up too early again. Listening to the patter of rain dripping from the tree limbs onto the tent and the hush of the creek in the darkness. Breathing in the scent of earth and rain. I can’t believe we are here, surrounded by these old trees and mountains, with days ahead of us. I’m a little boy all over again, incredulous that this place actually exists, and I am here in it. I want to get up and wander down to the creek and feel its black, wet, cold aliveness on my skin.

Another of Chiura Obata’s Yosemite paintings

That exhilaration emanates from a sudden and vivid sense of the interconnectedness of life in the mountain, the interbelonging of the wanderer and every wild creature, every rocky crevasse:

The great spine of rock holds diverse forests, dreamy meadows, skeins of streams, radiant lakes, and rare glaciers. Life ascends even to the highest reaches of the range, thousands of feet above tree line, where gardens of black, orange, and chartreuse lichen adorn the rock. Everywhere a tenacious living skin sheaths the ancient bones of the mountains.

[…]

The gray-crowned rosy-finch, the bighorn sheep, the pika, and the skypilot with its violet-cobalt blooms make their home among the enchanted stone that air and dust and time and life made possible.

Art by Matthew Forsythe from The Gold Leaf

Moving through the mountain, Nightingale embraces the poet’s task of wresting metaphor from observation. In a reflection that calls to mind poet Natalie Diaz’s magnificent meditation on brokenness as a portal to belonging, he writes:

The mountains are whole and beautiful for one principal reason: they have been broken so often… It is the very breaking and jointing, the cracking and carving and breakdown, the weathering and scouring, that all together give rise to the countless forms of beauty — iridescent, miraculous, gift-giving, exultant — throughout the whole of the range.

But it is often the geologist who best channels the poetic dimension of the living world. A century and a half after Emily Dickinson gasped in a poem that “to be a Flower is profound Responsibility,” Nevle writes:

What do we know of flowers? Of their wiliness and brilliance born of a ferocious will to live? Of their ability to extract what they need to survive over their fleeting lives, only so it can be given away? Consider the genus of flowering plants known as Castilleja, the paintbrushes. Species of Castilleja occur throughout the Sierra, from the oak savannas of the lowland foothills to the fragrant conifer forests of the mid-elevations to the sky gardens of the alpine fellfields — almost to the very crest of the range — blossoming in flames of vermillion and violet and cream and silvery mauve. Valley Tassels, Owl’s-Clover, Wooly Indian Paintbrush, Great Red Indian Paintbrush, Hairy Indian Paintbrush, Subalpine Paintbrush, Alpine Paint-brush, to name just a few of more than a dozen species of Castilleja whose blossoms return each year to the mountains. The sheer variety of Castilleja species you might encounter in a single summer day of wandering the Sierra might be enough to make you weep with gratitude for all the world offers us.

In the epilogue, Nightingale reflects on this countercultural endeavor to reunite dimensions of being that naturally belong together, that illuminate and magnify each other, despite how much our siloed and segregationist culture tries to keep them apart. (That, of course, is the animating spirit of The Universe in Verse.) He writes:

Science is thought by some to be dry, technical, and quantitative. It is not. Study is exaltation. Fact is miracle. Number is portal. Understanding is joy.

Poetry and spirituality are thought by some to be abstract, ethereal, private. They are not. Nature is language. Mind is sensual. Soul is earth.

Complement The Paradise Notebooks, an exultation of a read in its entirety, with The Living Mountain — poet Nan Shepherd’s timeless love letter to life lensed through the Scottish Highlands — and poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan’s poignant meditation on time and transcendence lensed through Mount Tamalpais, then revisit Emerson on nature and transcendence and Steinbeck (in his little-known nonfiction I find even more excellent than his novels) on wonder and the relational nature of 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.


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 | 27 Apr 2024 | 5:26 am(NZT)

How to Tell Love from Desire: José Ortega y Gasset on the Chronic Confusions of Our Longing

“Loving is perennial vivification… a centrifugal act of the soul in constant flux that goes toward the object and envelops it in warm corroboration, uniting us with it and positively affirming its being.”


How to Tell Love from Desire: José Ortega y Gasset on the Chronic Confusions of Our Longing

It is a strange thing, desire — so fiery yet so forlorn, aimed at having and animated by lack. In its restlessness and its pointedness, so single of focus, it shares psychic territory with addiction. Its Latin root — + sidus, “away from one’s star” — bespeaks its disorientation, its rush of longing, which we so easily mistake for love. And yet, when unplugged from the engine of compulsion and possession, desire can be a powerful clarifying force for the hardest thing in life: knowing what we want and wanting it unambivalently, with wholehearted devotion and fully conscious commitment. In this aspect, desire is not a simulacrum of but scaffolding for love. It shares a strand of that same Latin root with consider, for it is only through consideration — of our own soul’s yearnings and the sovereign soul of the other — that we can truly love.

How to tell love from desire and how to make of desire a stronghold of love is what the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — the posthumous collection of his superb newspaper essays challenging our standard narratives and touching self-delusions about who we are and what we want, anchored in the recognition that “people are the most complicated and elusive objects in the universe.”

'Lee Miller and Friend' by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.
Lee Miller and Friend by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.

In a passage that calls to mind Auden’s haunting meditation on true and false enchantment, Ortega considers how our slippery grasp of reality shapes our experience of love:

It would be outlandish to conclude that, after being consistently wrong in our dealings with reality, we should hit the mark in love alone. The projection of imaginary qualities upon a real object is a constant phenomenon… To see things — moreover, to appreciate them! — always means to complete them… Strictly speaking, no one sees things in their naked reality. The day this happens will be the last day of the world, the day of the great revelation. In the meantime, let us consider our perception of reality which, in the midst of a fantastic fog, allows us at least to capture the skeleton of the world, its great tectonic lines, as adequate. Many, in fact the majority, do not even achieve this… They lead a somnambulant existence, scurrying along their delirium. What we call genius is only the magnificent power… of piercing a portion of that imaginative fog and discovering behind it a new authentic bit of reality, quivering in sheer nakedness.

Love, Ortega argues, can uniquely pierce the veil of delirium and reveal a greater truth, unlike “inactive sentiments” like joy and sadness, to which desire is akin:

[Joy and sadness] are a sort of coloration which tinges the human being. One “is” sad or he “is” happy, in complete passiveness. Joy, in itself, does not constitute any action, although it may lead to it. One the other hand, loving something is not simply “being,” but acting toward that which is loved… Love itself is, by nature, a transitive act in which we exert ourselves on behalf of what we love.

Illustration by Japanese artist Komako Sakai for a special edition of The Velveteen Rabbit

In consonance with Iris Murdoch’s magnificent definition of love as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” Ortega observes that the essence of love is an “intense affirmation of another being, irrespective of his attitude toward us.” With an eye to all the things we mistake for it — “desire, curiosity, persistence, madness, sincere sentimental fiction” — he admonishes against the culturally conditioned error of measuring the magnitude of love by the intensity of violent emotion it stirs in us, drawing a crucial distinction between falling in love, as a transient altered state of consciousness drunk on dopamine, and loving, as a continuous mode of being:

Love is a much broader and profound operation, one which is more seriously human, but less violent. All love passes through the frantic zone of “falling in love”; but, on the other hand, “falling in love” is not always followed by genuine love. Let us, therefore, not confuse the part with the whole.

[…]

The more violent a psychic act is, the lower it is in the hierarchy of the soul, the closer it is to blind physical mechanism, and the more removed from the mind. And, vice versa, as our sentiments become more tinged with spirituality, they lose violence and mechanical force. The sensation of hunger in the hungry man will always be more violent than the desire for justice in the just man.

We are always, of course, trapped by the limitations of language in communicating the limitless. Observing the difficulty of using a single term to encompass “the most varied fauna of emotions” — the love of science or art, the love of a lover or a child, the love of a country or a cause — and the fact that any term becomes unwieldy when tasked with conveying too many disparate things, Ortega considers what the defining feature of love might be:

Love, strictly speaking, is pure sentimental activity toward an object, which can be anything — person or thing. As a “sentimental” activity, it remains, on the one hand, separated from all intellectual functions — perception, consideration, thought, recall, imagination — and, on the other hand, from desire, with which it is often confused. A glass of water is desired, but is not loved, when one is thirsty. Undoubtedly, desires are born of love; but love itself is not desire. We desire good fortune for our country, and we desire to live in it because we love it. Our love exists prior to these desires, and the desires spring from love like the plant form the seed.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf

Desire is often so difficult to distinguish from love because it is rooted in longing, but longing exists only in absence and evaporates at the moment of attainment, while love grows more saturated the more presence and energy it is given. A generation before the poet J.D. McClatchy contemplated the contrast and complementarity of desire and love, Ortega writes:

Desiring something is, without doubt, a move toward possession of that something (“possession” meaning that in some way or other the object should enter our orbit and become part of us). For this reason, desire automatically dies when it is fulfilled; it ends with satisfaction. Love, on the other hand, is enterally unsatisfied. Desire has a passive character; when I desire something, what I usually desire is that the object come to me. Being the center of gravity, I await things to fall down before me. Love… is the exact reverse of desire, for love is all activity. Instead of the object coming to me, it is I who go to the object and become a part of it. In the act of love, the person goes out of himself. Love is perhaps the supreme activity which nature affords anyone for going out of himself toward something else. It does not gravitate toward me, but I toward it… Love is gravitation toward that which is loved.

[…]

In loving we abandon the tranquility and permanence within ourselves, and virtually migrate toward the object. And this constant state of migration is what it is to be in love.

And yet, he concedes, desire can bloom into love:

One may sometimes grow to love what he desires: we desire what we love, because we love it.

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

The distinction between desire and love, Ortega observes, goes beyond that between the static and the active. Even more crucially, there is the distinction between possession and affirmation, between greed and generosity:

Desire enjoys that which is desired, derives satisfaction from it, but it offers nothing, it gives nothing, it has nothing to contribute… Love, on the other hand, reaches out to the object in a visual expansion and is involved in an invisible but divine task, the most active kind that there is: it is involved in the affirmation of its object.

[…]

Loving is perennial vivification, creation and intentional preservation of what is loved… a centrifugal act of the soul in constant flux that goes toward the object and envelops it in warm corroboration, uniting us with it and positively affirming its being.

Couple with Ortega on how the people we love reveal us, then revisit French philosopher Alain Badiou on why we fall and how we stay in love, Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love, and Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.


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 | 25 Apr 2024 | 5:52 am(NZT)

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.


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 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.


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 | 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.


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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 | 12 Apr 2024 | 1:12 pm(NZT)











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