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Coleridge on the Paradox of Friendship and Romantic Love

On sympathy, reciprocity, and satisfying the fulness of our nature.


Coleridge on the Paradox of Friendship and Romantic Love

All relationships are asymmetrical. But there are some asymmetries that fray the fabric of the relationship and maim both people involved — none more so than those of a deep friendship where one person feels the tug of romantic love and the other does not, cannot. The challenge, then, is how to preserve the sanctity of friendship from being crushed beneath the weight of unequal expectations.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) addressed this haunting paradox of friendship and romance in his marginalia while anguishing over a decade-deep chaste infatuation with his friend William Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson, all the while editing his literary journal, The Friend, which he dedicated to Sara.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In the margins of the 1669 classic Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne — himself a man of intense and anguished propensity for romantic friendship — the 38-year-old Coleridge writes:

Friendship satisfies the highest parts of our nature; but a [beloved], who is capable of friendship, satisfies all.

He contemplates why friendship alone will always feel less satisfying than a love that includes friendship but reigns supreme over all other relations:

We may love many persons, all very dearly; but we cannot love many persons, all equally dearly. There will be differences, there will be gradations — our nature imperiously asks a summit, a resting-place — it is with the affections in Love, as with the Reason in Religion — we cannot diffuse & equalize — we must have a SUPREME — a One the highest. All languages express this sentiment.

But such supremacy, Coleridge observes, is only real when buoyed by mutuality — by the sheer laws of logic, by the sheer laws of physics and their force-counterforce equivalence, there can be no such “summit” on one side only, or else it is merely an echo of selfishness or delusion. Pulsating beneath this fact is the necessity of accepting that, in some fundamental sense, all unrequited love is not real love but fantasia — and only by letting go of that fantastical longing can symmetry be restored to the lopsided relationship.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Coleridge writes:

In order that a person should continue to love another, better than all others, it seems necessary that this feeling should be reciprocal. For if it be not so, Sympathy is broken off in the very highest point. A. (we will say, by way of illustration) loves B. above all others, in the best & fullest sense of the word, love; but B. loves C. above all others. Either therefore A. does not sympathize with B. in this most important feeling; & then his Love must necessarily be incomplete, & accompanied with a craving after something that is not, & yet might be; or he does sympathize with B. in loving C. above all others — & then, of course, he loves C. better than B. Now it is selfishness, at least it seems so to me, to desire that your Friend should love you better than all others — but not to wish that a Wife should.

Coleridge considers the way a balanced love — be it friendship or romance — helps us integrate ourselves, uniting the mind and the heart into a single force-field of being:

The great business of real unostentatious Virtue is — not to eradicate any genuine instinct or appetite of human nature; but — to establish a concord and unity betwixt all parts of our nature, to give a Feeling & a Passion to our purer Intellect, and to intellectualize our feelings & passions.

Complement with Van Gogh on heartbreak and unrequited love as fuel for creativity and the philosopher-poet David Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then revisit Coleridge on the interplay of terror and transcendence in nature and human nature.


donating = loving

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


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Source: The Marginalian | 29 Mar 2023 | 6:54 am(NZT)

May Sarton on Grieving a Pet

“It is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal.”


May Sarton on Grieving a Pet

There is an ineffable comfort that our non-human companions bless upon our lives — those beings whose daily task it is to “bite every sorrow until it fled” — and with their loss comes an ineffable species of grief.

Two centuries after the young Lord Byron tried to put it into words in his soulful elegy for his beloved dog, the poet and novelist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) captured it in stirring prose in the wake of her beloved cat’s death, reflecting on the emotional rollercoaster of loss — the syncopation of grief and relief that is any death.

May Sarton

In a diary entry from the autumn of 1974, found in her uncommonly rewarding journal collection The House by the Sea, Sarton writes:

In some ways the death of an animal is worse than the death of a person. I wonder why. Partly it is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal, and also there is total dependency. I kept thinking as I drove home, this is all inside me, this grief, and I can’t explain it, nor do I want to, to anyone. Now, six days later, I begin to feel the immense relief of no longer being woken at five by angry miaows, “Hurry up, where’s my breakfast?” from the top of the stairs, no longer having to throw away box after box of half-eaten food because she was so finicky, no longer trundling up three flights with clean kitty litter — but, above all, no longer carrying her, a leaden weight, in my heart. She was the ghost at the feast, here where everything else is so happy. But, oh, my pussy, I wish for your rare purrs and for your sweet soft head butting gently against my arm to be caressed!

Complement with John Updike’s stirring elegy for his dog and Leonard Michaels’s playful, poignant meditation on how our cats reveal us to ourselves, then revisit May Sarton how to cultivate your talent, the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, the cure for despair, and her timeless ode to the art of being alone.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 28 Mar 2023 | 6:29 am(NZT)

Lichens and the Meaning of Life

“We are lichens on a grand scale.”


Lichens and the Meaning of Life

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” the great naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote a century later as he considered the meaning of life. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

Because of this delicate interconnectedness of life across time, space, and being, any littlest fragment of the universe can become a lens on the miraculous whole. Sometimes, it is the humblest life-forms that best intimate the majesty of life itself.

Take, for instance, lichens.

The Cowarne Red Apple with lichen, 1811. (Available as a print, as a backpack, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Lichens — which are not to be confused with mosses — are some of Earth’s oldest life-forms: emissaries of the ocean gone terrestrial. For epochs, their exact nature was a mystery — until an improbable revolutionary illuminated that they are, in fact, part algae.

In the final stretch of the nineteenth century, Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter punctuated her writing and her painting with a series of experiments with spores, demonstrating that lichens — which Linnaeus considered the “poor peasants of the plant world” — are in fact not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae: living reminders that the supreme vital force of life is not competition but interdependence, that we survive and thrive not through combat but through collaboration.

Lichens come alive as an enchanting miniature of the miraculous interconnectedness of nature in biologist David George Haskell’s altogether fascinating book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (public library).

Having previously written beautifully about the interleaving of life, Haskell details the ecological and evolutionary splendor of lichens as living symbiotes:

The quietude and outer simplicity of the lichens hides the complexity of their inner lives. Lichens are amalgams of two creatures: a fungus and either an alga or a bacterium. The fungus spreads the strands of its body over the ground and provides a welcoming bed. The alga or bacterium nestles inside these strands and uses the sun’s energy to assemble sugar and other nutritious molecules. As in any marriage, both partners are changed by their union. The fungus body spreads out, turning itself into a structure similar to a tree leaf: a protective upper crust, a layer for the light-capturing algae, and tiny pores for breathing. The algal partner loses its cell wall, surrenders protection to the fungus, and gives up sexual activities in favor of faster but less genetically exciting self-cloning. Lichenous fungi can be grown in the lab without their partners, but these widows are malformed and sickly. Similarly, algae and bacteria from lichens can generally survive without their fungal partners, but only in a restricted range of habitats. By stripping off the bonds of individuality the lichens have produced a world-conquering union. They cover nearly ten percent of the land’s surface, especially in the treeless far north, where winter reigns for most of the year.

Having so mastered the art of unselfing, lichens emerge as living testaments to the visionary evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world.” In their biology lies a poignant metaphor for how we think of the relationships that surround us, lacing our human lives:

Like a farmer tending her apple trees and her field of corn, a lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victors and victims makes little sense. Is corn oppressed? Does the farmer’s dependence on corn make her a victim? These questions are premised on a separation that does not exist. The heartbeat of humans and the flowering of domesticated plants are one life. “Alone” is not an option… Lichens add physical intimacy to this interdependence, fusing their bodies and intertwining the membranes of their cells, like cornstalks fused with the farmer, bound by evolution’s hand.

But the most beguiling manifestation of lichens’ gift for the art of relationship is found in how they acquire their haunting otherworldly color:

Blue or purple lichens contain blue-green bacteria, the cyanobacteria. Green lichens contain algae. Fungi mix in their own colors by secreting yellow or silver sunscreen pigments. Bacteria, algae, fungi: three venerable trunks of the tree of life twining their pigmented stems.

The algae’s verdure reflects an older union. Jewels of pigment deep inside algal cells soak up the sun’s energy. Through a cascade of chemistry this energy is transmuted into the bonds that join air molecules into sugar and other foods. This sugar powers both the algal cell and its fungal bedfellow. The sun-catching pigments are kept in tiny jewel boxes, chloroplasts, each of which is enclosed in a membrane and comes with its own genetic material. The bottle-green chloroplasts are descendants of bacteria that took up residence inside algal cells one and a half billion years ago. The bacterial tenants gave up their tough outer coats, their sexuality, and their independence, just as algal cells do when they unite with fungi to make lichens. Chloroplasts are not the only bacteria living inside other creatures. All plant, animal, and fungal cells are inhabited by torpedo-shaped mitochondria that function as miniature powerhouses, burning the cells’ food to release energy. These mitochondria were also once free-living bacteria and have, like the chloroplasts, given up sex and freedom in favor of partnership.

With an eye to the ancient union of bacterial genes that gave rise to all modern DNA, Haskell considers the elemental and existential role of symbiosis in every life, including our own:

We are Russian dolls, our lives made possible by other lives within us. But whereas dolls can be taken apart, our cellular and genetic helpers cannot be separated from us, nor we from them. We are lichens on a grand scale.

Complement with what remains the loveliest thing ever written about the symbiotic unself, then revisit bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer on the enchanting universe of moss and the poetic science of why leaves change color.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: The Marginalian | 26 Mar 2023 | 6:04 am(NZT)



An Introvert’s Field Guide to Friendship: Thoreau on the Challenges and Rewards of the Art of Connection

“We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.”


Friendship is the sunshine of life — the quiet radiance that makes our lives not only livable but worth living. (This is why we must use the utmost care in how we wield the word friend.) In my own life, friendship has been the lifeline for my darkest hours of despair, the magnifying lens for my brightest joys, the quiet pulse-beat beneath the daily task of living. You can glean a great deal about a person from the constellation of friends around the gravitational pull of their personhood. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed as she contemplated how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship. Her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson — whom she taught to look through a telescope — believed that all true friendship rests on two pillars. In his own life, he put the theory into practice in his friendship with his young protégé Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — a solitary and achingly introverted person himself, who thought deeply and passionately about the rewards and challenges of friendship.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

Like all unusual people, Thoreau had a hard time connecting. In a desponded diary entry from his mid-thirties, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library), he writes:

Why should I speak to my friends? for how rarely is it that I am I; and are they, then, they? We will meet, then, far away.

Several months later, just before the Christmas holidays with their cruel magnifying lens of loneliness for the lonely, he rues his inability to connect openheartedly:

My difficulties with my friends are such as no frankness will settle. There is no precept in the New Testament that will assist me. My nature, it may be, is secret. Others can confess and explain; I cannot.

Thoreau finds himself pocked with self-doubt about his ability to connect, his sense of isolation at times swelling into punitive despair:

Nothing makes me so dejected as to have met my friends, for they make me doubt if it is possible to have any friends. I feel what a fool I am.

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

Over and over, Thoreau anguishes with the extreme shyness and reticence of his nature, longs for a confidante beyond the diary page, longs for companionship beyond the birds and the trees. On a beautiful spring Sunday, he despairs:

I have got to that pass with my friend that our words do not pass with each other for what they are worth. We speak in vain; there is none to hear. He finds fault with me that I walk alone, when I pine for want of a companion; that I commit my thoughts to a diary even on my walks, instead of seeking to share them generously with a friend; curses my practice even. Awful as it is to contemplate, I pray that, if I am the cold intellectual skeptic whom he rebukes, his curse may take effect, and wither and dry up those sources of my life, and my journal no longer yield me pleasure nor life.

Months after publishing Walden, with its lyrical celebration of solitude, his loneliness deepens into a primal scream of longing for connection:

What if we feel a yearning to which no breast answers? I walk alone. My heart is full. Feelings impede the current of my thoughts. I knock on the earth for my friend. I expect to meet him at every turn; but no friend appears, and perhaps none is dreaming of me.

And yet this openhearted longing is itself the only real raw material of friendship — only by surrendering to it, with all the vulnerability this demands of us, do we become receptive to the longing of others, the mutual yearning for connection that is shared heartbeat of humanity. Thoreau quietly intuits this equivalence, so that when he does connect, when he does feel the warm glow of friendship envelop him, it is nothing less than an exultation:

Ah, my friends, I know you better than you think, and love you better, too.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

At only twenty-four, Thoreau had arrived at a foundational fact of living — his own grand unified theory of human connection, which he spent the remainder of his short life trying, often with touching difficulty, to put into practice:

Friends are those twain who feel their interests to be one. Each knows that the other might as well have said what he said. All beauty, all music, all delight springs from apparent dualism but real unity. My friend is my real brother.

Pulsating beneath all of his uneasy reckonings is a deep-thinking, deep-feeling recognition of the essence of friendship:

The field where friends have met is consecrated forever. Man seeks friendship out of the desire to realize a home here… The friend is like wax in the rays that fall from our own hearts. My friend does not take my word for anything, but he takes me. He trusts me as I trust myself. We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Complement these fragments from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau — a biblical kind of book, replete with his deep-souled wisdom on how to see more clearly, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — with Seneca on true and false friendship, Kahlil Gibran on the building blocks of meaningful connection, Henry Miller on the relationship between creativity and community, Lewis Thomas on the poetic science of why we are wired for connection, and this lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: The Marginalian | 24 Mar 2023 | 7:17 am(NZT)

From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

The making of our densely networked crucible of thought and tenderness.


From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

It seems inconceivable — that everything we know, everything we love, everything that ever was and ever will be, banged into being from the singularity, and out of that near-nothingness arose mitochondria and music and “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” all of it conspiring in the wonder of consciousness — the universe’s way of comprehending itself.

Down here on Earth, as if the way life evolved weren’t miracle enough, we were handed down through billions of years of evolution the miraculous benediction of brains — those densely networked crucibles of thought and tenderness, out of which our capacity for transcendence arises.

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s revolutionary drawings of the brain.

In an uncommonly poetic passage from his novel The Echo Maker (public library), Richard Powers traces the evolution of that benediction, from its cellular beginnings to its existential end:

Energy fell on an ancient cell; the cell registered. Some prodding set off a chemical cascade that incised the cell and changed its structure, forming a cast of the signals that fell on it. Eons later, two cells clasped, signaling each other, squaring the number of states they might inscribe. The link between them altered. The cells fired easier with each fire, their changing connections remembering a trace of the outside. A few dozen such cells slung together in a lowly slug: already an infinitely reshaping machine, halfway to knowing. Matter that mapped other matter, a plastic record of light and sound, place and motion, change and resistance. Some billions of years and hundreds of billions of neurons later, and these webbed cells wired up a grammar — a notion of nouns and verbs and even prepositions. Those recording synapses, bent back onto themselves — brain piggy-backing and reading itself as it read the world — exploded into hopes and dreams, memories more elaborate than the experience that chiseled them, theories of other minds, invented places as real and detailed as anything material, themselves matter, microscopic electro-etched worlds within the world, a shape for every shape out there, with infinite shapes left over: all dimensions springing from this thing the universe floats in. But never hot or cold, solid or soft, left or right, high or low, but only the image, the store. Only the play of likeness cut by chemical cascades, always undoing the state that did the storing. Semaphores at night, cobbling up even the cliff they signaled from… Unsponsored, impossible, near-omnipotent, and infinitely fragile.

Complement with the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas’s forgotten masterpiece The Fragile Species and the fascinating science of how we think not with the brain but with the world, then revisit Powers on the power of music, living in bewilderment, and how to begin rewriting our planetary future.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 22 Mar 2023 | 6:44 am(NZT)



O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

The ultimate anthem of resistance to the assaults on life.


O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

There is a nonspecific gladness that envelops humanity in the first days of spring, as if kindness itself were coming abloom in the cracks of crowded sidewalks, quelling our fears, swallowing our sorrows, salving the savage loneliness. We are reminded then that spring — this insentient byproduct of the shape of our planet’s orbit and the tilt of its axis — may just be Earth’s existential superpower, the supreme affirmation of life in the face of every assault on it.

That superpower comes alive with dazzling might in a century-old poem by E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962), originally published in his 1923 collection Tulips & Chimneys (public library) — that epochal gauntlet at the conventions of poetry, which went on to influence generations of writers, readers, and daring makers of the unexampled across the spectrum of creative work — and read at the fifth annual Universe in Verse by the polymathic creative force that is Debbie Millman, with a side of Bach.

[O SWEET SPONTANEOUS]
by e.e. cummings

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
the
doting

            fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched
and
poked

thee
,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
thy

        beauty    how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
gods
        (but
true

to the incomparable
couch of death thy
rhythmic
lover

            thou answerest

them only with

                        spring)

Couple with spring with Emily Dickinson, then revisit E.E. Cummings (who, contrary to popular myth, signed his name both lowercase and capitalized) on the courage to be yourself.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor Roxane Gay reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To the Young Who Want to Die,” Zoë Keating reading Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” Rebecca Solnit reading Helene Johnson’s “Trees at Night,” and a series of animated poems celebrating nature.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 21 Mar 2023 | 4:28 am(NZT)

The Value of Being Wrong: Lewis Thomas on Generative Mistakes

In praise of our “property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.”


The Value of Being Wrong: Lewis Thomas on Generative Mistakes

We know that life is the self-correcting mechanism for error — as much in its evolutionary history as in its existential reality. And yet we are living our lives under the tyranny of perfection, as if all the right answers await us at the end of some vector we must follow infallibly until we arrive at the ultimate ideal. But the truth is that we simply don’t know — we don’t know where life ultimately leads, we don’t know what we want or what to want, and we don’t really know ourselves. It is by erring again and again that we find the shape of the path, by tripping again and again that we learn to walk it. Along the way, the answers emerge not before us but in us.

Van Gogh knew this when he reckoned with how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) knew it when he composed his wonderful essay “To Err Is Human,” found in his 1979 collection The Medusa and the Snail (public library) — one of my all-time favorite books.

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

With an eye to the advances in so-called artificial intelligence that our machines made in a blink of evolutionary time — the fruition of Samuel Butler’s prescient Victorian prophecy of the emergency of a new “mechanical kingdom” of life — Thomas writes:

A good computer can think clearly and quickly, enough to beat you at chess, and some of them have even been programmed to write obscure verse. They can do anything we can do, and more besides.

An epoch before ChatGPT, he adds:

As extensions of the human brain, they have been constructed with the same property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.

Rather than measuring the merit of our machines the punitive way we measure our own — by fidelity to some ideal of perfection — Thomas argues that this capacity for error is the supreme gift of the mind, of the more-than-machine we live inside, capable of surprising itself and capable, therefore, of glorious deviations from course, into new vistas of possibility:

Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. We get along in life this way. We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.

We learn, as we say, by “trial and error.” Why do we always say that? Why not “trial and rightness” or “trial and triumph”? The old phrase puts it that way because that is, in real life, the way it is done.

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

This generative possibility of being wrong is by definition a function of the friction around being right — contention is the crucible of creation, within us and between us. (The great writer and jazz scholar Albert Murray called this creative friction “antagonistic cooperation.”) Thomas observes:

Whenever new kinds of thinking are about to be accomplished, or new varieties of music, there has to be an argument beforehand. With two sides debating in the same mind, haranguing, there is an amiable understanding that one is right and the other wrong. Sooner or later the thing is settled, but there can be no action at all if there are not the two sides, and the argument. The hope is in the faculty of wrongness, the tendency toward error. The capacity to leap across mountains of information to land lightly on the wrong side represents the highest of human endowments.

The possibility of wrong choices is itself an assurance of multiple options — a multiplicity that is always our best bet for creative paths forward that transcend the blockages of the past. Thomas writes:

We are at our human finest, dancing with our minds, when there are more choices than two. Sometimes there are ten, even twenty different ways to go, all but one bound to be wrong, and the richness of selection in such situations can lift us onto totally new ground. This process is called exploration and is based on human fallibility. If we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made, instead of the jumble of different, credulous, easily conned clusters of neurons that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.

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

In a sentiment that applies as much to our personal existential evolution as to the collective creative challenge of abating climate change, he adds:

What we need, then, for moving ahead, is a set of wrong alternatives much longer and more interesting than the short list of mistaken courses that any of us can think up right now… If it is a big enough mistake, we could find ourselves on a new level, stunned, out in the clear, ready to move again.

Complement with philosopher Daniel Dennett on the art-science of making fertile mistakes and philosopher Amélie Rorty on the value of our self-delusions, then revisit Lewis Thomas on the mystery of the self, our human potential, and his forgotten masterpiece about how to live with ourselves and each other.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 19 Mar 2023 | 6:11 am(NZT)

May Sarton on How to Cultivate Your Talent

“A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used.”


May Sarton on How to Cultivate Your Talent

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin bellowed in his advice on writing. “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

There is a reason we call our creative endowments gifts — they come to us unbidden from an impartial universe, dealt by the unfeeling hand of chance. The degree to which we are able to rise to our gifts, the passionate doggedness with which we show up for them day in and day out, is what transmutes talent into greatness. It is the responsibility that earns us the right of our own creative force.

That is what the great poet, novelist, and playwright May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in an entry from her altogether magnificent journal The House by the Sea (public library).

May Sarton

With an eye to a young writer she was mentoring, Sarton reflects:

One must believe in one’s talent to take the long hard push and pull ahead, but a talent is like a plant… It may simply wither if it is not given enough food, sun, tender care. And to give it those things means working at it every day.

Echoing Mary Oliver’s admonition that “the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time,” Sarton adds:

A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used. Closing the gap between expectation and reality can be painful, but it has to be done sooner or later. The fact is that millions of young people would like to write, but what they dream of is the published book, often skipping over the months and years of very hard work necessary to achieve that end — all that, and luck too. We tend to forget about luck.

Complement this fragment of The House by the Sea (public library) — which also gave us Sarton on how to live openheartedly in a harsh world — with poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, discipline, and the two driving forces of creative work, Jennifer Egan on the most important discipline in creative work, and Maria Konnikova on the psychology of luck, then revisit Sarton’s spare, splendid poem about the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, her ode to the art of being alone, and her cure for despair.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: The Marginalian | 18 Mar 2023 | 4:27 am(NZT)

Stunning 200-Year-Old French Illustrations of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Birds

From peacocks to penguins, a winged menagerie of wonder.


“How can the bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing?” wrote William Blake, who lived in the golden age of the cage as entertainment. Zoos were new and exciting, and people readily overlooked their cruelty to slake their curiosity about creatures from faraway lands. But even so, zoos held only a tiny fraction of the dazzling variousness of the animal kingdom — in the age before photography, before easy global travel, the average person encountered the wondrous strangeness of animals not in the cage but on the page.

In the 1820s, a French natural history encyclopedia titled La Galerie de Oiseaux set out to bring to European eyes the most exquisite birds of North America, many of them now endangered, some extinct. Radiating from the consummate illustrations is the quiet dignity of these bright emissaries of our planet’s evolutionary history — feathered inheritors of the dinosaurs, winged with a kaleidoscope of joy.

Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as a bath mat.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as a bath mat.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as a bath mat.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as a bath mat.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Complement with some consummate centuries-old illustrations of monkeys, owls, lizards, butterflies, and flowers.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 17 Mar 2023 | 1:19 pm(NZT)

The Transcendent Brain: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Spirituality for the Science-Spirited

A largehearted invitation to “stand on the precipice between the known and the unknown, without fear, without anxiety, but instead with awe and wonder at this strange and beautiful cosmos we find ourselves in.”


The Transcendent Brain: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Spirituality for the Science-Spirited

“That is happiness,” Willa Cather wrote, “to be dissolved into something complete and great.” We have many names for that dissolution, all revolving around some sense of spirituality and they all involving what Iris Murdoch so splendidly termed “unselfing” — experiences, most often furnished by art, music, and nature, that allow us to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

At the heart of both our spirituality and our science lies this eternal yearning to know the world as it really is — a yearning with an infinite vector, pointing always just past the horizon of our knowledge, anchored always in the most elemental nature of the human animal: our curiosity, our restlessness, our hunger for truth and transcendence.

And yet the reflex of selfing, which stands so often between us and elemental truth, between us and transcendence, is hard-wired in our physiology — our entire experience of reality is lensed through our individual consciousness, housed in the brain and tendrilled through the body. Coursing through our nervous system as electrical signals beckoning to neurons are the tremors of falling in love and the anguish of grief, all of our feelings meted out by charged particles moving at eighty feet per second. The stuff of poetry and the stuff of dreams, all a particulate cloud of coruscating matter.

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

In The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sets out to illuminate how these atomic constellations can be capable of such exultant spiritual experiences, aglow with such shimmering feelings. From the prescient atomic materialism of Lucretius to Maxwell’s equations, from the poems of Emily Dickinson to the synchronized firing of neurons in recognizing a loved one’s face, from the Hindu concept of darshan — the beholding of a deity or sacred object — to the cosmic wonders we have beheld through the “oracle eye” of our majestic space telescopes, he argues that spiritual experiences “are as natural as hunger or love or desire, given a brain of sufficient complexity.” Radiating from the millennia-wide inquiry is a revelation about how mere atoms and molecules can give rise to the very persuasive experience of a self, of a soul, of something that feels so vast and complex and magnificently irreducible to matter.

He writes:

I’m a scientist and have always had a scientific view of the world — by which I mean that the universe is made of material stuff, and only material stuff, and that stuff is governed by a small number of fundamental laws. Every phenomenon has a cause, which originates in the physical universe. I’m a materialist. Not in the sense of seeking happiness in cars and nice clothes, but in the literal sense of the word: the belief that everything is made out of atoms and molecules, and nothing more. Yet, I have transcendent experiences. I communed with two ospreys that summer in Maine. I have feelings of being part of things larger than myself. I have a sense of connection to other people and to the world of living things, even to the stars. I have a sense of beauty. I have experiences of awe. And I’ve had transporting creative moments.

The aggregate of these very different types of experiences, echoes of which reverberate through every human life, is what he terms “spirituality” — a notion he nests inside the paradox of materiality and irreducibility:

I believe that the spiritual experiences we have can arise from atoms and molecules. At the same time, some of these experiences, and certainly their very personal and subjective nature, cannot be fully understood in terms of atoms and molecules. I believe in the laws of chemistry and biology and physics — in fact, as a scientist I much admire those laws — but I don’t think they capture, or can capture, the first-person experience of making eye contact with wild animals and similar transcendent moments. Some human experiences are simply not reducible to zeros and ones.

Therein lies the paradox — given that “all mental sensations are rooted in the material neurons of the nervous system and the electrical and chemical interactions between them,” how can this inescapable materiality wing us with such feelings of spirituality?

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

He gives a radiant answer in an orientation he calls “spiritual materialism” — the idea that even with a lucid understanding of how nature works, and how we work as material miniatures of nature’s laws, we are capable of transcendent experiences arising from the dazzling tessellation of atoms we call consciousness. Those experiences contour our highest humanity: our investment in living a moral life and stewarding the happiness of others, our capacity for awe and wonder, our sensitivity to beauty.

Recounting his own earliest memory of a spiritual experience as a child enchanted with the scientific method, he writes:

Although as a child I developed a scientific view of the world, I also understood that not all things were subject to quantitative analysis… I was about nine years old. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was alone in a bedroom of my home in Memphis, Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away. Suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a great chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant. A speck in a huge universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence — a universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once… Despite the dismal feeling that the universe didn’t care a whit about me, I did feel connected to something far larger than myself.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Again and again, he returns to this feeling of connection to something beyond the self as the crucible of our transcendent experiences and the beating heart of everything we call spirituality:

A common feature of all aspects of spirituality is a loss of self, a letting go, a willingness to embrace something outside of ourselves, a willingness to listen rather than talk, a recognition that we are small and the cosmos is large.

And yet this too is a psychological paradox rooted in our physiology:

Most transcendent experiences are completely ego-free. In the moment, we lose track of time and space, we lose track of our bodies, we lose track of our selves. We dissolve. And yet… spirituality emerges from consciousness and the material brain. And the paramount signature of consciousness is a sense of self, an “I-ness” distinct from the rest of the cosmos. Thus, curiously, a thing centered on self creates a thing absent of self.

[…]

More self, less connection to the larger world.

Since the dawn of our species, myths and religions have tried to resolve this paradox with the concept of the soul — a vessel of I-ness that exists beyond the material realm, often conceived of as a kind of supra-energy. And yet despite the long cultural and theological history of belief in an immaterial soul, in reality all energy is accounted for by the forces of nature and their descriptive equations. He considers how our mortality — the entropic fate of all matter, the antipode of the myth of the immortal soul — is the true crucible of our connection to each other and the immensity beyond us, the wellspring of all of our creativity:

For me, the notion that our atoms were once part of other people and will again become part of other people after we die provides a meaningful connectedness between us and the rest of humanity, future and past.

[…]

Our inescapable death may be the single most powerful fact of our brief existence in this strange cosmos where we find ourselves. Indeed, one could argue that much of our thinking, our view of the world, our artistic expression, and our religious beliefs involve coming to terms with this fundamental fact.

The fact of our death is also what binds us to all life, stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, reminding us of the borrowed stardust that we are:

If you could tag each of the atoms in your body and follow them backward in time, through the air that you breathed during your life, through the food that you ate, back through the geological history of the Earth, through the ancient seas and soil, back to the formation of the Earth out of the solar nebular cloud, and then out into interstellar space, you could trace each of your atoms, those exact atoms, to particular massive stars in the past of our galaxy. At the end of their lifetimes, those stars exploded and spewed out their newly forged atoms into space, later to condense into planets and oceans and plants and your body at this moment.

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

Drawing on his splendid earlier writings about what actually happens when we die, he projects this atomic tagging forward into a future in which his I-ness is no more:

The atoms in my body will remain, only they will be scattered about. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment. Some will once have been part of my hand. If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocean, and then floated again to the air. And some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people. So, we are literally connected to the stars, and we are literally connected to future generations of people. In this way, even in a material universe, we are connected to all things future and past.

Radiating from the remainder of The Transcendent Brain, as it traces the history of science and the history of culture, is a largehearted invitation to “stand on the precipice between the known and the unknown, without fear, without anxiety, but instead with awe and wonder at this strange and beautiful cosmos we find ourselves in.” Complement it with Rachel Carson on science and our spiritual bond with nature, then revisit the great naturalist John Burroughs’s century-old manifesto for spirituality in the age of science.


donating = loving

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


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 | 15 Mar 2023 | 9:36 am(NZT)

The Life of Trees: A Poem

“I want to sleep and dream the life of trees, beings from the muted world…”


The Life of Trees: A Poem

We see ourselves in them. We lean on them for lessons on how to be more human and what resilience means. They are our timekeepers, our spiritual guides, our kin.

I spend a great deal of time in an old-growth forest awned by trees older than me by centuries. Trees beneath which thousands of other humans have walked on feet that are no more, carrying their sorrows and their dreams in hearts that are now soil. Trees that have witnessed world wars and weddings, that have been growing since before we built the bomb and decoded the human genome, before Einstein dreamt up relativity and Nina Simone dreamt up “Mississippi Goddam,” some of them alive when Bach was alive.

I often wonder what they would say if they could speak. But perhaps they would say nothing at all — perhaps they would speak a truth beyond words.

That is what poet Dorianne Laux intimates in her lovely poem “The Life of Trees,” found in her collection Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems (public library) and read here to the sound of cellist and composer Zoë Keating’s piece “Optimist” from her transcendent record Into the Trees.

THE LIFE OF TREES
by Dorianne Laux

The pines rub their great noise
into the spangled dark, scratch
their itchy boughs against the house,
and the moan’s mystery translates roughly
into drudgery of ownership: time
to drag the ladder from the shed,
climb onto the roof with a saw
between my teeth, cut
those suckers down. What’s reality
if not a long exhaustive cringe
from the blade, the teeth? I want to sleep
and dream the life of trees, beings
from the muted world who care
nothing for Money, Politics, Power,
Will or Right, who want little from the night
but a few dead stars going dim, a white owl
lifting from their limbs, who want only
to sink their roots into the wet ground
and terrify the worms or shake
their bleary heads like fashion models
or old hippies. If trees could speak
they wouldn’t, only hum some low
green note, roll their pinecones
down the empty streets and blame it,
with a shrug, on the cold wind.
During the day they sleep inside
their furry bark, clouds shredding
like ancient lace above their crowns.
Sun. Rain. Snow. Wind. They fear
nothing but the Hurricane, and Fire,
that whipped bully who rises up
and becomes his own dead father.
In the storms the young ones
bend and bend and the old know
they may not make it, go down
with the power lines sparking,
broken at the trunk. They fling
their branches, forked sacrifice
to the beaten earth. They do not pray.
If they make a sound it’s eaten
by the wind. And though the stars
return they do not offer thanks, only
ooze a sticky sap from their roundish
concentric wounds, straighten their spines
and breathe, and breathe again.

Complement with Mary Oliver’s poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and Helene Johnson’s “Trees at Night,” then revisit Hermann Hesse’s poetic century-old love letter to trees.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 14 Mar 2023 | 2:13 pm(NZT)

2,000 Years of Kindness

From Marcus Aurelius to Einstein, poets and philosophers on the deepest wellspring of our humanity.


“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful 1957 letter to his first wife turned lifelong friend. “Kindness, kindness, kindness,” Susan Sontag resolved in her diary on New Year’s Day in 1972. Half a century later, the Dalai Lama placed a single exhortation at the center of his ethical and ecological philosophy: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Nothing broadens the soul more than the touch of kindness, given or received, and nothing shrivels it more than a flinch of unkindness, given or received — something we have all been occasionally lashed with, and something of which we are all occasionally culpable, no matter how ethical our lives and how well-intentioned our conduct. Everyone loves the idea of kindness — loves thinking of themselves as a kind person — but somehow, the practice of it, the dailiness of it, has receded into the background in a culture rife with selfing and cynicism, a culture in which we have come to mistake the emotional porousness of kindness for a puncture in the armor of our hard individualism. And yet kindness remains our best antidote to the fundamental loneliness of being human.

Gathered here are two millennia of meditations on kindness — its challenges, its nuances, and its rippling rewards — from a posy of vast minds and vast spirits who have risen above the common tide of their times to give us the embers of timelessness.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Century-old art by the adolescent Virginia Frances Sterrett. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)
MARCUS AURELIUS

Once a heartbroken queer teenager raised by a single mother, Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) was saved by Stoic philosophy, then tried to save a dying world with it when he came to rule Rome as the last of its Five Good Emperors. Across the epochs, he goes on saving us with the sonorous undertone of his entire philosophy — his humming insistence on kindness as the only effective antidote to all of life’s assaults. In his timeless Meditations (public library) — notes on life he had written largely to himself while learning how to live more nobly in an uncertain world that blindsides us as much with its beauty as with its brutality — he returns again and again to kindness and the importance of extending it to everyone equally at all times, because even at their cruelest, which is their most irrational, human beings are endowed with reason and dignity they can live up to.

Drawing on the other great refrain that carries his philosophy — the insistence that embracing our mortality is the key to living fully — he writes:

You should bear in mind constantly that death has come to men* of all kinds, men with varied occupations and various ethnicities… We too will inevitably end up where so many [of our heroes] have gone… Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates… brilliant intellectuals, high-minded men, hard workers, men of ingenuity, self-confident men, men… who mocked the very transience and impermanence of human life…. men… long dead and buried… Only one thing is important: to behave throughout your life toward the liars and crooks around you with kindness, honesty, and justice.

The key to kindness, he observes, is keeping “the purity, lucidity, moderation, and justice of your mind” from being sullied by the actions of those you encounter, no matter how disagreeable and discomposed by unreason they may be. In a passage itself defying the laziness of labels, rooted in a metaphor more evocative of a Buddhist parable or a Transcendentalist diary entry or a Patti Smith Instagram poem than of a Stoic dictum, he writes:

Suppose someone standing by a clear, sweet spring were to curse it: it just keeps right on bringing drinkable water bubbling up to the surface. Even if he throws mud or dung in it, before long the spring disperses the dirt and washes it out, leaving no stain. So how are you to have the equivalent of an ever-flowing spring? If you preserve your self-reliance at every hour, and your kindness, simplicity, and morality.

LEO TOLSTOY

In the middle of his fifty-fifth year, reflecting on his imperfect life and his own moral failings, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) set out to construct a manual for morality by compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” whose wisdom “gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness” — thinkers and spiritual leaders who have shed light on what is most important in living a rewarding and meaningful life. Such a book, Tolstoy envisioned, would tell a person “about the Good Way of Life.” He spent the next seventeen years on the project. In 1902, by then seriously ill and facing his own mortality, Tolstoy finally completed the manuscript under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. It was published two years later, in Russian, but it took nearly a century for the first English translation to appear: A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library). For each day of the year, Tolstoy had selected several quotes by great thinkers around a particular theme, then contributed his own thoughts on the subject, with kindness as the pillar of the book’s moral sensibility.

Perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the clenching of heart induced by winter’s coldest, darkest days, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year, he writes in the entry for January 7:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

At the end of the month, in a sentiment Carl Sagan would come to echo in his lovely invitation to meet ignorance with kindness, Tolstoy writes:

You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.

In the entry for February 3, he revisits the subject:

Kindness is for your soul as health is for your body: you do not notice it when you have it.

After copying out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham (“A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.”) and John Ruskin (“The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.”), Tolstoy adds:

Love is real only when a person can sacrifice himself for another person. Only when a person forgets himself for the sake of another, and lives for another creature, only this kind of love can be called true love, and only in this love do we see the blessing and reward of life. This is the foundation of the world.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

In a 1931 essay for the magazine Forum and Century, later included in his altogether indispensable book Ideas and Opinions (public library), Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) writes:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.

ROSS GAY

In The Book of Delights (public library) — his soul-broadening yearlong experiment in willful gladness — the poet and gardener Ross Gay recounts harvesting carrots from the garden with his partner, and pirouettes in his signature way of long sunlit sentences into a meditation on the etymology of kindness:

Today we pulled the carrots from the garden that Stephanie sowed back in March. She planted two kinds: a red kind shaped like a standard kind, and a squat orange kind with a French name, a kind I recall the packet calling a “market variety,” probably because, like the red kind, it’s an eye-catcher. And sweet, which I learned nibbling a couple of both kinds like Bugs Bunny as I pulled them.

The word kind meaning type or variety, which you have noticed I have used with some flourish, is among the delights, for it puts the kindness of carrots front and center in this discussion (good for your eyes, yummy, etc.), in addition to reminding us that kindness and kin have the same mother. Maybe making those to whom we are kind our kin. To whom, even, those we might be. And that circle is big.

ADAM PHILLIPS & BARBARA TAYLOR

In the plainly titled, tiny, enormously rewarding book On Kindness (public library), psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor observe that although kindness is central to all of our major spiritual traditions, it has somehow become “our forbidden pleasure.” They write:

We usually know what the kind thing to do is — and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not… We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Defining kindness as “the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself,” they chronicle its decline in the values of our culture:

The kind life — the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others — is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life. We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are pleasures greater than kindness…

In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.

Returning to their foundational definition of kindness, they add:

Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t also resilient and resourceful. Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it — entails being able to bear one’s own. Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other.

GEORGE SAUNDERS

In his wonderful commencement address turned book, the lyrical and largehearted George Saunders addresses those just embarking on the adventure of life with hard-won wisdom wrested from his own experience of being human among humans:

I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

But kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include… well, everything.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE

Most failures of kindness, most triumphs of cruelty, are flinches of fear, unreconciled in the soul. In 1978, drawing on a jarring real-life experience, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye captured the difficult, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and empathic wingspan that has since become a classic, turned into an animated short film and included in countless anthologies, among them the wondrous 100 Poems to Break Your Heart (public library).

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


donating = loving

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


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Source: The Marginalian | 13 Mar 2023 | 5:22 am(NZT)

How to Bear Your Loneliness: Grounding Wisdom from the Great Buddhist Teacher Pema Chödrön

“We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.”


How to Bear Your Loneliness: Grounding Wisdom from the Great Buddhist Teacher Pema Chödrön

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” the artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary. How much trust and love we wrest from life and lavish upon life is largely a matter of how well we have befriended our existential loneliness — a fundamental fact of every human existence that coexists with our delicate interconnectedness, each a parallel dimension of our lived reality, each pulsating beneath our days.

In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library) — her timeless field guide to transformation through difficult times — the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explores what it takes to cultivate “a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness,” to transmute it into a different kind of “relaxing and cooling loneliness” that subverts our ordinary terror of the existential void.

Sunlit Solitude by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

She writes:

When we draw a line down the center of a page, we know who we are if we’re on the right side and who we are if we’re on the left side. But we don’t know who we are when we don’t put ourselves on either side. Then we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness, settling down with cool loneliness. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what’s happening.

In Buddhism, all suffering is a form of resistance to reality, a form of attachment to desires and ideas about how the world should be. By befriending our loneliness, we begin to meet reality on its own terms and to find contentment with the as-is nature of life, complete with all of its uncertainty. Chödrön writes:

We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being. Our habitual assumptions — all our ideas about how things are — keep us from seeing anything in a fresh, open way… We don’t ultimately know anything. There’s no certainty about anything. This basic truth hurts, and we want to run away from it. But coming back and relaxing with something as familiar as loneliness is good discipline for realizing the profundity of the unresolved moments of our lives. We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.

Lone Man by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

So faced, loneliness becomes a kind of mirror — one into which we must look with maximum compassion, one that beams back to us our greatest strength:

Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and heartache, no punishment. Cool loneliness doesn’t provide any resolution or give us ground under our feet. It challenges us to step into a world of no reference point without polarizing or solidifying. This is called the middle way, or the sacred path of the warrior.

Complement with Rachel Carson on the relationship between loneliness and creativity and Barry Lopez on the cure for our existential loneliness, then revisit poet May Sarton’s splendid century-old ode to the art of being contentedly alone.


donating = loving

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


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

Source: The Marginalian | 12 Mar 2023 | 1:00 am(NZT)

The Stunning Mystical Paintings of the 16th-Century Portuguese Artist Francisco de Holanda

Blake before Blake, Hilma before Hilma.


In 1543 — the year Copernicus published his revolutionary treatise on the heliocentric universe and promptly died — the Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda (c. 1517–June 19, 1585) began working on a series of mystical paintings, which would consume the next three decades of his life, eventually culminating in his book De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines: Images of the Ages of the World.

Francisco de Holanda, self-portrait circa 1573

Francisco was only twenty when he became a professional illuminator of religious manuscripts, following in his father’s footsteps. By thirty, he had studied with Michelangelo in Italy.

It was during that period, as he was finding his artistic voice and spiritual footing, that he began working on his paintings exploring the relationship between the human and the divine.

Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Despite his heavy immersion in the figurative aesthetic of the Renaissance, he punctuated his more traditional religious paintings with elements of geometry and astronomy that lent his art a spirit of the future. He was Blake before Blake and Hilma af Klint before Hilma af Klint, a quarter millennium ahead.

Permeating his paintings and his writings is an obsession with symmetry — symmetry as evidence of the perfection of God, an epoch before Emmy Noether illuminated the perfection of mathematics, consonant with his contemporary Galileo’s insistence that “mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.”

Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.
Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Complement with the stunning astronomical art of the 17th-century self-taught German artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart and poet A. Van Jordan’s love letter to symmetry and our search for meaning, then revisit the story of how William Blake attained his unexampled vision.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 9 Mar 2023 | 4:12 pm(NZT)

Nikolai Vavilov and the Living Library of Resilience: The Story of the World’s First Seed Bank and the Tragic Hero of Science Who Set Out to End Humanity’s Suffering

The most moving story of self-sacrifice in the history of science.


I spent large swaths of my childhood by my grandmother’s side in rural Bulgaria as she tended to her subsistence garden, tilling and planting, watering and weeding. Each August, we did something that felt to me like partaking of magic — we would choose the sweetest, most succulent tomatoes from the vine, cut them open, carefully extract the seeds, and lay them out on newspaper to dry, knowing that they would become next spring’s seedlings and, with nothing more than sunlight and water, next summer’s bright red orbs of delight. So it is that, year after year, my grandmother refined her tomatoes into a cornucopia of unparalleled sweetness and perfection. Last summer’s seeds are already growing as I write.

This magic was made possible by a visionary of science who set out to save humanity and died for his values the year my grandmother turned nine.

Tomato, or Love-Apple, from Elizabeth Blackwell’s pioneering 1737 encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

While the physicist Sergei Vavilov was presiding over Stalin’s Academy of Sciences and spearheading the Soviet atomic bomb project, his idealistic older brother was laboring at something of orthogonal impact on humanity — a way to end an elemental form of suffering that has haunted our species since its dawn.

The botanist, geneticist, and explorer Nikolai Vavilov (November 25, 1887–January 26, 1943) was still a boy when he arrived at his dream of ending famine. He had heard his father’s stories of growing up in poverty and constant hunger due to crop failures. When Nikolai himself was four, the early arrival of winter decimated crops all over the country, sending millions into starvation. All the tsar could do was offer his subjects “famine bread” — loaves made of milled husks, bark, weeds, and moss, rationed out in the freezing cold. Vavilov’s father had spent his life rising from poverty and now had a comfortable life as a merchant, so the family was protected from the worst of the famine — but from his precarious island of comfort, the boy watched the ocean of suffering and sorrowed. Half a million peasants perished that winter as the aristocracy feasted on imported delicacies from Europe — grim structural inequality that became the ignition spark for the long-seething people’s revolution a quarter century later.

Vavilov saw the contours of a different kind of revolution — one no one else could envision, not in Russia and not anywhere in the world.

Nikolai Vavilov

He wrote in the diary of his youth:

Do what you can. If you can’t do something you wanted to do, then you will be forgiven, but if you don’t want to try to do anything, you will not be forgiven.

He decided to do nothing less than end the world’s hunger, vowing in his diary to devote his life to science — an endeavor aimed at “everything that brings joy, calmness of emotion and reason” — so that he may “understanding nature for the betterment of humankind.”

After graduating from the Soviet agricultural academy as a botanist, he set out to travel through Europe and absorb all he could from the best scientists in every related discipline. In England, he worked with William Bateson, who had coined the word genetics to explain heredity and had pioneered the study of this script for transmitting the message of life.

Upon returning to Russia, Vavilov founded an institute under which to commence the great project of his life — collaborating with nature on enhancing her strengths and allaying her weaknesses by using the new science of genetics to cultivate plant species that would thrive in conditions none had survived before. He had a revolutionary insight: There must be wild varieties of common agricultural plants with different genes that make them more resilient than their farmed cousins — genes that could be used to strengthen agricultural crops by breeding stronger species that would feed humanity even through droughts and freezes. He called them his miracle plants. It wasn’t just an idealist’s dream — he knew the science that would make it a reality, and he would devote his life to it.

When World War I broke out, Vavilov, already established as a preeminent botanist, was dispatched to present-day Iran to solve a mystery — Soviet soldiers there were suffering from brain fog and inexplicable dizziness. He discovered that the mysterious malady was caused by a fungus growing on the wheat of which their bread was made. As bullets flew around him, Vavilov carefully collected samples of local plants, wrapped them in wax paper, and tucked them into his breast pocket. He didn’t yet know it, but this was the birth of Earth’s largest botanical collection.

The pea by French artist Paul Sougy. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

When a drought lashed Russia in 1921 and killed the harvest, more than 5 million people died of starvation in a year, most of them peasants. Vavilov grew determined to never let this happen to anyone again. He understood that if he could equip farmers with the basic science of genetics, they could control for which traits of their crops would dominate, rather than entrusting their harvest to the roulette of chance — they could do what my grandmother did with her tomatoes, selecting for the best traits year over year. Mendel had made a science of agriculture by expressing mathematically the probabilities of genetic variance. Vavilov set out to make of that science an art of resilience, having vowed as a young man to “work for the benefit of the poor, the enslaved class of my country, to raise their level of knowledge.”

He spent the 1920s roaming the world to collect wild varieties of staple foods. He slept little, smiled much, and trekked through the jungle in his tailored three-piece suit, tie, and felt fedora. He traveled to places frequented by droughts and food shortages, from Africa to the Middle East, taking care to learn the language and talk to locals about their lore of growing food in inhospitable conditions. He traveled to the birthplaces of the most nutritious plants. In Brazil, he got cacao, oranges, mangoes, and papayas. In China, poppy and sugarcane. In Korea, soybeans and rice. In Ethiopia, he discovered the mother plant from which all the world’s coffee originated.

Cacao by Étienne Denisse from his Flore d’Amérique, 1846. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

By the end of the decade, Vavilov had completed numerous ethnobotanical expeditions to collect hundreds of thousands of seeds from five continents, including many places where no scientist had set foot before. He was quietly building something unexampled: the world’s first seed bank — a living library of biodiversity that would come to the rescue of the people of any land whose crops were decimated by a drought or a blight. There were 600 kinds of apples and more than a thousand varieties of strawberries among its quarter million plants — a lush repository of resilience, housed at Vavilov’s institute in Leningrad.

Lenin, who had assumed power in the 1917 Russian Revolution, had immediately recognized the political value of Vavilov’s humanistic work — its insurance against the country’s crop failures, its promise of making Russia a superpower of global food production — and had thrown his full support behind it. But when he died in 1924, everything changed.

As Stalin usurped power, he forced peasant farmers off their farms and into large industrial agriculture collectives — tumult that disrupted the harvest and hurled the country into mass starvation. He knew that a widespread famine would hamper his revolution; he knew that more resilient crops would be the solution. But it was not Vavilov’s science he turned to.

On August 7, 1927, Pravda — the newspaper voice of the Communist Party — published a fawning profile of a young “barefoot scientist” in rural Azerbaijan who had never gone to university but was promising an agrarian revolution.

Trofim Lysenko considered scientific education “harmful nonsense.” He rejected Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics, instead subscribing to Lamarckian inheritance with its outlandish claim that organisms acquire traits in immediate response to their environments and pass those traits immediately to the next generation — a pseudoscience that fueled the menace of eugenics. There were echoes of alchemy in Lysenko’s bravado — he promised he could cultivate wheat that would turn into rye and rye that would turn into barley. He bragged that his pea crop had withstood winter thanks to an innovative “training” strategy — soaking the seeds in ice-cold water, which he called vernalization. He claimed he could “train” plants within a single generation, making the very next generation more resilient.

Trofim Lysenko measuring wheat

Stalin, having no understanding of science, was blinded by the luster of the young man’s instant gratification claims. So began the greatest anti-science campaign of the twentieth century.

The dictator, who declared 1929 the year of the “Great Break with the Past,” gave Vavilov an ultimatum: he had to breed his miracle plants in three years, or face grave consequences. It was a biological impossibility; in reality — the evolutionary reality of reproductive cycles and genetic development — it would take at least four times as long for new genetic traits to manifest in a species on the scale of a crop. Seizing upon his spotlight moment and his nascent promotion within Stalin’s scientific establishment, Lysenko launched a concerted attack on Vavilov’s research, pitting it against his own “science” as too slow for the urgently needed famine relief in the country, too humble for the economic domination Stalin craved. He did not hesitate to falsify his own research to bolster its claims.

Vavilov had spent years laboring to bring the seventh International Congress of Genetics to the USSR and although it had been initially approved by the government, now the Communist Party abruptly cancelled the global gathering. When it was eventually convened in Edinburgh after a two-year delay and Vavilov was banned from attending, his international colleagues placed an empty chair on the stage to protest his absence — he was already one of the most respected geneticists in the world.

With science itself under assault, Vavilov devoted all of his energies to his institute and the seed bank, vowing:

We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.

When his plants developed in accordance with nature and failed to meet the dictator’s timeline, Vavilov was accused of treason and sabotage. In the middle of a field expedition in the Ukraine, he was arrested as “an active participant of an anti-Soviet wreckage organization and a spy for foreign intelligence services.” His home was raided and all of his field notes destroyed, but his colleagues managed to save his voluminous correspondence with other scientists and his manuscripts, tucking them away in the basement of the institute, beneath the seed bank.

Nikolai Vavilov’s arrest photo

Upon receiving news of the arrest, Vavilov’s brother wrote in his diary:

His big useful life is being ruined… life of tireless and intense work for his homeland, for the people. All his life spent in work, with no other hobbies. Wasn’t it obvious and clear to everybody? What else can be asked and demanded of individuals? This is a cruel mistake and an injustice. It is even more cruel because it is worse than death. The end of scientific work, the slander, ruining the lives of family members, the threat of it all.

Over the next eleven months in jail, Vavilov was interrogated and tortured hundreds of times, sometimes for thirteen hours a time, for a total of 1,700 hours, with the intention of coercing a confession of sabotage and espionage. He remained adamant that his research had been only in the service of science and human welfare.

Like Dostoyevsky, he was sentenced to death by firing squad, but his death sentence was repealed and reduced to twenty years in a prison camp.

This was an epoch of sweeping terror. While Stalin was terrorizing scientists, Hitler was savaging Europe. Leningrad was next on his conquest list — not only because of its geopolitical advantages as a major international port, but because it housed something precious: the seed bank. The Führer well understood that controlling the world’s food supply was key to controlling the world’s population, so he tasked a special SS unit with looting Vavilov’s seed collections.

On September 8, 1941, the Nazis began their assault on Leningrad by severing the last road to the city. The siege would last 872 days as Leningrad refused to surrender. Food ran out fast. By the winter of 1942, all the government could provide was a ration of two slices of bread, made of 50% sawdust. This too ran out. People took to stripping the wallpaper in their apartments, scraping the adhesive paste made of flour and water, and boiling it to make soup. Death swept the city — 800,000 human beings, one out of every three citizens. Bodies lined the streets unburied. Rats emerged by the millions, feasting on the corpses.

At Vavilov’s institute, scientists barricaded themselves to protect the seed bank from the rats and the Nazis. Famished themselves, they took turns staying up all night, warding off the rodents with metal rods. In what may be the most moving sacrifice in the history of science, nine scientists died of starvation, guarding a cornucopia of nuts, beans, rice, and grains. The curator of legumes was found at his desk, an envelope of peas by his side.

The vault survived unharmed, holding the seeds of life.

Clitoria, or butterfly pea. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Meanwhile, Vavilov was languishing in prison. Inmates were fed nothing but flour and frozen cabbage. He survived for two years, his vivacious body shrinking to a skeleton. And then, biology gave way to entropy. In the icy Russian winter of 1943, Nikolai Vavilov died of starvation — the selfsame terror he had devoted his life to preventing. His body was dumped in an unmarked mass grave.

He had once written to a friend:

I really believe deeply in science; it is my life and the purpose of my life. I do not hesitate to give my life even for the smallest bit of science.

Like Alan Turing, Nikolai Vavilov was posthumously pardoned by a new government and eventually celebrated as a hero of science. A Russian postage stamp bears his image and the Russian Academy of Sciences awards a prestigious medal in his honor. A small planet discovered by a Soviet astronomer is named after him, as is a crater on the far side of the Moon. A monument of him rises from a plaza near the prison where he died — a site of frequent resistance protests to this day. The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg is still home to one of the world’s largest seed banks and was the inspiration for the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank near the North Pole in 2008.

When the next global famine savages our species, Vavilov’s legacy will be a lifeline, purchased with his life.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 9 Mar 2023 | 6:49 am(NZT)

The Dalai Lama’s Ethical and Ecological Philosophy for the Next Generation, Illustrated

“We are all interconnected in the universe, and from this, universal responsibility arises… Everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world.”


The Dalai Lama’s Ethical and Ecological Philosophy for the Next Generation, Illustrated

“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity,” Rachel Carson told a class of young people in what became her bittersweet farewell to life, after catalyzing the modern environmental movement; she urged them: “You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

More than half a century later, another visionary of uncommon tenderness for the living world addresses another generation of young people with a kindred message of actionable reverence for the ecosystem of interdependence we call life.

In Heart to Heart: A Conversation on Love and Hope for Our Precious Planet (public library), the fourteenth Dalai Lama and artist Patrick McDonnell — who illustrated Jane Goodall’s inspiring life-story — invite an ethical approach to climate change, calling on young people to face a world of wildfires and deforestation with passionate compassion for other living beings, and to act along the vector of that compassion with the Dalai Lama’s fundamental philosophy:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

Told with the simplicity and sincerity of language native to Buddhist teaching, the story begins with an improbable visitor showing up at the Dalai Lama’s doorstep: a giant panda — the vulnerable bear species Ailuropoda melanoleuca, endemic to China and beloved the world over, both ancient symbol and Instagram star.

His Holiness greets the furry visitor with the same attitude he greets everyone:

I welcome everyone as a friend. In truth, we all share the same basic goals: we seek happiness and do not want suffering.

Together, they venture out into the wilderness to savor the natural gift of the forest and contemplate the delicate interleaving of life within it. Along the way, the Dalai Lama tells his life-story, laced with his relationship to the natural world — the wild yaks, gazelles, antelopes, and white-lipped deer he encountered on his first journey across Tibet when he was recognized as the next Dalai Lama as a young boy, the comfort he took in the smell of wildflowers after leaving his home, the long-eared owl he watched soar over his first monastery, the mountain foxes, wolves, and lynx roaming the surrounding forest.

With a wistful eye to the decimation of wildlife populations in his lifetime, he tells his new friend and his young reader:

We must never forget the suffering humans inflict on other sentient beings. Perhaps one day we will kneel and ask the animals for forgiveness.

But forgiveness, he intimates, is not enough — we must urgently amend our actions and recover our respect for other living beings, which demands nothing less than a transformation of the human heart and a radical unselfing. Leaning on the Buddhist precepts, His Holiness writes:

Compassion, loving-kindness, and altruism are the keys not only to human development but also to planetary survival.

Real change in the world will only come from a change of heart.

What I propose is a compassionate revolution, a call for radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with the self.

It is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.

There is, of course, nothing radical in the notion itself — it is a simple recognition of reality, consonant with the great evolutionary biologist and Gaia Hypothesis originator Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world.” The radical portion is the commitment to actionable course-correction and recalibration of habitual action — something young people are uniquely poised to do as they take our planetary future into their growing hands and growing hearts.

A century and a half after the great naturalist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” His Holiness writes:

Everything is interdependent, everything is inseparable.

Our individual well-being is intimately connected both with that of all others and with the environment within which we live.

Our every action, our every deed, word, and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves but for all others, too.

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher and activist Simone Weil’s poignant meditation on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities, he adds:

We are all interconnected in the universe, and from this, universal responsibility arises… Everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world.

He goes on to explore how this change begins within, with cultivating “a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart” for oneself — the fulcrum of all kindness and compassionate action. Again and again, he returns to Hannah Arendt’s insight that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of… boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation,” inviting his young readers to remember that the smallest actions in the present accrete into sizable change for the future:

There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done.

One is called Yesterday, and the other is called Tomorrow.

Today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly to live positively to help others.

He ends with a prayerful meditation on the inner transformation necessary for a civilizational evolution of consciousness:

May I become at all times, both now and forever,
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.

For as long as space endures,
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I, too, abide
To dispel the misery of the world.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 7 Mar 2023 | 3:40 pm(NZT)

How to Grow Re-enchanted with the World: A Salve for the Sense of Existential Meaninglessness and Burnout

A shimmering reminder that “the magic is of our own conjuring.”


How to Grow Re-enchanted with the World: A Salve for the Sense of Existential Meaninglessness and Burnout

There are seasons of being when a cloak of meaninglessness seems to slip over you, over everything, muffling the song of life. It is not depression exactly, though the two conditions make eager bedfellows. Rather, it is a great hollowing that empties you of that vital force necessary for moving through the world wonder-smitten by reality, that glint of gladness at the mundane miracle of existence. A disenchantment we may call by many names — burnout, apathy, alienation — but one that visits upon every life in one form or another, at one time or another, pulsating with the unmet longing for something elemental and ancient, with the yearning to see the world as beautiful again and feel its magic, to find sanctuary in it, to contact that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”

Katherine May explores what it takes to shed the cloak of meaninglessness and recover the sparkle of vitality in Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age (public library) — a shimmering chronicle of her own quest for “a better way to walk through this life,” a way that grants us “the ability to sense magic in the everyday, to channel it through our minds and bodies, to be sustained by it.”

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

May — who has written enchantingly about wintering, resilience, and the wisdom of sadness — reaches for the other side of that coma of the soul:

This life I have made is too small. It doesn’t allow enough in: enough ideas, enough beliefs, enough encounters with the exuberant magic of existence. I have been so keen to deny it, to veer deliberately towards the rational, to cling solely to the experiences that are directly observable by others. Only now, when everything is taken away, can I see what a folly this is. I don’t want that life anymore. I want what [the] ancients had: to be able to talk to god. Not in a personal sense, to a distant figure who is unfathomably wise, but to have a direct encounter with the flow of things, a communication without words. I want to let something break in me, some dam that has been shoring up this shamefully atavistic sense of the magic behind all things, the tingle of intelligence that was always waiting for me when I came to tap in. I want to feel that raw, elemental awe that my ancestors felt, rather than my tame, explained modern version. I want to prise open the confines of my skull and let in a flood of light and air and mystery… I want to retain what the quiet reveals, the small voices whose whispers can be heard only when everything falls silent.

The Leonid meteor showers of 1833. Art by Edmund Weiss. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

To lodge herself out of this existential stupor, she turns to various fulcrums of wonder — meteor-watching and ocean-swimming, gardening and beekeeping — returning again and again to what has been my own most steadfast remedy in those seasons of inner withering. A century and a half after Thoreau made his ardent case for walking as a spiritual endeavor and a generation after Thomas Clark’s marvelous manifesto for walking as a portal to self-transcendence, May writes:

When I walk, I fall through three layers of experience. The first is all about the surface of my skin, the immediate feedback of my senses. It is often twitchy and uncomfortable: my boots are too tight; there’s a twig in my sock. My backpack won’t sit square on my shoulders. My walking is stop-start in that phase, curtailed by an endless series of adjustments. I am never sure if I really want to go the distance. But if I walk on through that, those sensations eventually fade and they’re replaced by bubbling thought, a burgeoning of ideas and insights, a sense of joyous chatter in the mind. This is the point in a walk when the interior of my mind feels luxuriant, a place so pleasurable to inhabit that I never want my legs to stop. It’s a creative space, a place where problems are solved in unfathomable ways, the answers arriving like truths known all along.

With the awareness that “our bodies have answers to questions that we don’t know how to ask,” she adds:

If I carry on walking, eventually that fades, too. Perhaps it is low blood sugar, or perhaps the popcorn brain burns itself out eventually, but at some point I reach a very different state of mind, a place beyond words in which I feel quiet and empty. This is my favourite phase of all, an open space in which I am nothing for a while, just an existence with moving parts and a map in my hand, whose feet know the route and do not need my interference. Nothing happens here, or so it seems. But in its aftermath, I find my most profound insights, whole shifts in the meanings and understandings that underpin who I am. In this state, I am an open door.

The most enchanted form of walking takes place in that most enchanted of places, the forest — that living reminder of the dazzling interleaving of life that prompted Ursula K. Le Guin to write that “the word for world is forest,” that cathedral of interdependence where trees and fungi whisper to each other in a language we are only just beginning to decipher.

Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi

In consonance with the emerging science of “soft fascination” — which is illuminating how time in nature jolts the brain out of its rut and unlatches our most creative thinking — May writes:

The forest… is a deep terrain, a place of unending variance and subtle meaning. It is a complete sensory environment… It is different each time you meet it, changing with the seasons, the weather, the life cycles of its inhabitants… Dig beneath its soil, and you will uncover layers of life: the frail networks of mycelia, the burrows of animals, the roots of trees.

Bring questions into this space and you will receive a reply, though not an answer. Deep terrain offers up multiplicity, forked paths, symbolic meaning. It schools you in compromise, in shifting interpretation. It will mute your rationality and make you believe in magic. It removes time from the clock face and reveals the greater truth of its operation, its circularity and its vastness. It will show you rocks of unfathomable age and bursts of life so ephemeral that they are barely there. It will show you the crawl of geological ages, the gradual change of the seasons, and the countless micro-seasons that happen across the year. It will demand your knowledge: the kind of knowledge that’s experiential, the kind of knowledge that comes with study. Know it — name it — and it will reward you only with more layers of detail, more frustrating revelations of your own ignorance. A deep terrain is a life’s work. It will beguile, nourish, and sustain you through decades, only to finally prove that you, too, are ephemeral compared to the rocks and the trees.

Often, her reconnection with wonder is a function of the poetry of perspective — something she brings to the seemingly mundane fact of the tides, daily lapping Earth from both ends under the pull of the Moon:

There are two giant waves travelling endlessly around the earth, and twice a day we see their full volume. We barely sense the scale of what is really happening, because we only ever witness it locally. We rarely stop to think that they join us to the entire planet, and to the space beyond it.

[…]

When I feel the pull of the tides, I am also feeling the pull of the whole world, of the moon and the sun; that I am part of a chain of interconnection that crosses galaxies.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Burroughs’s contemporary Levi Walter Yaggy. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Again and again, she faces the tension between our reliance on rationality and our longing for magic, for some deeper truth resinous with transcendence. A century after the Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger bridged the newborn quantum mechanics with ancient Eastern philosophy to make the striking assertion that “this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole,” May writes:

Both are just ways of conceptualising a foundational fact of living. The alchemy comes in understanding the truth that seems so easily hidden: that everything is interconnected. That there is only one whole. That we exist within a system that includes every degraded human act and every beautiful one, every blade of grass and every mountain; that shines and snaps and varies like the surface of the sea. We as individuals contain it all. We hold within us the potential for the greatest good and the most dreadful evil. We know, intuitively, how each feels, because there are lines traced between us and everything else. I don’t have to believe in God as a person. I can believe in this instead: the entire mesh of existence binding us together in ways we perceive only if we listen. Each of us is a particle of this greater entity. Each one of us contains it all.

With an eye to our reflexive inability to hold such a totality in view — perhaps because it contours a larger consciousness that transcends the cognitive limits of our own — she adds:

We find this absolute connectedness hard to grasp. We often prefer to forget it. We often push back against it. But it is there, real as sunlight, behind everything we do. Since it is too big for us to swallow whole, we approach it through metaphor. We tell stories about monsters and magic and elemental gods, but really we are finding a way to understand. Really we are talking about us, all of us together. Some of the old stories don’t work anymore. We are finding them harder and harder to understand. But that doesn’t mean we abandon them. Instead, we need to double down on the storytelling, and find new ways to tell out our meanings. Perhaps that is what we’re meant to do: remake our stories until we finally find the one that fits.

God has always been a name whispered between us.

The November meteors, observed between midnight and 5 A.M. on  November 13-14, 1868
One of French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century paintings of celestial objects and phenomena. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Radiating from May’s quest is the intimation that wonder is not a property of the world but a property of the story we tell ourselves about the world. She ends with an invocation of a better story to tell ourselves — an invocation that is also an invitation to self-enchantment:

Our sense of enchantment is not triggered only by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant landscapes. The awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is transformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it. It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning. The magic is of our own conjuring.

Couple Enchantment with the pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington, writing a century earlier, on wonder and the spirituality of nature, then revisit the great naturalist John Burroughs’s superb manifesto for spirituality in the age of science.


donating = loving

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


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 | 5 Mar 2023 | 7:43 am(NZT)

Trust, Betrayal, and the Nexus of Mathematics and Morality: The Prisoner’s Dilemma Animated

Illuminating the pitfalls of the mind in felt and gingerbread.


“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” Albert Camus wrote as he considered what it really means to be in solidarity with justice — an elegantly phrased reminder that the decisions we make today are the only fulcrum by which we move the outcomes of tomorrow. And yet the greatest pitfall of human consciousness might be our habitual forgetting of this fundamental fact.

In 1950, two mathematicians working on game theory devised a cruelly brilliant thought experiment demonstrating just how poorly we manage to calibrate future outcomes for our own best interests, exposing a secret underground of consciousness where mathematics and morality converge. Known as The Prisoner’s Dilemma, it illuminates the complex dynamics that govern loyalty, betrayal, collaboration, and trust — dynamics that play out in myriad subtle ways across our everyday lives.

The classic thought experiment comes alive with unexpected delight in this animated short film from TED-Ed by economist Lucas Husted and animators Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson Volda:

Complement with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the emotional machinery of trust and the only fruitful response to betrayal, then revisit other animated adaptations of classic thought experiments: The Ship of Theseus (exploring what makes you you), Plato’s Cave (exploring the central mystery of consciousness), Boltzmann’s Brain Paradox (exploring whether reality is a hallucination), The Infinite Hotel Paradox (exploring the mind-bending nature of infinity), and Mary’s Room (exploring the limits of knowledge).


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 5 Mar 2023 | 6:28 am(NZT)

God, Human, Animal, Machine: Consciousness and Our Search for Meaning in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

An inquiry into the eternal enchantment of why the world exists.


God, Human, Animal, Machine: Consciousness and Our Search for Meaning in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

“To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her exquisite reckoning with the life of the mind, would be to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

I have returned to this sentiment again and again in facing the haunting sense that we are living through the fall of a civilization — a civilization that has reduced every askable question to an algorithmically answerable datum and has dispensed with the unasked, with those regions of the mysterious where our basic experiences of enchantment, connection, and belonging come alive. A century and half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler prophesied the rise of a new “mechanical kingdom” to which we will become subservient, we are living with artificial intelligences making daily decisions for us, from the routes we take to the music we hear. And yet the very fact that the age of near-sentient algorithms has left us all the more famished for meaning may be our best hope for saving what is most human and alive in us.

So intimates Meghan O’Gieblyn in God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning (public library).

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

Once a theologian in the making, studying at a fundamentalist Bible school, O’Gieblyn left the faith for a life as a rational materialist, but remained animated by the selfsame questions that course through the human-made story myths we call religion — questions about the relationship between the body and the tremors of consciousness we call soul, about the nature of reality, about the wellspring of meaning in an austere universe governed by fundamental forces and impartial laws with no room for blame or mercy. She takes up these questions with rigor and passion, tracing tendrils that reach into the vast and varied body of culture, from a robot dog to The Brothers Karamazov, from vitalism to transhumanism, from Descartes to Arendt.

A century and a half after Nietzsche considered how metaphors both reveal and conceal truth, O’Gieblyn writes:

To discover truth, it is necessary to work within the metaphors of our own time, which are for the most part technological. Today artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed many of the questions that were once taken up by theologians and philosophers: the mind’s relationship to the body, the question of free will, the possibility of immortality. These are old problems, and although they now appear in different guises and go by different names, they persist in conversations about digital technologies much like those dead metaphors that still lurk in the syntax of contemporary speech. All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.

1573 painting by the Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

O’Gieblyn recounts her early encounter with transhumanism and its patron saint, Ray Kurzweil, with his blazing prophecy that we shall reach the Singularity by the year 2045 — a point by which we would have so merged our bodies with our machines that we would survive death, our consciousness itself “resurrected” in a supercomputer. I have long marveled at the comical symmetry between such supposedly materialist models of reality and the religious mythologies of life after death from epochs past — a touching reminder of that elemental human yearning for permanence in a universe governed by constant change, a reminder that everything we dream up, everything we poetize and prophesy and code, is just our coping mechanism for the eternal struggle to bear our own mortality. O’Gieblyn arrives at a kindred conclusion:

It became clear to me that my interest in Kurzweil and other technological prophets was a kind of transference. It allowed me to continue obsessing about the theological problems I’d struggled with in Bible school, and was in the end an expression of my sublimated longing for the religious promises I’d abandoned.

[…]

Most transhumanists are outspoken atheists, eager to maintain the notion that their philosophy is rooted in modern rationalism and not in fact what it is: an outgrowth of Christian eschatology.

Art from The First Book of Urizen by William Blake, 1796. (Available as a print.)

Our restlessness about mapping the relationship between mind and matter far predates the transhumanist movement. The dawn of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century only complicated things, with its strange ricochets of causality between observer and observed. Drawing on the influential theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s It from Bit theory — in which he argued that “all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe,” that “observer-participancy gives rise to information” — O’Gieblyn writes:

Once you enter the quantum realm, the smallest particles, at a certain scale, dissolve into energy and fields, entities that have so little substance they appear nearly inseparable from the conceptual tools — math, probabilities — we use to describe them. This is baffling. How can objects as solid as rocks and chairs have nothing substantial at their core?

Wheeler’s answer was that matter itself does not exist. It is an illusion that arises from the mathematical structures that undergird everything, a cosmic form of information processing. Each time we make a measurement we are creating new information — we are, in a sense, creating reality itself. Wheeler called this the “participatory universe,” a term that is often misunderstood as having mystical connotations, as though the mind has some kind of spooky ability to generate objects. But Wheeler did not even believe that consciousness existed. For him, the mind itself was nothing but information. When we interacted with the world, the code of our minds manipulated the code of the universe, so to speak. It was a purely quantitative process, the same sort of mathematical exchange that might take place between two machines.

Against this backdrop of pure information arose another field that anchored reality not in the almighty bit but in the relationships between bits of information: cybernetics, whose founding father had declared that “we are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” O’Gieblyn writes:

The reason that cybernetics privileged relationships over content in the first place was so that it could explain things like consciousness purely in terms of classical physics, which is limited to describing behavior but not essence — “doing” but not “being.” When Wheeler merged information theory with quantum physics, he was essentially closing the circle, proposing that the hole in the material worldview — intrinsic essence — could be explained by information itself.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and coasters.)

Nowhere have our models of reality inclined further past the comprehension limits of the human mind than in multiverse theory — the idea that ours is not the only universe but one of numberless coexistent universes all forged by randomness, and ours, by a lucky play of statistical mechanics and probability theory, just happens to be hospitable to the chance-configuration of us. At first glance, multiverse theory appears like the ultimate antidote to the illusion that we are special — the same illusion that once placed us at the center of the universe, then at the center of the biosphere, and now at the center of consciousness. But O’Gieblyn exposes the basic human bias of even this model:

The multiverse theory and other attempts to transcend our anthropocentric outlook so often strike me as a form of bad faith, guilty of the very hubris they claim to reject. There is no Archimedean point, no purely objective vista that allows us to transcend our human interests and see the world from above, as we once imagined it appeared to God. It is our distinctive vantage that binds us to the world and sets the necessary limitations that are required to make sense of it. This is true, of course, regardless of which interpretation of physics is ultimately correct.

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

Delving into the far fringes of the speculative, that strange lacuna between science and spiritualism, she arrives at panpsychism — a theory particularly fashionable in our age of alienation and disconnection, satisfying that aching need for belonging, for communion, for interbeing with the world. She writes:

What interests me most about panpsychism is not what it says about the world but what it suggests about our knowledge of it. While popular debates about the theory rarely extend beyond the plausibility of granting consciousness to bees and trees, it contains far more radical implications. To claim that reality itself is mental is to acknowledge that there exists no clear boundary between the subjective mind and the objective world.

A century after quantum pioneer Niels Bohr observed that there is a realm of reality religions have always accessed through images and parables and that “splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far,” she adds:

If consciousness is the ultimate substrate of everything, these distinctions become blurred, if not totally irrelevant. It’s possible that there exists a symmetry between our interior lives and the world at large, that the relationship between them is not one of paradox but of metonymy — the mind serving as a microcosm of the world’s macroscopic consciousness. Perhaps it is not even a terrible leap to wonder whether the universe can communicate with us, whether life is full of “correspondences,” as the spiritualists called them, between ourselves and the transcendent realm.

[…]

Panpsychism clearly satisfies a longing to escape modern alienation and merge once again with the world at large. But it’s worth asking what it means to reenchant, or reensoul, objects within a world that is already irrevocably technological. What does it mean to crave “connection” and “sharing” when those terms have become coopted by the corporate giants of social platforms?

At every turn, with every theory, we inevitably collide with the blinders of human bias, encoded in our machines — in algorithms that perpetuate the systemic biases of our society, in artificial intelligences that repeat the same pitfalls of reason that pock our own minds. Having begun with the observation that “for centuries we said we were made in God’s image, when in truth we made him in ours,” O’Gieblyn ends with the question of what it would take to dehumanize the universe and rehumanize ourselves:

The more we try to rid the world of our image, the more we end up coloring it with human faults and fantasies. The more we insist on removing ourselves and our interests from the equation, the more we end up with omnipotent systems that are rife with human bias and prejudice.

And yet pulsating beneath this hard-edged realism is a buoyancy, a largehearted curiosity, something we might even call faith — faith that “the most fascinating thing about the world [is] that we don’t know why it exists.” Radiating from it, at least for me, is a hint at how all of our why-probing instruments, from religion to ChatGPT, are but a gasp of gladness at the improbable fact that the world exists.

Couple God, Human, Animal, Machine with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI, then consider some thoughts on consciousness and the universe, lensed through cognitive science and poetry.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 3 Mar 2023 | 5:58 am(NZT)

Thoreau on Living Through Loss

“Death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident.”


Thoreau on Living Through Loss

There is cosmic consolation in knowing what actually happens when we die — that supreme affirmation of having lived at all. And yet, however much we might understand that every single person is a transient chance-constellation of atoms, to lose a beloved constellation is the most devastating experience in life. It feels incomprehensible, cosmically unjust. It feels unsurvivable.

In the final years of his short and loss-riddled life, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) wrote in his diary:

I perceive that we partially die ourselves through sympathy at the death of each of our friends or near relatives. Each such experience is an assault on our vital force. It becomes a source of wonder that they who have lost many friends still live. After long watching around the sickbed of a friend, we, too, partially give up the ghost with him, and are the less to be identified with this state of things.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

Thoreau’s life of losses had begun seventeen years earlier. He was twenty-five when his beloved older brother died of tetanus after cutting himself shaving — a gruesome death, savaging the nervous system and contorting the body with agony. Thoreau grieved deeply. A lifelong diarist, he slipped into a five-week coma of the pen. He tried to listen to the music-box, which had always flooded him with delight, but the sounds came pouring out strange and hollow.

Eventually, the fever dream of grief broke into a new orientation to death. Two months into his bereavement, as the harsh New England winter was cusping into spring, Thoreau wrote to a friend — a letter quoted in the altogether wonderful book Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives (public library):

What right have I to grieve, who have not ceased to wonder? We feel at first as if some opportunities of kindness and sympathy were lost, but learn afterward that any pure grief is ample recompense for all. That is, if we are faithful; for a great grief is but sympathy with the soul that disposes events, and is as natural as the resin on Arabian trees. Only Nature has a right to grieve perpetually, for she only is innocent.

Having resumed his journal, he took up the subject in the privacy of its pages:

I live in the perpetual verdure of the globe. I die in the annual decay of nature. We can understand the phenomenon of death in the animal better if we first consider it in the order next below us the vegetable. The death of the flea and the Elephant are but phenomena of the life of nature.

This was a season of losses in Thoreau’s universe. His friend and mentor Emerson, who had hastened to stay with him and nurse him in the wake of his brother’s death, lost his beloved five-year-old son to scarlet fever, as incurable as tetanus in their era. Now it was Thoreau’s turn to comfort his friend. Leaning on his new acceptance of the naturalness of death as an antidote to grief, he wrote to Emerson:

Nature is not ruffled by the rudest blast. The hurricane only snaps a few twigs in some nook of the forest. The snow attains its average depth each winter, and the chic-a-dee lisps the same notes. The old laws prevail in spite of pestilence and famine. No genius or virtue so rare and revolutionary appears in town or village, that the pine ceases to exude resin in the wood, or beast or bird lays aside its habits.

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

An epoch before Rilke insisted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” and a century and a half before Richard Dawkins considered the luckiness of death, Thoreau adds:

Death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident — It is as common as life… Every blade in the field — every leaf in the forest — lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up. When we look over the fields we are not saddened because these particular flowers or grasses will wither — for their death is the law of new life.

Couple these fragments from Three Roads Back with Thoreau on nature as prayer, then revisit the neuroscience of grief and healing, Emily Dickinson on love and loss, Seneca on the key to resilience in the face of loss, and Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness.


donating = loving

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


newsletter

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

Source: The Marginalian | 2 Mar 2023 | 8:53 am(NZT)











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