Brain Pickings

Amanda Palmer Reads Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s Poem “Life While-You-Wait”

By:

Consolation for those moments when you feel “ill-prepared for the privilege of living.”

One spring evening not too long ago, I joined the wonderful Amanda Palmer on a small and friendly stage at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and we read some Polish poetry together from Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library) — the work of Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), for whom we share deep affection and admiration.

When Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996 “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality,” the Nobel commission rightly called her “the Mozart of poetry” — but, wary of robbing her poetry of its remarkable dimension, added that it also emanates “something of the fury of Beethoven.” I often say that she is nothing short of Bach, the supreme enchanter of the human spirit.

Amanda has previously lent her beautiful voice to my favorite Szymborska poem, “Possibilities,” and she now lends it to another favorite from this final volume, “Life While-You-Wait” — a bittersweet ode to life’s string of unrepeatable moments, each the final point in a fractal decision tree of what-ifs that add up to our destiny, and a gentle invitation to soften the edges of the heart as we meet ourselves along the continuum of our becoming.

Please enjoy:

LIFE WHILE-YOU-WAIT

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.

I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.

I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.

Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.

If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).

You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

Map: Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, is a work of immense beauty in its 464-page totality. Complement it with Amanda’s bewitching reading of “Possibilities” and join me in supporting her on Patreon — her art, like Brain Pickings, is free and made possible by donations. In fact, she wrote a whole fantastic book about the mutually dignifying and gratifying gift of patronage.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Pathways to Bliss: Joseph Campbell on Why Perfectionism Kills Love and How to Save Your Relationship

By:

“Perfection is inhuman… What evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being.”

“Where the myth fails, human love begins,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. “Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” Indeed, just like perfectionism kills creativity, it also kills love — the more we mythologize and idealize the person we love, the more disillusioned and disheartened we grow as we come to know their imperfect humanity which, if untainted by these blinding ideals, is the very wellspring of true love. That is what playwright Tom Stoppard captured in what is perhaps the greatest definition of love, in his notion of “the mask slipped from the face,” the stripping of the idealized projection, the surrender to the beautiful imperfection of a human being.

How to successfully navigate love’s maze of ideal and reality is what master-mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell explores in a section of the posthumously published Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (public library), which offers a more personal complement to Campbell’s influential writings on bliss and the power of myth.

A century and a half after Stendhal’s insightful ideas on why we fall out of love, Campbell builds upon Carl Jung’s psychological theory of anima (the female ideal in the masculine unconscious) and animus (the male ideal in the feminine unconscious), and explores how our clinging to those ideals blinds us to the most rewarding part of romance.

His focus on marriage is especially timely and poignant today, when the institution of marriage is being reimagined to be more inclusive and more just, which also means it’s being challenged to rise to higher standards of integrity. Campbell writes:

Two people meet and fall in love. Then they marry, and the real Sam or Suzy begins to show through the fantasy, and, boy, is it a shock. So a lot of little boys and girls just withdraw their anima or animus. They get a divorce and wait for another receptive person, pitch the woo again, and, uh-oh, another shock. And so on and so forth.

Now the one undeniable fact: this disillusion is inevitable. You had an ideal. You married that ideal, then along comes a fact that does not correspond to that ideal. You suddenly notice things that do not quite fit with your projection. So what are you going to do when that happens? There’s only one attitude that will solve the situation: compassion. This poor, poor fact that I married does not correspond to my ideal; it’s only a human being. Well, I’m a human being, too. So I’ll meet a human being for a change; I’ll live with it and be nice to it, showing compassion for the fallibilities that I myself have certainly brought to life as a human being.

Decades later, Dan Savage would come to call this “the price of admission” — the most potent antidote to the perilous myth of “the one,” which is built upon a scaffolding of illusion and unattainable ideals. Campbell captures this with clarity at once grounding and elevating:

Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love — and I mean love, not lust — is the imperfection of the human being. So, when the imperfection of the real person, compared to the ideal of your animus or anima, peeks through, say, this is a challenge to my compassion. Then make a try, and something might begin to get going here. You might begin to be quit of your fix on your anima.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Campbell adds:

It’s just as bad to be fixed on your anima and miss as to be fixed on your persona: you’ve got to get free of that. And the lesson of life is to release you from it.

[…]

The principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship. So when the fact shows through the animus or anima, what you must render is compassion. This is the basic love, the charity, that turns a critic into a living human being who has something to give to — as well as to demand of — the world.

This is how one is to deal with animus and anima disillusionment… That’s reality evoking a new depth of reality in yourself, because you’re imperfect, too. You may not know it. The world is a constellation of imperfections, and you, perhaps, are the most imperfect of all. By your love for the world you name it accurately and without pity and love what you have thus named… This discovery can help you save your marriage.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

And yet, paradoxically, Campbell argues that this is the task of life — not to avoid these anima and animus projections, which we all carry, but to confront them with courage and do the work of disillusionment so we can get to the imperfect realness of which true love is woven. (This is what Rilke meant when he counseled his young friend that “for one human being to love another … is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks … the work for which all other work is but preparation.”) Campbell speaks to the necessity of both the preparation and the work itself:

One of the boldest things you could possibly do would be to marry that ideal that you’ve fallen for. Then you face a real job, because everything has been projected onto him or her. This goes beyond lust; this is something that goes way down. It pulls everything out. This anima/animus is the fish line that has caught your whole unconscious, and everything’s going to come up — the Midgard Serpent, everything down in the bottom. This is what you marry.

Pathways to Bliss is a magnificent, richly insightful read in its entirety. Complement it with Campbell on the eleven stages of the hero’s journey — which, in a way, apply just as aptly to the lover’s journey — and his timeless wisdom on how to have a fulfilling life, then revisit the great Wendell Berry on marriage and Susan Sontag on the complexities of love.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s First Tragic Poem, with a Touching Remembrance by Her Mother

By:

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things,” Sylvia Plath observed in a BBC interview shortly before she took her own life. But the seed of those dark emotions started sprouting many years earlier, when Plath was still a teenager — quite a common life-stage for the first onset of depression.

In the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us teenage Sylvia’s letters on the joy of living — her mother, Aurelia Plath, shares young Sylvia’s first poem marked by tragic undertones. The inspiration for it is a testament to the poet’s universal task of dramatizing the ordinary and transmuting it into the profound: One afternoon, Sylvia had just finished drawing a pastel still-life and was showing it to her grandmother when the doorbell rang; the grandmother took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it.

That evening, Plath penned her first tragic poem. She was fourteen.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Plath’s English teacher showed the poem to a colleague, who — unaware of the rather comically benign incident that inspired the poem — exclaimed: “Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.” But even more precocious than the emotional richness of the poem was young Sylvia’s response when Aurelia relayed the teacher’s remark to her — the teenage poet “smiled impishly,” as her mother recalls, and said:

Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.

And yet those tragic undertones were more than mere dramatic flair — they would come to dominate both Plath’s poetry and her journals.

But the eclipse of her inner April sun was gradual. In letter to her mother from early 1955, also included in the volume, 23-year-old Plath dangles her feet over the precipice of the abyss that would eventually consume her — she is aware that the abyss exists but still regards it as a curious phenomenon rather than a mortal threat, a challenge that can be overcome with sufficient optimism and discipline:

I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.

But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy.

We now know, of course, that clinical depression is not something one can simply will away “with bravo and philosophy.” But Plath’s letter does intuit much of what scientists have since confirmed about depression: its hereditary nature and the role of rumination — that tendency to “lie awake at nights hating [oneself] for stupidities” — as a major cognitive vulnerability factor in depression.

Above all, Plath’s prolific creative output and her tragic end attest to what is perhaps the finest line in mental health: While ordinary melancholy enriches our capacity for creativity, depression — its severe clinical counterpart — crushes the creative spirit. And yet our cultural narrative about artists who lose their lives to mental illness is woefully devoid of nuance — to romanticize suicide is as fraught as to dismiss an entire body of work on account of the artist’s tragic end. It is possible — nay, necessary — to recognize that while suicide is indeed an unspeakable tragedy, without their creative restlessness, without their capacity for “the sharp, sweet pain that only joy can hold,” artists like Plath and Van Gogh and Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace would have likely succumbed to their tragic neurochemistry much sooner. To celebrate their art, then, is to celebrate not the malady that led to their deaths but the gift that enriched and extended their lives.

Complement the altogether revelatory Letters Home with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her little-known children’s book, and her reading of the breath-stopping poem “The Birthday Present” shortly after her last birthday.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Central Mystery of Quantum Mechanics, Animated

By:

How a lineage of scientists pieced together the puzzle revealing the dual nature of the universe.

Ever since Heisenberg stood on the shoulders of giants to pave the way for quantum mechanics, this captivating branch of science and its central fact — that light can behave both as a particle and as a wave — has challenged us to grapple with the perplexing duality of the universe, inspiring everything from critical questions about the future of science to mind-bending meditations at the intersection of theology and astrophysics to philosophical children’s books.

That central mystery of quantum mechanics is what particle physicist Chad Orzel, author of the illuminating and intelligently entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (public library), explores in this animated primer from TED Ed.

Orzel writes in the book:

Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects — tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring… Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday… Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces… The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about.

He points out that quantum mechanics is woven into the very fabric of modern life:

Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.

Quantum theory’s effect on science goes beyond the merely practical — it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.

Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don’t have definite properties until you measure them. It’s a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where “virtual particles” pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.

Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it’s science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale. The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications.

Those consequences and applications are what Orzel goes on to explore in the wholly fascinating How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. Complement it with Alice in Quantumland, an allegorical explanation of quantum mechanics inspired by Lewis Carroll, then revisit TED Ed’s stimulating animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

The Magic Box: A Whimsical Vintage Children’s Book for Grownups About Life, Death, and How To Be More Alive Every Day

By:

“This book was written outside the cemetery wall … in memory of life, the wonder & pain of it & the unspeakable worthwhileness of every second of it.”

“Death is our friend,” wrote Rilke in a beautiful 1923 letter, “precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” And yet most of us spend our days dreading this inevitable and natural conclusion to the human journey, casting death as life’s ultimate and most hateful antagonist — a fear that invariably contracts our aliveness.

How to have a more expansive and enlivening relationship with our mortality is what writer Joseph Pintauro and artist Norman Laliberté explore half a century after Rilke in the 1970 treasure The Magic Box (public library) — a most unusual and wonderful children’s book for adults about life and death, the seasonality of being, and the beauty that springs from our impermanence.

A grownup counterpart to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death, this vintage gem is part of a marvelous limited-edition set by Pintauro and Laliberté called The Rainbow Box — a collection of four such psychedelic art books, one for each season of the year: this one for autumn, The Peace Box for winter, The Rabbit Box for spring, and A Box of Sun for summer.

The Magic Box presents a series of short, vitalizing meditations on mortality, illustrated with beautiful typographic art and collage incorporating Victorian engravings reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s only children’s book. The back cover captures Pintauro’s charming tone of earnest, uncynical irreverence:

this book will scare you if you are stupid

if you are not stupid it will make you happy

Stupidity aside, if you are sensitive and wholehearted, it will most definitely make you rapturous with delight — here is a peek inside:

Complement The Magic Box, immeasurably wonderful in its entirety, with Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness and a very different contemporary take on the seasonality of life: Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s breathtaking The River.

Thanks, Ghazal

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.