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Posts Tagged ‘love’

01 JUNE, 2015

The Light of the World: Elizabeth Alexander on Love, Loss, and the Boundaries of the Soul

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“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.”

“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.

This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.

From the very opening lines, her writing flows with undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:

The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.

Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.

Art from 'The Heart and the Bottle' by Oliver Jeffers, an illustrated fable about love and loss. Click image for more.

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:

Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll marveled at this mystery, Alexander considers the boundary between the body and the soul:

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.

When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.

When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.

His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

She speaks to this evanescence beautifully, addressing Firce directly and in the same breath addressing everything that ever was and ever will be, the interconnectedness of all things, which is the very essence of the thing we call a soul:

Where are you? You are part of this storm, this wind, this rain, these leaves. Plants will one day grow from your bones in the Grove Street Cemetery, my empty dirt bed next to you.

I imagine your grave one day spontaneously covered with peonies, my favorite flower, the one you planted for me and which bloomed reliably on my birthday, May 30, every year.

[…]

Ficre in the bright leaves that have been falling from the trees in the afternoon light.

Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox, and Me' by Fanny Britt. Click image for more.

The subject of the everywhere-and-nowhere soul reappears as Alexander recounts how Ficre’s mother exited her own life:

My mother-in-law’s last night on earth, a fox crossed our path in Branford, Connecticut, as we left the hospice. We knew somehow that it was her… Do I believe that? Yes, I do. Poetic logic is my logic. I do not believe she was a fox. But I believe the fox was a harbinger. I believe that it was a strange enough occurrence that it should be heeded.

Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”

The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

Among the most mesmerizing of these invisibilia is the irremediable enigma of nonexistence:

What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone. Ficre not at the kitchen table seems impossible.

It is in the silent solace of the peonies that Alexander finds the promise of reconciliation between this vibrancy of presence and the incomprehensible dullness of nonexistence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” she writes:

This year, the peonies are magenta and white, and they blow open as big as toddlers’ heads, and soon they are spent and rotten, their petals brown and withered in the ground. Over and done until next year.

[…]

Flowers live, they are perfect and they affect us; they are God’s glory, they make us know why we are alive and human, that we behold. They are beautiful, and then they die and rot and go back to the earth that gave birth to them.

[…]

What is left of Ficre has a different form now. It is less sharp, more permeating, more essence, more distilled. It is less his body here, his body there, and more, he is the ground beneath us and the air we breathe.

This dance between the difference and sameness of forms comes alive in another aspect of the book: Sprinkled throughout it are recipes for Ficre’s favorite meals from his chef days, emanating a beautiful resonance with Alexander’s own craft — for the recipe form and the poetic form both effect something miraculously beautiful and nourishing with a great economy of language and proportion.

'Man as Industrial Palace,' a 1926 diagram by Fritz Kahn. Click image for more.

Embedded in Alexander’s memoir is also a subtle but unshakable reminder that we know almost as little about the machinery of the body as we do about the mystery of the soul. She cites one cardiologist who explained Frice’s death by asserting that “the stress of growing up in war and being a refugee affected his heart.” (The Eritrean War of Independence broke out in Ficre’s homeland shortly before his birth.) How jarring to consider that this much spiritual speculation goes into the supposed exact science of Western medicine — speculation that not only exposes how little we know but borders on superstition, invoking Wole Soyinka’s memorable meditation on Western medicine and African mysticism. With an eye to this vast expanse of unknowns, Alexander writes:

The earth that looks solid is, in fact, a sinkhole, or could be. Half of things are as they seem. The other half, who knows.

Perhaps Western medicine’s pathological reliance on euphemism, particularly in the face of death, is one symptom of our troubled relationship with the unknown and the unknowable — a tenuous hedge against the mystery of it all. Alexander speaks to this with aching elegance:

He was probably dead before he hit the ground, the emergency room doctor and the coroner and a cardiologist I later speak with tell me. That is why there was no blood on the floor, despite his head wound and the scalp’s vascularity. He might have felt strange, the doctors told me, before what they call “the cardiac event,” but not for more than a flash. One tells me he is certain Ficre saw my face as he died. We are meant to take comfort in this knowledge, if knowledge it is.

The knowledge of truth, Alexander suggests, comes in many forms and if there is a membrane between the practical and the poetic at all, between the scientific and the spiritual, it is porous and permeable. Although neither she nor her husband had religion present in their adult lives, she finds herself unexpectedly corralled into the spiritual path by the squeeze of sorrow:

Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.

[…]

I did not grow up in the black church, nor with the Negro spirituals. Now I understand them as never before. Their poetry feels pure and profound. I been in sorrow’s kitchen and done licked out all the pots. Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Half a century after Flannery O’Conner discerned the difference between religion and faith, Alexander considers the other role of religion — religion not as a public institution in the service of dogma but as a private institution in the service of the human quest for meaning:

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? … Art is certainly my religion. I believe in the chosen family, especially as I get older. I believe in some kind of encompassing black culture that I am part of — “syncretic,” to use the word Ficre liked — but I am also aware of the romance behind that sense of belonging. I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do: Rosh Hashanah. Days of Awe. Invite the dead to Sukkot. There seems to be a poetic ritual for everything… I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

She revisits the allure of the old gospel songs, particularly “How I Got Over” by Mahalia Jackson — one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites. In fact, it was Jackson who, during a momentary lapse in his iconic speech, famously prompted Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” (The daughter of politically active parents, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C., and at the age of one stood at the Mall of Washington alongside her parents as Dr. King heeded Jackson and told the world about his dream.)

As she recounts an exchange with her younger son, Alexander returns once more to the question of the soul, shining her sidewise gleam on yet another dimension of it:

I hope you’re not turning all Christian, Simon says, when he comes home and finds me uncharacteristically blaring gospel music. I am not, but I am listening to Mahalia Jackson in a whole new way. How I got over, My soul looks back in wonder, I hear it for the very first time. The gratitude in that song is what washes over me, the word thank repeated over and over. My soul does indeed look back in wonder; I had Ficre; I have Ficre; I have these extraordinary children; I have a village; I have an art-form; I am black; we are African; we come from survivors and doers; my parents are wise and strong; my body is strong; I was loved without bound or condition; I exist in time and in context, not floating in space; my troubles are small compared to some; my troubles are not eternal; my days are not through.

[…]

Who we are as a people and how we make our way through sorrows that feel so profoundly intimate and personal but in fact exist on larger continuums, is what I hear in the song today.

[…]

In the absence of organized religion, faith abounds, in the form of song and art and food and strong arms.

Perhaps because children are still free from the adult world’s tyranny of labels, it is her young son who best captures this function of faith — a function that transcends the unimaginative designations of fact and fiction, serving instead as sacred communion with the most intimate truths of one’s inner life. Alexander writes:

One night at bedtime, Simon asks if I want to come with him to visit Ficre in heaven.

Yes, I say, and lie down on his bed.

“First you close your eyes,” he says, “and ride the clear glass elevator. Up we go.”

What do you see? I ask.

God is sitting at the gate, he answers.

What does God look like? I ask.

Like God, he says.

Now, we go to where Daddy is. He has two rooms, Simon says, one room with a single bed and his books and another where he paints. The painting room is vast. He can look out any window he wants and paint. That room has four views: our backyard, the dock he painted in Maine, Asmara, and New Mexico.

New Mexico? I ask.

Yes, Simon says, the volcano crater with the magic grass. Ah yes, I say, the caldera, where we saw the gophers and the jackrabbits and the elk running across and Daddy called it the veldt.

Yes. Do you see it?

And I do. The light is perfect for painting. His bed in heaven is a single bed.

Okay, it’s time to go now, Simon says. So down we go.

You can come with me anytime, he says.

Thank you, my darling.

I don’t think you can find it by yourself yet, he says, but one day you will.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown' by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

The book borrows its beautiful title from a Derek Walcott poem, a line from which — “Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!” — was etched onto the bench by the side of Ficre’s grave, for Ficre was a man animated by “an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” But it is another poetic enchanter of the psyche that ultimately lends Alexander the closest thing to an answer in this dance with the unknown. With an eye to Rilke’s famous line — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror” — she writes:

When we met those many years ago, I let everything happen to me, and it was beauty. Along the road, more beauty, and fear and struggle, and work, and learning, and joy. I could not have kept Ficre’s death from happening, and from happening to us. It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us.

If no feeling is final, there is more for me to feel.

The Light of the World is an absolutely luminous read, the kind full of incompressible dimension best experienced in its totality. Complement it with Joan Didion on grief and another poet’s moving memoir of love and loss — Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye — then revisit these intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids make sense of death.

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26 MAY, 2015

The Power of Unconditional Love: How Oliver Sacks’s Beloved Aunt Shaped His Life and Inspired His Courageous Dance with Death

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“I shall hope against hope that you may weather this misery, and be restored again to the joy of full living.”

The history of creative culture is strewn with silent supporters whose unconditional love and encouragement have carried artists and thinkers to greatness. Although practical help can be enormously vitalizing — without the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky may have never become Tchaikovsky; without the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day-job to become a full-time writer, Bukowski may have died a postal worker — it is spiritual support that best sustains the creative spirit: What would young James Joyce have been without Ibsen or Maurice Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom or Albert Camus without his childhood teacher or Beckett without his one true believer?

One of the most touching testaments to this nourishing power of unconditional support comes from Oliver Sacks and his relationship with his aunt Lennie, which Dr. Sacks recounts with great affection in On the Move: A Life (public library) — his magnificent memoir of love, lunacy, and a life well lived, one of the most moving books I have ever read.

Lennie (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Lennie, born Helena Penina Landau in 1892, was one of his mother’s six sisters and the founder of London’s poetically named Jewish Fresh Air School for Delicate Children. “Delicate,” as Dr. Sacks explains, could refer to “anything from autism to asthma or simply ‘nerviness'” — but the school’s focus bespoke, most of all, Lennie’s keen sensitivity to difference and to children’s anguishing consciousness of being different, whatever the degree or direction of difference.

In that sense, young Oliver was certainly a “delicate” child, and a “delicate” young man, and it was Lennie’s unflinching support that carried him forward — toward becoming a writer and, above all, toward becoming himself. Where his mother had summarily rejected him, proclaiming that he was “an abomination” for being gay, Lennie accepted him unconditionally and enveloped him in her wholehearted love. Dr. Sacks writes:

I felt very loved by her, and I loved her intensely too, and this was a love without ambivalence, without conditionality. Nothing I could say could repel or shock her; there seemed no limit to her powers of sympathy and understanding, the generosity and spaciousness of her heart.

Although Lennie had been close with his mother throughout Oliver’s childhood, it wasn’t until he moved to Canada and they were separated by an ocean that his own closeness with Lennie — who was exactly forty years his senior — began to blossom through their frequent and sincere correspondence. She addressed his letters “Darling Bol,” and occasionally “Boliver,” which Dr. Sacks contrasts with his parents’ more formal and somber “Dear Oliver,” adding:

I did not feel she used the word “Darling” lightly.

Lennie — a woman who paid generous and loving attention to the world, noticing and noting the blooming almond trees outside her window — was also the first person in Dr. Sacks’s life to encourage his foray into writing, the very vocation he came to see as a pillar of his identity. (“I am a storyteller, for better and for worse,” he reflects in the closing pages of his autobiography, leaving no ambiguity as to his sense of purpose.) He recounts Lennie’s emboldening faith in his creative destiny:

She had felt, since my boyhood days, that I could and should be “a writer.”

So when Dr. Sacks made his first tentative steps into professional journalism in the 1960s, writing for a short-lived magazine called Seed, Lennie cheered on:

I am much enjoying Seed and like its whole format — the cover design, the luxurious paper, the lovely print, and the feeling for words that all you contributors have, whether grave or gay. . . . Will you be dismayed when I say how gloriously young (and of course vital) you all are.

In another letter, she further fertilized the spouting seed of the writing life:

You certainly seem to have found a more satisfying outlet for your restless and searching spirit. . . . I do miss you.

Eventually, 27-year-old Oliver sent her a number of pages from his travel journals, which he considered his first “pieces” — “self-conscious and precious in tone” but ones he hoped to publish one day. Lennie responded:

I received your amazing excerpts from your journals. I found the whole thing breathtaking. I was suddenly conscious that I was gasping physically.

When Dr. Sacks sank into a depression, Lennie was once again his steadfast support, writing in a letter:

You’ve got so much in your favour — brains, charm, presentability, a sense of the ridiculous, and a whole gaggle of us who believe in you.

But for Dr. Sacks, she was a gaggle of one, the nourishing power of her faith in him a potent source of spiritual vitality:

Len’s belief in me had been important since my earliest years, since my parents, I thought, did not believe in me, and I had only a fragile belief in myself.

Under the beams of Lennie’s warming love, that fragile belief was fortified into a lifelong dedication to writing. A few years later, Dr. Sacks published his first book, Migraine, followed by the now-legendary Awakenings, which was eventually adapted into the famous film of the same title starring Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

But it was Lennie’s exit from Dr. Sacks’s life that provided at least as vital an influence as her supportive presence.

When 86-year-old Lennie was admitted to the hospital for a simple operation, something went terribly wrong and she awoke hooked to an IV. Dr. Sacks writes:

When Lennie learned of this, she felt that life with intravenous nourishment and a spreading cancer was not worthwhile. She resolved to stop eating, though she would take water. My father insisted she be seen by a psychiatrist, but the psychiatrist said, “She is the sanest person I have ever seen. You must respect her decision.”

I flew to England as soon as I heard about this and spent many happy but infinitely sad days at Lennie’s bedside as she was growing weaker. She was always and totally herself despite physical weakness.

What a stark contrast this offers with Dr. Sacks’s earliest experience of losing a loved one — the death of his first great love from cancer at a young age was felt as a rupture, with a heartbreaking sense of absence, whereas his final days with Lennie were filled with a deep sense of communion and wholehearted presence.

I am reminded, too, of Albert Camus, who famously asserted that the decision whether to live or whether to die is the most important question of philosophy. But a more important question, perhaps — one at the heart of Lennie’s choice — is how to live and how to die.

Dr. Sacks captures this beautifully in his final letter to her from the end of 1978 — a letter he never knew if she read:

Dearest Len,

We have all of us been hoping so intensely that this month would see your return to health; but, alas! this was not to be.

My heart is torn when I hear of your weakness, your misery — and, now, your longing to die. You, who have always loved life, and been such a source of strength and life to so many, can face death, even choose it, with serenity and courage, mixed, of course, with the grief of all passing. We, I, can much less bear the thought of losing you. You have been as dear to me as anyone in this world.

I shall hope against hope that you may weather this misery, and be restored again to the joy of full living. But if this is not to be, I must thank you — thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.

Love, Oliver

Dr. Sacks on his new 250cc Norton motorbike in 1956 (Photograph: Charles Cohen)

Suddenly, a luminous thread reveals itself between Lennie’s courageous exit from life and Dr. Sacks’s own. “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” he wrote in his breath-stopping farewell to the world as he confronted his own terminal cancer diagnosis. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can… I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

As I reread and reread On the Move, hoping against hope that Dr. Sacks weathers mortality, I find myself filled with a profound sense of gratefulness for all that he has given us, for the innumerable ways in which he was elevated and illuminated our world, for everything that he is. And my soul echoes: “Thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.”

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20 MAY, 2015

Anne Sexton’s Sensual Love Poem “Song for a Lady,” in an Animation Inspired by Oliver Sacks

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“So many doors open when you are present with an angle.”

“It is through [the] invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her sublime meditation on the art of the possible. Nothing gashes through reality more invisibly yet powerfully than love and nothing fills that rapturous rip more wholly than Anne Sexton’s 1969 volume Love Poems (public library) — a remarkable collection Sexton described as “a celebration of touch… physical and emotional touch,” published two years after she received the Pulitzer Prize.

In our second collaboration following a series of visual haikus based on Denise Levertov’s poetry, I asked the multidimensionally talented and thoughtful Montreal-based artist and musician Ohara Hale to bring to life my reading of Sexton’s “Song for a Lady” — one of the most bewitching and beautiful poems in the volume, and in any volume by any poet, celebrating the sensual love between two women.

Hale’s resulting animation, for which she composed an original score, is quite like poetry in that it distills the essence of a thing through an exquisite economy of form, using only line and perspective to channel an immensity of meaning.

SONG FOR A LADY

On the day of breasts and small hips
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane.
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.

“The room is so cold with rain,” you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

Hale’s concept, predicated on the mesmerism of angles, was inspired by legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and his work on how the blind see the world. It sparked in her a fascination with how they construct a kaleidoscope of angularity, which led her to imagine how a dog is perceived not as a single dog but as a million dogs, each “seen” from a different angle. Many of the angles don’t resemble a “dog” in the pictorial sense but still contribute to the understanding of what a dog is.

This way of deconstructing the world into fragments and reconstructing them into a wholeness of understanding is so different from how we see via regular vision that, as Dr. Sacks so movingly wrote in The Mind’s Eye, the newly sighted are often utterly overwhelmed by having to process information in this new way and revert to “blindness,” closing their eyes and continuing to navigate the world scanning for angles.

Hale explains how this fascinating phenomenon planted the seed for her Sexton animation:

I love the idea of an unrecognized shape being called a “dog.” It doesn’t look like a dog, but it is a dog. If you look close enough you might see more than what you assume is in front of you.

Each frame is a piece of artwork to me. My favorite frames are the ones that look nothing like the object at hand, yet it is the object.

In this animation, we are looking at each angle of a swan, slowly. Sometimes, you may not recognize it at all; sometimes, you may. The lines are true and present and simple — inviting the viewer to appreciate each frame as its very own piece of art; to sit with it.

The swan, of course, is the object of this love poem. To love something is to truly love every angle, inside and out — the attractive and the unattractive, the familiar and the unfamiliar. To love something fully is to appreciate and understand each angle.

To me, this animation is an example of love, an experience of love, a viewpoint of love. So many doors open when you are present with an angle.

Like a poet, moving from the particular to the universal, Hale zooms out into a wider perspective on how our intimacy with all angles helps us swing open the doors of perception. She adds:

Life is made of many angles. It is important to investigate as many angles as you can. Perspectives. This is true in the physical world as it in the mental and spiritual world, too — true to all angles of existence.

If we approach life with this type of eyes, we can widen our perspective and see more: The more you can understand, the more you can love, the more compassion you have, and in a world of compassion, will you find peace. Suddenly, you find in the palm of your hand the entire universe — exactly where it has always been.

See more of Hale’s multidisciplinary magic here and inhale Sexton’s Love Poems in its full twenty-five-piece splendor, then re-appreciate how Dr. Sacks’s lifetime of compassionate curiosity forever changed our understanding of the human mind.

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18 MAY, 2015

Bertrand Russell on Love, Sex, the Good Life, and How Moral Superstitions Limit Our Happiness

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“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.”

Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid yet luminous thinkers, his ideas tracking between the timeless and the prophetic. A century before our age of distraction and restless productivity, Russell admonished against its perilous effects and championed the role of boredom and stillness in our conquest of happiness. His ten commandments of teaching remain some of the most succinct tenets of education ever committed to words. His insight into human nature illuminates everything from our impulse for destruction to our longing for grace. But nowhere does Russell’s blazing brilliance warm the mind and spirit more thoroughly than in What I Believe (public library) — his 1925 catalog of credos, a kind of moral ecology that also gave us Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

After establishing his definition of the good life — “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Russell writes. “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.” — he turns to the more essential of these two ingredients, the one humanity has spent centuries trying to define and dedicated entire philosophies to mastering. Russell writes:

Although both love and knowledge are necessary, love is in a sense more fundamental, since it will lead intelligent people to seek knowledge, in order to find out how to benefit those whom they love. But if people are not intelligent, they will be content to believe what they have been told, and may do harm in spite of the most genuine benevolence.

Once again, Russell’s prescience reveals itself — many decades later, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanhs would come to write that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” But Russell is careful to note that knowing how to love first requires that we come to know love’s many dimensions:

Love is a word which covers a variety of feelings; I have used it purposely, as I wish to include them all. Love as an emotion — which is what I am speaking about, for love “on principle” does not seem to me genuine — moves between two poles: on one side, pure delight in contemplation; on the other, pure benevolence. Where inanimate objects are concerned, delight alone enters in; we cannot feel benevolence towards a landscape or a sonata. This type of enjoyment is presumably the source of art. It is stronger, as a rule, in very young children than in adults, who are apt to view objects in a utilitarian spirit. It plays a large part in our feelings towards human beings, some of whom have charm and some the reverse, when considered simply as objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from 'The Heart and the Bottle.' Click image for more.

The alchemy of a complete love, Russell argues, fuses these two elements of delight and benevolence in beholding the beloved:

Love at its fullest is an indissoluble combination of the two elements, delight and well-wishing. The pleasure of a parent in a beautiful and successful child combines both elements; so does sex-love at its best. But in sex-love benevolence will only exist where there is secure possession, since otherwise jealousy will destroy it, while perhaps actually increasing the delight in contemplation. Delight without well-wishing may be cruel; well-wishing without delight easily tends to become cold and a little superior. A person who wishes to be loved wishes to be the object of a love containing both elements.

The imbalance between the two is, perhaps, what unnerved Susan Sontag as she contemplated “love, sex, and the world between half a century later. For Russell, this two-legged love is inseparable from the second element of the good life: knowledge. But he is careful to note that this knowledge is scientific — a knowledge of the world in its full fact and glimmering reality — rather than ethical. Morality, he argues, is a wholly different matter — and yet, strangely, it too circles back to a psychological force we’ve come to associate with love: desire. In a sentiment that calls to mind the crossroads of Should and Must, he writes:

All moral rules must be tested by examining whether they tend to realize ends that we desire. I say ends that we desire, not ends that we ought to desire. What we “ought” to desire is merely what someone else wishes us to desire. Usually it is what the authorities wish us to desire — parents, school-masters, policemen, and judges. If you say to me “you ought to do so-and-so,” the motive power of your remark lies in my desire for your approval — together, possibly, with rewards or punishments attached to your approval or disapproval. Since all behavior springs from desire, it is clear that ethical notions can have no importance except as they influence desire. They do this through the desire for approval and the fear of disapproval. These are powerful social forces, and we shall naturally endeavor to win them to our side if we wish to realize any social purpose.

Desire, Russell insists, is a driver so potent that it can’t be legislated against or controlled via any other sticks-and-carrots system — it can only be harnessed and cultivated:

There is no conceivable way of making people do things they do not wish to do. What is possible is to alter their desires by a system of rewards and penalties, among which social approval and disapproval are not the least potent. The question for the legislative moralist is, therefore: How shall this system of rewards and punishments be arranged so as to secure the maximum of what is desired by the legislative authority? … Outside human desires there is no moral standard.

Thus, what distinguishes ethics from science is not any special kind of knowledge but merely desire.

And yet our conception of morality, Russell argues, seems completely divorced from the realities of the human experience:

Current morality is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as is natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules. Originally, certain acts were thought displeasing to the gods, and were forbidden by law because the divine wrath was apt to descend upon the community, not merely upon the guilty individuals. Hence arose the conception of sin, as that which is displeasing to God. No reason can be assigned as to why certain acts should be thus displeasing.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

This, of course, calls to mind not only Mark Twain’s general lament about how we’ve used religion to justify injustice but also the particular superstition with which homosexuality has been historically regarded. But even as early as 1925, Russell — a conscientious critic of religion — recognizes the absurdity of such thinking and points to the critical thinking required for making up one’s own mind in evaluating the alleged dangers of what such superstition condemns as “immoral”:

It is evident that a man with a scientific outlook on life cannot let himself be intimidated by texts of Scripture or by the teaching of the Church. He will not be content to say “such-and-such an act is sinful, and that ends the matter.” He will inquire whether it does any harm or whether, on the contrary, the belief that it is sinful does harm. And he will find that, especially in what concerns sex, our current morality contains a very great deal of which the origin is purely superstitious. He will find also that this superstition, like that of the Aztecs, involves needless cruelty, and would be swept away if people were actuated by kindly feelings towards their neighbors. But the defenders of traditional morality are seldom people with warm hearts… One is tempted to think that they value morals as affording a legitimate outlet for their desire to inflict pain; the sinner is fair game, and therefore away with tolerance!

How remarkable to consider that Russell’s admonition comes two decades before those same heartless defenders of so-called morality drove computing pioneer Alan Turing, one of humanity’s most magnificent and significant minds, into the grave and nearly a century before the equality of love triumphed over DOMA. Many decades later, Oliver Sacks would remark in his moving autobiography that “sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.” Indeed, Russell addresses this matter directly:

It should be recognized that, in the absence of children, sexual relations are a purely private matter, which does not concern either the State or the neighbors. Certain forms of sex which do not lead to children are at present punished by the criminal law: this is purely superstitious, since the matter is one which affects no one except the parties directly concerned.

Much of this, he argues, is the task of education, something at least as urgent today, when creationism — the most standardized mode of superstition — is still being taught in classrooms:

In all stages of education the influence of superstition is disastrous. A certain percentage of children have the habit of thinking; one of the aims of education is to cure them of this habit. Inconvenient questions are met with ‘hush, hush’, or with punishment.

Half a century before The Little Red Schoolbook and before Italo Calvino made his passionate case for reproductive rights, Russell points ever so elegantly at the misogynistic “morality” espoused by the church:

At puberty, the elements of an unsuperstitious sexual morality ought to be taught. Boys and girls should be taught that nothing can justify sexual intercourse unless there is mutual inclination. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church, which holds that, provided the parties are married and the man desires another child, sexual intercourse is justified however great may be the reluctance of the wife. Boys and girls should be taught respect for each other’s liberty; they should be made to feel that nothing gives one human being rights over another, and that jealousy and possessiveness kill love. They should be taught that to bring another human being into the world is a very serious matter, only to be undertaken when the child will have a reasonable prospect of health, good surroundings, and parental care. But they should also be taught methods of birth control, so as to insure that children shall only come when they are wanted.

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

Returning to the relationship between morality and the two pillars of the good life, Russell — predating Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” by several decades — writes:

Moral rules ought not to be such as to make instinctive happiness impossible.

[…]

The good life, we said, is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge… [But] in all that differentiates between a good life and a bad one, the world is a unity, and the man who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.

[…]

To live a good life in the fullest sense a man must have a good education, friends, love, children (if he desires them), a sufficient income to keep him from want and grave anxiety, good health, and work which is not uninteresting. All these things, in varying degrees, depend upon the community, and are helped or hindered by political events. The good life must be lived in a good society, and is not fully possible otherwise.

What I Believe is a timeless trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Russell on the power of “fruitful monotony” and why science is essential to democracy.

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