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Existential Therapy from the Universe: Physicist Sean Carroll on How Poetic Naturalism Illuminates Our Human Search for Meaning

“The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it — telling its story — in different ways.”

Existential Therapy from the Universe: Physicist Sean Carroll on How Poetic Naturalism Illuminates Our Human Search for Meaning

“We are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious,” the poet Mark Strand marveled in his beautiful meditation on the artist’s task to bear witness to existence, adding: “We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself… It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” Susan Sontag, at the end of her fully lived and intensely meaningful life, articulated the same idea in considering what it means to be a good human being: “To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.”

Scientists are rightfully reluctant to ascribe a purpose or meaning to the universe itself but, as physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out, “an unconcerned universe is not a bad thing — or a good one for that matter.” Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isn’t inherently imbued with meaning, it is in this self-conscious human act of paying attention that meaning arises.

Physicist Sean Carroll terms this view poetic naturalism and examines its rewards in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (public library) — a nuanced inquiry into “how our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,” in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls “existential therapy” reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson

With an eye to his life’s work of studying the nature of the universe — an expanse of space and time against the incomprehensibly enormous backdrop of which the dramas of a single human life claim no more than a photon of the spotlight — Carroll offers a counterpoint to our intuitive cowering before such magnitudes of matter and mattering:

I like to think that our lives do matter, even if the universe would trundle along without us.

[…]

I want to argue that, though we are part of a universe that runs according to impersonal underlying laws, we nevertheless matter. This isn’t a scientific question — there isn’t data we can collect by doing experiments that could possibly measure the extent to which a life matters. It’s at heart a philosophical problem, one that demands that we discard the way that we’ve been thinking about our lives and their meaning for thousands of years. By the old way of thinking, human life couldn’t possibly be meaningful if we are “just” collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics. That’s exactly what we are, but it’s not the only way of thinking about what we are. We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.

Carroll’s captivating term poetic naturalism builds on a worldview that has been around for centuries, dating back at least to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. It fuses naturalism — the idea that the reality of the natural world is the only reality, that it operates according to consistent patterns, and that those patterns can be studied — with the poetic notion that there are multiple ways of talking about the world and of framing the questions that arise from nature’s elemental laws.

Echoing Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s case for complementarity and Bertrand Russell’s insistence on “the will to doubt,” Carroll writes:

We have to be willing to accept uncertainty and incomplete knowledge, and always be ready to update our beliefs as new evidence comes in… Our best approach to describing the universe is not a single, unified story but an interconnected series of models appropriate at different levels. Each model has a domain in which it is applicable, and the ideas that appear as essential parts of each story have every right to be thought of as “real.” Our task is to assemble an interlocking set of descriptions, based on some fundamental ideas, that fit together to form a stable planet of belief.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Carroll considers how poetic naturalism addresses the great paradox of the necessarily self-referential experience of selfhood unfolding within our creaturely materiality:

The most difficult problem is a philosophical one: how is it even possible that inner experience, the uniquely experiential aboutness of our lives inside our heads, can be reduced to mere matter in motion? Poetic naturalism suggests that we should think of “inner experiences” as part of a way of talking about what is happening in our brains. But ways of talking can be very real, even when it comes to our ability to make free choices as rational beings.

[…]

Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless.

In a sentiment that calls Strand’s poetic premise to mind, Carroll adds:

Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary. We are not the reason for the existence of the universe, but our ability for self-awareness and reflection makes us special within it.

[…]

Purpose and meaning in life arise through fundamentally human acts of creation, rather than being derived from anything outside ourselves.

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

Carroll argues that naturalism — “a philosophy of unity and patterns, describing all of reality as a seamless web” — is the organic byproduct of our expanding knowledge, advancing us toward simpler and more unified models of how the world works. (Stephen Hawking’s search for a theory of everything is perhaps the most famous culmination of that impulse.) Carroll peers toward the end point of this knowledge-trajectory:

How far will this process of unification and simplification go? It’s impossible to say for sure. But we have a reasonable guess, based on our progress thus far: it will go all the way. We will ultimately understand the world as a single, unified reality, not caused or sustained or influenced by anything outside itself. That’s a big deal.

And yet, in a passage reminiscent of physicist and novelist Alan Lightman’s beautiful account of a transcendent experience, Carroll juxtaposes the central proposition of naturalism with some of the most familiar and universal intensities of being human:

Naturalism presents a hugely grandiose claim, and we have every right to be skeptical. When we look into the eyes of another person, it doesn’t seem like what we’re seeing is simply a collection of atoms, some sort of immensely complicated chemical reaction. We often feel connected to the universe in some way that transcends the merely physical, whether it’s a sense of awe when we contemplate the sea or sky, a trancelike reverie during meditation or prayer, or the feeling of love when we’re close to someone we care about. The difference between a living being and an inanimate object seems much more profound than the way certain molecules are arranged. Just looking around, the idea that everything we see and feel can somehow be explained by impersonal laws governing the motion of matter and energy seems preposterous.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk
Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk

Although naturalism has furnished our present understanding of how the world works, such skepticism of its completeness is reasonably grounded in its as-yet unfilled gaps. “This is the greatest damn thing about the universe,” Henry Miller exclaimed in contemplating the mystery of the universe and the meaning of existence at the end of his long life, “that we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.” Generations later, Carroll writes:

We don’t know how the universe began, or if it’s the only universe. We don’t know the ultimate, complete laws of physics. We don’t know how life began, or how consciousness arose. And we certainly haven’t agreed on the best way to live in the world as good human beings.

Yet even so, Carroll is quick to remind, naturalism is “still by far the most likely framework” — of how the world works, that is, but it does little in the way of helping us discern how the world should work. That’s the domain of practical moral wisdom, which is where poetic naturalism can help. Carroll writes:

In some number of years I will be dead; some memory of my time here on Earth may linger, but I won’t be around to savor it. With that in mind, what kind of life is worth living? How should we balance family and career, fortune and pleasure, action and contemplation? The universe is large, and I am a tiny part of it, constructed of the same particles and forces as everything else: by itself, that tells us precisely nothing about how to answer such questions. We’re going to have to be both smart and courageous as we work to get this right.

The craftsmanship of meaning amid the unfeeling laws of nature invariably calls on us to use human tools like ethics and art to answer questions of what is right and beautiful. Saul Bellow captured this memorably in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Indeed, Carroll argues that the meaning with which imbue reality — the personal, subjective reality of our human experience of life and self, not the universal reality of energy and matter — is largely contingent upon how we receive and articulate its signals. That reality, he argues, is shaped by how we talk about it:

Our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world — useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality — deserve to be called “real.”

The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” A way of talking isn’t just a list of concepts; it will generally include a set of rules for using them, and relationships among them. Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world.

[…]

The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it — telling its story — in different ways.

The Old Woman in the Wood: "Suddenly the branches twined round her and turned into two arms."
One of Arthur Rackham’s pioneering 1917 illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Carroll’s poetic naturalism is braided of three storytelling strands — the description of the deepest, most fundamental nature of physical reality, accounting for even the most microscopic detail, which science is yet to fully discern; emergent descriptions that fully explain a narrow realm of reality; and higher-order values that offer a framework for concepts of right and wrong, shape our ideas about things like beauty and love, and address questions of existential purpose. He writes:

Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from A Year Without Mom

All of this, of course, brings up the inescapable question of free will. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s exquisite treatise on the subject, in which she cautioned: “Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.” Carroll considers this vitalizing role of willingness, or desire, in our freedom to find meaning amid a universe of fixed laws:

In human terms, the dynamic nature of life manifests itself as desire. There is always something we want, even if what we want is to break free of the bonds of desire… Curiosity is a form of desire.

[…]

Our instincts and unreflective desires aren’t all we have; they’re just a starting point for building something significant.

Human beings are not blank slates at birth, and our slates become increasingly rich and multidimensional as we grow and learn. We are bubbling cauldrons of preferences, wants, sentiments, aspirations, likes, feelings, attitudes, predilections, values, and devotions. We aren’t slaves to our desires; we have the capacity to reflect on them and strive to change them. But they make us who we are. It is from these inclinations within ourselves that we are able to construct purpose and meaning for our lives.

[…]

The personal desires and cares that we start with may be simple and self-regarding. But we can build on them to create values that look beyond ourselves, to the wider world. It’s our choice, and the choice we make can be to expand our horizons, to find meaning in something larger than ourselves.

Illustration by Bonnie Christensen from I, Galileo, a picture-book biography of Galileo

Reflecting on his own path from his childhood in a family of “regular churchgoers” to a thoroughly unreligious adult life as a scientist, Carroll considers what that “something larger” might be:

Everything we’ve experienced about the universe suggests that it is intelligible: if we try hard enough we can come to understand it. There is so much we still don’t know about how reality works, but at the same time there’s a great deal that we have figured out. Mysteries abound, but there’s no reason to worry (or hope) that any of them are unsolvable.

[…]

The important distinction is not between theists and naturalists; it’s between people who care enough about the universe to make a good-faith effort to understand it, and those who fit it into a predetermined box or simply take it for granted. The universe is much bigger than you or me, and the quest to figure it out unites people with a spectrum of substantive beliefs. It’s us against the mysteries of the universe; if we care about understanding, we’re on the same side.

Although I tend to prefer Henry Beston’s notion of whimsicality, for it dances with the language of fairy tales rather than that of religion, I appreciate Carroll’s endeavor to reclaim the notion of miraculousness from its antiscientific connotations:

The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium. We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle… It is wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.

With an urgent eye to the fact that the average human heart will beat three billion times over the course of a lifetime — a fact rooted in our biological materiality — Carroll encourages us to see this physical exigency as a mobilizing force for our metaphysical synthesis of meaning:

All lives are different, and some face hardships that others will never know. But we all share the same universe, the same laws of nature, and the same fundamental task of creating meaning and of mattering for ourselves and those around us in the brief amount of time we have in the world.

Three billion heartbeats. The clock is ticking.

In the remainder of The Big Picture, Carroll goes on to explore such centralities and subtleties of poetic naturalism as the perplexity of death, the wild possibilities of the quantum realm, and how the crucial difference between awe and wonder illuminates our relationship to mystery. Complement it with Oliver Sacks’s lived testament to poetic naturalism as a gateway to meaning and legendary psychiatrist Irving D. Yalom on uncertainty and our search for meaning, then revisit this comparative inquiry into how art, science, and religion explain the universe.

BP

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman: The Beloved Poet’s Advice on Living a Vibrant and Rewarding Life

“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others… re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…”

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was thirty-six when he self-published Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). Amid its dispiriting initial reception, he received a soul-saving letter of encouragement from Emerson, who by that point had become America’s most influential literary tastemaker. Whitman carried it in his pocket for a long time, proudly showing to friends and lovers, and eventually reprinted it in full in the second edition, on the spine of which a particularly vitalizing sentence from the letter — “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career” — was stamped in gold.

Without Emerson’s emboldening missive, the young poet may have perished in obscurity. Praising the book as brimming with “incomparable things said incomparably well,” Emerson buoyed Whitman’s spirit and soon sculpted public opinion into appreciation. Leaves of Grass went on to become one of most beautiful and beloved poetic works ever written.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Whitman’s words in the preface to the original edition are at least as radiant and rousing as the verses themselves — words that continue to enliven heart, mind, and spirit a century and a half later. He writes:

The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes … but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects … they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

And yet he does indicate the path. In a passage partway between sermon and commencement address, he writes:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Illustration from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Allen Crawford

In a sentiment which Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand would come to echo nearly 150 years later in contemplating the artist’s task to bear witness to the universe, Whitman extols the poet’s singular role in granting us access to this richness of being:

The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What baulks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.

[…]

Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done the greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read. To do this well is to compete with the laws that pursue and follow time.

He ends the lengthy preface with a piercing reflection on the measure of how an artist dances this dance with the laws of time:

The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.

Absorb the timelessly rewarding Leaves of Grass and complement it with Whitman on the power of music, healthcare and the human spirit, and why a robust society is a feminist society.

BP

The Power of Cautionary Questions: Neil Gaiman on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity

“Ideas, written ideas, are special. They are the way we transmit our stories … from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human.”

The Power of Cautionary Questions: Neil Gaiman on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity

“The important thing,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the cultural role of speculative fiction and the task of its writer, “is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live.” In doing so, she argued, imaginative storytelling can intercept the inertia of oppressive institutions, perilous social mores, and other stagnations of progress that contract our scope of the possible.

Hardly any work of imaginative storytelling has stood as more enduring and full-bodied a testament to this ideal than Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterwork Fahrenheit 451 — a love letter to books and to the people who care about them and, perhaps above all, to the very capacity for caring. This capacity was the animating force of Bradbury’s uncommon genius, and it finds a contemporary counterpart and kindred spirit in Neil Gaiman — a writer of firm conviction and porous curiosity, an idealist amid our morass of cynicism, writing to remind us over and over again who we are and who we can be if we commit to wresting goodness out of our imperfect humanity.

Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)

The abiding splendor and significance of the ideas and ideals at the heart of Bradbury’s classic is what Gaiman explores in a beautiful piece titled “Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, and What Science Fiction Is and Does,” originally written as an introduction to a sixtieth-anniversary edition of the book and now included in his altogether magnificent The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (public library) — a collection of Gaiman’s essays, speeches, reviews, and various meditations on life, literature, and the life and love of literature.

Gaiman begins at the beginning — the elemental impulse to imagine, to record these imaginings, and to share them with others:

Sometimes writers write about a world that does not yet exist. We do it for a hundred reasons. (Because it’s good to look forward, not back. Because we need to illuminate a path we hope or we fear humanity will take. Because the world of the future seems more enticing or more interesting than the world of today. Because we need to warn you. To encourage. To examine. To imagine.) The reasons for writing about the day after tomorrow, and all the tomorrows that follow it, are as many and as varied as the people writing.

With an eye to the Bradbury classic’s cultural role as “a book of warning” and “a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted,” Gaiman offers a taxonomy of the three types of speculative questions that frame our scope of alternative possibilities:

There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:

What if … ?
If only …
If this goes on …

“What if … ?” gives us change, a departure from our lives. (What if aliens landed tomorrow and gave us everything we wanted, but at a price?)

“If only …” lets us explore the glories and dangers of tomorrow. (If only dogs could talk. If only I was invisible.)

“If this goes on…” is the most predictive of the three, although it doesn’t try to predict an actual future with all its messy confusion. Instead, “If this goes on…” fiction takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became bigger, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved. (If this goes on, all communication everywhere will be through text messages or computers, and direct speech between two people, without a machine, will be outlawed.)

It’s a cautionary question, and it lets us explore cautionary worlds.

Art by Ralph Steadman for a special fiftieth-anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451

Therein, Gaiman argues, lies the greatest gift of the book — in raising cautionary questions about the present and its alternatives, rather than in predicting the future. He considers this broader role of all speculative fiction:

People think, wrongly, that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t — or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it. Futures are huge things that come with many elements and a billion variables, and the human race has a habit of listening to predictions for what the future will bring and then doing something quite different.

What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future, but the present. Taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place.

This offering of alternative perspectives is as nourishing to culture as the difficult but necessary practice of alternative interpretations is to our inner lives and our psychological stability — lest we forget, our perilous pathology of self-criticism arises from an incapacity for such multiplicity of interpretation and it enslaves us in the same way that our cultural blinders do. Speculative fiction, Gaiman argues, grants us a liberation of vision — but only so long as we honor its most essential characteristic: the multiplicity of meanings to any one story. Half a century after Susan Sontag’s admonition against the tyranny of interpretation, he cautions:

Listen.

If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right.

If they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are very definitely wrong.

Any story is about a host of things. It is about the author; it is about the world the author sees and deals with and lives in; it is about the words chosen and the way those words are deployed; it is about the story itself and what happens in the story; it is about the people in the story; it is polemic; it is opinion.

An author’s opinions of what a story is about are always valid and are always true: the author was there, after all, when the book was written. She came up with each word and knows why she used that word instead of another. But an author is a creature of her time, and even she cannot see everything that her book is about.

Bradbury was only thirty-two when he began writing the short story that became Fahrenheit 451 and he wrote it on a rental typewriter in a university basement library. It was of its time — a time when the chills of the Cold War had just been stoked and the golden era of consumerism was gathering momentum and television was coming of age as a mass medium — but it is also, in its central cautionary question, timeless.

Art by Ralph Steadman for a special fiftieth-anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451

Gaiman considers that question:

“If this goes on …” thought Ray Bradbury, “nobody will read books anymore,” and the book began.

[…]

“What if … firemen burned down houses instead of saving them?” Bradbury thought, and now he had his way in to the story. He had a fireman named Guy Montag, who saved a book from the flames instead of burning it.

“If only … books could be saved,” he thought. If you destroy all the physical books, how can you still save them?

[…]

He called the Los Angeles fire department and asked them at what temperature paper burned. Fahrenheit 451, somebody told him. He had his title. It didn’t matter if it was true or not.

The book was published and acclaimed. People loved the book, and they argued about it. It was a novel about censorship, they said, about mind control, about humanity. About government control of our lives. About books.

But the aboutness of the book, like the aboutness of any book, Gaiman reminds us, is porous and responsive and in constant dynamic interaction with the context of its time, its place, and the locus of circumstances in the reader’s life at the particular moment of reading it.

Neil Gaiman at age 17, from The Art of Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman at age 17, from The Art of Neil Gaiman

In a testament to Susan Sontag’s case for rereading as rebirth, Gaiman recounts the evolution of the Bradbury classic along the axis of his own life:

I read Fahrenheit 451 as a boy: I did not understand Guy Montag, did not understand why he did what he did, but I understood the love of books that drove him. Books were the most important things in my life. The huge wall-screen televisions were as futuristic and implausible as the idea that people on the television would talk to me, that I could take part, if I had a script. It was never a favorite book: it was too dark, too bleak for that. But when I read a story called “Usher II” in The Silver Locusts (the UK title for The Martian Chronicles), I recognized the world of outlawed authors and imagination with a fierce sort of familiar joy.

When I reread it as a teenager, Fahrenheit 451 had become a book about independence, about thinking for yourself. It was about treasuring books and the dissent inside the covers of books. It was about how we as humans begin by burning books and end by burning people.

Rereading it as an adult I find myself marveling at the book once more. It is all of those things, yes, but it is also a period piece… A young reader, finding this book today, or the day after tomorrow, is going to have to imagine first a past, and then a future that belongs to that past.

But still, the heart of the book remains untouched, and the questions Bradbury raises remain as valid and important.

Art by Ralph Steadman for a special fiftieth-anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451

The most central of these question is also the most abiding: Why do we need books at all? It’s a question to which some of humanity’s most luminous minds have provided spirited answers over the millennia. For Galileo, books were a way of having superhuman powers; for Kafka, “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for Carl Sagan, “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny; for Rebecca Solnit, the planting of seeds from which enormous possibility can blossom; for Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, our ultimate frontier of freedom. “Reading,” E.B. White wrote as he peered into the future of reading shortly before Bradbury wrote his masterpiece, “is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.” Bradbury himself considered reading the key to democracy.

Gaiman contributes his own answer, straddling the political and the poetic:

Why do we need the things in books? The poems, the essays, the stories? Authors disagree. Authors are human and fallible and foolish. Stories are lies after all, tales of people who never existed and the things that never actually happened to them. Why should we read them? Why should we care?

The teller and the tale are very different. We must not forget that.

Ideas, written ideas, are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our ideas from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.

In another short piece from the book, titled “Credo,” Gaiman builds on this foundational truth:

I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.

I believe that you can set your own ideas against ideas you dislike. That you should be free to argue, explain, clarify, debate, offend, insult, rage, mock, sing, dramatize, and deny.

I do not believe that burning, murdering, exploding people, smashing their heads with rocks (to let the bad ideas out), drowning them or even defeating them will work to contain ideas you do not like. Ideas spring up where you do not expect them, like weeds, and are as difficult to control.

I believe that repressing ideas spreads ideas.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a tremendous read in its totality — an electrifying packet of that “fierce sort of familiar joy” full of Gaiman’s beautifully articulated beliefs about such centralities of the human experience as art, gender, fear, and community, alongside his reflections on and homages to friends, heroes, and kindred spirits like Terry Pratchett, Charles Vess, Douglas Adams, and Tori Amos.

Even the book’s dedication to Gaiman’s newborn son radiates his genial genius:

For Ash, who is new, for when he is grown.

These were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed, a long time ago.

Complement this particular portion with Bradbury on the importance of love in creative work and the secret of a fulfilling vocation, then revisit Gaiman on how stories last, the psychological pillars of the creative life, why fairy tales captivate us, his eight rules of writing, and his advice to aspiring writers.

BP

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