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The Binary Code of Body and Spirit: Computing Pioneer Alan Turing on Mortality

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.”

The Binary Code of Body and Spirit: Computing Pioneer Alan Turing on Mortality

“The void horrifies: so we are all immortal,” Simone de Beauvoir scoffed at the religious escapism of immortality in explaining why she is an atheist, adding: “Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly.” But there exists a certain orientation of spirit that is both unreligious and lucid in contemplating mortality. Einstein touched on it in his beautiful letter to the Queen of Belgium, in which he wrote: “There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions.” And yet he conceded that such an orientation toward mortality is reserved for those “who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.”

To make sense of the untimely loss of a young and unrealized life is a wholly different matter, one which haunted computing pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954).

Young Alan Turing

Turing’s decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have shortened WWII by two to four years, consequently saving anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives. But despite his wartime heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.

Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.

Alan Turing (far left) with classmates at Waterloo Station on the way to the school carriage at Charing Cross Station, early 1926 (Turing Digital Archive)

When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.

All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely.

Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom. Art by Keith Hegley from The Who, the What, and the When, an illustrated celebration of the little-known inspirations behind geniuses.

That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) — a masterwork of fiction that swirls philosophical poetics around the facts of Turing’s life.

Levin paints Turing’s struggle to conciliate the materialism of his scientific devotion with his spiritual devotion to Christopher even after the material cessation of his existence:

The future, present, and past of every material object is subject to the laws of physics. The orbit of every celestial body, the fall of every drop of rain. His own body a collection of molecules. His desire a cauldron of hormones whose chemistry has just been scientifically documented. His brain a case of matter, blood, and bone.

But he feels direct experience of his own soul, his spirit. He cannot accept that as an aggregate of flesh, a clump of matter, that his future, past, and present are already determined by the laws of physics. He cannot crush out the intuition that he makes choices, influences the world with his mind and spirit.

[…]

Chris had shown him the reaction between solutions of iodates and sulfites. Holding the mixture in a clear beaker near his face, he watched Alan’s response as the solution turned a bold blue, tinting Christopher’s hair and deepening the hue of his eyes. To Alan it seemed the other way around, as though Chris’s beautiful eyes had stained the beaker blue.

[…]

He often tries to re-create the moment when Chris’s spirit seeped out of the portals of his eyes and infused the room, a stunning concentration of his soul trapped in the indigo liquid in the beaker. He knows the simple form of the chemicals and the rules of their combination, but he can’t shake the force of the impression that Chris makes on him. He can’t limit the experience to the confines of ordinary matter.

That unshakable sense of spirit beyond matter is what 20-year-old Turing articulates in a letter from April 20, 1933:

My dear Mrs. Morcom,

I was so pleased to be at the Clockhouse for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.

Turing visited Clock House again in July, for what would have been Christopher’s twenty-second birthday. Seeking to reconcile the irrepressible spiritual aliveness felt in grief with the undeniable definitiveness of physical death, as much for himself as for Christopher’s mother, he wrote in another letter to her under the heading “Nature of Spirit”:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale. This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are pre-destined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.

[…]

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

First page of “Nature of Spirit,” in Turing’s original handwriting (Turing Digital Archive)

How Turing’s ideas evolved over the course of his life as he tussled with this paradox is among the many profound and possibly unanswerable questions examined with enormous intellectual elegance in A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines, another thread of which explores how the mathematician Kurt Gödel shaped our ideas of truth. Complement this particular thread with Marcus Aurelius on mortality and the key to living fully, Mary Oliver on the measure of aliveness, and Oliver Sacks on death, destiny, and the redemptive radiance of a life well lived.

BP

Insomniac City: Bill Hayes’s Extraordinary Love Letter to New York, Oliver Sacks, and Love Itself

“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

Insomniac City: Bill Hayes’s Extraordinary Love Letter to New York, Oliver Sacks, and Love Itself

“If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together. This life-expanding recompense of embracing otherness graces every meaningful relationship, be it the love of a person or the love of a place, and it comes alive with uncommon splendor in Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (public library) — the poetic and profound more-than-memoir by the writer and photographer Bill Hayes.

After the sudden death of his partner of sixteen years, Hayes — a lifelong insomniac — leaves San Francisco for New York in search of a fresh start. He finds himself in a city where “life is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent,” where “every car on every train holds a surprise, a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space for a minute or two — a living Rubik’s Cube.” Slowly, his heart begins to awaken from the coma of grief and he falls in love again — first with the city, then with an improbable new paramour: the late, great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. He learns that New York, like love, is demanding and difficult but rewards those who surrender to it unguardedly. Both can break your heart, and both can break it open if you embrace their irregular edges.

What emerges from this dual love letter is a lyrical reminder that happiness and heartache are inseparably entwined, and that without the tragic, the beautiful would be just a frayed strand of half-being.

“Trees in the Park” by Bill Hayes

Hayes writes:

I moved to New York eight years ago and felt at once at home. In the haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night, I recognized my insomniac self. If New York were a patient, it would be diagnosed with agrypnia excitata, a rare genetic condition characterized by insomnia, nervous energy, constant twitching, and dream enactment — an apt description of a city that never sleeps, a place where one comes to reinvent himself.

Alongside the portrait of New York Hayes paints a portrait of the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks — a largehearted genius of ceaseless eccentricity, who collects spectacles and dreams of fern salad and writes with a fountain pen and has never emailed or texted or owned a computer; who, when taught to open a champagne bottle in his late seventies, dons his swimming goggles “just in case”; who earnestly calls pot “cannabis” and exclaims with gusto when stoned into hallucination: “The primary cortex! The genius of the primary cortex!”; a man of imagination so infinite and empathy so complete that when asked what he has been doing lying in the garden for hours, he replies that he has been wondering about what it’s like to be a rose.

“Tea Time” by Bill Hayes

Hayes is the “Billy” in Dr. Sacks’s own magnificent memoir — the love of his life, whom he met after three and a half decades of singledom and celibacy. Dr. Sacks himself recounted their defining moment of mutuality: “[Billy] came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, ‘I have conceived a deep love for you.’ I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.”

The two met when Dr. Sacks sent Billy a letter — one might say fan mail, though Hayes seems far too humble to call it that himself — after reading his book The Anatomist. Hayes writes:

He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.

Indeed, Hayes’s is not so much a love letter, for even the most exquisite of the genre can slip into the formulaic, but a most unusual letter of adoration — of Oliver, and of New York.

“Oliver’s Desk” by Bill Hayes

Besides that deep love and mutual adoration, Hayes’s tender account of his life with Dr. Sacks — or “O,” as he appears in the book — reveals that they share a fervent yet ungrasping appreciation of what he so poetically calls “those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and displays every possible permutation of beauty.” They share, too, a good-natured curiosity about the world — one about the natural world, the other about the human world. Both are fearless explorers, but Billy is the modern urban counterpart to O’s Darwin and Humboldt and Shackleton — while Dr. Sacks ventures to remote islands of exotic ferns and curious neuropathologies, Hayes ventures into a questionable artist warehouse, comforts the sad stranger on the train and the go-go boy with the existential crisis, chats up the elderly woodworker carving a letter opener at the corner of Eighth and Jane, has his eye drawn by a 95-year-old artist with bright orange hair, and follows into a dark alley the homeless poet who writes him a koan-sonnet onto a celestial map torn from an old New York Times.

Bill Hayes’s eye by Ilona Royce Smithkin

Hayes relays his disposition toward the city and its inhabitants:

I make a point of waving or nodding hello when I can. I have come to believe that kindness is repaid in unexpected ways and that if you are lonely or bone-tired or blue, you need only come down from your perch and step outside. New York — which is to say, New Yorkers — will take care of you.

Indeed, what often escapes the gliding visitor is the subterranean kindness that governs the city, that makes it not only bearable but beautiful. Hayes writes:

I’ve lived in New York long enough to understand why some people hate it here: the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the expense, the rents; the messed-up sidewalks and pothole-pocked streets; the weather that brings hurricanes named after girls that break your heart and take away everything.

It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here. But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least. Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you — even if you don’t get something back right away. You will.

“Washington Square Park” by Bill Hayes

As he inhabits the city, Hayes is aglow with generous curiosity — not the greedy kind that makes souvenirs out of otherness but the warm, openhearted kind that seeks to understand and connect. He is a noticer of things — the white clouds backlit by the moon against the night sky, the hands of lovestruck couples “laced together as if in prayer,” the quality of the early morning air outside the busy subway station, “soft, as if unfinished dreams still emanated from everyone’s skin.” But perhaps, exactly contrary to the stereotype of the hasty New Yorker in a perpetual trance of busyness, every true New Yorker is — must necessarily be — a noticer of things, for this is a city where “beauty comes in unbeautiful ways.”

“Sam at His Newsstand” by Bill Hayes

Strewn throughout the narrative are notes — sometimes poetic, sometimes playful, always in close contact with the profound — from Hayes’s journal, which he began on Oliver’s suggestion one spring morning shortly after they fell in love. Many of these diary meditations are loving records of unusual, endearing proclamations Oliver makes as a matter of course — precious fossils of the peculiarities that made Oliver Sacks Oliver Sacks.

In an entry from January of 2010, Hayes records:

O: “Every day, a word surprises me.”

In another:

O: “Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?”

They are also capsules of the tenderness that flowed between them — tenderness colored by Dr. Sacks’s lovable idiosyncrasies:

O: “I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins.”

Elsewhere:

“I just want to enjoy your nextness and nearness,” O says.

In an entry from the winter of 2010, Hayes records:

Palace Hotel, San Francisco — Over Christmas:

In bed, lights out:

O: “Oh, oh, oh…!”

I: “What was that for?”

O: “I found your fifth rib.”

In the middle of the night: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” O whispers.

In another entry:

O, in the car, on a drive back from the Botanical Garden — reclining all the way back in his seat (because of sciatica); two pairs of sunglasses on (because of his eye) — suddenly speaks, startling me (I thought he’d been sleeping):

“I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me: you create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate. Like Jesus. And Kierkegaard. And smoked trout…”

I: “That’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me — I think.”

O chuckles, then adds: “It’s a kind of teaching, in a strange way…”

Later: I thought he was gazing at me lovingly as I drove, but then realized, no:

“I’m watching the odometer and thinking of the elements,” says O.

“O’s Periodic Table” by Bill Hayes

But love is, indeed, “a kind of teaching,” the tender mutuality of which Hayes captures in another entry under the heading “Random images and thoughts”:

How, during a daylong series of panels and performances on O’s work, he would repeatedly open his little tin and offer me a mint before taking one himself.

How, when we first met, he didn’t really know how to (or didn’t think so) share with another person. He’d never shared his life before, after all.

How when I didn’t feel well recently and took a long bath, he brought in to me a piece of toast with a slice of cheese on it. When I transferred to the bed, be brought me another slice.

On a particularly scenic July evening on the rooftop, the spectacle of the sunset aided by a touch of hallucinogens, Hayes contemplates the transcendent cross-pollination of differences that is love:

Taking in the great beauty of my surroundings — “an attack of beauty,” as O once said about a sunset — I thought two things: one, how there is so much in that head of his, so much O knows; and two, how different we are, in that what is going through my brain is not so much a stream of thoughts and images but of feelings and emotions. I am tuned into the people around me — the dynamics among the group of boys behind us, and the argument being had by the older couple right next to us, and my own complicated feelings. I may not know nearly as much as O knows, I am not as brilliant, but I feel a lot, so much, and some of this has rubbed off onto him and some of his knowledge has rubbed off onto me.

Undergirding their particular love story is the universal story of every love — that subtle yet indelible way in which two separate people come to permeate one another in the very fiber of their being, a mutual permeation works even across space and time: Those we love come to color even our past that predates them. Looking back on one of his first evenings in New York, Hayes recounts: “The tequila tasted as clean and bright as metal — like an element with a name I can’t pronounce.” He hadn’t yet fallen in love with Dr. Sacks, whose famous obsession with the periodic table would become part of their relationship — Oliver would later count Billy’s pushups by the names of the corresponding elements: “titanium, vanadium, chromium…” And yet Hayes’s mind had somehow revised his own memory with Dr. Sacks’s subsequent influence, for loving someone alters even our memory of who we were before we loved them.

“Studying Bach” by Bill Hayes

What becomes clear from Hayes’s journals is not only the soul-deep affection between them, but also those small, everyday acts of care of which that affection is woven:

“I hope I get a good night’s sleep and then have a rush of thoughts, as I did this morning,” says O. “It’s very delightful when that happens — all of them rushing to the surface, as if they have been waiting for me to become conscious of them…”

I help him get ready for bed — “de-sock” him, fill his water bottle, bring him his sleeping tablets, make sure he has something to read.

I: “What else can I do for you?”

O: “Exist.”

Indeed, these fragmentary glimpses reveal above all a man unwilling, perhaps even unable, to fragment himself; a man who embodies Van Gogh’s ethos that his “life and love are one” — for alongside these spontaneous pronouncements of love are equally spontaneous revelations of Dr. Sacks’s lifelong sense that “the act of writing is an integral part of [his] mental life.” In another journal entry, Hayes writes:

O: “I want a flow of good thoughts and words as long as I’m alive.”

In an entry written less than a year before Dr. Sacks’s death, Hayes records:

“Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking?” says O, out of the blue, in the car, on the way to his place in the country. “I sometimes sort of feel like I’m … looking at the neural basis of consciousness.”

“Yeah?”

“Those are special occasions,” he went on, “when the mind takes off — and you can watch it. It’s largely autonomous, but autonomous on your behalf — in regard to problems, questions, and so on.” A pause, then returning to his thought: “There are creative flights… Flights: that is a nice word.”

“Mmm, I love that word… What… triggers such flights for you?”

“Surprise, astonishment, wonder…”

“Back Home” by Bill Hayes

When knee surgery compounds the unbearable chronic pain of sciatica, making it impossible for Dr. Sacks to sit, he tells Hayes, who has built him a standing desk:

Writing is more important than pain.

Elsewhere:

O: “I thought being old would be either awful or trivial, and it’s neither.”

I: “What makes it not awful and not trivial?”

O: “Aside from you, thinking and writing.”

Hayes captures Dr. Sacks’s indivisible wholeness, this arduous resistance to the fragmentation of identity politics, in an exchange from the autumn of 2012:

Over dinner, O talking about his late friend Gaj — Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel laureate in medicine — with great excitement and conviction, comparing him to Goethe, of whom it was said, O tells me, “He had a nature. A nature.”

I thought I knew what O meant — O, who has always disliked being pigeonholed, typed, as simply one thing or another, doctor or writer, gay or not, Jewish or atheist, etc. — but I wasn’t completely sure and prodded him.

“A nature,” he repeated, as if that was the only way to say it. “He wasn’t this or that, fitted with so many labels, an ‘identity,’ like people today, but all aspects of him were of a piece — this is who he was, not what he was; a force of nature, I suppose.”

“Under the Overpass” by Bill Hayes

Hayes — whose life has been marked by loss: his longtime partner Steve, his agent, mentor and dear friend Wendy Weil, and finally Oliver himself — considers the measure of aliveness:

I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.

After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.

The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause — to memorize moments of the everyday.

It is with such an appetite for aliveness that Dr. Sacks meets his own death when the unexpected diagnosis of the rare recurrence of a rare cancer interrupts the idyll of their love. But even this news he receives with his inescapable essence of a writer and a lucid optimist, a liver of life, underlining each word as he writes atop a new page of his notepad: “Sad, shocking, horrible, yes, but…” In one of the finest parenthetical passages I’ve ever encountered, replete with wisdom beyond its concrete context, Hayes explains:

(Oliver often said that but was his favorite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.)

Beneath that underlined heading, Dr. Sacks lists what Hayes calls “eight and one-half reasons to remain hopeful; to feel lucky at the very moment when one might reasonably feel most unlucky.” His list would swell into his now-iconic essay on living and dying, “My Own Life,” which he dictated to Hayes almost fully formed over dinner a couple of nights later.

“My Own Life” by Bill Hayes

His life expectancy suddenly compressed by the terminal diagnosis, Dr. Sacks sets out to compress in turn as much life as possible into the time he has left, condensing even his very being to become all the more intensely himself. The seed for this zest, if fertilized by the diagnosis, had been there all along, captured in a prescient remark he had made to Hayes early in their love, years before the fatal illness, which appears as the book’s epigraph:

I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.

In another diary installment, Hayes captures the heart of what made Dr. Sacks such an exceptional writer — his adamant refusal to slide down the hierarchy of great writing from enchanter to mere explainer:

O, as he goes over final galleys for his book.

He insists on crossing out clauses suggested by a copy editor that define or explain an unusual word or term he has used: “Let them find out!” he says, meaning — make the reader work a little. Go look it up in the dictionary, or go to the library!

In a journal entry from the spring of 2015, Hayes records what might be an epitaph for Dr. Sacks:

O: “The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

But what makes Dr. Sacks — the writer, the human being — so singular is the unremitting love with which he approached the world he attended to in writing, an orientation of spirit that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report.” Hayes captures this in a diary entry penned just two weeks before Dr. Sacks’s death:

[O:] “I say I love writing but really it is thinking I love — the rush of thoughts — new connections in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue.” He smiled. “In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…”

It is fair to doubt, as I did before beginning the book, whether it is possible to render a man so beloved by the world even more lovable. But this is precisely what Hayes has done, conveying with great care and tenderness the subtleties of character that only an intimate love can reveal in a person. There is, however, a harrowing price the reader must pay for bearing witness to their beautiful love: One is left to wonder how the loss of a man as irreplaceable as Dr. Sacks, a loss grieved by millions, is at all survivable by the person who loved him the most. And yet Hayes, in a supreme testament to how love teaches us to borrow the best parts of one another, tempers his melancholy with Oliver’s infinite capacity for buoyancy of mind and spirit. Half a century after Albert Camus’s abiding treatise on the most important question of existence, Hayes writes:

I remember how Wendy once told me she loved New York so much she couldn’t bear the thought of it going on without her. It seemed like both the saddest and the most romantic thing one could possibly say — sad because New York can never return the sentiment, and sad because it’s the kind of thing said more often about a romantic love — husband, wife, girlfriend, partner, lover. You can’t imagine them going on without you. But they do. We do. Every day, we may wake up and say, What’s the point? Why go on? And, there is really only one answer: To be alive.

“A Small Parade” by Bill Hayes

Insomniac City is an ineffably splendid read in its entirety, a mighty packet of pure aliveness. Complement it with Dr. Sacks’s own memoir of love, lunacy, and a life fully lived, the remarkable story of how music and literature saved him, and his beautiful, courageous farewell to the world.

BP

Italo Calvino on Racial Justice: The Beloved Italian Writer’s Stirring Account of the Early Civil Rights Movement and His Encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.

“What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.”

Italo Calvino on Racial Justice: The Beloved Italian Writer’s Stirring Account of the Early Civil Rights Movement and His Encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1959, the Ford Foundation invited a small international group of up-and-coming creative writers to visit America on a six-month scholarship — a Herculean feat under an administration that made it as close to impossible as possible for foreigners suspected of communist views, which included most foreigners, to enter the United States. Among them were an English poet, a French novelist, a Spanish playwright, a Flemish-Belgian poet, an Israeli essayist and scholar of politics and religion, and the young Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985), who had just published his fifth book of fiction. (The great German writer and graphic artist Günter Grass was also invited, but failed the medical exam mandated by U.S. immigration — “the barbaric law that you have to have sound lungs to enter America,” as Calvino put it — and had to relinquish his scholarship. Of those invited, Grass would go on to be the only writer to win the Nobel Prize.)

Italo Calvino

Calvino recorded the journey in a series of exquisite diary entires and letters, beginning with his time on the ocean liner (“The only thing that you can glean from it is a definition of boredom as being somehow out of phase with history, a feeling of being cut off but with the consciousness that everything else is still going on.”), which landed him in New York, “the most spectacular sight that anyone can see on this earth.” He spent four of the six months there, and traveled around the country for the remaining two. (“I stopped at Savannah, Georgia, to sleep and have a look at it, attracted only by its beautiful name and by some historical, literary or musical memory, but no one said I should go there, no one in any State of the United States. AND IT IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY IN THE UNITED STATES. Absolutely, there is nothing to compare with it.”)

Calvino collected his impressions under the working title An Optimist in America, but ultimately decided not to publish the book. “It hadn’t turned out badly,” he wrote to a friend, “but for me to go down the road taken by travel writers was opting for an easy way out.” And yet when his wife found these American diaries and letters among his papers after his death, she instantly recognized that they offered a singular glimpse of Calvino as a writer — “the most spontaneous and direct one we have,” she writes in the preface to the posthumously published Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings (public library).

But they also offer something else — a singular glimpse of America itself, revealed in a mirror held up by an impartial guest with no agenda of his own, animated only by the benevolent curiosity of an itinerant idealist. What Calvino’s mirror reveals is both timeless and staggeringly timely, nowhere more so than in his writings about America’s pathology of racial injustice and the difficult, necessary awakening of public consciousness that he witnessed in the early civil rights movement, replete with its hard-won potential for healing a ruptured nation.

Boy skating in the streets of Montgomery, Alabama (Photograph: James Peppler / Alabama Department of Archives & History)

Through that peculiar convergence of chance and choice that shapes our lives, Calvino found himself in Montgomery, Alabama on the fateful day of the student protests that catalyzed national attention for the civil rights movement. He had read about and come to admire Martin Luther King, Jr. — a “young black political activist [with] no particular social or political programme except equal rights for blacks” — and, being a politically wakeful young man with strong values of social justice himself, set out to meet him. So he traveled to Montgomery, but didn’t anticipate that his arrival would coincide with the landmark march whose ethos of nonviolence contoured the harrowing racial violence that dogged the American South and haunted the American spirit.

In a diary entry from March 6, 1960, Calvino writes:

This is a day that I will never forget as long as I live. I have seen what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of a society’s fundamental rules. I was present at one of the first episodes of mass struggle by the Southern blacks: and it ended in defeat. I don’t know if you are aware that after decades of total immobility black protests began right here, in the worst segregationist State in the country: some were even successful, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, advocate of non-violent protest. That is why I came here to Montgomery, the day before yesterday, but I did not expect to find myself right in the middle of these crucial days of struggle.

The scene today is Alabama’s Capitol (which was the first Confederate Capitol, in the early months of the secession, before the capital moved to Richmond), a white building like the Washington Capitol, on a wide, climbing street, Dexter Street. The black students (from the black university) had declared that they would go to the Capitol steps for a peaceful protest demonstration against the expulsion of nine of them from the university, who last week had tried to sit down in the whites’ coffee shop in Court Hall, the State court building. At half-past one there was a meeting of the students at the Baptist church right beside the Capitol (the church where King had been minister, but now he is based in Atlanta directing the whole movement — though in these days he is back here — and his church has another local leader). But the Capitol was already ringed by policemen with truncheons and Highway Police in their cowboy hats, turquoise jerkins and khaki trousers. The pavements were swarming with whites, mostly poor whites who are the worst racists, ready to use their fists, young hooligans working in teams (their organization, which is only barely clandestine, is the Ku Klux Klan), but also comfortable middle-class people, families with children, all there to watch and shout slogans and obscenities against the blacks locked inside the church, plus of course dozens of amateur photographers taking shots of such unusual Sunday events. The crowd’s attitude varied between derision, as though they were watching monkeys asking for civil rights (genuine derision, from people who never thought the blacks could get such ideas in their heads), to hatred, cries of provocation, crow-like sounds made by the young thugs. Here and there, along the pavement, there are also a few small groups of blacks, standing aside, men and women, dressed in their best clothes, watching silently and still, in an attitude of composure.

The waiting becomes more and more unbearable, the blacks must by now have finished their service and must be ready to come out; the Capitol steps are blocked by the police, all the pavements are blocked by the crowd of whites who are now angry and shouting ‘Come out, niggers!’ The blacks start to appear on the steps of their church and begin singing a hymn; the whites begin to make a racket, howling and insulting them. The fire-fighters arrive with their hoses and position themselves all around; the police begin to give orders to clear the streets, in other words to warn the whites that if they stay it is at their own risk and peril, whereas the small groups of blacks are dispersed roughly. There is a sound of horse-hooves and the scene is invaded by cowboys wearing the CD (Civil Defense) armband, a local militia of volunteers to keep public order, armed with sticks and guns; the police and militia are there to avoid incidents and see that the blacks clear off, but in reality the whites remain in charge of the street, the blacks stay in their church singing hymns, the police manage to send away only the most peaceful whites, the white thugs become more and more menacing and I who am keen to stay and see how things turn out (naturally, I am on my own; the few problack whites cannot allow themselves to be seen in these situations, well-known as they are) find myself surrounded by tougher and tougher looking characters, but also by youths who are there as though to see something funny, and just to make a noise. (I will later learn — though I did not see him — that there is also a white Methodist minister — the only white man in Montgomery with the courage to make a stand for the blacks — and as a result his house and his church have already been bombed twice by the KKK — who was there in front of the church and had organized his white congregation into providing a service to take the blacks safely from the church door to the cars; but, I repeat, I did not see him; the images in my head are of an all-out racial war, with no halfway houses.) Then begins the most painful part to watch: the blacks come out of the church a few at a time, some head down a sidestreet that I cannot see, but which I think the police have cleared of whites, but others go down Dexter Avenue in small groups along the pavements where the white thugs have gathered, walking away silently with their heads held high amid choruses of threatening and obscene sneers, insults and gestures.

African Americans attempting to march to the Capitol from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (Photograph: Nelson Malden / Alabama Department of Archives & History)

In a sentiment of tragic pertinence to our own era, a half-century of pseudo-progress later, he adds:

At every insult or witticism made by a white, the other whites, men and women, burst out laughing, sometimes with almost hysterical insistence, but sometimes also just like that, affably, and these people, as far as I am concerned, are the most awful, this all-out racism combined with affability.

Of all the protesters, Calvino is most moved by the young black women, who model persistence poise as the most powerful force of nonviolent resistance:

The most admirable ones are the black girls: they come down the road in twos or threes, and those thugs spit on the ground before their feet, standing in the middle of the pavement and forcing the girls to zigzag past them, shouting abuse at them and making as though to trip them up, and the black girls continue to chat among themselves, never do they move in such a way as to suggest that they want to avoid them, never do they alter their route when they see them blocking their path, as though they were used to these scenes right from birth.

Calvino captures the gruesome violence encircling the nonviolence movement:

With this courtroom coffee-shop row, last week the whole city went into a state of tension like in a civil war, the KKK put bombs in several houses (I visited some of the people who had been bombed) and a few days ago they clubbed a black woman over the head with a baseball bat and the judge did not find the KKK person accused guilty despite witnesses, photographs, etc. The thing that is difficult for a European to understand is how these things can happen in a nation which is 75 per cent nonsegregationist, and how they can take place without the involvement of the rest of the country. But the autonomy of the individual States is such that here they are even more outside Washington’s jurisdiction or New York public opinion, than if they were, say, in the Middle East.

Montgomery City Police officers on motorcycles in front of the Montgomery City Jail (Photograph: Nelson Malden / Alabama Department of Archives & History)

He details his unforgettable encounter with Dr. King:

The minute I arrived in Montgomery, into the hottest part of this situation, I learnt that King was in town and I got them to take me to him. He is a very stout and capable person … with a little moustache: the fact that he is a pastor has nothing to do with his physical appearance (his second-in-command and successor, Abernathy, a young rather fat man who also has a small moustache, looks like a jazz-player), these are politicians whose only weapon is the pulpit and even their non-violence does not really have a mystical aura about it: it is the only form of struggle possible and they use it with the controlled political skill which the extreme harshness of their conditions has taught them. These black leaders — I’ve approached several of them in the last few days, of different tendencies — are lucid, decisive people, totally devoid of black self-pity, not terribly kind (though of course I was an unknown foreigner who had turned up to nose around in days which were very eventful for them).

Calvino steps back to look at the bigger picture, including the hypocrisies with which the nation’s attitude toward race is laced:

The race question is a damnable thing: for a century a huge country like the South has not spoken or thought about anything else, just this problem, whether they are progressives or reactionaries. So I arrive escorted by blacks in the sacristy of Abernathy’s church and King is there along with another black minister who is also a leader, and I am present at a council-of-war meeting where they decide on this Sunday’s course of action which I have just described to you; then we go to another church where the students have gathered, in order to give them this instruction, and then I stay for this dramatic, moving meeting, I the sole white among three thousand black students, perhaps the first white to do so in the whole history of the South. Naturally I have come here also with introductions to extremely racist, ultra-reactionary highsociety ladies, and I have to divide my days with acrobatic skill so that they do not suspect what a deadly enemy they are harbouring in their midst.

In a passage that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil” in the context of the Nazis, Calvino describes his interaction with one such racist highsociety lady:

After the Capitol, I have ten minutes of peace to calm down after all the emotion, then a high-society lady comes to collect me and shows me, as we drive along, their factory of gherkins in vinegar, and hints vaguely at the day’s ‘troubles’ caused by that agitator Luther King. This famous Southern aristocracy gives me the impression of being uniquely stupid in its continual harking back to the glories of the Confederacy; this Confederate patriotism which survives intact after a century, as though they were talking of things from their youth, in the tone of someone who is confident you share their emotions, is something which is more unbearable than ridiculous.

In a letter from January of 1985, shortly before his death, Calvino reflects on his decision not to publish the American diaries:

I decided not to publish the book because rereading it at proof stage I felt it was too slight as a work of literature and not original enough to be a work of journalistic reportage. Was I right? Who knows?

Perhaps only the future knows — and from the vantage point of our present, which was then his future, how fortunate that these insightful and timely writings now survive. Calvino himself captures the broader significance of the questions they raise in another piece from the volume:

What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.

Young civil rights marchers, Montgomery, Alabama (Photograph: Stephen Somerstein)

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic Hermit in Paris with Albert Einstein and W.E.B. Du Bois’s little-known correspondence about racial justice, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s sobering 1970 conversation about race and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz’s unheralded civil rights advocacy, then revisit Calvino on the two types of writers, photography and the art of presence, and how to assert yourself and live with integrity.

BP

Audre Lorde on the Indivisibility of Identity and the Importance of Arts Education and Arts Funding

“The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”

Audre Lorde on the Indivisibility of Identity and the Importance of Arts Education and Arts Funding

In the fall of 1970, the Academy of American Poets received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a series of lectures and readings in public parks and libraries. Elizabeth Kray, the Academy’s first Executive Director, was one of poetry’s most spirited advocates in the whole of Western civilization, and she held two things particularly dear — civil rights (she had overseen the remarkable poet-led protest that revoked Amiri Baraka’s wrongful imprisonment) and the life-transforming power of enchanting young minds with poetry (she had founded the Poets-in-the-Schools program, which also received NEA support and which gave us Thom Gunn’s reading list of essential poetry for young readers). Upon receiving the grant, Kray hastened to invite the great Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) to host a series of “poetry readings and rap sessions” at an Upper West Side branch of the New York Public Library in the spring of 1971. (Lorde had benefited from an NEA grant herself the previous spring through the Poets-in-the-Schools program — a modest sum by corporate standards, but a transformative one for any artist, especially for that supreme martyr for creativity amid a culture of commerce, the working poet.)

“The readings will attract a general audience,” Kray wrote in her invitation, “but the bulk would be ‘young adults,’ junior and senior high school aged kids.” Lorde gladly agreed. “As a former Young Adult Librarian,” she replied, “it has always given me great pleasure to work with this age group.” But her impetus was even more personal: Having published her own first poem in Seventeen magazine at the age of fifteen, Lorde had a profound appreciation for the power of finding one’s voice in poetry as a youngster.

Signature from Audre Lorde’s correspondence with the Academy of American Poets

On a recent research visit to the Academy’s ceaselessly rewarding archive, I discovered the short and exquisite piece Lorde had written for the promotional flyer announcing the readings. Printed on the inside of the folded brochure, it is part meditation on the indivisible cohesion of identity, part beautiful manifesto for the importance of arts education and arts funding, and part poetic micro-biography akin to Italo Calvino’s delightful CV and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s playful self-portrait in verse.

Audre Lorde

Lorde writes:

I am Black, Woman, and Poet — fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word “I.”

Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.

Last spring, under a National Endowment [for] the Arts Grant, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.

At The City University of New York, I teach young people.

Program brochure by the Academy of American Poets, 1971

A decade later, Lorde was awarded the NEA’s esteemed Literature Fellowship. She was among three thousand individual writers who have received a total of $46 million from the NEA since the agency’s inception in 1965 — aid without which, it may be safe to say, many of the most beloved artists of the past half-century would have struggled to survive and some may have never brought to life the works for which they are now beloved.

If you are as terrified as I am at the prospect of the NEA’s demise in the hands of a heedless government that cares as little about the arts as it does about science, call your representative today and speak up for the survival of the arts — Lorde’s own powerful words about our responsibility to break our silences are timelier than ever.

Protest sign at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., bearing Audre Lorde’s timeless words: “Your silence will not protect you.” (Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty)

Then, complement the work of resistance with the work of persistence by joining me in donating to the Academy of American Poets so they may continue to do their increasingly important mission of buoying the human spirit in this time of dire need.

BP

Alchemy and the Transmutation of Ignorance Into Truth: Lewis Thomas’s Prescient 1983 Manifesto for the Humanity-Saving Value of Social Science

“In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.”

Alchemy and the Transmutation of Ignorance Into Truth: Lewis Thomas’s Prescient 1983 Manifesto for the Humanity-Saving Value of Social Science

Perhaps the greatest hubris of historical hindsight is knowing that everything we call progress has been made by systematic trial and error, yet tending to dismiss — even scoff at — the errors as embarrassments to the process of progress rather than essential parts of it. Take, for instance, Joseph Weber, whose spectacle of failed experiments made him the most derided scientist of his time yet paved the way for the detection of gravitational waves — one of the most monumental discoveries in the whole of modern science, as full of potential for revolutionary knowledge as the invention of the telescope. We rarely know which missteps will become stepping stones in the advancement of knowledge, for the pursuit of truth requires a certain discipline of deferring judgment for periods longer than our appetite for instant answers allows.

That’s what the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) explores throughout his timelessly rewarding 1983 essay collection Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (public library).

Lewis Thomas, 1983 (Photograph: Thomas Victor)

Although Lewis was educated at Harvard and Princeton, served on the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and presided over the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, he wrote humbly and poetically from the self-described position of “a citizen and a sometime scientist.” In one of the essays, titled “Alchemy,” he starts someplace unlikely and leads us someplace monumental:

Alchemy began long ago as an expression of the deepest and oldest of human wishes: to discover that the world makes sense. The working assumption — the everything on earth must be made up from a single, primal sort of matter — led to centuries of hard work aimed at isolating the original stuff and rearranging it to the alchemists’ liking. If it could be found, nothing would lie beyond human grasp. The transmutation of base metals to gold was only a modest part of the prospect. If you knew about the fundamental substance, you could do much more than make simple money: you could boil up a cure-all for every disease affecting humankind, you could rid the world of evil, and, while doing this, you could make a universal solvent capable of dissolving anything you might want to dissolve.

With an eye to our haughty hunger for deriding yesteryear’s errors, Lewis reminds us that every error inches us closer to the truth, but not all errors are created equal — those undergirded by a great deal of scholarship and earnest scientific effort are more likely to yield byproducts that can eventually be transmuted into some proto-truth. Noting that the alchemists were serious professionals in their time, who honed their skills through “long periods of apprenticeship and a great deal of late-night study,” he writes:

We tend to look back at them from today’s pinnacle of science as figures of fun, eccentric solitary men wearing comical conical hats, engaged in meaningless explorations down one blind alley after another. It was not necessarily so: the work they were doing was hard and frustrating, but it was the start-up of experimental chemistry and physics… They never succeeded in making gold from base metals, nor did they find a universal elixir in their plant extracts; they certainly didn’t rid the world of evil. What they did accomplish, however, was no small thing: they got the work going… As time went on and the work progressed, error after error, new and accurate things began to turn up. Hard facts were learned about the behavior of metals and their alloys, the mathematics of thermodynamics were worked out, and, with just a few jumps through the centuries, the helical molecule of DNA was revealed in all its mystery.

[…]

[Now] alchemy exists only as a museum piece, an intellectual fossil, so antique that we no longer need be embarrassed by the memory, but the memory is there. Science began by fumbling. It works because the people involved in it work, and work together. They become excited and exasperated, they exchange their bits of information at a full shout, and, the most wonderful thing of all, they keep at one another.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage pop-up children’s book about Leonardo da Vinci

With that singular superpower of the essayist to draw connections between the seemingly unrelated, Lewis pivots to his central point — a point tenfold more relevant, urgent even, three and a half decades later:

Something rather like this may be going on now, without realizing it, in the latest and grandest of all fields of science. People in my field, and some of my colleagues in the real “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry, have a tendency to take lightly and often disparagingly the efforts of workers in the so-called social sciences. We like to refer to their data as soft. We do not acknowledge as we should the difference between the various disciplines within behavioral research — we speak of analytical psychiatry, sociology, linguistics, economics, and computer intelligence as though these inquiries were all of a piece, with all parties wearing the same old comical conical hats. It is of course not so. The principal feature that the social sciences share these days is the attraction they exert on considerable numbers of students, who see the prospect of exploring human behavior as irresistible and hope fervently that a powerful scientific method for doing the exploring can be worked out. All of the matters on the social-science agenda seem more urgent to these young people than they did at any other time in human memory. It may turn out, years hence, that a solid discipline of human science will have come into existence, hard as quantum physics, filled with deep insights, plagued as physics still is by ambiguities but with new rules and new ways of getting things done. Like, for instance, getting rid of thermonuclear weapons, patriotic rhetoric, and nationalism all at once. If anything like this does turn up we will be looking back at today’s social scientists, and their close colleagues the humanists, as having launched the new science in a way not all that different from the accomplishment of the old alchemists, by simply working on the problem — this time, the fundamental, primal universality of the human mind.

In another essay from the collection, titled “Making Science Work,” Thomas revisits the subject, reaching across time and space to shake us out of our present cult of “big data” and remind us of the significance of small, humane data:

The social scientists … may be up to the most important scientific business of all… Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and almost entirely unaccountable of all the phenomena with which we are obliged to live. In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself. We need, for this most worrying of puzzles, the brightest and youngest of our most agile minds, capable of dreaming up ideas not dreamed before, ready to carry the imagination to great depths and, I should hope, handy with big computers but skeptical about long questionnaires and big numbers.

In yet another prescient essay titled “Basic Science and the Pentagon,” Thomas stresses the urgency of funding basic science — science marked by “the absence of any predictable, usable product,” carried out “in an atmosphere of high uncertainty,” and built on “What if?” questions rather than “How to?” questions — and the importance of incorporating social science into our most pressing research priorities. He writes:

The present administration has no special fondness for the social and behavioral sciences, and the National Science Foundation is sharply reducing its funding — never generous at best — for these stepchildren of scholarship. Very well, the country will survive, and the disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and their siblings will have to eat grass until their time comes again. But the basic research enterprise involved in thermonuclear warfare contains a staggering array of behavioral research questions, the purest kind of social science, questions never before asked about human behavior, deep ambiguities approachable only in an atmosphere of almost total uncertainty.

[…]

Who will be bringing in the data telling us what to expect when, say, five million of us vanish in twenty minutes and another five million are left behind with bone marrows burned out and skins in shreds, looking at what is left of the dead and waiting to die? Or, to magnify the problem to what will more likely be its true dimension, what will the few million survivors say to each other, or do to each other, at the moment when the other hundred millions are being transmuted back to the old interstellar dust? This, it seems to me, requires study; mandates study. Will no one be casting an anthropological eye at the dilemma to be faced when human beings cease being human?

Every single piece in Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a superb read in its entirety, just as timely today and perhaps even timelier than when Lewis first committed these incisive thoughts to words decades ago. Complement it with Eleanor Roosevelt on the necessity of bridging science and the humanities, then revisit Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge.

BP

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