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Stephen Hawking’s Mother on Her Son’s Singular Genius and How We Expand the Boundaries of Human Knowledge

“People must think, they must go on thinking, they must try to extend the boundaries of knowledge; yet they don’t sometimes even know where to start. You don’t know where the boundaries are, do you?”

Stephen Hawking’s Mother on Her Son’s Singular Genius and How We Expand the Boundaries of Human Knowledge

“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote in his manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Winnicott placed the concept of the “good-enough mother” at the heart of a healthy individual, and it is hardly coincidental that more often than not, great individuals have benefitted from the formative value system and unconditional love of a great mother — from Mark Twain, whose mother modeled for him what it means to have compassion for otherness, to Barack Obama, whose mother shaped his understanding of love.

Among these culture-shifting mothers is Isobel Hawking, mother of the great physicist Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) — a formidable mind whose work revolutionized our understanding of the universe and whose far-reaching legacy inspires poems.

Stephen and Isobel Hawking

The second oldest of seven children in a family of modest means, Isobel was among the few women to attend university in the 1930s. Less than a decade after the esteemed institution had begun granting degrees to women, her parents strained their finances to send her to Oxford, where Isobel studied philosophy, economics, and politics. It was in Oxford that she gave birth to Stephen in 1942 as air raids terrorized London nightly — in exchange for the British promise not to bomb the famed university towns Heidelberg and Göttingen, Germany had abstained from bombing Cambridge and Oxford. Nine months pregnant, Isobel journeyed to her formative intellectual grounds to deliver her son in safety. On one of her walks through town just before giving birth, she bought an astronomical atlas from the local bookshop — a purchase she would come to consider a sort of omen as her son ascended into astrophysical celebrity.

Isobel and Frank Hawking went on to raise their son in accordance with their strong belief in the value of education, filling his childhood with frequent museum trips and astronomical adventures, and imbuing him with a daring curiosity that would come to change the way we think about time, black holes, and the universe itself.

In her ninety-eight years, Isobel saw her son outlive by decades the ALS prognosis he had been given in his youth and steer the course of modern science with his defiant genius. From the fortunate platform of her tenth decade, she reflects on her son’s singular gift in a sentiment quoted in Kitty Ferguson’s excellent biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind (public library):

Not all the things Stephen says probably are to be taken as gospel truth. He’s a searcher, he is looking for things. And if sometimes he may talk nonsense, well, don’t we all? The point is, people must think, they must go on thinking, they must try to extend the boundaries of knowledge; yet they don’t sometimes even know where to start. You don’t know where the boundaries are, do you?

Complement with poet Marie Howe’s sublime tribute to Stephen Hawking, this 150-second animated adaptation of his search for a theory of everything, and the lovely children’s book about time travel that he co-wrote with his daughter, then revisit astrophysicist Janna Levin — one of the world’s foremost authorities on black holes, the subject of Hawking’s most seminal work — on the human element in the scientific climb toward truth.

BP

Iris Murdoch on Storytelling, Why Art Is Essential for Democracy, and the Key to Good Writing

“A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.”

Iris Murdoch on Storytelling, Why Art Is Essential for Democracy, and the Key to Good Writing

“One of the functions of art,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed in contemplating art, storytelling, and the power of language to transform and redeem, “is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” Because self-knowledge is the most difficult of the arts of living, because understanding ourselves is a prerequisite for understanding anybody else, and because we can hardly fathom the reality of another without first plumbing our own depths, art is what makes us not only human but humane.

That is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the twentieth century — explored in a long, deep, immensely insightful 1977 conversation with the British broadcaster and philosopher Bryan McGee, which aired on McGee’s television series Men of Ideas. (That, after all, was the era when every woman was “man.”) The transcript was later adapted and published in the altogether revelatory collection of Murdoch’s essays and interviews, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).

irismurdoch3
Iris Murdoch

Murdoch begins by reflecting on the fundamental difference between the function of philosophy and that of art — one being to clarify and concretize, the other to mystify and expand. She observes:

Literary writing is an art, an aspect of an art form. It may be self-effacing or it may be grand, but if it is literature it has an artful intention, the language is being used in a characteristically elaborate manner in relation to the “work,” long or short, of which it forms a part. So there is not one literary style or ideal literary style, though of course there is good and bad writing.

A century after Nietzsche examined the power of language to both conceal and reveal truth, and several years before Oliver Sacks’s trailblazing insight into narrative as the pillar of identity, Murdoch considers how we, as storytelling creatures, use language in the parallel arts of literature and living:

Literary modes are very natural to us, very close to ordinary life and to the way we live as reflective beings. Not all literature is fiction, but the greater part of it is or involves fiction, invention, masks, playing roles, pretending, imagining, story-telling. When we return home and “tell our day,” we are artfully shaping material into story form. (These stories are very often funny, incidentally.) So in a way as word-users we all exist in a literary atmosphere, we live and breathe literature, we are all literary artists, we are constantly employing language to make interesting forms out of experience which perhaps originally seemed dull or incoherent. How far reshaping involves offences against truth is a problem any artist must face. A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.

Down the Rabbit Hole
One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

Echoing Hemingway’s admonition against the dangers of ego in creative work, Murdoch cautions:

We want a writer to write well and to have something interesting to say. Perhaps we should distinguish a recognisable style from a personal presence. Shakespeare has a recognisable style but no presence, whereas a writer like D. H. Lawrence has a less evident style but a strong presence. Though many poets and some novelists speak to us in a highly personal manner, much of the best literature has no strongly felt presence of the author in the work. A literary presence if it is too bossy, like Lawrence’s, may be damaging; when for instance one favoured character is the author’s spokesman. Bad writing is almost always full of the fumes of personality.

In a sentiment bridging William James’s landmark assertion that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” and Tolstoy’s insistence that “emotional infectiousness” is what separates good art from the bad, Murdoch considers the central animating force of art:

Literature could be called a disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions. (Of course there are other such techniques.) I would include the arousing of emotion in the definition of art, although not every occasion of experiencing art is an emotional occasion. The sensuous nature of art is involved here, the fact that it is concerned with visual and auditory sensations and bodily sensations. If nothing sensuous is present no art is present. This fact alone makes it quite different from “theoretical” activities… Art is close dangerous play with unconscious forces. We enjoy art, even simple art, because it disturbs us in deep often incomprehensible ways; and this is one reason why it is good for us when it is good and bad for us when it is bad.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Expanding upon the ideas of the ancient Greeks, so formative to our understanding of art, Murdoch offers a definition:

Art is mimesis and good art is, to use another Platonic term, anamnesis, “memory” of what we did not know we knew… Art “holds the mirror up to nature.” Of course this reflection or “imitation”” does not mean slavish or photographic copying. But it is important to hold on to the idea that art is about the world, it exists for us standing out against a background of our ordinary knowledge. Art may extend this knowledge but is also tested by it.

She considers the ecosystem of good and bad art in human culture, and the essential distinguishing factor between the two:

There is always more bad art around than good art, and more people like bad art than like good art.

[…]

Good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous. Art is informative. And even mediocre art can tell us something, for instance about how other people live. But to say this is not to hold a utilitarian or didactic view of art. Art is larger than such narrow ideas.

A decade after James Baldwin wielded the double-edged sword of the artist’s duty to society, Murdoch insists on this largeness:

I certainly do not believe that it is the artist’s task to serve society.

[…]

A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer’s duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

In consonance with John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to a propaganda-smothered society — “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” — Murdoch considers the deeper reality beneath what may appear as an artificial distinction between artist and citizen:

A propaganda play which is indifferent to art is likely to be a misleading statement even if it is inspired by good principles. If serious art is a primary aim then some sort of justice is a primary aim. A social theme presented as art is likely to be more clarified even if it is less immediately persuasive. And any artist may serve his society incidentally by revealing things which people have not noticed or understood. Imagination reveals, it explains. This is part of what is meant by saying that art is mimesis. Any society contains propaganda, but it is important to distinguish this from art and to preserve the purity and independence of the practice of art. A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.

Three decades after the teenage Sylvia Plath precociously observed that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” Murdoch examines the laboratory for reflection and interpretation that great art constructs in its pursuit of truth:

A poem, play or novel usually appears as a closed pattern. But it is also open in so far as it refers to a reality beyond itself, and such a reference raises… questions about truth… Art is truth as well as form, it is representational as well as autonomous. Of course the communication may be indirect, but the ambiguity of the great writer creates spaces which we can explore and enjoy because they are openings on to the real world and not formal language games or narrow crevices of personal fantasy; and we do not get tired of great writers, because what is true is interesting… Any serious artist has a sense of distance between himself and something quite other in relation to which he feels humility since he knows that it is far more detailed and wonderful and awful and amazing than anything which he can ever express. This “other” is most readily called “reality” or “nature” or “the world” and this is a way of talking that one must not give up.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare edition of Montaigne’s essays

Murdoch holds good criticism — the formal interpretation of art — to the same standard as good art:

Beauty in art is the formal imaginative exhibition of something true, and criticism must remain free to work at a level where it can judge truth in art… Training in an art is largely training in how to discover a touchstone of truth; and there is an analogous training in criticism.

In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful wisdom on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, Murdoch weighs the relationship between morality and truth, as mediated by language:

It is important to remember that language itself is a moral medium, almost all uses of language convey value. This is one reason why we are almost always morally active. Life is soaked in the moral, literature is soaked in the moral. If we attempted to describe this room our descriptions would naturally carry all sorts of values. Value is only artificially and with difficulty expelled from language for scientific purposes. So the novelist is revealing his values by any sort of writing which he may do. He is particularly bound to make moral judgements in so far as his subject matter is the behaviour of human beings… The author’s moral judgement is the air which the reader breathes.

The extent to which the writer is a seer and channeler of truth, Murdoch argues, is the measure of his or her writing:

One can see here very clearly the contrast between blind fantasy and visionary imagination. The bad writer gives way to personal obsession and exalts some characters and demeans others without any concern for truth or justice, that is without any suitable aesthetic ‘explanation’. It is clear here how the idea of reality enters into literary judgement. The good writer is the just, intelligent judge. He justifies his placing of his characters by some sort of work which he does in the book. A literary fault such as sentimentality results from idealisation without work. This work of course may be of different kinds, and all sorts of methods of placing characters, or relation of characters to plot or theme, may produce good art. Criticism is much concerned with the techniques by which this is done. A great writer can combine form and character in a felicitous way (think how Shakespeare does it) so as to produce a large space in which the characters can exist freely and yet at the same time serve the purposes of the tale. A great work of art gives one a sense of space, as if one had been invited into some large hall of reflection.

[…]

Artists are often revolutionary in some sense or other. But the good artist has, I think, a sense of reality and might be said to understand “how things are” and why they are… The great artist sees the marvels which selfish anxiety conceals from the rest of us. But what the artist sees is not something separate and special, some metaphysically cut-off never-never land. The artist engages a very large area of his personality in his work…

In a sentiment that Zadie Smith would come to echo in the tenth of her ten tenets of writing“Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it.” — Murdoch adds:

Art is naturally communication (only a perverse ingenuity can attempt to deny this obvious truth) and this involves the joining of the farthest-out reality to what is nearer, as must be done by any truthful explorer… Literature is connected with the way we live. Some philosophers tell us that the self is discontinuous and some writers explore this idea, but the writing (and the philosophy) takes place in a world where we have good reasons for assuming the self to be continuous. Of course this is not a plea for ‘realistic’ writing. It is to say that the artist cannot avoid the demands of truth, and that his decision about how to tell truth in his art is his most important decision.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare edition of Montaigne’s essays

A quarter century after Hannah Arendt penned her timeless treatise on how dictatorships use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Murdoch considers this singular virtue of “merciful objectivity” at the heart of art — the selfsame virtue of which totalitarian regimes bereave society by persecuting art and artists. In a parallel to physicist Freeman Dyson’s observation that “the glory of life [is] that it always seems to tend to diversity,” she argues that what art gives us, above all else, is a warm and welcoming regard for what is other than ourselves:

I would like to say that all great artists are tolerant in their art, but perhaps this cannot be argued. Was Dante tolerant? I think most great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centres of reality which are remote from oneself. There is a breath of tolerance and generosity and intelligent kindness which blows out of Homer and Shakespeare and the great novelists. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image.

Murdoch’s Existentialists and Mystics is a trove of abiding insight in its totality — one of those rare books that illuminate the immense breadth of the human experience while also plumbing its richest depth. Complement this particular portion with Rebecca West on storytelling as a survival mechanism, Pablo Neruda’s touching account of what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, and Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, then revisit Iris Murdoch on causality, chance, and how love gives meaning to our existence and her devastatingly beautiful love letters.

BP

Oliver Sacks on Nature’s Beauty as a Gateway into Deep Time and a Lens on the Interconnectedness of the Universe

“The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life… a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.”

Oliver Sacks on Nature’s Beauty as a Gateway into Deep Time and a Lens on the Interconnectedness of the Universe

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in contemplating what our arboreal companions can teach us about belonging and life, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Nearly a century later Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) — another titan of insight at the nexus of nature and human nature — explored how trees root us in deep time and absolute presence. In his superb 1997 book The Island of the Colorblind (public library), Sacks recounts to Micronesia on a journey “not part of any program or agenda, not intended to prove or disprove any thesis, but simply to observe.”

Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Bill Hayes, Dr. Sacks’s partner, from How New York Breaks Your Heart.)

Wandering the rain forest of Rota in a state of reverence, Sacks echoes Thoreau’s ideas about nature as a form of prayer and writes:

I find myself walking softly on the rich undergrowth beneath the trees, not wanting to crack a twig, to crush or disturb anything in the least — for there is such a sense of stillness and peace that the wrong sort of movement, even one’s very presence, might be felt as an intrusion… The beauty of the forest is extraordinary — but “beauty” is too simple a word, for being here is not just an esthetic experience, but one steeped with mystery, and awe.

Sacks traces this sense of awe in nature to his most formative memories. He felt it first as a child, lying beneath the ferns — a lifelong love of his; he felt it again upon entering the iconic Kew Gardens as a young man — a place he found to be not only of botanical fascination but endowed with “an element of the mystical, the religious too.” More than a century after the great nature writer Richard Jefferies — a compatriot of Sacks’s and a peer in the literary enchanterssmall group of writers who enchant the reader with the science of the natural world — considered how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the rest of the natural world, Sacks considers the smallness of the word beauty in holding this expansive sense of awe in nature:

The primeval, the sublime, are much better words here — for they indicate realms remote from the moral or the human, realms which force us to gaze into immense vistas of space and time, where the beginnings and originations of all things lie hidden. Now, as I wandered in the cycad forest on Rota, it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or eons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes.

He finds a parallel of this awe-induced fathoming of deep time in the mating rituals of horseshoe crabs near his home on City Island, New York — something he would later revisit in his sublime memoir. Every June for the past 400 million years, the horseshoe crabs emerge from the water, mate, deposit their eggs onto the sandy shores, then quietly return to the sea in which life began on the primordial Earth. In sharing a beach and a moment in time with these “rugged models, great survivors which have endured,” Sacks finds the same sublime consolation found in an ancient forest — a sense of deep time and an awareness of the interconnectedness of life consonant with the pioneering naturalist John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Standing amid the rainforest — a place governed by the beauty of interrelation — Sacks reflects:

The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life. Seeing these volcanic islands and coral atolls, and wandering, above all, through this cycad forest on Rota, has given me an intimate feeling of the antiquity of the earth, and the slow, continuous processes by which different forms of life evolve and come into being. Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.

Complement this particular fragment of the thoroughly fantastic Island of the Colorblind (public library) — which also gave us Sacks’s wisdom on evolving our notions of normalcy and treating the chronically ill with dignity — with Walt Whitman, a poet beloved by Sacks, on the wisdom of trees, then revisit Sacks on narrative as the pillar of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, the paradoxical power of music, and his stirring meditation on what makes for a life fully lived.

BP

Kahlil Gibran on the Courage to Weather the Uncertainties of Love

“Think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.”

Kahlil Gibran on the Courage to Weather the Uncertainties of Love

“Love is the quality of attention we pay to things,” poet J.D. McClatchy wrote in his beautiful meditation on the contrast and complementarity of love and desire. And what we choose to attend to — our fear or our faith, our woundedness or our devotion to healing — determines the quality of our love. How we navigate our oscillation between these inescapable polarities is governed by the degree of courage, openness, and vulnerability with which we are willing to show up for and to our own hearts. “The alternations between love and its denial,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in contemplating the difficulty of knowing ourselves, “constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart.”

That is what the great Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) explores in one of the most stirring passages from The Prophet (public library) — the 1923 classic that also gave us what may be the finest advice ever offered on the balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

Speaking to the paradoxical human impulse to cower before the largeness of love — to run from its vulnerable-making uncertainties and necessary frustrations at the cost of its deepest rewards — Gibran offers an incantation of courage:

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

In a sentiment John Steinbeck would come to echo a generation later in his beautiful letter of advice on love to his teenage son, Gibran adds:

Think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

The Prophet remains a timeless trove of wisdom and a mighty clarifying force for the turbidity of the heart. Complement it with Gibran on why we make art and his stunning love letters, then revisit Adrienne Rich on how honorable relationships refine our truths, Erich Fromm on the art of loving and what is keeping us from mastering it, Leo Tolstoy on love and its paradoxical demands, and this wondrous illustrated meditation on the many meanings and manifestations of love.

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