“This is a love story. You know. How two people, joined together, become themselves.”
By Maria Popova
It is not often that one encounters a great love letter to a great love, composed by someone outside the private world of that love, serenading it across the spacetime of epochs and experiences. In my many years of dwelling in the lives and loves and letters of beloved artists, scientists, and writers, I have encountered none more splendid than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated (public library) by Maira Kalman — an artist who uses her paintbrush the way Stein used her pen, as the instrument of an imagination tilted pleasantly askance from the plane of common thought.
Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, when she was fifty-nine and Alice fifty-six. She had written it at an astonishing pace the previous autumn. Like Alice disguised her memoir of their love as a cookbook, Gertrude disguised hers as an “autobiography” of the beloved under the lover’s byline. It wasn’t, of course, Alice’s autobiography, or even her biography — rather, it was the biography of their love, of early-twentieth-century Paris, of the community of visionary artists and writers who orbited the couple and who came to be known as the Lost Generation — a term Gertrude Stein coined — as they found themselves, in every sense of the term, at Alice and Gertrude’s salons.
The book begins, naturally, not at Alice’s birth but at her fateful first encounter with Gertrude and her coral brooch the day Alice, thirty-three, arrived in Paris as an American expatriate — a moment she eventually recounted in such deeply felt detail on the pages of her slender actual autobiography, animated by a bereavement that never left her in the twenty “empty” years by which she outlived the love of her life.
Kalman introduces the book with her spare and singular poetics:
Alice met Gertrude.
Gertrude met Alice.
Gertrude with her big body.
Alice, a little bird
with a mustache.
And that was that.
A coup de foudre
as we say.
Gertrude wrote this book of
through Alice’s eyes.
And here it is (happily)
to illustrate how it was.
There is so much to delight in and marvel at in Kalman’s uncommon reanimation of this uncommon mausoleum of a love and an epoch. “Who did they know?” she asks, then exclaims: “EVERYBODY.” And then she draws everybody: James Joyce sitting at a table in Sylvia Beach’s Alexandrian bookstore, Hemingway with his fedora and his forthright gaze, Matisse slouched on a park bench, Cézanne, Picasso, Man Ray, all the artists who might not have been the stars they are to us, might not have found their own light, were it not for the hospitable universe of the Toklas-Stein household, for their devoted private patronage and public championship of these bold ideas and aesthetics that shook the plate tectonics of the status quo and formed the colossal landmass of modern art, of modern thought itself.
Captioning each of the paintings is a sentence or fragment from Stein’s narrative that captured Kalman’s curious imagination — sometimes a note of Stein’s subtle, fullhearted humor resonant with Kalman’s own, sometimes the shimmering surface of an amusing aside that whirlpools into the depths of loneliness and melancholy in which all pioneers swim, always an odd detail that compresses cosmoses of meaning into a miniature observation.
But of all the delights in Kalman’s tribute to the Stein classic, none is more delightful than the meta-masterpiece of her tender handwritten afterword — a love letter to Alice and Gertrude’s love. “I am loathe to leave them,” Kalman sighs on a near-blank page at the end, as blank as one feels inside upon leaving a book and the world of its making, then she writes:
This is a love story.
How two people, joined together,
They cannot breathe right
without each other.
With great subtlety, Kalman makes spare allusion to the ideas and ideologies animating Gertrude and Alice’s era, those ever-twining human impulses for beauty and for terror — the rise of Modernism and of Nazism; the birth of a new science with its delirious portal into the most fundamental building blocks of matter and the deepest, most beautiful realities of nature; the assembling of the building blocks of humanity’s deadliest weapon and ugliest war; and all the while, the lives being lived, the loves being loved, the meals being savored.
This most singular time —
literature, art, music, dance, architecture
EXPLODING into a new era.
The world reinvented. Modernism.
Problems. Furies. Betrayals. Alliances.
Preposterous notions. Malicious opinions.
Relentless drive. Enveloping beauty.
Many many many meals.
Nothing would have happened
without Alice. NOTHING.
It could be that Alice did write
this book. It could be.
Who holds the pen?
Who has the ideas?
What is the atmosphere of the
living room, kitchen, bedroom, salon?
What sharpness of vision. What relishing
of things big and small.
Great fame. A cozy home.
This is a singular story embedded
in a singular time.
That is enough. And more.
“No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again… There can be a happy world… when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.”
By Maria Popova
“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1940s as she grappled with Jewishness, the immigrant identity, and the refugee plight for belonging. In the same era, a young girl who would grow into another woman of titanic consequence to political thought and the advancement of justice took up the subject of prejudice, its antidote, and the pillars of human dignity in her middle school newspaper, of which she was the editor.
There is no overestimating the quickening of mind, the stir of soul, the immense swell of inspired idealism, which great role models can spark in the young. At a time when the world was reckoning with the savaging fusion of grief and shame in the wake of its most inhumane war, at an age when the human animal gets its first taste of that most dangerous and self-destructive substance of the spirit — cynicism — the thirteen-year-old future Supreme Court Justice chose the courage of idealism over the cowardice of cynicism as she considered humanity’s path forward toward a safer, saner, more equitable world in a June 1946 op-ed for her school paper, published under the byline “Ruth Bader, Grade 8B1” and included in My Own Words (public library) — the collection culled from a lifetime of writings, selected by Justice Ginsburg herself and her official biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.
Reflecting on the “four great documents” that have shaped the world since its beginning — “great because of all the benefits to humanity which came about as a result of their fine ideals and principles”: the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the American Declaration of Independence — the young Ruth writes:
Now we have a fifth great document, the Charter of the United Nations. Its purpose and principles are to maintain international peace and security, to practice tolerance, and to suppress any acts of aggression or other breaches of peace.
It is vital that peace be assured, for now we have a weapon that can destroy the world. We children of public school age can do much to aid in the promotion of peace. We must try to train ourselves and those about us to live together with one another as good neighbors for this idea is embodied in the great new Charter of the United Nations. It is the only way to secure the world against future wars and maintain an everlasting peace.
Later that month, as Hannah Arendt was examining the aftermath of the Holocaust and incubating the ideas that would become her epoch-making treatise on the only viable antidote to evil, Ruth picked up the subject in another op-ed, titled “One People” and published in the bulletin of her synagogue:
The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.”
No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.
Consolation for the waves of sorry from the waves of the sea.
By Maria Popova
“Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies,” Mary Shelley wrote two hundred years ago as she envisioned a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic and weighed what makes life worth living. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” the melancholy John Keats wrote in the same era, a century and a half before Lorraine Hansberry considered the mightiest remedy for depression and observed that “hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries.”
That is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her spare, splendid poem “I Go Down to the Shore,” found in her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings (public library) and brought to life by actor extraordinaire, my dear friend, and voice of FiguringNatascha McElhone at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day — a hallmark awakening of our ecological conscience, inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — as Earth was being stilled and disdayed by a deadly pandemic that suddenly made the interconnectedness of life and lives viscerally real. Against this backdrop, Oliver’s poem sings quiet, powerful consolation for the fear- and sorrow-contracted pinhole of our perspective.
I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE by Mary Oliver
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
“Genius [consists] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”
By Maria Popova
The word empathy entered the popular lexicon in the early twentieth century as a term to describe the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into the subjective world of the artist, where you encounter yourself afresh and emerge with your own world enlarged, your own experience enlivened. Every transcendent song or painting or poem that enchant us has sprung from some element of its creator’s life — some profound event or some mundane moment, which one subjective consciousness has endowed with a supranatural halo of meaning and encoded the meaning into music or color or image that staggers another with its beauty, its private resonance, its elemental truth. That, after all, is why art moves us, what art is — the transfiguration of the personal into the universal, of the mundane into the miraculous.
Genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power.
In a sentiment Charles Bukowski would echo decades later in his magnificent poem “so you want to be a writer,” Proust argues that genius is similarly not a matter of ideal conditions or optimal power, but of transformation by way of unselfing:
The men* who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.
“A total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality.”
By Maria Popova
Just when you begin rueing that nothing original could possibly remain to be written about the cosmic spectacle of a total solar eclipse — after astronomer Maria Mitchell’s pioneering essay detailing the science and enchantment of the 1869 eclipse, after Virginia Woolf’s arresting 1927 account of total darkness in the celestial lighthouse, after Annie Dillard’s 1979 classic of totality — Helen Macdonald comes along to remind you that the intersection of nature’s sublimity and the singular splendor of each human consciousness is vast and inexhaustibly vibrant.
In the thirteenth of the forty-one altogether tremendous essays in her collection Vesper Flights (public library), simply titled “Eclipse,” Macdonald recounts with abashed amusement her youthful notion that the ideal mode for beholding totality must be romantic solitude — a notion absurd to anyone who has actually savored the amplified sublimity amid a choir of gasping human consciousnesses. (Nor is it even a properly romantic notion — even Byron, the (mostly self-appointed) monarch of the Romantics, envisioned in his staggering poem “Darkness” how when “the bright sun was extinguish’d,” humanity sought not isolation but community as “men were gather’d round their blazing homes / to look once more into each other’s face.”) Macdonald’s own first experience of a total solar eclipse in 1999 — the same eclipse, though partial, in which I too dissolved as a child in Bulgaria — was instead a revelation of just how much “a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality”; how it effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”
With her uncommon gift for dilating the pinhole of a specific and subjective experience into a wide lens on a universal human tendency, Macdonald writes:
It’s reassuring to view the world on your own. You can gaze at a landscape and see it peopled by things — trees, clouds, hills and valleys — which have no voice except the ones you give them in your imagination; none can challenge who you are. So often we see solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature.
But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own. There’s another way of escaping social conflict, of course, and that is to make yourself part of a crowd that sees the world the same way that you do, values the same things as you.
With an eye to the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017 — a collective experience qualitatively different from the nationalism-tinted mass pilgrimages to see monuments of territorial pride like the Grand Canyon or spectacles of national triumph like the Apollo launches — Macdonald adds:
The millions of tourists who flocked to the total eclipse of 2017 didn’t see something time had fashioned from American rock and earth, nor something wrought of American ingenuity, but a passing shadow cast across the nation from celestial bodies above. Even so, it’s fitting that this total eclipse was dubbed The Great American Eclipse, for the event chimed with the country’s contemporary struggles between matters of reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference. Of all crowds the most troubling are those whose cohesion is built from fear of and outrage against otherness and difference; they’re entities defining themselves by virtue only of what they are against. The simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way, for confronting something like the absolute, all our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn there can be no them, only us.
That selfsame recognition radiates from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot monologue — that iconic, almost unbearably tender meditation on how the cosmic perspective vanquishes our artificial lines of otherness, which inspired Maya Angelou’s stunning poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.” This is the recognition at which Macdonald arrived in an embodied way, far beyond the cerebral awareness, during her own first encounter with totality:
I was nervous of the people around me and still clinging to that sophomoric intuition that a revelation would only come if none of them were there. Depressingly, the sky was thick with clouds, and as the hours passed it became obvious that none of us would see anything other than darkness when totality came. But when the light dimmed, the atmosphere grew electric, and the crowd became a thing of overwhelming importance, a palpable presence in my mind. I felt a fleeting, urgent concern for the safety of everyone around me as the world rolled, and the moon too, and night slammed down on us. Though I could hardly see a hand held in front of my face, far out across the sea hung clouds tinted the eerie sunset shade of faded photographs of 1950s atomic tests, and beyond them clear blue day.
And then the revelation came. It wasn’t what I’d expected. It wasn’t focused up there in the sky, but down here with us all, as the crowds that lined the Atlantic shore raised cameras to commemorate totality, and as they flashed, a wave of particulate light crashed along the dark beach and flooded across to the other side of the bay, making the whole coast a glittering field of stars. Each fugitive point of light was a different person. I laughed out loud. I’d wanted a solitary revelation but had been given something else instead: an overwhelming sense of community, and of what it is made — a host of individual lights shining briefly against oncoming darkness.
A generation earlier, as Apollo 8 was launching into space to take the epoch-making Earthrise photograph that would soon awaken our species to its ecological responsibility, the Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi captured this singular gravitational pull of community around a shared cosmic enchantment as he contemplated how science and space exploration bind a fractured humanity back together by breaking our trance of separateness. This trance plays out in myriad ways and on myriad scales across our individual and collective existence. The habitual narrowing of perspective from which it arises is not a defect but a defining feature of our consciousness — the human animal’s central coping mechanism for parsing the incomprehensibly vast world beyond the boundaries of our individual experience. (We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.). This narrowing extends most perhaps most perniciously to our perspective on and perception of time, which is our perception of change. Drawing on another eclipse she witnessed with friends on the Turkish coast, Macdonald writes:
It takes a long while between first and second contact — that is, when the sun is completely covered by the moon; it’s a long, steady diminution in the amount of light reaching the world. For a long while my brain tricks me. It has a vested interest in reassurance: Nothing is wrong, it says. It tells me I must be wearing reactive sunglasses, which is why I’m seeing the world changing through tinted glass. Why everything, the luggage-strap leaves of dune grass under my toes, the broken walls, bay trees, the sea in front, the mountains behind, everything’s still darkly fine. Then I remember I’m not wearing sunglasses, which hits me with the bad-dream force of an arm brought down hard across a piano keyboard, the psychological equivalent of that discordant crash as I have a fraught little struggle with my brain. Then I shiver. Surely it was absurdly hot here an hour ago? There’s a horrible old chestnut about boiling a frog to death. Put a frog in a pan of cold water and put it on the stove, and apparently the blithe amphibian will fail to notice the incremental rise in temperature until it’s dead. There’s something of that story’s creeping dread in what is now going on. I feel a strong need to warn people, to somehow jump out of the pan. Everything is changing, but our brains aren’t equipped to notice things on this scale.
As I read Macdonald’s essay, I am struck by something else — something both entirely unrelated and entirely relevant. (That, of course, is what an excellent essay is supposed to do — explode your comprehension with a fractal burst of quickenings fanning out to myriad elsewheres.) We have been regarding the environmental collapse around us — a drama not cosmic but human-made, not sublime but catastrophic — with the same insentience to incremental change, lulled by the brain’s same incapacity for noticing large-scale events, by the same nothing is wrong self-protective delusion. We are the amphibian in the seething cauldron. But we are also larger and more luminous, better capable of transcending the limitations of our minds by the force of our spirit — that, at least, is my hope.
Awakened from the trance, Macdonald begins noticing the otherworldly strangeness that totality brings:
On the ground, right by our feet, even stranger things are happening. Where I expect to see sun-dappled shadow cast on the sand through branches — as confidently as I expect any other unacknowledged constant of the world — I am confounded: amid the shade are a perfect host of tiny crescents, hundreds of them, all moving against the sand as a wind that has come out of nowhere pushes at branches.
Out of that noticing — that sudden wakefulness to the absolute strangeness of it all, the soul’s sudden cry of Everything is wrong over the brain’s lulling deception — arises a profound, humbling awareness of one’s own existence as both inseparable from and inconsequential to a larger cosmic inter-belonging with all other existences:
The backs of the swallows tracing their sinuous hunting flights over the ruins are no longer iridescent blue in the sun, but a deep indigo. They’re calling in alarm. A sparrowhawk is flying over, slipping down the sky, losing height, stymied in its search for thermals to soar upon. They’re all disappearing in the rapidly cooling air. The hawk shrugs its way north-west, falling all the while. I check the sun, again, through my eclipse glasses. All that is left of it now is a bare, fingernail curve of light. The landscape is insistently alien: short, midday shadows in a saturated world. The land is orange. The sea is purple. Venus has appeared in the sky, quite high, up to the right. And then, with a chorus of cheers and whistles and applause, I stare at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does too, and impossibly, impossibly, above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, darker than anything you’ve ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples across the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Goodbye, intellectual apprehension. Hello, something else entirely. Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect cannot grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars, just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is barely contained terror. I’m tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, intensely private experience. But there are no human words fit to express all this. Opposites? Yes! Let’s conjure big binary oppositions and grand narratives, break everything and mend it at the same moment. Sun and moon. Darkness and light. Sea and land, breath and no breath, life, death. A total eclipse makes history laughable, makes you feel both precious and disposable, makes the inclinations of the world incomprehensible.
And then something else happens, a thing that still makes my heart rise in my chest and eyes blur, even in recollection. For it turns out there’s something even more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out of it. Here I am, sitting on the beach in the underworld, with all of the standing dead. It is cold, and a loose wind blows through the darkness. But then, from the lower edge of the blank, black disc of the dead sun, bursts a perfect point of brilliance. It leaps and burns. It’s unthinkably fierce, unbearably bright, something (I blush to say it, but here it comes) like a word. And thus begins the world again. Instantly. Joy, relief, gratitude; an avalanche of emotion. Is all made to rights, now? Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a moment ago, a spectacled bulbul calls a greeting to the new dawn.