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From the Archive: Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Elegy for Her Soul Mate

“Attention without feeling … is only a report.”

Mary Oliver is one of our era’s most beloved and prolific poets — a sage of wisdom on the craft of poetry and a master of its magic; a woman as unafraid to be witty as she is to be wise. For more than forty years, Oliver lived on Cape Cod with the love of her life, the remarkable photographer Molly Malone Cook — one of the first staff photographers for The Village Voice, with subjects like Walker Evans and Eleanor Roosevelt, and a visionary gallerist who opened the first photography gallery on the East Coast, exhibited such icons as Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott, and recognized rising talent like William Clift. (She was also, living up to her reputation as “a great Bohemian American,” the owner of a bookshop frequented by Norman Mailer and occasionally staffed by the filmmaker John Waters.)

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple’s home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

When Cook died in 2005 at the age of eighty, Oliver looked for a light, however faint, to shine through the thickness of bereavement. She spent a year making her way through thousands of her spouse’s photographs and unprinted negatives, mostly from around the time they met, which Oliver then enveloped in her own reflections to bring to life Our World (public library) — part memoir, part deeply moving eulogy to a departed soul mate, part celebration of their love for one another through their individual creative loves. Embraced in Oliver’s poetry and prose, Cook’s photographs reveal the intimate thread that brought these two extraordinary women together — a shared sense of deep aliveness and attention to the world, a devotion to making life’s invisibles visible, and above all a profound kindness to everything that exists, within and without.

Oliver — who refers to Cook simply as M. in most of her writings — reflects in the opening essay:

Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell. M. had will and wit and probably too much empathy for others; she was quick in speech and she did not suffer fools. When you knew her she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.

[…]

She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.

Amish schoolroom, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Oliver writes of the affair Cook had in the late 1950s, shortly before they met:

She had … an affair that struck deeply; I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad… This love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly, but changed. Who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much.

The following year, Cook met Oliver and they remained together, inseparable, for more than four decades. That encounter — which calls to mind the fateful first meetings that occasioned such iconic literary couples as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — took place at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where Oliver had landed the day after her high school graduation at the age of seventeen and stayed for several years.

Inside the library at Steepletop, the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

One evening in 1959, when Oliver was twenty-four and Cook thirty-four, the young poet returned to the house and found the photographer sitting at the kitchen table with a friend. She describes their encounter with her signature elegance of unpeeling the mundane to reveal the momentous:

I took one look and fell, hook and tumble. M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve. She denied this to her dying day, but it was true.

Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

It turned out that Oliver and Cook, in their regular lives beyond Steepletop, lived right across the street from each other in New York’s East Village. So they began to see one another “little by little,” and so their great love story began.

Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

But perhaps the greatest gift of their union was the way in which they shaped each other’s way of seeing and being with the world — the mutually ennobling dialogue between their two capacities for presence:

It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and well filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my own presence. I was eager to address the world of words — to address the world with words. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles. I think of this always when I look at her photographs, the images of vitality, hopefulness, endurance, kindness, vulnerability… We each had our separate natures; yet our ideas, our influences upon each other became a rich and abiding confluence.

[…]

I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have. And what a gift [that she] never expressed impatience with my reports of the natural world, the blue and green happiness I found there. Our love was so tight.

‘My first clam,’ 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

To lose the love of one’s life is something few have dared to live in public — the most memorable such bravery being Joan Didion’s — but Oliver brings to death’s darkness her familiar touch of emboldening light:

The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.

Oliver ends with a breath-stopping prose poem that brings full-circle her opening reflections on never fully knowing even those nearest to us — a beautiful testament to what another wise woman once wrote: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

THE WHISTLER

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

Boy with telescope, New York Cruises, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Our World is a sublime read in its entirety — the kind that enters the soul like a deep breath and remains there as an eternal exhale. Complement it with Oliver on how rhythm sweetens life and her beautiful reading of her poem “Wild Geese.”

BP

Stunning 19th-Century French Natural History Illustrations of Beetles

The exoskeletal strangeness and splendor of creatures almost entirely unlike us yet thoroughly of this shared world.

“I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars,” the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote in her stunning poem “Possibilities.” And why shouldn’t we? We are, after all, creatures pinned to scales of space and time far closer to those of the insects than to those of the stars.

I was reminded of Szymborska’s strange and beautiful line upon discovering a French natural history encyclopedia of beetles from 1884 — an era when astronomical art was of supreme enchantment. In its nearly 500 pages, the book synthesizes “the observations of the ancients and including all the modern discoveries up to the present day,” promising “a complete treatise on this science from the works of the most eminent naturalists of all countries and ages.”

These populist creatures of the order Coleoptera, which has inhabited Earth for more than 250 million years — the largest of all orders, numbering some 400,000 species and comprising a quarter of all known animal life-forms — seem to occupy a special yet ambivalent place in the human imagination: scorned and sacred, poisoned as pests and cherished as pets, collected as prized jewels and protected as vital linchpins of biodiversity, played as musical instruments by the Onabasulu of Papua New Guinea and used as inspiration for naming England’s greatest rock band. So unlike us in nearly every conceivable way yet made of the same stardust, their hard bodies radiate a shimmering reminder of Lucille Clifton’s splendid poem celebrating “the bond of live things everywhere.”

Long before photography came to capture the kaleidoscopic splendor of these species, the book’s black-and-white illustrations vibrate with aliveness as these creatures and their astonishing geometries bejewel the pages. What emerges is a catalogue of life, various and wondrous, and a testament to modern-day naturalist Sy Montgomery’s lovely observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Complement with 500 years of rare scientific illustrations from the archives of the American Museum of Natural History and some striking 19th-century drawings of owls and ospreys, then revisit bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer on what mosses teach us about the art of attentiveness to life at all scales.

BP

How to Rewire Your Broken Behavioral Patterns: Shakespeare’s Advice on Acquiring Better Habits

“Assume a virtue, if you have it not.”

How to Rewire Your Broken Behavioral Patterns: Shakespeare’s Advice on Acquiring Better Habits

“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us,” Mary Oliver wrote in contemplating how habit gives shape to our inner lives. “Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James asserted a century earlier in his foundational treatise on the psychology of habit. But if our habits incline more toward vice more toward virtue, what does it take to reconfigure our scarring patterns?

That is what William Shakespeare — another seer of elemental truth and keen observer of human psychology — examined three centuries earlier in Hamlet: the work of weighing not merely to change or not to change, but how to change. In eleven exquisitely insightful lines of blank verse, he frames the central premise of what would come to be known, a dozen generations later, as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Depiction of William Shakespeare from an 1889 art edition of his comedies, tragedies, histories, and sonnets.

In Act II, Scene 4 — a passage quoted in founding father and mental health reformer Benjamin Rush’s landmark speech on the influence of physical habits upon mental health — Hamlet counsels his mother, Gertrude:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, Custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy:
For use can almost change the stamp of nature,
And master even the devil, or throw him out,
With wondrous potency.

Couple with Nicole Krauss’s beautiful letter to Van Gogh across space and time about how to break the loop of our destructive patterns, then revisit James Baldwin on the source of Shakespeare’s genius of insight and Meghan O’Rourke on how Shakespeare can shepherd us through our grief and despair.

BP

The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty: How Founding Father Benjamin Rush Revolutionized Our Understanding of Mental Health

“How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!”

The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty: How Founding Father Benjamin Rush Revolutionized Our Understanding of Mental Health

“It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them,” the theologian Thomas Merton wrote to Rachel Carson in his letter of appreciation, commending her for diagnosing one of the most pernicious maladies of our civilization. “Otherwise,” he warned, “our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness.”

Few visionaries have diagnosed more societal ills, more accurately and more presciently, or devised and championed more effective treatments, than Benjamin Rush (January 4, 1746–April 19, 1813).

Benjamin Rush (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1773-1776)

Half-orphaned at the age of five and raised by his widowed mother, Rush was thirty when he signed the Declaration of Independence. He had graduated from what is now Princeton sixteen years earlier and had been a practicing physician for seven years. He would go on to became George Washington’s Surgeon General and America’s preeminent physician and most influential public health champion. He would advocate for public schooling and for opening education to women, Africans (who, in an era of enslavement and complete political disenfranchisement, were yet to be African American), and immigrants who spoke no English. He would rail against racism and capital punishment, found the nation’s first rural college, and help black clergymen establish two of the nation’s first churches for black congregations. In the final stretch of his life, in his collection of pithy assessments of the founding fathers, he would encapsulate himself in only three words: “He aimed well.”

But Rush’s most profound contribution to progress was arguably something different, springing from this selfsame devotion to equality — the groundwork he laid for modern notions of and practices regarding mental health, or what we now know as psychiatry, clinical psychology, and addiction medicine, based on his then-countercultural insistence that mentally ill people are still, first and foremost, people. A century before Nellie Bly’s paradigm-shifting exposé “Ten Days at the Madhouse,” at a time when mental asylum patients were housed in rat-infested stables, habitually brutalized by guards, and chained to the floor until they “improved,” Rush advocated for honoring their humanity and dignity in treatment, pioneering forms of psychiatric care closely resembling the modern. At the heart of his ethos and its revolutionary enactment in medicine was a fiery rebellion against the Cartesian mind-body divide. A century before William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity”, a quarter millennium before scientists began understanding now our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of trauma and that mental illnesses like anxiety are deeply embodied experiences, and with the birth of neuroscience still more than half a century away, Rush believed that physical, emotional, mental, moral, spiritual, and political health, as well as public and private health, were interleaved into one indivisible ecosystem of wellbeing.

This was a radical notion, and Rush was a radical man epochs ahead of his time. He knew it, and he was content to pay the price. Two centuries before Bertrand Russell exhorted in the seventh of his ten commandments of critical thinking“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Rush wrote:

The most acceptable men in practical society, have been those who have never shocked their contemporaries, by opposing popular or common opinions. Men of opposite characters, like objects placed too near the eye, are seldom seen distinctly by the age in which they live. They must content themselves with the prospect of being useful to the distant and more enlightened generations which are to follow them.

More than two centuries later, this extraordinary and underappreciated man is reinstated to his rightful place in the canon of civilizational advancement in Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (public library) by Stephen Fried — my first and foremost writing mentor, whose research intern I had the pleasure of being long ago, spending countless hours squinting at microfilm of 19th-century newspapers in exchange for two subway tokens a week and his immense wisdom on writing and scholarship.

Fried writes of Rush — a lean, tall, handsome, “promiscuously opinionated young fellow” with lively blue-gray eyes and a blond-brown ponytail trailing his noticeably large head — and the heart of his uncommon genius:

Unlike the pedigreed doctors who had trained him in America, Scotland, England, and France, Dr. Rush was a medical and political prodigy from a middle-class family on the humbler side of Philadelphia. He had lost his father, a gunsmith, at the age of five, leaving him and his five siblings to be raised by their mother, who opened a package goods store and tavern just down the street from Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and post office. But because of young Rush’s astonishing mind — besides total recall, he had what he referred to as the “peculiar happiness” of being able to synthesize and humanize disparate ideas into searing rhetoric — he had finished school at thirteen, graduated from the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton) at fourteen, finished medical training in Edinburgh and London at twenty-two, and begun practicing and teaching medicine at twenty-three. He was still single in his late twenties because his family had convinced him it would be bad for his career to marry before thirty.

[…]

Rush seemed to understand people unusually well for a man so young, and his analysis moved easily from politics to religion to medicine to the calculus of liberty.

Rush would go on to churn his country’s revolution, political and social, by diagnosing the gravest ills of his culture — nowhere more astutely than in a landmark speech he delivered before the American Philosophical Society on February 27, 1786, just after his fortieth birthday. Titled “The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty,” the speech examined the physical basis of what we now call mental illness — a notion foreign in an era when all psychiatric disorders were considered a function of vice, moral weakness, and personal failure. Against the favor of his time, Rush insisted that “melancholy and madness, in all their variety of species, yield with more facility to medicine, than simply to polemical discourses, or to casuistical advice.”

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Rush begins with a necessary definition, distinguishing between morality and conscience — a distinction he likens to that between sensation and perception. He writes:

The moral faculty… is quick in its operations, and like the sensitive plant, acts without reflection, while conscience follows with deliberate steps, and measures all her actions by the unerring square of right and wrong.

[…]

As I consider virtue and vice to consist in action, and not in opinion, and as this action has its seat in the will, and not in the conscience, I shall confine my inquiries chiefly to the influence of physical causes upon that moral power of the mind, which is connected with volition, although many of these causes act likewise upon the conscience, as I shall show hereafter. The state of the moral faculty is visible in actions, which affect the well-being of society. The state of the conscience is invisible, and therefore removed beyond our investigation.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Noting that medicine has already identified a physical basis of such mental faculties as memory, judgment, and imagination, Rush argues that morality, too, has physical correlates. Aware of just how countercultural this proposition is at the time, he presages:

Men who have been educated in the mechanical habits of adopting popular or established opinions will revolt at the doctrine I am about to deliver, while men of sense and genius will hear my propositions with candour, and if they do not adopt them, will commend that boldness of inquiry, that prompted me to broach them.

Rush goes on to enumerate the effects of various physical conditions and habits — climate, weather, diet, alcohol, exercise, sleep — on mental states. Centuries before our understanding of the gut-brain connection and the advent of what we now call functional medicine, he illustrates his insight into the relationship between food and mood with a charming anecdote:

One of the worthiest men I ever knew, who made his breakfast his principal meal, was peevish and disagreeable to his friends and family, from the time he left his bed till he sat down to his morning repast; after which, cheerfulness sparkled in his countenance, and he became the delight of all around him.

But even more notable is his reach, perhaps inadvertent and intuitive, into the Eastern contemplative traditions of nondualism. Among the various physical habits and faculties he considers essential to moral development, he includes two rather Buddhist concepts: solitude and silence. Long before Hermann Hesse extolled solitude as the forge of destiny, Rush writes:

I hope I shall be excused in placing SOLITUDE among the physical causes which influence the moral faculty, when I add, that I confine its effects to persons who are irreclaimable by rational or moral remedies… Where the benefit of reflection, and instruction from books, can be added to solitude and confinement, their good effects are still more certain… Connected with solitude, as a mechanical means of promoting virtue, SILENCE deserves to be mentioned in this place.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

He goes even further in his daring conception of holistic health. Centuries before Oliver Sacks revolutionized medicine by illuminating the powerful effects of music on neurologic function, Rush contributes to the canon of great minds extolling the power of music:

The effects of music, when simply mechanical, upon the passions, are powerful and extensive. But it remains yet to determine the degrees of moral ecstacy, that may be produced by an attack upon the ear, the reason, and the moral principle, at the same time, by the combined powers of music and eloquence.

Observing that in every culture, “the most accomplished orators have generally been the most successful reformers of mankind,” he adds the literary arts to the arsenal of morally beneficial human endeavors:

The language and imagery of a Shakespeare, upon moral and religious subjects, poured upon the passions and the senses, in all the beauty and variety of dramatic representation; who could resist, or describe their effects?

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Given this interplay of the physical and the psychic, Rush marvels at the intricately interconnected structure of the human mind and its incessant dialogue with the body:

From a review of our subject, we are led to contemplate with admiration, the curious structure of the human mind. How distinct are the number, and yet how united! How subordinate and yet how coequal are all its faculties! How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!

In this yet-unmined relationship, Rush sees golden potential for improving human flourishing and moral development:

The extent of the moral powers and habits in man is unknown. It is not improbable, but the human mind contains principles of virtue, which have never yet been excited into action. We behold with surprise the versatility of the human body in the exploits of tumblers and rope-dancers… We feel a veneration bordering upon divine homage, in contemplating the stupendous understandings of Lord Verulam and Sir Isaac Newton; and our eyes grow dim, in attempting to pursue Shakespeare and Milton in their immeasurable flights of imagination. And if the history of mankind does not furnish similar instances of the versatility and perfection of our species in virtue, it is because the moral faculty has been the subject of less culture and fewer experiments than the body, and the intellectual powers of the mind.

Noting the advances of medicine in “mitigating the violence of incurable diseases” — from the alleviation of fevers to the proto-vaccination developed to curb smallpox, which had claimed more lives in the preceding century than all wars combined and which has since been completely eradicated — Rush argues that similar advances are to be made in alleviating psychic suffering through moral development:

A physical regimen should as necessarily accompany a moral precept, as directions with respect to the air — exercise — and diet, generally accompany prescriptions for the consumption and the gout… Medicine… has penetrated the deep and gloomy abyss of death, and acquired fresh honours in his cold embraces. — Witness the many hundred people who have lately been brought back to life, by the successful efforts of the humane societies, which are now established in many parts of Europe, and in some parts of America. Should the same industry and ingenuity, which have produced these triumphs of medicine over diseases and death, be applied to the moral science, it is highly probable, that most of those baneful vices, which deform the human breast, and convulse the nations of the earth, might be banished from the world. I am not so sanguine as to suppose, that it is possible for man to acquire so much perfection from science, religion, liberty and good government, as to cease to be mortal; but I am fully persuaded, that from the combined action of causes, which operate at once upon the reason, the moral faculty, the passions, the senses, the brain, the nerves, the blood and the heart, it is possible to produce such a change in his moral character, as shall raise him to a resemblance of angels — nay more, to the likeness of GOD himself.

Benjamin Rush. (Portrait by Thomas Sully circa 1812. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.)

Rush’s conviction that the mind is manageable and healable through the body would soon be elevated by the mightiest, most intimate motive fulcrum: personal experience. Two decades after delivering his visionary speech, he would watch his eldest child descend into mental illness — a devastation that would inspire him to compose the first American book on “diseases of the mind.” In his superb biography, Fried writes:

Through it all, Benjamin Rush contended openly and engagingly with the same challenge he had put to the new nation: how to be a man of science, a man of liberty, and a man of faith — all while striving to be a good friend, husband, and father of nine children. Rush was a medical pioneer and a political pathfinder, donating his time, his money, even, at times, his sanity for the causes he worried were beyond the reach of laws. His life and writings provide a guided tour through the most public and private moments of the Revolution and the creation of America, seen through the eyes — first awestruck, then frustrated, and finally worldly wise — of a physician and reformer who was, in every sense, revolutionary.

[…]

He also understood, as a physician and scientist, how many things he knew for certain would later be proved wrong; how many diseases, medical and social, could appear to be cured but later recur. In this was the “peculiar happiness” of cautious optimism, the comfort and discomfort of the truly long view.

Had I read Fried’s Rush before the year’s end, it would have crowned my favorite books of 2018. Mercifully, a chronicle of a 200-year past so masterly that it will endure for at least 200 years into the future is impervious to the time-strained omissions of any mortal.

BP

Being Against Becoming: Susan Sontag on Our Ambivalent Historical Conscience

“We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”

“Time and reason are functions of each other,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her philosophical novel exploring why honoring the continuity of past and future is the wellspring of moral action. The human animal is indeed a temporal creature, our experience of time at the center of our psychology. Locating ourselves is therefore largely a matter of locating ourselves in the stream of time — diurnal, civilizational, and cosmic. It is hard enough to grapple with the micro end of the spectrum — to acknowledge, with Annie Dillard, that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” — and nearly impossible to fathom the macro, the incomprehensible scales of spacetime. And yet most of our suffering seems to reside in the middle of the spectrum — in our understanding of and orientation toward the selective collective memory we call history. In Figuring, I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. Whose judgment? one inevitably asks, and how much room for choice in a universe governed by chance — by randomness and chaos? What, then, do we make of history, and what does it make of us?

That is what Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) explores in a 1967 essay about the work of the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran, found in Styles of Radical Will (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Sontag on art as a form of spirituality and the paradoxical role of silence in creative culture.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag writes:

We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future. But even the most relevant events carry within them the form of their obsolescence. Thus, a single work is eventually a contribution to a body of work; the details of a life form part of a life history; an individual life history appears unintelligible apart from social, economic, and cultural history; and the life of a society is the sum of “preceding conditions.” Meaning drowns in a stream of becoming: the senseless and overdocumented rhythm of advent and supersession. The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his possibilities.

Half a century before Rebecca Solnit — a Sontag of our own time — insisted that we must know our history in order to rewrite its broken stories, that “you need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent,” Sontag frames the presentism bias with which we live:

The best of the intellectual and creative speculation carried on in the West over the past hundred and fifty years seems incontestably the most energetic, dense, subtle, sheerly interesting, and true in the entire lifetime of man. And yet the equally incontestable result of all this genius is our sense of standing in the ruins of thought and on the verge of the ruins of history and of man himself. (Cogito ergo boom.) More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are precocious archaeologists of these ruins-in-the-making, indignant or stoical diagnosticians of defeat, enigmatic choreographers of the complex spiritual movements useful for individual survival in an era of permanent apocalypse. The time of new collective visions may well be over: by now both the brightest and the gloomiest, the most foolish and the wisest, have been set down. But the need for individual spiritual counsel has never seemed more acute.

Arguing that the rise of this historical consciousness was expedited by the collapse of “the venerable enterprise of philosophical system-building,” Sontag writes:

At the point that history usurped nature as the decisive framework for human experience, man began to think historically about his experience, and the traditional ahistorical categories of philosophy became hollowed out… The leading words of philosophy came to seem excessively overdetermined. Or, what amounts to the same thing, they seem undernourished, emptied of meaning.

Susan Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton

It strikes me that, today, we see ourselves just as falsely separate from history as we feel ourselves falsely separate from nature. We have artificially islanded ourselves both in the river of time and in the river of being, perhaps because we would rather have illusory stability than bob about helplessly with the unbearable ambiguity and uncertainty that froth the rapids of existence.

Sontag intuits as much in quoting Cioran — a writer she celebrates as both powerful and delicate, one for whom “nuance, irony, and refinement are the essence of his thinking” — and his condemnation of our grasping for such illusory certitudes. Cioran eviscerates history as “man’s aggression against himself” in one essay and writes in another:

Men’s minds need a simple truth, an answer which delivers them from their questions, a gospel, a tomb. The moments of refinement conceal a death-principle: nothing is more fragile than subtlety.

After noting Cioran’s debt to Nietzsche — particularly the German philosopher’s skepticism of historical (which is to say human-made) truth and his notion of the eternal return — Sontag points to the trailblazing composer John Cage, patron saint of silence as an aesthetic response, as “the only figure in the world of Anglo-American letters embarked on a theoretical enterprise comparable in intellectual power and scope to Cioran’s.” Having opened her essay with an epigraph by Cage — “Every now and then it is possible           to have absolutely nothing; the possibility of nothing.” — Sontag concludes:

Perhaps, for a unified transvaluation, one must look to those thinkers like Cage who — whether from spiritual strength or from spiritual insensitivity is a secondary issue — are able to jettison far more of the inherited anguish and complexity of this civilization. Cioran’s fierce, tensely argued speculations sum up brilliantly the decaying urgencies of Western thought, but offer us no relief from them beyond the considerable satisfactions of the understanding. Relief, of course, is scarcely Cioran’s intention. His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much — a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.

Novalis wrote that “philosophy is properly home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” If the human mind can be everywhere at home, it must in the end give up its local “European” pride and something else — that will seem strangely unfeeling and intellectually simplistic — must be allowed in. “All that is necessary,” says Cage with his own devastating irony, “is an empty space of time and letting it act in its magnetic way.”

Couple with Cage himself on human nature, then revisit Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, how photography helps us navigate complexity, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.

BP

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