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A New Vocabulary of Attention: Iris Murdoch on Reimagining Freedom, Moral Progress, Aloneness, and Our Inner Lives

“The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself… We need a new vocabulary of attention.”

A New Vocabulary of Attention: Iris Murdoch on Reimagining Freedom, Moral Progress, Aloneness, and Our Inner Lives

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Carl Jung observed as he contemplated human personality in a BBC interview at the end of his life. But how do we wrest meaning from existence, or rather make meaning through the force of our personhood?

That is what another titanic mind of the twentieth century — the rare philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — took up in the year of Jung’s death, in an essay titled “Against Dryness,” originally published in the literary magazine Encounter and later included in the sublimely insightful posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and the key to good writing.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

With an eye to how the landmark developments of the twentieth century — chiefly, the way scientific materialism has enfeebled the dogmas and precepts of religion — have left us triangulating uncomfortably between the traditions of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Liberalism, Murdoch writes:

We have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality… [The Anglo-Saxon] conception consists in the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will. These subtly give support to each other. From Hume through Bertrand Russell, with friendly help from mathematical logic and science, we derive the idea that reality is finally a quantity of material atoms and that significant discourse must relate itself directly or indirectly to reality so conceived. This position was most picturesquely summed up in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

[…]

This is one side of the picture, the Humian and post-Humian side. On the other side, we derive from Kant, and also Hobbes and Bentham through John Stuart Mill, a picture of the individual as a free rational will. With the removal of Kant’s metaphysical background this individual is seen as alone. (He is in a certain sense alone on Kant’s view also, that is: not confronted with real dissimilar others.) With the addition of some utilitarian optimism he is seen as eminently educable. With the addition of some modern psychology he is seen as capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense. So we have the modern man*, as he appears in many recent works on ethics and I believe also to a large extent in the popular consciousness.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

A century after John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s trailblazing partnership of equals shaped the scaffolding of Liberalism, Murdoch points out a crucial blind spot of this otherwise noble-minded and far-seeing tradition of thought:

For the Liberal world, philosophy is not in fact at present able to offer us any other complete and powerful picture of the soul.

[…]

Our central conception is still a debilitated form of Mill’s equation: happiness equals freedom equals personality. There should have been a revolt against utilitarianism; but for many reasons it has not taken place.

She considers what we have lost by blindly adopting this worldview and what we were never given in the first place:

We have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity. What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background.

We have never solved the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. Between the various concepts available to us the real question has escaped: and now, in a curious way, our present situation is analogous to an eighteenth-century one. We retain a rationalistic optimism about the beneficent results of education, or rather, technology. We combine this with a romantic conception of “the human condition,” a picture of the individual as stripped and solitary: a conception which has, since Hitler, gained a peculiar intensity.

Solitary. Photograph by Maria Popova.

Writing at a time when W.H. Auden — one of her great intellectual heroes — insisted that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act,” and in concord with her own lifelong insistence that art is essential for a democratic society, Murdoch considers the role of art and of literature in particular in furnishing a fuller, truer model of human personality, necessary for a thriving political conscience:

The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.

[…]

The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behaviourism, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. It is natural that a Liberal democratic society will not be concerned with techniques of improvement, will deny that virtue is knowledge, will emphasise choice at the expense of vision; and a Welfare State will weaken the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

In a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary critic, who tends to merely point out the flaw in a system, with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, without a lucid and largehearted vision for solutions, Murdoch considers what it would take to remedy this impoverished Liberal model of human personality:

We need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.

The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with the poet Mary Oliver’s lovely assertion that “attention without feeling… is only a report” and with Ursula K. Le Guin’s bold conviction that “literature is the operating instructions” for a noble and fulfilling life, Murdoch insists upon the power of literature to furnish a vocabulary of feeling with which to better express who we are and what we value — the supreme language of human personality, of our morality, of our personal and political ideals:

Through literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Since literature rests upon language, it is language that needs to be reinvigorated. A century after Nietzsche weighed how language can both conceal and reveal truth, Murdoch adds:

I would connect eloquence with the attempt to speak the truth.

[…]

Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied individual… Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination… Too much contingency of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete, art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.

In morals and politics we have stripped ourselves of concepts. Literature, in curing its own ills, can give us a new vocabulary of experience, and a truer picture of freedom. With this, renewing our sense of distance, we may remind ourselves that art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure. Perhaps only Shakespeare manages to create at the highest level both images and people; and even Hamlet looks second-rate compared with Lear. Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.

Every page of Existentialists and Mystics is saturated with Murdoch’s uncommonly eloquent insight into the richest, deepest strata of human experience. Complement this portion with Toni Morrison on the fullest meaning of freedom, Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a human being, then revisit Murdoch on language as a bastion of truth, how love gives meaning to our existence, and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.

BP

The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

“It is this, and the existence of limits.”

The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

When Einstein radicalized science with his general theory of relativity, the fulcrum of which shifted our understanding of reality more profoundly than anything since the Copernican reordering of the universe, he had made several daring leaps of the informed imagination to demonstrate that space and time are interwoven into a single entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and that both are not static absolutes, as it was believed for millennia, but dynamical quantities responsive to the energy and matter in the universe.

But Einstein’s boldest leap remains obscured by his theory’s name. At a time when other scientists believed that the speed of light was variable, Einstein took it as a fixed limit of nature and made it the absolute non-negotiable around which all other variables and parameters enfolded. Only in doing so — against every common-sense intuition — was he able to arrive at the relative nature of space and time, from which followed other previously unfathomed revelations: that gravity is a force caused by spacetime, that the universe is expanding, that black holes exist, that time ends in a singularity. Relativity was thus built upon this one absolute — a supreme testament to the generative power of limits, of deliberate constraints as a catalyst for creative breakthrough, consonant with Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

That is what the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) celebrates in a spare, stunning poem titled “Explaining Relativity,” found in her sole poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe (public library). Elson — who made major contributions to the understanding of galaxy formation, dark matter, and how stars are born, live, and die — died at only thirty-nine, leaving behind fifty-six scientific papers and this one slender, splendid book of poetry.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

At the third annual Universe in Verse, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander — who belongs to Elson’s rare species of genius with immense scientific talent paralleled by a commensurate talent in an art — brought the poem to life, with a lovely prefatory reflection on his own improbable path, from the black magic tradition of his Aruban high priestess grandmother to his dual calling as a scientist and an artist.

EXPLAINING RELATIVITY
by Rebecca Elson

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

Complement with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything,” then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

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The Fascinating Science of How Trees Communicate, Animated

“Trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see.”

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. Walt Whitman found in trees a model of existential authenticity. Hermann Hesse saw them as the wisest of teachers. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her noble work of planting trees as resistance and empowerment.

But trees are much more than what they are to us, or for us, or in relation to us. They are relational miracles all their own, entangled in complex, symbiotic webs of interbeing, constantly communicating with one another through chemical signals dispatched along the fungal networks that live in their roots — an invisible, astonishing underworld only recently discovered, thanks to the work of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

In this lovely short animation from TED-Ed and animator Avi Ofer, Camille Defrenne — one of Simard’s doctoral students at the University of British Columbia, studying how the interaction and architecture of root systems relate to forest dynamics and climate change — synthesizes the fascinating, almost otherworldly findings of Simard’s lab:

Simard, whose research was foundational to German forester Peter Wohlleben’s wildly popular book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, discusses her work and the improbable path that led her to it in her wonderful full-length TED talk:

Yes, trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see… Underground there is this other world — a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.

Complement with a wondrous picture-book about the forest, Annie Dillard on how mangrove trees illuminate the human search for meaning, and biologist David Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees taught him about the art of relationship, then revisit three other lovely animations by Avi Ofer: Neil Gaiman’s existentialist dream (also involving trees) narrated by Amanda Palmer; Jane Goodall on her remarkable life-story; and philosopher Skye Clearly on why we love.

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Visionary Maps of Time, Space, and Thought by America’s First Female Cartographer and Information Visualization Designer

Revolutions in design and education technology, underpinned by the conviction that women “are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole.”

Visionary Maps of Time, Space, and Thought by America’s First Female Cartographer and Information Visualization Designer

“The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere,” Hannah Arendt wrote as she considered time, space, and the thinking ego when she became the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. A century and a half earlier, another woman of uncommon genius and drive revolutionized the way we fathom and locate ourselves in the world by bridging space and time in wholly original cartographies of thought: Emma Hart Willard (February 23, 1787–April 15, 1870), America’s first professional female mapmaker.

The sixteenth of seventeen children, Willard grew up in an era when girls were barred from formal education beyond primary school. In her long life, far exceeding her generation’s life expectancy, she went on to become a pioneering educator, founding the first women’s higher education institution in the United States when she was still in her thirties. Willard understood that improving the future requires a robust understanding of the past, so that one may become an informed, engaged, and effective agent of change in the present. In her early forties, she set about composing and publishing a series of history textbooks that raised the standards and sensibilities of scholarship. In 1828, having just turned forty, she authored what would become the country’s most widely read history textbook: History of the United States, or, Republic of America.

Emma Willard

What made Willard’s textbooks so successful was her understanding that we are not mere intellects who cooly compress and compute facts and figures, but embodied creatures who yearn to locate themselves in space and time in order to make sense of the flow of existence. She taught herself mapmaking in order “to give the events of history with clearness and accuracy; with such illustrations of time and place addressed to the eye, as shall secure their retention in the memory; and, at the same time, with such an order of arrangement, as will enable the mind to recall, at need, what it thus retains.” Willard considered this approach a supreme means of “laying out the ground-plan of the intellect, so far as the whole range of history is concerned,” which would in turn empower people to become better citizens, “enlightened and judicious supporters” of democracy. In a passage of extraordinary pertinence today, she writes in the preface to her famed textbook:

There are those, who rashly speak, as if in despair of the fortunes of our republic ; because, say they, political virtue has declined. If so, then is there the more need to infuse patriotism into the breasts of the coming generation. And what is so likely to effect this national self-preservation, as to give our children, for their daily reading and study, such a record of the sublime virtues of the worthies of our earliest day, and of Washington and his compatriots, as shall leave its due impress? And what but the study of their dangers and toils, their devotion of life and fortune, can make our posterity know, what our country, and our liberties have cost?

In a diagram originally created in 1845 and later printed as the frontispiece in an abridged edition of the textbook, she draws on the long tradition of tree diagrams to depict America’s history as an organic development rooted in the Earth itself:

Willard’s Chronographer of American History. Buy print.
Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History
Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History

Many of Willard’s maps and diagrams were astonishingly ahead of their time. We have, of course, long used the language of space to refer to time (e.g., my ahead to denote the future, my long to denote duration). But a century before Einstein radicalized science by exposing the single entity of spacetime as the elemental fabric of the universe, depicting space and time in a unified image was the work of an inspired and daring imagination. Willard lived not in Einstein’s era but in Kant’s — shortly before her birth, Kant had shaken the world with his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he defined space and time as the purest intuitions of the transcendental self. Willard took these elemental intuitions and enlisted them in making history — the hindsight of civilizational time — comprehensible, a clear somewhere of thought rather than an opaque nowhere.

Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools. Buy print.
Detail from Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools

Half a century before W.E.B. Du Bois (with whom she shared a birthday) created his modernist data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair, Willard’s 1846 chart Temple of Time won a medal at the 1851 World’s Fair in London and earned the praise of Prince Albert himself. In the poetic rubric accompanying the diagram, she summarizes her design philosophy a century and a half before the golden age of data visualization:

The attempt to understand chronology by merely committing dates to memory, is not only painful, but it is as useless as to learn latitudes and longitudes, without the study of maps. As in geography, the relation of any place to all other places is what is important to know; so in chronology, the relation which any given event bears to others constitutes the only useful knowledge… By putting the course of time into perspective, the disconnected parts of a vast subject are united into one, and comprehended at a glance; — the poetic idea of “the vista of departed years” is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medium, the picture will, by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.

Willard’s Temple of Time was an expansion upon a diagram she had drawn a decade earlier — a century before John Sparks’s famous Histomap — in which she depicted the ebb and flow of empires along the stream of time:

Picture of Nations or Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire, from Willard’s 1836 Atlas to Accompany a System of Universal Geography. Buy print.

In the atlas accompanying her history of the United States, she used color to denote the settlement patterns of the pilgrims and the migrations of Native American tribes — an innovative effort to visualize movement in a spatial map.

While Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art and Maria Mitchell was doing the same in science, Willard was swinging the doors to historical scholarship and information visualization open to women. Undergirding her textbooks and her cartography was the broader conviction that, as Mary Wollstonecraft insisted a generation before her, “the mind has no sex” — young women have a life of the mind as worthy of being nurtured as that of young men. At twenty-seven, Willard opened her first boarding school for girls, in Vermont, but soon grew dissatisfied with the low intellectual aims of those types of institutions. She envisioned something greater, more ambitious, more on par with the education boys were receiving to prepare them for college — an avenue wholly closed to women at the time. (The founding of America’s first college for women was still four decades away.)

For the next four years, Willard surveyed the landscape of education and mapped out what worthy schooling for a young woman would look like. In 1818, she published a pamphlet titled A Plan for Improving Female Education, in which she set out “to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature; and further, by shewing the justice, the policy, and the magnanimity of such an undertaking, to persuade that body to endow a seminary for females, as the commencement of such reformation.” Decades before the pathbreaking feminist and cultural critic Margaret Fuller insisted that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Willard argued that raising the character of half of society raises the whole of society. She entreated politicians and legislators to put their pen and funding behind this obvious yet radical equation. Writing 100 years before American women earned the right to vote and thus to steer the course of their country, she appealed to the patriotic spirit by framing the advancement and empowerment of women as a pathway to progress and a means to attaining “unparalleled glory” for the nation:

Ages have rolled away; — barbarians have trodden the weaker sex beneath their feet; — tyrants have robbed us of the present light of heaven, and fain would take its future. Nations, calling themselves polite, have made us the fancied idols of a ridiculous worship, and we have repaid them with ruin for their folly. But where is that wise and heroic country, which has considered, that our rights are sacred, though we cannot defend them? that… we are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole?

When the Governor of Vermont refused to fund such an institution, Willard took her plan to New York. In the spring of 1819, she opened the Academy for Female Education, soon the Troy Female Seminary — an experimental school in upstate New York, which New York’s Governor Clinton proudly lauded as “the only attempt ever made in this country to promote the education of the female sex by the patronage of government.” Willard immersed her pupils not only in geography and history, but in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, higher mathematics, and rigorous physical education. (A lifelong advocate of physical fitness herself — a rarity among women in the era — she saw the vitality of the mind as inseparable from the vitality of the body and exercised vigorously each morning, well into old age.)

Pupils at the Emma Willard School in the early twentieth century.

This bold experiment spread across the nation and became the model for a new breed of “female academies” (including Mount Holyoke, where the adolescent Emily Dickinson received her education and composed her stunning herbarium at the intersection of poetry and science). Eager to take her educational ideals beyond the classroom walls, Willard commenced her career as a textbook author and mapmaker. In her eighty-three years, she embodied her contemporary and kindred spirit Elizabeth Peabody’s insight into midlife and the art of self-renewal. In her forties, Willard taught herself mapmaking and wrote poetry and ran her school and labored tirelessly on the broader project of education reform in America. In her fifties, she continued publishing authoritative textbooks on history and geography, mentoring young reformers, and traveling the world to survey other educational enterprises. In her sixties, she wrote about astronomy and authored a groundbreaking book on cardiovascular health.

Diagram of diurnal rotation from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854
Climate zones by length of day from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854
The Solar System planets to scale, from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854

To the charge of choosing “a subject unsuited to her sex,” she answered with the quintessential motive force of every true revolutionary and artist:

This is not so much a subject which I choose, as one which chooses me. It comes unbidden to my mind, and like an intrusive guest, there it will abide, and irresistibly claim my attention.

HT The Paris Review / Open Culture

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