“My heart is a shadow, a light and a guide. Closed or open… I get to decide.”
By Maria Popova
“How is your heart?” I recently asked a friend going through a trying period of overwork and romantic tumult, circling the event horizon of burnout while trying to bring a colossal labor of love to life. His answer, beautiful and heartbreaking, came swiftly, unreservedly, the way words leave children’s lips simple, sincere, and poetic, before adulthood has learned to complicate them out of the poetry and the sincerity with considerations of reason and self-consciousness: “My heart is too busy to be a heart,” he replied.
How does the human heart — that ancient beast, whose roars and purrs have inspired sonnets and ballads and wars, defied myriad labels too small to hold its pulses, and laid lovers and empires at its altar — unbusy itself from self-consciousness and learn to be a heart? That is what artist and illustrator Corinna Luyken explores in the lyrical and lovely My Heart (public library) — an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem about the tessellated capacities of the heart, about love as a practice rather than a state, about how it can frustrate us, brighten us, frighten us, and ultimately expand us.
My heart is a window,
My heart is a slide.
My heart can be closed
or opened up wide.
Some days it’s a puddle.
Some days it’s a stain.
Some days it is cloudy
and heavy with rain.
Across the splendid spare verses, against the deliberate creative limitation of a greyscale-and-yellow color palette, a sweeping richness of emotional hues unfolds. What emerges is one of those rare, miraculous “children’s” books, in the tradition of The Little Prince, teaching kids about some elemental aspect of being human while inviting grownups to unlearn what we have learned in order to rediscover and reinhabit the purest, most innocent truths of our humanity.
Some days it is tiny,
but tiny can grow…
There are days it’s a fence
between me and the world,
days it’s a whisper
that can barely be heard.
There are days it is broken,
but broken can mend,
and a heart that is closed
can still open again.
My heart is a shadow,
a light and a guide.
Closed or open…
I get to decide.
“The circulating medium… is abused like all good things, but without it you would not have had your Horace and Virgil.”
By Maria Popova
By the end of her thirties, Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) — one of the central figures in Figuring — had shaped her young nation’s sensibility in literature and art as founding editor and prolific contributor to the visionary Transcendentalist journal The Dial, advocated for prison reform and African American voting rights as the only woman in a New York newsroom, trekked through war-torn Rome seven months pregnant as America’s first foreign war correspondent, and composed the foundational treatise of American women’s emancipation movement. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would come to admire “the truth and courage in her, rare in woman or man.” Emerson would come to consider her his greatest influence.
Fuller alone among the Transcendentalists left the sanctuary of nature to test her ideas and ideals against the real world. She alone used her work as a journalist and literary artist to bring life as it was being lived a little closer to life as she believed it ought to be lived in a just society — pacing the periphery of Walden Pond while philosophizing is not quite the same thing as marching into prisons, asylums, and orphanages to uncover abuse and incite the public to demand change. She alone relinquished the Transcendentalist disdain for material means as an antithesis to the creative life and the life of the mind, instead insisting that artists and those engaged in intellectual labor ought to get paid the way other laborers do.
With her hard-earned income as a teacher and writer, Fuller had put her brothers through Harvard — an institution closed to her and other women for decades to come. In a letter penned in her thirty-third year, she lovingly exhorted her younger brother:
Even your frugality does not enable you wholly to dispense with the circulating medium you so much despise and whose use, when you have thought more deeply on these subjects, you will find to have been indispensable to the production of the arts, of literature and all that distinguishes civilized man. It is abused like all good things, but without it you would not have had your Horace and Virgil stimulated by whose society you read the woods and fields…
Two years later, Fuller set sail for Europe to report on the Roman Revolution for the New-York Herald Tribune, where she had been working as the first female editor at a major American newspaper. There, she met and fell in love with a young revolutionary, whose baby she bore at the age of thirty-eight in a willow-hedged cottage by a rapid river in the mountains of Italy. That she survived the birth at all was miracle enough for Fuller, whose health had been hazardously frail since childhood, so she was hardly surprised when her body reached its limit and failed to produce milk. As the young father returned to Rome to resume his duties in the Risorgimento, she hired a local wet nurse. Throughout her time in Europe, she had struggled to make ends meet, writing tirelessly for the Tribune for only $10 per column and constantly negotiating various loans and literary advances. Having supported her mother and brothers since her young adulthood, she was now once again the sole breadwinner for a family — for the baby, for the wet nurse and her own infant, and for her partner, who was unemployed and had relinquished support from his father on account of their political differences.
Frugality took on a new meaning for Fuller as she began working on her ambitious chronicle of the Revolution. In the mountain cottage, which she rented for nine dollars a month, she could feast on “a great basket of grapes” for one cent and a day’s worth of figs and peaches for five. She didn’t hesitate to let her brother know, at the end of a three-page letter, that getting a single page to him cost her eighty cents. In another letter to him penned in the first months of her pregnancy, as she was facing the reality of providing for her new makeshift family, Fuller crystallized her sober philosophy of making a living in a life of purpose:
It is not reasonable to expect the world should pay us in money for what we are but for what we can do for it. Society pays in money for the practical talent exerted for its benefit, to the thinker, as such, only the tribute of materials for thought… We cannot have every thing; we cannot have even many things; the choice is only between a better and worser.
Fuller grew convinced that the most she could do for society lay in her chronicle of the revolution she saw as an exalted reach for better over worse, with implications not only for Italy but for the whole of humanity in upholding the ideals of liberty and equality she had long considered vital to human flourishing. And yet, in a letter to her mother penned upon returning to Rome, she articulated a profound recalibration of her sense of contribution:
In earlier days, I dreamed of doing and being much, but now am content with the Magdalen to rest my pleas hereon, “She has loved much.”
“I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.”
By Maria Popova
“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau exulted as he championed the spirit of sauntering in an era when the activity was largely a male privilege — for a woman, these everyday crusades meant the dragging of long skirts across inhospitable terrains, before unwelcome gazes. It would take a century and a half of bold women conquering the mountains and reimagining the streets before Rebecca Solnit could compose her exquisite manifesto for wanderlust, reclaiming walking as an activity that vitalizes the mind — the mind that, in the landmark assertion of the seventeenth-century French philosopher François Poullain de la Barre, “has no sex.”
Lauren Elkin brings some of these women and their emancipatory, culture-shifting legacy to life in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (public library) — a celebration of the peripatetic foot as an instrument of the mind, an insurgency, a liberation, drawing on the novels and diaries of titanic writers like Virginia Woolf and George Sand, who wove walking into their lives and works as a central theme of empowerment and active curiosity, and on her own diaries and memories as an expatriate in Paris and Tokyo, a traveler in Venice and London, a student in New York.
The title itself is a rebellion against and a recouping of the French word flâneur, masculine for “one who wanders aimlessly,” popularized in the first half of the twentieth century. Elkin writes:
A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
Every right begins as a privilege and Elkin sets out to reclaim this once-male privilege as a basic human right of the modern urban dweller — one that requires the resexing of flâneur into flâneuse:
Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.
That is an imaginary definition. Most French dictionaries don’t even include the word. The 1905 Littré does make an allowance for ‘flâneur, -euse’.Qui flâne. But the Dictionnaire Vivant de la Langue Française defines it, believe it or not, as a kind of lounge chair.
Is that some kind of joke? The only kind of curious idling a woman does is lying down? This usage (slang of course) began around 1840 and peaked in the 1920s, but continues today: search for ‘flâneuse’ on Google Images and the word brings up a drawing of George Sand, a picture of a young woman sitting on a Parisian bench and a few images of outdoor furniture.
Walking for Elkin, as for her marching army of women, is a wholly different matter. She offers her own tessellated definition of its raison d’être:
Why do I walk? I walk because I like it. I like the rhythm of it, my shadow always a little ahead of me on the pavement. I like being able to stop when I like, to lean against a building and make a note in my journal, or read an email, or send a text message, and for the world to stop while I do it. Walking, paradoxically, allows for the possibility of stillness.
Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. There’s a small pleasure in seeing how well I’ve come to know the city through my wanderings on foot, crossing through different neighbourhoods of the city, some I used to know quite well, others I may not have seen in a while, like getting reacquainted with someone I once met at a party.
Sometimes I walk because I have things on my mind, and walking helps me sort them out. Solvitur ambulando, as they say.
I walk because it confers — or restores — a feeling of placeness. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says a space becomes a place when through movement we invest it with meaning, when we see it as something to be perceived, apprehended, experienced.
I walk because, somehow, it’s like reading. You’re privy to these lives and conversations that have nothing to do with yours, but you can eavesdrop on them. Sometimes it’s overcrowded; sometimes the voices are too loud. But there is always companionship. You are not alone. You walk in the city side by side with the living and the dead.
And yet this inevitable commingling with humanity, for all of its rewards, also exposes one of the most disquieting questions of modern life — what does it mean to be in motion, in public? Elkin writes:
[This is] the key problem at the heart of the urban experience: are we individuals or are we part of the crowd? Do we want to stand out or blend in? Is that even possible? How do we — no matter what our gender — want to be seen in public? Do we want to attract or escape the gaze? Be independent and invisible? Remarkable or unremarked-upon?
With an eye to her childhood and young adulthood in suburban America, Elkin reflects on how she awakened to the relationship between walking and agency, to the sense that self-propelled motion is a vital form of participation in the world on one’s own terms:
I became suspicious of an entirely vehicle-based culture; a culture that does not walk is bad for women. It makes a kind of authoritarian sense; a woman who doesn’t wonder — what it all adds up to, what her needs are, if they’re being met — won’t wander off from the family. The layout of the suburbs reinforces her boundaries: the neat grid, the nearby shopping centre, the endless loops of parkways, where the American adventure of the open road is tamed by the American dream.
But alongside this self-empowerment, this triumph of individualistic agency, walking confers upon the walker a perpendicular gift — a connection, embodied in the sinews rather than reasoned by the mind, to the constellation of other selves speckling the world. Elkin reflects on a semester abroad in Paris — the city in which she first fell in love with “the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other” — during her time as a Barnard College student:
In those six months, the streets were transformed from places in between home and wherever I was going into a great passion. I drifted wherever they looked interesting, lured by the sight of a decaying wall, or colourful window boxes, or something intriguing down at the other end, which might be as pedestrian as a perpendicular street. Anything, any detail that suddenly loosened itself, would draw me towards it. Every turn I made was a reminder that the day was mine and I didn’t have to be anywhere I didn’t want to be. I had an astonishing immunity to responsibility, because I had no ambitions at all beyond doing only that which I found interesting.
I remember when I’d take the métro two stops because I didn’t realise how close together everything was, how walkable Paris was. I had to walk around to understand where I was in space, how places related to each other. Some days I’d cover five miles or more, returning home with sore feet and a story or two for my room-mates. I saw things I’d never seen in New York. Beggars (Roma, I was told) who knelt rigidly in the street, heads bowed, holding signs asking for money, some with children, some with dogs; homeless people living in tents, under stairways, under arches. Every quaint Parisian nook had its corresponding misery. I turned off my New York apathy and gave what I could. Learning to see meant not being able to look away; to walk in the streets of Paris was to walk the thin line of fate that divided us from each other.
“By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system.”
By Maria Popova
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life, adding: “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
One aspect of being primates endowed with higher consciousness and creators of culture is the will and willingness to transcend our primal impulses and regard that which is other with the dignity and respect we grant ourselves. And one existential expression of that willingness, not suited to all human animals but chosen by more and more in the past century, is the choice not to eat other animals.
Two decades before the word vegetarian was coined and two centuries before some of the world’s most prominent scientists signed the landmark Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, acknowledging definitively that many non-human animals are conscious and capable of experiencing emotions, and a world order before science demonstrated unambiguously that animal agriculture is the third leading cause of climate change, vegetarianism found an improbable and impassioned champion in one of humanity’s most beloved and influential storytellers in verse: the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792–July 8, 1822), who was among the first to present a reasoned philosophical argument — as opposed to a purely emotional appeal or political stance — around the ethics of meat consumption.
Together with his wife, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — herself a creative visionary and intellect ahead of her time by centuries — Shelley advocated for ideas and practices utterly countercultural in his day: sexual liberation, atheism, individual freedom. Signing a hotel guestbook among the sheepishly pious inscriptions left by other guests, he declared himself a “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist.”
Central to his credo was the insistence that eating other animals was antithetical to the moral and spiritual enlightenment of human consciousness. In his first literary masterpiece, the 1813 philosophical poem Queen Mab, Shelley envisioned a world in which “man has lost his terrible prerogative, and stands an equal amidst equals.” He expounded on the then-radical ideas presented in the poem in a set of notes later published in the 1893 book The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating by the English humanitarian Howard Williams, republished in the twenty-first century under the more palatable title The Ethics of Diet: An Anthology of Vegetarian Thought (public library) and presenting a case for vegetarianism drawn from the lives and writings of such famous proponents as Plato, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Schopenhauer, and Gandhi.
More than two millennia after Pythagoras pioneered the notion of a vegetarian diet as a pillar of his model of wisdom, Shelley begins by posing a fundamental question about the costs at which the benefits of so-called civilization come:
Man, and the other animals whom he has afflicted with his malady or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased. The Bison, the wild Hog, the Wolf, are perfectly exempt from malady, and invariably die either from external violence or from mature old age. But the domestic Hog, the Sheep, the Cow, the Dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers, and, like the corruptors of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries. The super-eminence of man is, like Satan’s, the super-eminence of pain; and the majority of his species doomed to poverty, disease and crime, have reason to curse the untoward event that, by enabling him to communicate his sensations, raised him above the level of his fellow animals. But the steps that have been taken are irrevocable. The whole of human science is comprised in one question: How can the advantages of intellect and civilisation be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system which is now interwoven with the fibre of our being? I believe that abstinence from animal food and spiritous liquors would, in a great measure, capacitate us for the solution of this important question.
Nearly half a century before Darwin revolutionized our understanding of the biosphere with his theory of evolution, Shelley observes that we humans have developed in such a way as to lose our survival advantages as carnivorous predators — we can’t really kill large prey with our clawless appendages or devour carcasses with our small, blunt teeth — and have instead come to resemble herbivores far more closely. Pointing out that our cellulated colons are present in no carnivores and that the animal most akin to us is the orangutan, which is an herbivore, he writes:
Comparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in every thing, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre. A Mandarin of the first class, with nails two inches long, would probably find them alone inefficient to hold even a hare. After every subterfuge of gluttony, the bull must be degraded into the “ox”, and the ram into the wether, by an unnatural and inhuman operation, that the flaccid fibre may offer a fainter resistance to rebellious nature. It is only by softening and disguising, dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror, does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust… The structure of the human frame then is that of one fitted to a pure vegetable diet, in every essential particular.
Shelley brings into sharp relief the central psychological dissonance of considering oneself a good human while eating animals:
Let the advocate of animal food, force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it, and say, Nature formed me for such work as this. Then, and then only, would he be consistent.
A vegetarian diet, Shelley notes, is no silver bullet for the superficial symptoms of societal ills. Rather, it is a curative refinement of the very character of human beings, which would in turn effect a healing of the underlying maladies rotting the marrow of civilization. Building his ardent case upon a rhetorical foundation of logical reasoning, he exhorts:
Crime is madness. Madness is disease. Whenever the cause of disease shall be discovered, the root from which all vice and misery have so long overshadowed the globe, will lay bare to the axe. All the exertions of man, from that moment, may be considered as tending to the clear profit of his species. No sane mind in a sane body resolves upon a real crime… The system of a simple diet promises no Utopian advantages. It is no mere reform of legislation, whilst the furious passions and evil propensities of the human heart, in which it had its origin, are still unassuaged. It strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies, families, and even individuals. In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury; in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial. Should ever a physician be born with the genius of Locke, I am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits, as clearly as that philosopher has traced all knowledge to sensation.
By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system. Reasoning is surely superfluous on a subject, whose merits an experience of six months would set for ever at rest. But it is only among the enlightened and benevolent, that so great a sacrifice of appetite and prejudice can be expected, even though its ultimate excellence should not admit of dispute. It is found easier, by the short-sighted victims of disease, to palliate their torments by medicine, than to prevent them by regimen.
Shelley concludes with a crowning argument of even greater relevance today. Writing during the final chapters of the First Industrial Revolution, he notes that meat-eating is part of the power structure — only the wealthy of his era could afford feasts of flesh. But while the Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism have seemingly equalized and even inverted this symptom of the system, the foundational malady remains just as true, perhaps even more grimly so: In most industrialized countries today, commercial agriculture subsidies have made cheap meat more accessible to the poor than healthy produce — animal flesh is now baked into the most elemental political and governmental structure of our society. Shelley’s impassioned plea to citizens as agents of change sounds suddenly not out of time and place but all the more urgently relevant to our world:
The advantage of a reform in diet, is obviously greater than that of any other. It strikes at the root of the evil. To remedy the abuses of legislation, before we annihilate the propensities by which they are produced, is to suppose, that by taking away the effect, the cause will cease to operate.
I address myself not only to the young enthusiast: the ardent devotee of truth and virtue; the pure and passionate moralist, yet unvitiated by the contagion of the world. He will embrace a pure system, from its abstract truth, its beauty, its simplicity, and its promise of wide-extended benefit; unless custom has turned poison into food, he will hate the brutal pleasures of the chance by instinct; it will be a contemplation full of horror and disappointment to his mind, that beings capable of the gentlest and most admirable sympathies, should take delight in the death-pangs and last convulsions of dying animals… How much longer will man continue to pimp for the gluttony of death, his most insidious, implacable, and eternal foe?