“There are periods during which human society seems to rest… This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.”
By Maria Popova
Even when nothing is happening, something is happening. This is a difficult fact for the human animal to fathom — especially for us modern sapiens, who so ardently worship at the altar of productivity and so readily mistake busyness for effectiveness, for propulsion toward progress. Silence is a form of speech, Susan Sontag wrote, “and an element in a dialogue.” Stillness is a form of action and an element in advancement, in evolution, in all forward motion.
There are certain moments, as when winter cusps into spring, when nature itself reminds us of this slippery elemental fact: Buds begin to spine the skeletal silhouettes of trees, withholding leaf and blossom until it is right, until it is safe to spill new life into the chilly air; birds, whose dinosaur bodies have spent all winter preparing to mate, perch silent on the bud-spined branches, all longing and unsung song.
There are certain moments in culture, too, when we must especially remember, in order to stay sane, this slippery elemental fact.
Those moments and their neglected significance are what Alexis de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805–April 16, 1859) explores in a brief, intensely insightful passage from his 1835 classic Democracy in America (public library).
Since Tocqueville belongs to the long stretch of epochs predating Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, I have taken the liberty (a liberty I very rarely take with historical texts, for it is often ahistorical to take it, but one that feels right in this case) of rehumanizing his men as individuals and people. He writes:
At certain periods a nation may be oppressed by such insupportable evils as to conceive the design of effecting a total change in its political constitution; at other times… the existence of society itself is endangered. Such are the times of great revolutions… But between these epochs of misery and confusion there are periods during which human society seems to rest and mankind to take breath. This pause is, indeed, only apparent, for time does not stop its course for nations any more than for [individuals]; they are all advancing every day towards a goal with which they are unacquainted.
We imagine them to be stationary only when their progress escapes our observation, as [people] who are walking seem to be standing still to those who run.
Because this transformative stillness is so imperceptible, Tocqueville observes, and because it appears after periods of upheaval, we are apt to mistake the stillness for an end point. Nearly two centuries before psychologist Daniel Gilbert quipped that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished” in his excellent inquiry into how our present illusions hinder our future happiness, Tocqueville admonishes against this illusion of finality, as true on the scale of individuals as it is on the scale of societies, nations, and civilizations:
There are certain epochs in which the changes that take place in the social and political constitution of nations are so slow and imperceptible that [people] imagine they have reached a final state; and the human mind, believing itself to be firmly based upon sure foundations, does not extend its researches beyond a certain horizon.
The great gift of such periods is that they invite us to question our certitudes, our givens, these seemingly sure foundations that have lulled us into complacency — for it is only by being jolted out of our complacencies, cultural or personal, that we ever reach beyond the horizon, toward new territories of truth, beauty, and flourishing.
On March 27, 1964 — Good Friday — thousands of selves in Anchorage, Alaska came unpinned from their most elemental certitudes about reality, about safety, about the thousand small sanities by which we bestill this turning world to make it livable.
At 5:36PM, as the afternoon sun was slipping lazily toward the horizon — that quiet daily assurance that the Earth moves intact on its steady axis along its unfaltering orbital path — street lights began swaying, then flying. The pavement beneath them accordioned, then gaped open, swallowing cars and spitting them back up. Walls came unseamed and reseamed before disbelieving eyes that had not yet computed, for it was beyond the computational power of everyday consciousness, what was taking place.
Buildings rippled “up and down in sections, just like a caterpillar,” in one observer’s recollection, before ripping apart and crumbling completely like the brittle simulacra of safety that buildings are. Inside them, books toppled from their shelves to take rapid turns levitating from the floor, flames engulfed school science labs as chemicals crumpled together, and cast-iron pots of moose stew jumped off kitchen stoves.
The city’s electric grid was snapped and uprooted — in the below-freezing cold, in the descending dusk, all power went out.
When people tried running for their lives, they found their basic biped function furloughed — the Earth hurled each step back at them, tossing their center of gravity like a marble around a child’s cupped hand.
Water levels jumped as far away as South Africa. I picture my grandparents’ well in Bulgaria undulating in the middle of the night as they slept heavily under their Rhodope wool blankets, having celebrated my mother’s second birthday in the hours before Anchorage came unborn.
At 9.2 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake was more powerful than any previously measured — so violent that, as one seismologist phrased it, “it made the earth ring like a bell.” Just as the collision of two black holes ripples the fabric of spacetime with such brutality that it rings a gravitational wave, two tectonic plates had been in slow-motion collision for millennia, building up pressure that finally, on that early-spring afternoon, rang the planet itself and discomposed Anchorage into a level of trauma that would devastate the community, then jolt it into discovering its own entirely unfathomed wellsprings of resilience, solidarity, and generosity.
Driving to the local bookstore with one of her three children was a woman who would emerge as the unlikely hero not only of the community’s survival but of its transformation through tragedy. As their world fell apart, she would magnetize people into falling together.
Genie Chance (January 24, 1927–May 17, 1998) is the protagonist of Jon Mooallem’s uncommonly wonderful book This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together (public library). Driving the heart of this scrupulously researched and sensitively told story about a singular event at a particular time in a particular place is the timeless, universal pulse-beat of assurance, suddenly rendered timely to the point of prophetic — the assurance that comes from the lived record of communities surviving cataclysms even more savaging than our own and emerging from them stronger, more closely knit, more human.
In 1964, Anchorage had barely nursed its first generation of city-born citizens and Alaska itself had only just become a state five years earlier. The town existed, Mooallem writes, as “a blotch of Western civilization in the middle of emptiness,” on a patch of land “often disregarded as a kind of free-floating addendum to the rest of America.” Culture itself was in a state of disorientation — months earlier, JFK’s assassination and The Feminine Mystique had shaken the world with their respective dissolutions of certitudes. Anchorage was hungry to pin itself on the map, to self-create an identity and then to assert it with the fiery impatience of a teenager undergoing the developmental stage of individuation — a city that, in one visitor’s account, “reached aggressively and greedily to grasp the future, impatient with any suggestion that such things take time.” Mooallem writes:
That determination made it difficult for those who lived in Anchorage to recognize how indifferently the city they were building could be knocked down — to imagine that, early one Friday evening, the very ground beneath them might rear up and shake their town like “a dog shaking an animal he’s killed,” as one man later described it. Even while the earth was moving, the ferocious strangeness of what was happening to Anchorage was hard for people to internalize or accept. Buildings keeled off their foundations, slumped in on themselves, split in half or sunk. Four-foot-high ground waves rolled through the roads as though the pavement were liquid. A city of infallible right angles buckled and bent.
It wasn’t as though, before the quake, people in Anchorage pictured these things happening and dismissed them as impossible; they just never pictured them. They couldn’t. More to the point: Why would they? Like all of us, they looked around and registered what they saw as stable and permanent: a world that just was.
But there are moments when the world we take for granted instantaneously changes; when reality is abruptly upended and the unimaginable overwhelms real life. We don’t walk around thinking about that instability, but we know it’s always there: at random, and without warning, a kind of terrible magic can switch on and scramble our lives.
When the earthquake churned its terrible magic over Anchorage, Genie Chance — who described herself as “one of those people with an insatiable curiosity who wants to understand in depth what someone else is doing, thinking, or talking about” — was working as a part-time reporter for the local radio station, KENI. Part-time but triple-throttle: When she wasn’t racing on her daily rounds to the police station and the courthouse to report on local crime and punishment, she flew with the air patrol on wilderness rescue missions, trailed army units during Arctic training exercises, captured life on crab boats and in Inuit villages, forewitnessed death on nuclear missile testing sites, and had to be dissuaded from climbing a fire ladder with her tape recorder during a building fire while she was recovering from pneumonia.
All of this she did before rushing home to make dinner for her three children and their father. But she inhabited these two radically different worlds as one extraordinary, integrated self — “a woman who bore the conspicuous burden of always being fully and unflaggingly herself,” in Mooallem’s lovely phrasing — a self outside its time and place, for being a working mother rather than a housewife was already countercultural enough, but being a working mother of unstoppable ambition covered her path with the shrapnel of shock and the indictments of arrogance with which women’s confident competence is often repudiated.
She was the only female newscaster in the state and little seemed to have changed in the century-some since Margaret Fuller became America’s first female news correspondent during a major upheaval as she was paving the way for what we now call feminism. Once, after Genie spent three days reporting on the search effort for a major airplane crash off the coast of Alaska, NBC’s national newscast came calling for her coverage, but requested that a man be sent to redo all of her interviews for a more authoritative air on the air. But her persistent dedication to this essential community-building work soon eclipsed the dismissal and established her as the trusted voice on the radio — trust that threaded the community as a lifetime in the wake of the catastrophe, as fifty-two aftershocks shook the city after the initial rupture. Mooallem writes:
As Anchorage staggered to its feet, each person, or cluster of people, was cut off from everyone else. There was no way to know exactly what had happened, or how thoroughly their world had been jumbled.
This feeling of vulnerability saturated the city. One man, discovering he’d fallen to the sandy bottom of a pit, explained, “You just wonder, ‘Where are you?’ You don’t know if anybody else is alive. Maybe you’re the last man.” Another remembered taking stock of the erratic transfiguration of his neighborhood and assuming that no other part of Anchorage could possibly have gotten hit so badly. Others made the opposite assumption: that the devastation they couldn’t see must be far worse. Both assumptions provoked loneliness. Each generated a slightly different species of despair.
It was reassuring, then, to hear another voice on the radio, talking to you — especially a familiar voice like Genie’s. It urged your imagination outward, encouraged you to picture other people, still out there, listening to the radio, too.
That voice had risked her own life in the determination to serve — having ensured her family’s safety, she had raced back downtown as buildings collapsed around her to assess what was actually going on and how she could help. She had seen things one never forgets — incomprehensible objects that mere hours ago had been bodies animated by human lives and loves and favorite songs — and she had discerned her task: to inform without alarming, to comfort without deluding, to be the steady hand in the small of the back guiding the buckle-kneed and the disoriented survivors toward safety, toward sanity, toward some version of sense-making amid the senseless ruin of their reality.
Genie Chance quickly grasped what our modern media have failed to grasp again and again in times of crisis: that past a certain tipping point of quantity, past a certain threshold of reliability, past a certain pitch level of delivery, facts cease to constellate into information and instead become slippery corpuscles saturating a fog of fright. Genie Chance’s job was choice — she had to perform that taxing calculus of moral judgment, that ultimate curatorial task of choosing what facts to broadcast and what to withhold in order to render people maximally equipped to protect themselves and minimally inclined toward panic, which she knew would hinder all rescue and recovery efforts in what was going to be days, weeks, possibly months of people trapped together in a crippled city. “Mass hysteria would have meant total destruction,” she would later recount.
Stationing herself at Anchorage’s Public Safety Building as night fell on the powerless city, she began working with the police chief, the fire chief, and various officials. As soon as KENI was back on the air with a generator, she began broadcasting the essentials of survival: where to take shelter, how to purify snow for drinking water. She instructed people to limit the use of candles to the bare minimum of necessity — candles were a fire hazard, the city had just evaded a conflagration by what seemed like a miracle, and the water supply system was too savaged to fight a fire outbreak.
She then began collating eyewitness accounts to give people an accurate picture of what had just unworlded them, careful to convey the gravity of the situation without details so gruesome that people would lose hope, still performing the impossible informational acrobatics at the balance-point on the beam between paralysis and panic. Mooallem writes:
Information was a form of comfort. Each stunned, eye-witness account on the radio that night appeared to help people in Anchorage find the contours of this sinister abstraction they were living through — and to locate their places in it.
Within hours, Genie Chance had become the city’s first public information officer. But she soon became something more. Distressed people began turning up at her makeshift desk, bearing the impossible weight of not knowing whether their loved ones were dead or alive. Recognizing the psychological emergency beyond the physical first aid, Genie Chance became the human hub of a vast network of need and began broadcasting these trembling-hearted messages.
“A message to Clyde Wythe at Homer: Your daughter is OK.”
“We have received a call from Joe Fernbeck who said that he’d gotten word on his radio from the oil crews at Beluga and Tyonek. They want their families to know that they are all OK.”
“We have a message reporting that an elderly lady at 216 East Eighth Avenue who lives alone. We have no name on her, but we do have a request for somebody in that neighborhood to please check and see if the sweet lady is all right.”
You could hear the potential death toll in the city gradually ticking down. And with each small declaration of survival that aired, you could imagine a constellation of affirming flames slowly lighting the emptiness outside.
The words of one listener from the remote community of Clam Gulch bellow across space, time, and situation with especially poignancy and relevance today:
It made us who were fortunate realize that no matter what powerful forces nature unleashes, it also releases similar forces in our men and women to cope with them.
By Monday, as Anchorage began stumbling to its feet amid heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures, Genie Chance observed from the airwaves:
Tension is showing on the faces of a proud people. The realization that the Good Friday earthquake will have long-range repercussions on the entire state is beginning to strike at their hearts.
She took it upon herself to steady those hearts. How she did that — how she was in a position to help in the first place, having risen in radio across the personal abyss of depression and the cultural barriers of sexism; how her public service paved the way for her election to the Alaska Senate; how it illuminated what Martin Luther King, Jr. had so poetically termed a year earlier our “inescapable network of mutuality” and how it still illuminates the timeless centripetal forces holding communities together into something larger and more alive than coexisting individuals — that and a great, largehearted deal more is what Mooallem explores in the rest of This Is Chance!, which he ends with a gorgeous glimpse of Genie Chance’s animating spirit.
The week following the earthquake, when her mother wrote from Texas beseeching her to send the children there for safety, Genie had a decision to make — a decision that might have appeared simple to a person of less penetrating vision into the innermost pillars of survival. Beneath that surface simplicity, which rests upon a view of safety as physical security, Genie Chance fathomed the layers of complexity: The very notion of physical security had just been unmasked as an illusion in the first place, in any place; but beneath it, she suddenly saw, there lay a stratum of psychological and emotional security from which we mine the building blocks of our only reliable human shelter. She wrote back to her mother:
I must admit that during that first dark, cold night, as I began to understand the tremendous scope of the problems that would be facing us in the months and years to come, I toyed with the idea of sending the children out on a plane to stay with you until everything settled down. Working there in the headquarters, where the reports were coming in from the survey teams throughout the city, I realized that there could possibly be a real health hazard for some time to come. I realized that the schools might not be able to resume for an indefinite period of time. It looked for a few hours as if the damage had been so extensive to all utilities and streets that even a semblance of normal life could not be resumed for weeks or months.
But this was just a fleeting thought in a weary mind. I would have been ashamed of myself had it not been for the next thought that came so swiftly: We must be together… That night I saw strain, heavy hearts, and fear in people separated from their loved ones by the sudden disaster… As long as we are together, we are confident of the future…
That Good Friday night I knew that we had survived miraculously. And for this reason, there must be a purpose to our lives. Apparently the children must sense this, too. For they have remained calm. They have been fully aware of the emergency, but they have not feared. We are proud that they are such dependable, responsible youngsters. I would not undermine their confidence in the future — in themselves — by sending them away for safety.
What is safety, anyway? How can you predict where or when tragedy will occur? You can only learn to live with it and make the best of it when it happens. These children have learned this — and they are all the better for it. They were in the midst of devastation. And they feel that they are a part of the tremendous task ahead in rebuilding this land we love… The children are not afraid. Their father and I are not afraid. Please, don’t you fear for us.
Mooallem — who previously composed the beautiful, bittersweet, and surprisingly buoyant ecological elegy Wild Ones — reflects on the disquieting confrontation with the nature of reality that the earthquake thrust upon the world it shattered, and wrests from the disquietude the kernel of a larger truth that makes reality not only bearable but beautiful:
What is safety, anyway? Genie seemed to be conceding how randomly our lives are jostled and spun around; that nothing is fixed; that even the ground we stand on is in motion. Underneath us, there is only instability. Beyond us, there’s only chance.
But she’d also recognized a way of surviving such a world. It was what Genie had created in Anchorage that weekend by talk- ing on the radio, and what she planned to stay focused on now: not an antidote to that unpredictability, exactly, but at least a strategy for withstanding it, for wringing meaning from a life we know to be unsteady and provisional. The best she and her family could do was to hold on to one another.
“It avails not, time nor place… What is it then between us?… It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also.”
By Maria Popova
How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.
Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”
Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west — sun there half an hour high — I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future.
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
It avails not, time nor place — distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.
A story of transmuting the grief of one life into a celebration of the grandeur of Life.
By Maria Popova
“I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances,” Charles Darwin wrote in the spring of 1864 to a young and obscure German correspondent who had just sent him two folios of his stunningly illustrated studies of tiny single-celled marine organisms — a masterwork that enchanted Darwin as one of the most majestic things he had ever seen.
But Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the term ecology and become a preeminent champion of evolution, could not banish the unbanishable: Months earlier, on his thirtieth birthday, Anna, the love of his life, had been snatched from him by a sudden death medicine failed to explain; the couple were about to be married that summer after a long engagement, having finally scraped together enough to start a family when Ernst received his first academic appointment.
In the wake of his fathomless bereavement, the young marine biologist applied the Joan Didion method of dealing with grief by motion and headed for France. Pacing the beaches of Nice, his mind on an irretrievable elsewhere and his heart a menacing vacuity, he stopped mid-stride — something had clutched his attention with the claim only wonder can lay on the worst-stung soul: afloat near the surface of the tide pool was a jellyfish — a medusa species he had never seen before.
Haeckel had fallen under the spell of medusae ten years earlier, at twenty, while accompanying a mentor on a fishing and research expedition. He had exulted in a letter to his parents:
You cannot believe what new things I see and learn here every day; it exceeds by far my most exaggerated expectations and hopes. Everything that I studied for years in books, I see here suddenly with my own eyes, as if I were cast under a spell, and each hour, which brings me surprises and instruction, prepares wonderful memories for the future.
The jellyfish the boat pulled up staggered Haeckel’s imagination with both their otherworldly beauty and the unsolved scientific mysteries they held: He knew that polyps were thought to develop from jellyfish eggs and wondered whether this might suggest that these complex translucent marvels themselves evolved from such simple organisms. But when he posed “this rather forward question” to his mentor, he was surprised to receive only excited bafflement — the elder scientist admitted that the origin of the species was completely unknown.
Now, a decade and a devastation later, Haeckel surrendered to this early enchantment to steady himself on the parallel bannisters of wonder and discovery, of aesthetic splendor and scientific challenge. In The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (public library), Robert J. Richards argues that “Haeckel’s science and his legacy for modern evolutionary theory display the features they do because of his tragic sense of life,” and considers how this young man’s deeply human coping mechanism for his personal devastation shaped his scientific outlook and his artistic imagination:
Ernst Haeckel experienced the passion for transcendence through a love that lifted him to ecstasy and then crushed him in despair. This experience invaded his insistently rational attitudes, even transforming his science into a means for escaping the grasping hand of mortality.
With the extinction of love came emptiness, a void that quickly filled with the miasma of great stridency, bitterness, and ineluctable sadness, which not even friends… could clear away. Through this acid mist, Haeckel resolved to devote himself single-mindedly to a cause that might transcend individual fragility. He would incessantly push the Darwinian ideal and oppose it to those who refused to look at life, to look at death, face on.
Haeckel spent the next fifteen years studying and illustrating these strange and beautiful creatures — creatures evocative of trees and mushrooms, of ovaries and spaceships — naming the most beautiful of the species he encountered for his lost beloved: Mitrocoma Annae — “Anna’s headband.”
Mitrocoma Annae belongs to the most charming and delicate of all the medusae. It was first observed by me in April 1864, in the Bay of Villafranca near Nice… The movement of this wonderful Eucopide offered a magical view, and I enjoyed several happy hours watching the play of her tentacles, which hang like blond hair-ornaments from the rim of the delicate umbrella-cap and which with the softest movement would roll up into thick short spirals… I name this species, the princess of the Eucopiden, as a memorial to my unforgettable true wife, Anna Sethe. If I have succeeded, during my earthly pilgrimage in accomplishing something for natural science and humanity, I owe the greatest part to the ennobling influence of this gifted wife, who was torn from me through sudden death…
When Haeckel, almost fifty, was able to built a house of his own in Jena, he adorned its walls with frescoes of medusae and called it Villa Medusa.
Anyone who has suffered savaging personal loss knows intimately that moment — a moment that can last months, years, a lifetime — when it seems like the only way to lose one’s suffering is to lose oneself. Perhaps what drew Haeckel to these particular creatures was their particular evolutionary biology, which dissolves the very notion of a self. In their complex life-cycles, the concept of individuality ceases to make sense — the psychological reality of our human existence, in which we spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, is a physiological reality for jellyfish. (The great scientist and poet Lewis Thomas would explore this a century after Haeckel in The Medusa and the Snail — one of the profoundest, most beautiful things ever written about the paradoxes of the self.) Some jellyfish species pulse into existence via a process of alternating generation — the adult animals swim untethered and reproduce sexually, but the larvae that emerge from their fertilized eggs become hydra-like creatures that root to the seafloor, asexually sprouting buds that then restart the cycle by developing into the drifting, mate-seeking grown jellyfish. Some exist as specialized parts of a vast colonial animal, in which individuals become organs — reproductive, digestive, motive — of this collective being.
For Haeckel, much of the medusae’s enchantment and consolation radiated from this very unselfing. Likening them to bouquets of flowers endowed with “an intricate structure indicating a most interesting and rather advanced division of labor,” he wrote:
Think of a delicate slim bouquet of flowers, the leaves and colored buds of which are as transparent as glass, a bouquet that winds through the water in a graceful and lively fashion — then you’ll have an idea of these wonderful, beautiful, and delicate colonial animals.
In this flowering collectivism Haeckel found not only solace for the aches of the self but affirmation of the central ideas that animated him into becoming one of the most ardent and effective advocates for Darwin’s evolutionary theory against the era’s ferocious tide of dogmatic opposition. Darwin, who had waded through his own fathomless loss when his daughter Annie died despite his every effort to save her, placed at the center of his scientific work the notion of natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Such an understanding, scientific or personal, renders death not a slight by fate but an ally of nature, part of the impartial laws holding the universe together — mortality unmoored from morality and metaphysics. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin whispered to himself in the closing pages of a book bellowing a new scientific truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of nature.
A century later, picking up where Haeckel left off and wresting ecology from the insular vernacular of science to embed it into the popular lexicon, Rachel Carson — another visionary marine biologist who lived between the tragic and the transcendent — reaffirmed that grandeur in a pioneering masterwork of scientific poetics, writing that “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”