“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote in his meditation on freedom, togetherness, and the secret to a good marriage. But how do two people protect this sacred necessity of the bond from the daily proximity of cohabitation, which now presses their closely neighboring solitudes into inevitable frictions, now pushes them apart into neighboring lonelinesses?
That is what Margaret Atwood explores in a short, stunning poem originally published in her 1970 collection Procedures for Underground, later included in her altogether wondrous Selected Poems: 1965–1975 (public library), and read here by musician, poetry-lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer to the serendipitous sound of church bells in the winter-quieted streets of Portugal.
HABITATION by Margaret Atwood
Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn
the edge of the receding glacier
where painfully and with wonder
A vibrant minimalist celebration of nature, from the scale of cells and atoms to the scale of elephants and the Moon.
By Maria Popova
Around the time the mid-century French artist and natural history curator Paul Sougy was creating his stunning scientific diagrams of the living world, a young man on the other side of this living world was just beginning to direct his attention and his own uncommon talent toward making visible and beautiful the mysterious processes and phenomena of nature.
The Japanese graphic designer, illustrator, and printmaker Kazumasa Nagai (b. April 20, 1929) began his career in abstraction — in masterpieces of graphic design exploring the discoveries and advances in physics and chemistry that scintillated — and sometimes terrified — the popular imagination in the 1960 and 1970s. Three of his works appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine’s Science Library series.
Then, after marine biologist and conservation pioneer Rachel Carson made ecology a household word and humanity began awakening to its delicate interbelonging with the rest of nature, Nagai moved from the abstractions of physics and chemistry to the concrete splendors of biology, rising as a visionary voice in the postwar era with his stunning conservation-minded illustrations of animals. Two centuries after the self-taught artist Sarah Stone created her trailblazing natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct animals, Nagai drew on his roots in abstraction to subtly portray various species as links in the ecological chain.
Over the course of three decades, designing for festivals and exhibitions, for travel advertising and popular science publications, he created nearly 250 visual celebrations of nature from the scale of cells and atoms to the scale of elephants and the Moon. Many were later collected by the Toyama Museum of Art and Design in the bilingual monograph Kazumasa Nagai: Poster Life (public library).
“To spend little and give much, is the highest glory a man can aspire to.”
By Maria Popova
The Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (January 12, 1729–July 9, 1797) was a rare centaur of a creature. Although in the centuries since his death his ideas have been somewhat hijacked to conservative ends, in his own day they were embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. A staunch champion of freedom and a vocal critic of British colonialism, he influenced minds as vast and varied as Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her radical philosopher father William Godwin, Romantic poetry beacons Coleridge and Wordsworth, Enlightenment torchlight Immanuel Kant, liberalism founding power-couple John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, and misunderstood free market patron saint Adam Smith.
But however far-reaching the political consequence of Burke’s published writings, emanating from his private letters is the sense that he was, plainly, just a good-hearted man. Nowhere do his goodness and generosity of spirit shine more radiantly than in the warm letter he penned to his children one frosty winter morning in Paris at the age of forty-four, later included in the grandly titled 1844 tome Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (public library | public domain).
Addressing his only surviving biological son and a cousin’s orphaned son, whom Burke had adopted, simply and sweetly as “My Dear Children,” he asks after their health and how they have settled into their new home, then proceeds to give them some splendid moral advice as they embark on a life of independence as young adults. Urging his sons to take care of themselves, Burke considers the delicate line between self-care and self-indulgence:
When I wish you to avoid superfluous expenses, as giving the mind loose and bad habits, be aware that I wish you to avoid everything that is mean, sordid, illiberal, and uncharitable, which is much the worst extreme. Do not spare yourselves nor me in this point.
With this Burke turns to the attendant question of generosity, which he placed at the center of his moral universe as the lever of justice. Drawing another line of great sensitivity and nuance — how to give sensitively, in a way that doesn’t become a statement of superiority or an imposition of indebtedness but honors the recipient’s human dignity, whatever their state of need — he writes:
As you are now a little setting up for yourselves, suffer me to give you a little direction about the article of giving. When others of decent condition are giving along with you, never give more than they do; it is rather an affront to them, than a service to those that desire your little bounty. Whatever else you do, do it separately. But always preserve a habit of giving (but still with discretion), however little, as a habit not to be lost. When I speak of this, the funds of neither of you are large, and perhaps never may become so. So that the first thing is justice. Whatever one gives, ought to be from what one would otherwise spend, not from what he would otherwise pay. To spend little and give much, is the highest glory a man can aspire to.
A generation later, Mary Shelley, poverty-stricken and recklessly generous throughout her life, would copy this last passage from Burke’s letter into her journal during one of her most trying periods, as a kind of existential mantra affirming her own philosophy when it was most challenging to uphold.
A spare serenade to the spectrum of wonder between black and white.
By Maria Popova
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in his gorgeous 1933 love letter to darkness. More than a century before him, Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion that “color itself is a degree of darkness.” Darkness, we could say, is the sum total of all the colors and all the emotions — a totality of consummate beauty awaiting those willing to look.
Half a century after the great graphic artist Edward Gorey invited children to contemplate why we have night, Snider invites them to learn how to have night, dispelling the specter of nocturnal fright, and replacing it with an exuberant hunt for beauty and delight.
He shepherds the reader to discover that night is not a mere mosaic of black and white but a vivid tessellation of “colors unseen” — subtle hues beckoning eye and heart alike — the silver of starshine, the warm brown of the moths flickering under the streetlamp, the neon green of the raccoon’s flash-lit eyes, the spectrum-crowning miracle of moonbow.