Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

After Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Neil Gaiman’s Stunning Poem Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Legacy of Culture-Shifting Courage

“Nothing is ever over / life breathes life in its turn / Sometimes the people listen / Sometimes the people learn”

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her piercing and prescient 1914 anthem against silence. Half a century later, these words would come to embolden one of the most revolutionary voices humanity has produced — a scientist who changed culture by writing like a poet. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her beloved, quoting the line as she was readying to speak inconvenient truth to power — at great personal cost — in catalyzing the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring.

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

This stunning notion that a long-dead poet can inspire a scientist to transform an entire society inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry, which I host each spring at Brooklyn’s wondrous nonprofit cultural institute Pioneer Works and which in turn inspired my book Figuring, where Carson is a central figure and the interleaving of art, science, love, and cultural change a central theme.

How Rachel Carson signed her letters to her loved ones. (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Crowning the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse, dedicated to Carson and her far-reaching legacy, was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion to celebrate this visionary of uncommon courage and persistence — the rare gift of one genius honoring another, delivered by a third: Reading the poem was Amanda Palmer, herself an artist of radical courage and an ardent champion of poetry. Please enjoy:

AFTER SILENCE
for Rachel Carson

Seasons on seasons. The spring is signaled by birdsong
coyotes screech and yammer in the moonlight
and the first flowers open. I saw two owls today
in the daylight, on silent wings.
They landed as one and watched me sleepily.
Oh who? they called. Or how, or how who?
Then they leaned into the trunk
into the sun that shone through the tight-curled buds,
and vanished into dappled shadows
never waiting for an answer.

Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk
and grows until it has reached its height
all of us begin in darkness. Some of us reach maturity. A few
become old: we went over time’s waterfall and lived,
Time barely cares. We are a pool of knowledge and advice
the wisdom of the tribe, but we have stumbled,
fallen face-first into our new uncomfortable roles.
Remembering, as if it happened to someone else,
the race to breed,
or to succeed, the aching need that drove our thoughts
and shaped each deed,
those days are through.
We do not need to grow, we’re done,
we grew.

Who speaks? And why?

She was killed by her breasts, by tumours in them:
A clump of cells that would not listen to orders to disband
no chemical suggestions that they were big enough
that, sometimes, it’s a fine thing just to die, were heeded.
And the trees are leafless and black against the sky
and the bats in fatal whiteface sleep and rot
and the jellyfish drift and pulse through the warming waters
and everything changes. And some things are truly lost.

Wild in the weeds, the breeze scatters the seeds,
and it lifts the wings of the pine processionary moth,
and bears the green glint of the emerald borer,
Now the elms go the way of the chestnut trees.
Becoming memories and dusty furniture.
The ash trees go the way of the elms.
And somebody has to say that we
never need to grow forever. That
we, like the trees, can reach our full growth,
and mature, in wisdom and in time,
that we can be enough of us. That there
can be room for other breeds and kinds and lives.
Who’ll whisper it:
that tumours kill their hosts,
and then themselves?
We’re done. We grew. Enough.

All the gods on the hilltops
and all the gods on the waves
the gods that became seals
the voices on the winds
the quiet places, where if we are silent
we can listen, we can learn.
Who speaks? And why?

Someone could ask the questions, too.
Like who?
Who knew? What’s true?
And how? Or who?
How could it work?
What happens then?
Are consequences consequent?

The answers come from the world itself
The songs are silent,
and the spring is long in coming.

There’s a voice that rumbles beneath us
and after the end the voice still reaches us
Like a bird that cries in hunger
or a song that pleads for a different future.
Because all of us dream of a different future.
And somebody needs to listen.
To pause. To hold.
To inhale, and find the moment
before the exhale, when everything is in balance
and nothing moves. In balance: here’s life, here’s death,
and this is eternity holding its breath.

After the world has ended
After the silent spring
Into the waiting silence
another song begins.

Nothing is ever over
life breathes life in its turn
Sometimes the people listen
Sometimes the people learn

Who speaks? And why?

Complement with “The Mushroom Hunters” — Gaiman’s magnificent feminist science poem composed for the inaugural Universe in Verse, which received the Rhysling Award for poetry — then revisit other highlights from the first two years of the show: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and musician Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.

For another tribute to Carson from the show, put on some good headphones and watch Amanda Palmer’s stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” — that iconic and bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement, inspired by the legacy of Silent Spring. For more about Carson and how her unusual private life fomented her epoch-making cultural contribution, she occupies the final and most significant portion of Figuring.

BP

Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

How a public library and a messy second-hand bookshop helped a small girl with no money and big dreams change the face of science.

Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

“Books feed and cure and chortle and collide,” Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her 1969 ode to why we read. For Kafka, a book was “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”; for Galileo, nothing less than a source of superhuman powers. “Without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his visionary 1930 meditation on “the magic of the book” and why we will always remain under its generous spell, no matter how the technologies of reading may change.

We read to remember. We read to forget. We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves. “I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life,” Mary Oliver wrote in looking back on how books saved her. Most of all, we read to become selves. The wondrous gift of reading is that books can become both the life-raft to keep us from drowning and the very water that sculpts the riverbed of our lives, bending it this direction or that, traversing great distances and tessellated territories of being, chiseling through even the hardest rock.

That life-steering power of books is what pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall articulates with great simplicity and sweetness in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about how books form and transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Original art by Christian Robinson for Jane Goodall’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Half a century after Simone de Beauvoir reflected on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Goodall tells young readers about her formative childhood experience, as much a product of her time and place as of her singular predilections:

Dear Children,

I want to share something with you — and that is how much I loved books when I was your age. Of course, back then there was no Internet, no television — we learned everything from printed books. We didn’t have much money when I was a child and I couldn’t afford new books, so most of what I read came from our library. But I also used to spend hours in a very small second hand book shop. The owner was an old man who never had time to arrange his books properly. They were piled everywhere and I would sit there, surrounded by all that information about everything imaginable. I would save up any money I got for my birthday or doing odd jobs so that I could buy one of those books. Of course, you can look up everything on the Internet now. But there is something very special about a book — the feel of it in your hands and the way it looks on the table by your bed, or nestled in with others in the bookcase.

I loved to read in bed, and after I had to put the lights out I would read under the bedclothes with a torch, always hoping my mother would not come in and find out! I used to read curled up in front of the fire on a cold winter evening. And in the summer I would take my special books up my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places and I imagined I was there. I especially loved reading about Doctor Doolittle and how he learned to talk to animals. And I read about Tarzan of the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.

I was ten years old when I decided I would go to Africa when I grew up to live with animals and write books about them. And that is what I did, eventually. I lived with chimpanzees in Africa and I am still writing books about them and other animals. In fact, I love writing books as much as reading them — I hope you will enjoy reading some of the ones that I have written for you.

Jane Goodall

Pair this taste of A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the public library system, with Patrick McDonnell’s lovely picture-book about how Jane Goodall turned her childhood dream into reality, then revisit two other moving letters from A Velocity of Being — Rebecca Solnit on how books solace and empower us and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a particular book saved particular lives.

Some of the original art from the book is available as prints, with all proceeds also benefiting the public library system. Find more about the project, and peek inside its lushly illustrated pages, here.

UPDATE: All copies of the book have fled to eager hands — it is currently sold out everywhere online, but the next batch is on the way. Meanwhile, some independent bookstores still have copies of the first edition, so go roam your neighborhood and make some new friends.

BP

Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

“Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!”

Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

Four months before her twentieth birthday, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) met the person who became her first love and remained her greatest — an orphaned mathematician-in-training by the name of Susan Gilbert, nine days her junior. Throughout the poet’s life, Susan would be her muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World.”

I devote more than one hundred pages of Figuring to their beautiful, heartbreaking, unclassifiable relationship that fomented some of the greatest, most original and paradigm-shifting poetry humanity has ever produced. (This essay is drawn from my book.)

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. The only authenticated photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Susan Gilbert had settled in Amherst, to be near her sister, after graduating from the Utica Female Academy — one of a handful of academically rigorous educational institutions available to women at the time. She entered Dickinson’s life in the summer of 1850, which the poet would later remember as the season “when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens.”

Poised and serious at twenty, dressed in black for the sister who had just died in childbirth and who had been her maternal figure since their parents’ death, Susan cast a double enchantment on Emily and Austin Dickinson. Sister and brother alike were taken with her poised erudition and her Uranian handsomeness — her flat, full lips and dark eyes were not exactly masculine, her unchiseled oval face and low forehead not exactly feminine.

Susan Gilbert (Harvard University, Houghton Library)

“Best Witchcraft is Geometry,” Emily Dickinson would later write. Now both she and her brother found themselves in a strange bewitchment of figures, placing Susan at one point of a triangle. But Emily’s was no temporary infatuation. Nearly two decades after Susan entered her heart, she would write with unblunted desire:

To own a Susan of my own
Is of itself a Bliss —
Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
Continue me in this!

A tempest of intimacy swirled over the eighteen months following Susan’s arrival into the Dickinsons’ lives. The two young women took long walks in the woods together, exchanged books, read poetry to each other, and commenced an intense, intimate correspondence that would evolve and permute but would last a life- time. “We are the only poets,” Emily told Susan, “and everyone else is prose.”

By early 1852, the poet was besotted beyond words. She beckoned to Susan on a Sunday:

Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!

When Susan accepted a ten-month appointment as a math teacher in Baltimore in the autumn of 1851, Emily was devastated at the separation, but tried to keep a buoyant heart. “I fancy you very often descending to the schoolroom with a plump Binomial Theorem struggling in your hand which you must dissect and exhibit to your uncomprehending ones,” she teased in a letter. Susan was science personified, capitalized — she would haunt Dickinson’s poems for decades to come as “Science.”

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium — a forgotten masterpiece at the intersection of poetry and science.

In a comet of a letter from the early spring of 1852, eight months into Susan’s absence, Emily hurls a grenade of conflicted self-revelation:

Will you be kind to me, Susie? I am naughty and cross, this morning, and nobody loves me here; nor would you love me, if you should see me frown, and hear how loud the door bangs whenever I go through; and yet it isn’t anger — I don’t believe it is, for when nobody sees, I brush away big tears with the corner of my apron, and then go working on — bitter tears, Susie — so hot that they burn my cheeks, and almost scorch my eyeballs, but you have wept much, and you know they are less of anger than sorrow.

And I do love to run fast — and hide away from them all; here in dear Susie’s bosom, I know is love and rest, and I never would go away, did not the big world call me, and beat me for not working… Your precious letter, Susie, it sits here now, and smiles so kindly at me, and gives me such sweet thoughts of the dear writer. When you come home, darling, I shan’t have your letters, shall I, but I shall have yourself, which is more — Oh more, and better, than I can even think! I sit here with my little whip, cracking the time away, till not an hour is left of it — then you are here! And Joy is here — joy now and forevermore!

That year, in a Prussian lab, the physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz measured the speed of nerve conduction at eighty feet per second. How unfathomable that sentiments this intense and emotions this explosive, launched from a mind that seems to move at light-years per second, can be reduced to mere electrical impulses. And yet that is what we are — biomechanical creatures, all of our creative force, all of our mathematical figurings, all the wildness of our loves pulsating at eighty feet per second along neural infrastructure that evolved over millennia. Even the fathoming faculty that struggles to fathom this is a series of such electrical impulses.

The electricity of Dickinson’s love would endure, coursing through her being for the remainder of her life. Many years later, she would channel it in this immortal verse:

I chose this single star
From out the wide night’s numbers —
Sue — forevermore!

But now, in the dawning fervor of early love, forevermore collides with the immediacy of want. Midway through her spring outpouring, Emily suddenly casts Susan in the third person, as if beseeching an omnipotent spectator to grant her desire in the drama of their impending reunion:

I need her — I must have her, Oh give her to me!

The moment she names her longing, she tempers its thrill with the lucid terror that it might be unspeakable:

Do I repine, is it all murmuring, or am I sad and lone, and cannot, cannot help it? Sometimes when I do feel so, I think it may be wrong, and that God will punish me by taking you away; for he is very kind to let me write to you, and to give me your sweet letters, but my heart wants more.

Here, as in her poetry, Dickinson’s words cascade with multiple meanings beyond literal interpretation. Her invocation of “God” is not a cowering before some Puritanical punishment for deviance but an irreverent challenge to that very dogma. What kind of “God,” she seems to be asking, would make wrong a love of such infinite sweetness?

Four years earlier, during her studies at Mount Holyoke — the “castle of science” where she crafted her stunning herbarium — Emily had begun giving shape to the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had been gnawing at her since childhood — doubt she would later immortalize in verse:

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a child —
Deciding how an atom — fell —
And yet the heavens — held.

Facing her desire for Susan, her deepest fear was not punishment from “God” but that her wayward heart was its own retribution — as well as its own reward. She writes plaintively that heated summer:

Have you ever thought of it, Susie, and yet I know you have, how much these hearts claim; why I don’t believe in the whole, wide world, are such hard little creditors — such real little misers, as you and I carry with us, in our bosom every day. I can’t help thinking sometimes, when I hear about the ungenerous, Heart, keep very still — or someone will find you out! . . . I do think it’s wonderful, Susie, that our hearts don’t break, every day . . . but I guess I’m made with nothing but a hard heart of stone, for it don’t break any, and dear Susie, if mine is stony, yours is stone, upon stone, for you never yield, any, where I seem quite beflown. Are we going to ossify always, say Susie — how will it be?

There is palpable restlessness in Emily’s oscillation between resignation and demand, between love’s longing to be unmasked and the fear of being found out. Later that month, she exhorts Susan: “Loved One, thou knowest!” — an allusion to Juliet’s speech in Romeo and Juliet: “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”

By June, anticipating Susan’s return from Baltimore in three weeks, Emily is pining with unbridled candor:

When I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider . . . every day you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie… Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you . . . yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me… I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for til now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.

She ends her letter with aching awareness of the dissonance between her private desire and the public norms of love:

Now, farewell, Susie . . . I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?

Two weeks later, with Susan’s return now days away, her anticipatory longing rises to a crescendo:

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you — that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast — I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday… Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon — and my heart must be so busy, making ready for him.

Dickinson would frequently and deliberately reassign gender pronouns for herself and her beloveds, recasting her love in the acceptable male-female battery of desire. Throughout her life, she would often use the masculine in referring to herself — writing of her “boyhood,” signing letters to her cousins as “Brother Emily,” calling herself a “boy,” “prince,” “earl,” or “duke” in various poems, in one of which she unsexes herself in a violent transfiguration:

Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a Man!

Again and again, she would tell all the truth but tell it slant, unmooring the gender of her love objects from the pronouns that befit their biology. Later in life, in flirting with the idea of publication, she would masculinize the pronouns in a number of her love poems — “bearded” pronouns, she called these — to fit the heteronormative mold, so that two versions of these poems exist: the earlier addressed to a female beloved, the later to a male.

That insufferable spring, she had already declared to Susan that her “heart wants more.” Twenty Augusts after they met, Dickinson would write:

Enough is so vast a sweetness, I suppose it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead. The poet’s bedroom — the “chamber facing West” where she composed nearly all of her poetry — is located in the right-hand corner above the porch. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

But when Susan returned from Baltimore on that long-awaited Saturday, something had shifted between them. Perhaps the ten-month absence, filled not with their customary walks in the woods but with letters of exponentially swelling intensity, had revealed to Susan that Emily’s feelings for her were not of a different hue but of a wholly different color — one that she was constitutionally unable to match. Or perhaps Emily had always misdivined the contents of Susan’s heart, inferring an illusory symmetry of feeling on the basis not of evidence but of willfully blind hope.

Few things are more wounding than the confounding moment of discovering an asymmetry of affections where mutuality had been presumed. It is hard to imagine how Dickinson took the withdrawal — here was a woman who experienced the world with a euphoria of emotion atmospheres above the ordinary person’s and who therefore likely plummeted to the opposite extreme in equal magnitude. But she seems to have feared it all along — feared that her immense feelings would never be wholly met, as is the curse of those who love with unguarded abandon. Five months earlier, she had written to Susan:

I would nestle close to your warm heart… Is there any room there for me, or shall I wander away all homeless and alone?

She suspected, too, that she might injure — and not only herself — with the force of her love:

Oh, Susie, I often think that I will try to tell you how dear you are . . . but the words won’t come, tho’ the tears will, and I sit down disappointed… In thinking of those I love, my reason is all gone from me, and I do fear sometimes that I must make a hospital for the hopelessly insane, and chain me up there such times, so I won’t injure you.

Even in her ardent anticipatory letter penned before Susan’s return, she questions for a moment whether the love that stands as the central truth of her daily being is real:

Shall I indeed behold you, not “darkly, but face to face” or am I fancying so, and dreaming blessed dreams from which the day will wake me?

Now she had been awakened — not rudely, but unmistakably and irreversibly. In the anxious insistence of her entreaty is the sorrowful sense that Susan is slipping away from her — and toward Austin, who commenced an open courtship of her.

That summer, Emily Dickinson cut off her auburn hair.

The following autumn, Susan Gilbert married Austin Dickinson, largely to be near Emily, and they moved into the Evergreens — the house erected for the newlyweds by Austin and Emily’s father, across the lawn from the Homestead, the house where the lovesick poet lived.

A corridor denuded of grass soon formed between the Homestead and the Evergreens as Emily and Susan traversed the lawn daily to see each other or to press into the other’s hand a letter unpinned from the bosom of a dress. A “little path just wide enough for two who love,” Dickinson called it. Over the next quarter century, 276 known poems would travel between their homes — some by hand and foot, but many by post. I have often wondered what prompted the poet to head for the mailbox and not the hedge, stuffing her sentiments into an envelope addressed to a house a stone’s throw from her own. And yet the heart is not a stone — it is a thing with feathers.

Emily Dickinson’s porch, facing the Evergreens. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

“She loved with all her might,” a girlhood friend of Dickinson’s would recall after the poet’s death, “and we all knew her truth and trusted her love.” No one knew that love more intimately, nor had reason to trust it more durably, than Susan. Where Austin’s love washed over her with the stormy surface waves of desire, Emily’s carried her with the deep currents of devotion — a love Dickinson would compare to the loves of Dante for Beatrice and Swift for Stella. To Susan, Dickinson would write her most passionate letters and dedicate her best-beloved poems; to Susan she would steady herself, to her shore she would return again and again, writing in the final years of her life:

Show me Eternity, and I will show you Memory —
Both in one package lain
And lifted back again —
Be Sue — while I am Emily —
Be next — what you have ever been — Infinity.

Something of the infinite would always remain between them. Thirty years into the relationship, Susan would give Emily a book for Christmas — Disraeli’s romance novel Endymion, titled after the famous Keats poem that begins with the line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — inscribed to “Emily, Whom not seeing, I still love.”

Some loves lodge themselves in the tissue of being like mercury, pervading every synapse and sinew to remain there, sometimes dormant, sometimes tortuously restive, with a half-life that exceeds a lifetime.

Their uncommon love, the splendors and sorrows of which I explore further in Figuring, would become the pulse-beat of Dickinson’s body of work, which radicalized its era and forever changed the landscape of literature — a shimmering testament to the fact that love, longing, and the restlessness of the human heart are the catalyst for every creative revolution.

BP

Incubation, Ideation, and the Art of Editing: Beethoven on Creativity

“I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down.”

Incubation, Ideation, and the Art of Editing: Beethoven on Creativity

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. “It is strange the way ideas come when they are needed,” the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote nearly two centuries later in his account of the “flash of illumination” by which creative breakthrough occurs. It is a chaotic strangeness familiar to every creative person, be she poet or physicist or composer, and yet we have expended millennia of thought and divination on trying to locate its source and foment its springing.

Again and again, we have arrived at one elemental aspect of it: the necessary period of unconscious incubation by which any creative achievement is hatched. “We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on,” T.S. Eliot wrote of this incubation period. Oliver Sacks enumerated it among the three essential elements of creativity. E.B. White attributed Charlotte’s Web to it.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

A beautiful articulation of both the conscious preparation and the unconscious incubation of creativity comes from Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), as relayed by Johann Aloys Schlösser — a composer about twenty years Beethoven’s junior, who would go on to write the first biography of him. The slim book, published just after Beethoven’s death, was more a work of celebration and commemoration than one of scholarship. Schlösser himself considered it an offering of “love and esteem” for “the master of immortal sound.” But Schlösser had one insurmountable advantage over later biographers — he intersected with Beethoven in time and space, which granted him singular access and insight into the great composer’s character and creative process. The essence of the latter comes alive in one particularly revealing exchange between the two composers, later cited in Life of Beethoven (public library) by the American librarian and journalist Alexander Wheelock Thayer — the first full, scholarly biography of Beethoven, published at the end of the nineteenth century, which set out to fact-check and clear the many romantic myths about the composer that had been circulating in the decades since his death.

Schlösser recounts bringing “a new, somewhat complicated composition” to Beethoven as a young man and asking the master for constructive feedback. After reading it, Beethoven responded with an insightful remark on the art of editing and the life-cycle of creativity:

You give too much, less would have been better; but that lies in the nature of heaven-scaling youth, which never thinks it possible to do enough. It is a fault maturer years will correct, however, and I still prefer a superfluity to a paucity of ideas.

When Schlösser inquired how Beethoven himself managed this intricate dance of calibrating ideas, the elder composer outlined the process of incubation, ideation, and editing by which a great work of art is birthed:

I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. At the same time my memory is so faithful to me that I am sure not to forget a theme which I have once conceived, even after five years have passed. I make many changes, reject and reattempt until I am satisfied. Then the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and see the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all that is left is the work of writing it down.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

And yet Beethoven — who did most of his composing outdoors, jotting down ideas as they occurred to him there, then writing them into scores upon returning to his quarters — acknowledges the essential mystery at the heart of creative work, which no framework or discipline or routine can manufacture. In a sentiment evocative of Charles Bukowski’s ferocious poem “so you want to be a writer,” he writes:

Whence I take my ideas… I cannot say with any degree of certainty; they come to me uninvited, directly, or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands, out in nature’s open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at earliest dawn. They are roused by moods which in the poet’s case are transmuted into words, and in mine into tones, that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes.

Complement with Rilke on the combinatorial nature of creativity and Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on inspiration, then revisit Beethoven on the crucial difference between talent and genius, creative vitality and resilience in the face of suffering, and his advice on being an artist in a touching letter to a little girl who sent him fan mail.

BP

Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

“The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare.”

Art and the Nocturnal Imagination: Painter, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Dreaming and Creativity

Nietzsche saw dreams as an evolutionary time machine for the human mind. Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in one. Mendeleev invented his periodic table in another. Neil Gaiman dreamt his way to a philosophical parable of identity. We are born dreaming. As we go through life, dream-sleep plays plays a major role in regulating our negative emotions.

When we dream, we are our most essential and sovereign selves — our shadows the starkest, our creativity the wildest, and all of it, crucially, ours alone. We build and unravel entire worlds, answering to no one but ourselves — and even that, only hazily. Graham Greene celebrated this sovereignty when he observed in his dream diary that “it can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else.”

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming

We still don’t know exactly why the human animal needs to sleep, much less to dream. But we do know that the mechanism churning our nocturnal fancies is closely related to the faculty we call creativity. Dreams may be the most populist art there is and the wellspring of our most visionary masterpieces.

That is what the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) explores in a few meditative passages from Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library) — the 1986 treasure that gave us Adnan on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

Adnan writes:

I always thought that dreaming was the honor of the human species. The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake. In dreams the mind at last finds its courage: it dares what we do not dare. It also creates: from nightmares to fantastic calculations… and it perceives reality beyond our fuzzy interpretations. In dreams we swim and fly and we are not surprised.

[…]

Dreams spill over on our days. For some people they never stop spilling: the visionaries, the hobos, and all those who speak to themselves, aloud, in the big cities.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Adnan considers the parallels between dreaming and creative work:

Sometimes, while painting, something wild gets unleashed. Something of the process of dreams recurs… but with a special kind of violence: a painting is like a territory. All kinds of things happen within its boundary, equal to the discoveries of the murders or the creations we have in the world outside.

We translate our dreams on paper and cloth, subduing them, most of the time, fearing that moment of truth which has energy enough to blow up the world.

Couple with Adnan on the self and the universe, then revisit Mark Strand’s stunning poem about dreams and Billy Hayes on the science of sleep and sleeplessness.

BP

Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli on Science, Spirit, and Our Search for Meaning

“It is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli on Science, Spirit, and Our Search for Meaning

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer,” physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Niels Bohr observed while contemplating the nature of reality five years after he received the Nobel Prize, adding: “But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Bohr, who introduced the notion of complementarity, went on to influence generations of thinkers, including a number of Nobel laureates. Among them was the Swiss-Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (April 25, 1900–December 15, 1958) — another pioneering figure of particle physics and quantum mechanics. Invested in the conquest of truth at the deepest strata of nature, Pauli took up this question of reality as a physical and metaphysical object of inquiry in a rather improbable arena: his friendship with the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose entire body of work was centered on the conviction that “man cannot stand a meaningless life.”

Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli

Pauli’s longtime correspondence and collaboration with Jung occupies a small but significant portion of Figuring (public library) — an exploration of the tessellated facets of our search for meaning, from which this essay is adapted. Their unlikely friendship, which precipitated the invention of synchronicity, bridged the world of science and the world of spirit, entwining the irrepressible human impulses for finding truth and making meaning — a kind of non-Euclidean intersection of our parallel searches for understanding the reality within and the reality without.

Long before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his exclusion principle — the tenet of quantum physics stating that multiple identical particles within a single quantum system cannot occupy the same quantum state at the same time — and around the time he theorized the neutrino, Pauli was thrust into existential tumult. His mother, to whom he was very close, died by suicide. His tempestuous marriage ended in divorce within a year — a year during which he drowned his unhappiness in alcohol. Caught in the web of drinking and despair, Pauli reached out to Jung for help.

Jung, already deeply influenced by Einstein’s ideas about space and time, was intrigued by his brilliant and troubled correspondent. What began as an intense series of dream analyses unfolded, over the course of the remaining twenty-two years of Pauli’s life, into an exploration of fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality through the dual lens of physics and psychology — a testament to Einstein’s assertion that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Each used the tools of his expertise to shift the shoreline between the known and the unknown, and together they found common ground in the analogy between the atom, with its nucleus and orbiting electrons, and the self, with its central conscious ego and its ambient unconscious.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

While there is a long and lamentable history of science — physics in particular — being hijacked for mystical and New Age ideologies, two things make Jung and Pauli’s collaboration notable. First, the analogies between physics and alchemical symbolism were drawn not only by a serious scientist, but by one who would soon receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Second, the warping of science into pseudoscience and mysticism tends to happen when scientific principles are transposed onto nonscientific domains with a false direct equivalence. Pauli, by contrast, was deliberate in staying at the level of analogy — that is, of conceptual parallels furnishing metaphors for abstract thought that can advance ideas in each of the two disciplines, but with very different concrete application.

Jung had borrowed the word “archetype” from Kepler, drawing on the astronomer’s alchemical symbolism. More than three centuries after Kepler’s alchemy, Pauli’s exclusion principle became the basic organizing principle for the periodic table. The alchemists had been right all along, in a way — they had just been working on the wrong scale: Only at the atomic level can one element become another, in radioactivity and nuclear fission. Even the atom itself had to transcend the problem of scale: The Greek philosopher Democritus theorized atoms in 400 BC, but he couldn’t prove or disprove their existence empirically — a hundred thousand times smaller than anything the naked eye could see, the atom remained invisible. It wasn’t for another twenty-three centuries that we were able to override the problem of scale by the prosthetic extension of our vision, the microscope.

What had originally attracted Pauli to the famous psychiatrist was Jung’s work on symbols and archetypes — a Keplerian obsession that in turn obsessed Pauli, who devoted various essays and lectures to how Kepler’s alchemy and archetypal ideas influenced the visionary astronomer’s science. In physics, he saw numerous analogies to alchemy: In symmetry, he found the archetypal structure of matter and in elementary particles, the substratum of reality that the alchemists had sought; in the spectrograph, which allowed scientists for the first time to study the chemical composition of stars, an analogue of the alchemist’s oven; in probability, which he defined as “the actual correspondence between the expected result… and the empirically measured frequencies,” the mathematical analogue of archetypal numerology.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

But Pauli recognized that the dawn of quantum physics, in which he himself was a leading sun, introduced a new necessity to reconcile different facets of reality. Nearly a century after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — a leading figure in Figuring — asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Pauli reflected in one of his Kepler lectures:

It would be most satisfactory of all if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality. To us [modern scientists], unlike Kepler and Fludd, the only acceptable point of view appears to be one that recognizes both sides of reality — the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical — as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.

[…]

In my own view it is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.

Illustration by Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by Lillian Lieber

Four decades before the revered physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term black hole, made his influential assertion that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Pauli wrote to Jung:

Modern [particle physics] turns the observer once again into a little lord of creation in his microcosm, with the ability (at least partially) of freedom of choice and fundamentally uncontrollable effects on that which is being observed. But if these phenomena are dependent on how (with what experimental system) they are observed, then is it not possible that they are also phenomena (extra corpus) that depend on who observes them (i.e., on the nature of the psyche of the observer)? And if natural science, in pursuit of the ideal of determinism since Newton, has finally arrived at the stage of the fundamental “perhaps” of the statistical character of natural laws… then should there not be enough room for all those oddities that ultimately rob the distinction between “physics” and “psyche” of all its meaning?

And yet Pauli was careful to recognize that “although [particle physics] allows for an acausal form of observation, it actually has no use for the concept of ‘meaning’” — that is, meaning is not a fundamental function of reality but an interpretation superimposed by the human observer.

Complement with Carl Sagan on science and spirituality and Einstein’s historic conversation with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, then revisit other excerpts from Figuring: Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.

BP

Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species

Potoroos, birds of paradise, variegated lizards, and other wondrous creatures brought to vibrant life by a visionary woman in the golden age of scientific exploration.

Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species

A century before Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter revolutionized mycology with her groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which she was banned from presenting at London’s Linnaean Society on account of her gender, another Englishwoman of uncommon acumen overrode the limitations of her time and place to become one of the most esteemed natural history illustrators in human history with her drawings of Pacific, African, American, and Australian fauna.

Sarah Stone (1760–1844) began painting professionally at the age of seventeen. Although she learned her outstanding coloring skills from her father — a fan painter — she was largely self-taught in her draughtsmanship technique. At only twenty-one, she was invited to exhibit four of her paintings — a peacock, two other birds, and a set of seashells — at the Royal Academy, closed to women at the time. Like trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who became the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with a certificate on which the word “Fellow” was crossed out and “an Honorary Member” was inscribed above it in pencil, Stone was admitted as an “Honorary Exhibitor.” (There is something crushing about the “honor” of being temporarily exempted from millennia of baseline dishonor bestowed upon all the rest of one’s kind, all the rest of the time.)

“Blue-Bellied Parrot.” Available as a print.
“Ribbon Lizard and Broad-tailed Lizard.” Available as a print.
“Cassowary of New South Wales.” Available as a print.

Stone was still in her late teens when commissions from prominent collectors flooded in — most notably, from Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate the objects in his famed natural history and ethnography museum, the Holophusikon, including curiosities Captain Cook had brought back from his historic voyages. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales and did for the animals of Australia what Maria Merian had done for the butterflies of South America in the previous century.

“Pennantian Parrot.” Available as a print.
“Pennantian Parrot, female.” Available as a print.
“Snake No. 1.” Available as a print.
“Snake No. 2.” Available as a print.

With extraordinary draughtsmanship, she painted animals she had never seen alive, native to places she had never been herself — the invention of photography was still more than half a century away, and exotic travel was available only to the wealthy and to the men of science voyaging on expeditions. (It would be several decades until the word scientist was coined for mathematician Mary Somerville, replacing man of science.) Stone’s stunning depictions of parrots, serpents, fishes, marsupials, and other living wonders of the natural world were drawn from her science-informed imagination — sometimes from specimens brought back to England, sometimes entirely from the field notes of scientists on the exploring expeditions.

“Banksian Cockatoo.” Available as a print.
“The Crested Cockatoo.” Available as a print.
Snakes. Available as a print.
“Great Brown King’s Fisher.” Available as a print.
“Sacred King’s Fisher.” Available as a print.
“The Pungent Chatedon and Granulated Balistes.” Available as a print.

In this golden age of scientific discovery, vast audiences poured into the Leverian Museum to savor the splendors of faraway fauna, transported by Stone’s drawings. A number of them are the first studies of the respective species, granting them a singular place in the social history of natural history. Some of them depict species now entirely extinct or gravely endangered, like the potoroo — a marsupial the size of a rabbit, with the posture of a kangaroo. Others portray strange, wondrous, and wondrously named creatures like the bird of paradise, the variegated lizard, and the doubtful sparus.

“A Poto Roo.” Available as a print.
“The Variegated Lizard.” Available as a print.
“White-Jointed Spider.” Available as a print.
“Fasciated Mullet and Doubtful Sparus.” Available as a print.
Fish and sea horse. Available as a print.
“The Fabian Parrot, female.” Available as a print.

As a child, Stone had learned a kind of folk chemistry, sourcing her pigments from local plants and household materials — brickdust, flower petals, the juices of leaves. When she became a professional painter, this awareness of pigment properties enabled her to choose colors she trusted to stand the assault of time more durably — striking colors like Chinese white, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow — which in turn lent her art an uncommon vibrancy.

“The Red-Shouldered Paroquet.” Available as a print.
“Superb Warblers”
“The White Fulica.” Available as a print.
“New Holland Creeper.” Available as a print.
Snake and Muricated lizard. Available as a print.
“The Shine-formed Lizard.” Available as a print.
“A Tapoa Tafa.” [brush-tailed phascogale]
“Snake No. 5.” Available as a print.
“The White Vented Crow.”
“The White Hawke”
“Yellow-Eared Fly Catcher”
“Golden-Winged Pigeon”
“Anamolous Hornbill”
“The Wattled Bee-Eater, female”

After her marriage in 1789, Stone began signing her art “Mrs. Smith.” In the first half of the 1790s, drawings of Lever’s collection — hers, as well as other artists’ — were published in the monograph Museum Leverianum, edited by the physician and Royal Society Fellow George Shaw, who labeled and described the specimens. (Stone’s art from the volume is sometimes misattributed to Shaw, who was not an artist.)

“The Greater Paradise Bird” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Rock Manakin” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Chameleon” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Splendid Parrot” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.

Little is known about Stone’s life. From her prolific body of work, only about 900 drawings survive, collected and contextualized in Christine Jackson’s noteworthy monograph Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds (public library).

Complement with the 17th-century astronomical art of Maria Clara Eimmart and the pioneering sea algae cyanotypes of Anna Atkins — the world’s first known woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images — then revisit these masterpieces of natural history illustration, drawn from the rare book collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

BP

These Truths: Jill Lepore on How the Shift from Mythology to Science Shaped the Early Dream of Democracy

“The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.”

These Truths: Jill Lepore on How the Shift from Mythology to Science Shaped the Early Dream of Democracy

“Between those happenings that prefigure it / And those that happen in its anamnesis / Occurs the Event, but that no human wit / Can recognize until all happening ceases,” W.H. Auden wrote in considering the selective set of remembrances and interpretations we call history. The trouble with the universe, of course, is that happening never ceases — at least not until the final whimper. In the meantime, we are left to fathom and figure the ongoingness of events, situating ourselves between a nebulous past and an uncertain future. “We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum,” Susan Sontag observed in the same bygone slice of ongoingness that Auden inhabited. “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”

We try to render our existence a little less precarious and a little more relevant by mooring ourselves to the truth of what happened, what matters, and why, only ever attaining a makeshift understanding of that truth. And though it may be that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — or perhaps precisely because it is so — a robust understanding of history, with its truths and its biases, is central to our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. It is also imperative for a future that mends the mistakes of the past — for, as James Baldwin so memorably observed, “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Such a transformative understanding is what historian Jill Lepore furnishes in These Truths: A History of the United States (public library) — a masterwork of poetic scholarship that stands as one of the most compelling and captivating books I have ever read.

Alice's Evidence
“‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.” Alice’s Evidence — art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

With uncommon intellectual elegance, Lepore explores the intertwined sinews of democracy’s making and unmaking: technology as a tool that encodes both the ideals and the biases of its society; the heroisms of thought and action that chipped away at the monolith of injustice upon which the nation was founded; the market manipulations and professionalized preying on the human animal’s weaknesses that gave rise to consumerism and public relations and “fake news” and the NRA. Emanating from these pages is a reminder that the history of the United States is a history of bias and brutality and hubris, but it is also a history of idealism and hard work and soaring optimism. What emerges is an invitation to regard these tessellated truths and conflicting motive forces with an equanimous understanding that can inform a juster, more beautiful, and less conflicted future.

Lepore writes in the preface:

The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. This was all true until one day, Tuesday, October 30, 1787, when readers of a newspaper called the New-York Packet found on the front page an advertisement for an almanac that came bound with tables predicting the “Rising and Setting of the Sun,” the “Judgment of the Weather,” the “Length of Days and Nights,” and, as a bonus, something entirely new: the Constitution of the United States, forty-four hundred words that attempted to chart the motions of the branches of government and the separation of their powers as if these were matters of physics, like the transit of the sun and moon and the comings and goings of the tides. It was meant to mark the start of a new era, in which the course of history might be made predictable and a government established that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice. The origins of that idea, and its fate, are the story of American history.

The Constitution entailed both toil and argument. Knee-breeched, sweat-drenched delegates to the constitutional convention had met all summer in Philadelphia in a swelter of secrecy, the windows of their debating hall nailed shut against eavesdroppers. By the middle of September, they’d drafted a proposal written on four pages of parchment. They sent that draft to printers who set the type of its soaring preamble with a giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw.

Radiating from the four pages that begin with “We the people” are eternal, elemental questions about how our noblest aspirations measure up against the limitations of human nature and its social scaffolding:

Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?

Art by Maira Kalman from And the Pursuit of Happiness

These questions could only be answered empirically, in the grand experiment of American democracy, in a laboratory operated by “the people.” A century into the experiment, with the beaker of conscientious citizenship in hand, Walt Whitman would contemplate his country’s “democratic vistas” and issue a prescient admonition: “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.” Lepore considers the foundational hedge against downfall and ruin, encoded in the country’s birth and its ancient heritage stretching back to bygone civilizations whose failed experiments fertilized the soil of the New World:

The American experiment rests on three political ideas — “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Half a century after the brilliant mathematician Lillian Lieber bridged Euclidean geometry and the American Constitution to extract a set of postulates of democracy, Lepore adds:

The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.

Art by Maira Kalman from Bold & Brave

Central to this new way of apprehending truth was a shift in the understanding of the past — a shift away from unexamined mythology and toward the reasoned probing of collective memory we call history; a shift from mysticism to critical thinking. Lepore writes:

Understanding history as a form of inquiry — not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting — was central to the nation’s founding… Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered.

[…]

This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions — the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran — are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them — with evidence.

Arising from this notion is a reminder that all cultural history is inevitably a history of science, which is the history of human thought and the mind’s insatiable hunger to know reality. “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us,” Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer — wrote a century after her country’s founding as she contemplated our abiding search for truth, “and the more we gain, the more is our desire.” In consonance with Carl Sagan insisted that science is a tool of democracy that “provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes,” Lepore considers the crucial role of the scientific mindset in the origins of American democracy:

Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?

The verdict hinges on complex calculus, with variables yet to be weighed and factors yet to be computed. One thing is certain — the future may be unknown, but the past is at last partly knowable, and there is a moral imperative to its knowledge that must be embraced with full responsibility if we are to meet the future with more than mere hope. Lepore writes:

The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the dead.

[…]

The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.

Lepore examines the myriad elements of this ongoing experiment in the remainder of These Truths — one of those rare books that crown the explainer-elucidator-enchanter hierarchy of nonfiction, a book revelatory and replete with insight even for those of us who are not American. Complement it with Walt Whitman — the poet laureate of democracy — on optimism as a force of resistance and Hannah Arendt on action and the pursuit of happiness.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy.