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Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

“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.”

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

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.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

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, “and occasion for unselfing.”

At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.

from “CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY”
by Walt Whitman

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.

For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

The Otherworldly Beauty of Jellyfish: How Ernst Haeckel Turned Personal Tragedy into Transcendent Art in the World’s First Encyclopedia of Medusae

A story of transmuting the grief of one life into a celebration of the grandeur of Life.

The Otherworldly Beauty of Jellyfish: How Ernst Haeckel Turned Personal Tragedy into Transcendent Art in the World’s First Encyclopedia of Medusae

“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.

Anna Sethe and Ernst Haeckel shortly before her death.

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.

Thamnostylus Dinema (available as a print)

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.

Aequorea, Orchistoma, Zycocanna, Olindias (available as a print)
Pectyllis Arctica (available as a print)
Polybostricha (available as a print)

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.

Dipurena, Euphysa, Steenstupia (available as a print)
Cannorhiza, Versura (available as a print)

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 (available as a print)

A generation before his marine biology colleague and compatriot Carl Chun hired an artist to illustrate the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Haeckel himself illustrated the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea jellyfish — a multi-part catalogue of more than six hundred medusa species. Tucked into his otherwise coolly scientific prose is a deeply personal ember of his grief:

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…

Ulmaris, Undosa, Aurosa (available as a print)
Floscula, Floresca (available as a print)
Cunarcha Aeginoides (available as a print)
Ephyra, Palephyra, Zonephyra, Nausicaa (available as a print)
Pectis Antarctica (available as a print)
Polycolpa Forskalii (available as a print)
Tesserantha Connectens (available as a print)
Periphylla Mirabilis (available as a print)
Leonura Terminalis (available as a print)
Tetranema, Dissonema, Thaumantias, Cosmetira, Melicertella, Polyorchis (available as a print)
Tessera, Depastrella (available as a print)
Pericolpa (available as a print)
Periphylla (available as a print)

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.

Codonium, Sarsia, Dicodonium, Amphicodon, Amalthaea (available as a print)
Drymonema Victoria (available as a print)

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.

Pteronema, Gemmaria, Ctenaria, Dendronema (available as a print)

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.”

Pectanthis Asteroides (available as a print)
BP

An Antidote to Helplessness and Disorientation: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on Our Human Fragility as the Key to Our Survival and Our Sanity

“Only through full awareness of the danger to life can this potential be mobilized for action capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing society.”

An Antidote to Helplessness and Disorientation: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on Our Human Fragility as the Key to Our Survival and Our Sanity

To be human is to be a miracle of evolution conscious of its own miraculousness — a consciousness beautiful and bittersweet, for we have paid for it with a parallel awareness not only of our fundamental improbability but of our staggering fragility, of how physiologically precarious our survival is and how psychologically vulnerable our sanity. To make that awareness bearable, we have evolved a singular faculty that might just be the crowning miracle of our consciousness: hope.

Hope — and the wise, effective action that can spring from it — is the counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility. It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes.

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

How to harness that uniquely human paradox in living more empowered lives in even the most vulnerable-making circumstances is what the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in the 1968 gem The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (public library), written in an era when both hope and fear were at a global high, by a German Jew who had narrowly escaped a dismal fate by taking refuge first in Switzerland and then in America when the Nazis seized power.

Erich Fromm

In a sentiment he would later develop in contemplating the superior alternative to the parallel lazinesses of optimism and pessimism, Fromm writes:

Hope is a decisive element in any attempt to bring about social change in the direction of greater aliveness, awareness, and reason. But the nature of hope is often misunderstood and confused with attitudes that have nothing to do with hope and in fact are the very opposite.

Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene made his poetic case for our sense of mortality as the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives, Fromm argues that our capacity for hope — which has furnished the greatest achievements of our species — is rooted in our vulnerable self-consciousness. Writing well before Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, Fromm (and all of his contemporaries and predecessors, male and female, trapped in the linguistic convention of their time) may be forgiven for using man as shorthand for the generalized human being:

Man, lacking the instinctual equipment of the animal, is not as well equipped for flight or for attack as animals are. He does not “know” infallibly, as the salmon knows where to return to the river in order to spawn its young and as many birds know where to go south in the winter and where to return in the summer. His decisions are not made for him by instinct. He has to make them. He is faced with alternatives and there is a risk of failure in every decision he makes. The price that man pays for consciousness is insecurity. He can stand his insecurity by being aware and accepting the human condition, and by the hope that he will not fail even though he has no guarantee for success. He has no certainty; the only certain prediction he can make is: “I shall die.”

What makes us human is not the fact of that elemental vulnerability, which we share with all other living creatures, but the awareness of that fact — the way existential uncertainty worms the consciousness capable of grasping it. But in that singular fragility lies, also, our singular resilience as thinking, feeling animals capable of foresight and of intelligent, sensitive decision-making along the vectors of that foresight.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print.)

Fromm writes:

Man is born as a freak of nature, being within nature and yet transcending it. He has to find principles of action and decision making which replace the principles of instinct. He has to have a frame of orientation that permits him to organize a consistent picture of the world as a condition for consistent actions. He has to fight not only against the dangers of dying, starving, and being hurt, but also against another danger that is specifically human: that of becoming insane. In other words, he has to protect himself not only against the danger of losing his life but also against the danger of losing his mind. The human being, born under the conditions described here, would indeed go mad if he did not find a frame of reference which permitted him to feel at home in the world in some form and to escape the experience of utter helplessness, disorientation, and uprootedness. There are many ways in which man can find a solution to the task of staying alive and of remaining sane. Some are better than others and some are worse. By “better” is meant a way conducive to greater strength, clarity, joy, independence; and by “worse” the very opposite. But more important than finding the better solution is finding some solution that is viable.

Art by Pascal Lemaître from Listen by Holly M. McGhee

As we navigate our own uncertain times together, may a thousand flowers of sanity bloom, each valid so long as it is viable in buoying the human spirit it animates. And may we remember the myriad terrors and uncertainties preceding our own, which have served as unexpected awakenings from some of our most perilous civilizational slumbers. Fromm — who devoted his life to illuminating the inner landscape of the individual human being as the tectonic foundation of the political topography of the world — composed this book during the 1968 American Presidential election. He was aglow with hope that the unlikely ascent of an obscure, idealistic, poetically inclined Senator from Minnesota by the name of Eugene McCarthy (not to be confused with the infamous Joseph McCarthy, who stood for just about everything opposite) might steer the country toward precisely such pathways to “greater strength, clarity, joy, independence.”

McCarthy lost — to none other than Nixon — and the country plummeted into more war, more extractionism, more reactionary nationalism and bigotry. But the very rise of that unlikely candidate contoured hopes undared before — hopes some of which have since become reality and others have clarified our most urgent work as a society and a species. Fromm writes:

A man who was hardly known before, one who is the opposite of the typical politician, averse to appealing on the basis of sentimentality or demagoguery, truly opposed to the Vietnam War, succeeded in winning the approval and even the most enthusiastic acclaim of a large segment of the population, reaching from the radical youth, hippies, intellectuals, to liberals of the upper middle classes. This was a crusade without precedent in America, and it was something short of a miracle that this professor-Senator, a devotee of poetry and philosophy, could become a serious contender for the Presidency. It proved that a large segment of the American population is ready and eager for Humanization… indicating that hope and the will for change are alive.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Having given reign to his own hope and will for change in this book “appealing to the love for life (biophilia) that still exists in many of us,” Fromm reflects on a universal motive force of resilience and change:

Only through full awareness of the danger to life can this potential be mobilized for action capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing society… One cannot think in terms of percentages or probabilities as long as there is a real possibility — even a slight one — that life will prevail.

Complement The Revolution of Hope — an indispensable treasure rediscovered half a century after its publication and republished in 2010 by the American Mental Health Foundation — with Fromm on spontaneity, the art of living, the art of loving, the art of listening, and why self-love is the key to a sane society, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and Rebecca Solnit on the real meaning of hope in difficult times.

BP

Rebecca Solnit on Growing Up, Growing Whole, and How We Compose Ourselves

“Growing up, we say, as though we were trees, as though altitude was all that there was to be gained, but so much of the process is growing whole as the fragments are gathered, the patterns found.”

Rebecca Solnit on Growing Up, Growing Whole, and How We Compose Ourselves

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” Maya Angelou wrote in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had. “We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” In that same cultural season, from a college commencement stage, Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings that “true adulthood is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory.”

It is tempting, for it is flattering, to think of ourselves as trees — as firmly rooted and resolutely upward bound; as creatures destined, in Mary Oliver’s lovely words, “to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.” But even if the highest compliment a great poet can pay a great woman is to celebrate her as a human tree, we are not trees — we don’t branch and root from a single point, we don’t grow linearly; we disbark ourselves at will, at the flash and flutter of a heart, self-grafting every love and loss we live through; our growth-rings are often ungirdled by self-doubt, by regress, by the fits and starts by which we become who and what we are: fragmentary but indivisible. The difficulty of growing up, the hard-won glory of it, lies in the self-tessellation.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

That is what Rebecca Solnit explores in a passage from Recollections of My Nonexistence (public library) — her splendid memoir of longings and determinations, of resistances and revolutions, personal and political, illuminating the kiln in which one of the boldest, most original minds of our time was annealed.

Three quarters into the book and half a lifetime into her becoming, Solnit writes:

Growing up, we say, as though we were trees, as though altitude was all that there was to be gained, but so much of the process is growing whole as the fragments are gathered, the patterns found. Human infants are born with craniums made up of four plates that have not yet knit together into a solid dome so that their heads can compress to fit through the birth canal, so that the brain within can then expand. The seams of these plates are intricate, like fingers interlaced, like the meander of arctic rivers across tundra.

The skull quadruples in size in the first few years, and if the bones knit together too soon, they restrict the growth of the brain; and if they don’t knit at all the brain remains unprotected. Open enough to grow and closed enough to hold together is what a life must also be. We collage ourselves into being, finding the pieces of a worldview and people to love and reasons to live and then integrate them into a whole, a life consistent with its beliefs and desires, at least if we’re lucky.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. Available as a print

Complement this fragment of Solnit’s wholly vitalizing Recollections of My Nonexistence with philosopher Alain de Botton on the measure of existential maturity and poet Ross Gay on what it means to grow up, then revisit Solnit’s increasingly timely antidote to the defeatism of despair in difficult times and her wonderful letter to children about reading as self-creation and self-consolation.

BP

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