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The Courage to Be Yourself: E.E. Cummings on Art, Life, and Being Unafraid to Feel

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” wrote the thirty-year-old Nietzsche. “The true and durable path into and through experience,” Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney counseled the young more than a century later in his magnificent commencement address, “involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”

Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs. Some of this belief stems from the habitual conceit of a culture blinded by its own presentism bias, ignorant of the past’s contextual analogues. But much of it in the century and a half since Nietzsche, and especially in the years since Heaney, is an accurate reflection of the conditions we have created and continually reinforce in our present informational ecosystem — a Pavlovian system of constant feedback, in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.

E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)
E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)

Few people in the two centuries since Emerson issued his exhortation to “trust thyself” have countered this culturally condoned blunting of individuality more courageously and consistently than E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962) — an artist who never cowered from being his unconventional self because, in the words of his most incisive and competent biographer, he “despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”

A fortnight after the poet’s fifty-ninth birthday, a small Michigan newspaper published a short, enormous piece by Cummings under the title “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” radiating expansive wisdom on art, life, and the courage of being yourself. It went on to inspire Buckminster Fuller and was later included in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — that wonderful out-of-print collection which the poet himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays,” and which gave us Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, an illustrated tribute to E.E. Cummings

Addressing those who aspire to be poets — no doubt in that broadest Baldwinian sense of wakeful artists in any medium and courageous seers of human truth — Cummings echoes the poet Laura Riding’s exquisite letters to an eight-year-old girl about being oneself and writes:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

Page from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess

Cummings should know — just four years earlier, he had fought that hardest battle himself: When he was awarded the prestigious Academy of American Poets annual fellowship — the MacArthur of poetry — Cummings had to withstand harsh criticism from traditionalists who besieged him with hate for the bravery of breaking with tradition and being nobody-but-himself in his art. With an eye to that unassailable creative integrity buoyed by relentless work ethic, he adds:

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

Complement the thoroughly invigorating E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised with a lovely illustrated celebration of Cummings’s creative bravery, then revisit Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren on what it really means to find yourself and Janis Joplin on the courage of being what you find.

BP

Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“The universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” the trailblazing astronomer and leading Figuring figure Maria Mitchell wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century as she contemplated science, spirituality, and the human hunger for truth. Every great scientist in the century and a half since has been faced with this question, be it by personal restlessness or public demand. Einstein addressed it in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray. Quantum theory originator Max Planck believed that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” His fellow Nobel laureate and quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr defied the sentiment in his incisive distinction between subjective and objective reality, noting that religions have always addressed the former, while science addresses the latter, which is measurable and therefore knowable. Wolfgang Pauli, whose groundbreaking scientific ideas were greatly influenced by Bohr’s, concluded that the effort to reconcile science and religion “will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it.

That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:

For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.

With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:

I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.

[…]

One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.

I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.

Illustration by Garry Parsons from George’s Secret Key to the Universe — Hawking’s children’s book, co-written with his daughter.

But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

[…]

Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances.

The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.

So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.

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

The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it.

Half a century after Nabokov’s poetic admonition against common sense, Hawking echoes Carl Sagan’s observation that common sense can blind us to the realities of the universe and addresses this deeply counterintuitive notion of generating something out of nothing:

As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.”

To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space.

So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.

This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:

Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.

Another painting by Francisco de Holanda from Cosmigraphics.

Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:

Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.

This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:

Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.

To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.

[…]

As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.

Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:

It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Rather than dispiriting, this lucid awareness of our ephemerality can be the wellspring of our noblest, most deeply spiritual and spiritualizing impulses — a catalyst for finding holiness in the richness of life itself, in the splendor of this peculiar and irreplaceable planet, rooted in the awareness that, in the poetic words of naturalist Sy Montgomery, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.” Hawking channels this orientation of mind and spirit in a stirring passage from the book’s introduction:

One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.

Complement this particular portion of Hawking’s altogether magnificent Brief Answers to the Big Questions with Carl Sagan on science and mystery, Alan Lightman on nonreligious divinity in the known and the unknowable, and Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of “The Lord’s Prayer,” then revisit poet Marie Howe’s gorgeous tribute to Hawking.

BP

The Conflicted Love Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller: How an Intense Unclassifiable Relationship Shaped the History of Modern Thought

We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.

The Conflicted Love Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller: How an Intense Unclassifiable Relationship Shaped the History of Modern Thought

“I had seen the Universe,” the revolutionary education reformer and entrepreneur Elizabeth Peabody recalled of first meeting the adolescent Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850), who had already mastered Latin, French, Italian, Greek, and pure mathematics, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning just for mental discipline. “I am determined on distinction,” Fuller wrote to her former teacher at fifteen. By thirty, this fierce determination would establish her as the most erudite woman in America.

In Fuller’s twenty-fifth year, she met the person with whom she would form her most intense lifelong bond and who would in turn come to consider her his greatest influence: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882). “She bound in the belt of her sympathy and friendship all whom I know and love,” he would write upon her tragic and untimely death. “Her heart, which few knew, was as great as her mind, which all knew.” Occupying a significant portion of Figuring, from which this essay is adapted, Emerson and Fuller’s bond would challenge conventional relationship categories and shape the foundational philosophical, political, and aesthetic ideas and ideals of contemporary culture.

Immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of liberal New England, Fuller had long yearned to know the man revered as the country’s most daring intellect. But it was Emerson who made the first overture to the young woman whose reputation had rippled to Concord. He asked Elizabeth Peabody for a formal introduction. In early 1835, Peabody arranged for her young friend to visit Emerson in his home.

At first jarred by Fuller’s freely expressed strong opinions and lack of deference, Emerson was eventually won over — quite possibly by a poem she had recently written and published in a Boston newspaper, under the near-anonymous byline “F,” elegizing the death of Emerson’s beloved younger brother; or possibly by her countercultural proclamation that “all the marriages she knew were a mutual degradation,” which Waldo — as the Sage of Concord was known to his intimates — later reported to Peabody. He affirmed her admiration for Fuller’s intellect, writing that “she has the quickest apprehension.” Within two years, Fuller would become the first woman to attend Emerson’s all-male Transcendental Club — an occasional gathering of like-minded liberals, in which even Peabody was not included, despite the fact that she had coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England.

But Margaret and Waldo’s initial meeting of minds soon became a contact point magnetized by something beyond the intellect — something she hoped, at least for a while, would propel each toward the “fulness of being” she held up as the ultimate aim of existence, something that would prompt him to shudder in the pages of his journal: “There is no terror like that of being known.”

One of Arthur Rackham’s 1926 illustrations for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In 1839, having used her meager earnings as a teacher and writer to put her younger brothers through Harvard — an institution closed to women — Fuller founded a groundbreaking series of “Conversations” for women, which would seed the ideas harvested by the feminist movement of the twentieth century. Held at Elizabeth Peabody’s house in Boston on the mornings of Emerson’s successful Wednesday evening lectures, so that commuters could attend both in a single trip, these conversational salons explored subjects ranging from education to ethics, with session titles like “Influence,” “Mistakes,” “Creeds,” “The Ideal,” and “Persons Who Never Awake to Life in This World.”

After the staggering success of the first gathering, when a small group of Transcendentalists set out to do in print what Fuller was doing in conversation, Emerson proposed her for the editorship of a new periodical, promising her a share of the proceeds large enough to alleviate her ongoing financial struggles. Fuller accepted. They called this unexampled journal The Dial — the title that cofounder Bronson Alcott had given to his daily log of sayings by his two young daughters, Anna and Louisa May. Nothing like it had existed before — it was America’s first truly independent magazine, unaffiliated with any university or church, devoted not to a religious ideology or a single genre of literature, but to a kaleidoscope of intellectual and creative curiosity: philosophy, poetry, art, science, law, criticism. A century and a half before the TED conference claimed “ideas worth spreading” as a motto, Emerson envisioned The Dial as precisely that — a publication “so broad & great in its survey that it should lead the opinion of this generation on every great interest,” a sort of manual on “the whole Art of Living.” Fuller aimed even higher. On the prospectus printed on the back of the inaugural issue, published on July 4, 1840 — just after her thirtieth birthday — she vowed to aim “not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and more nobly, by letting him see how some minds are kept alive by a peculiar self-trust.”

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In the course of their professional collaboration, Margaret and Waldo’s relationship swelled with complexity that strained the boundaries of friendship, of soul kinship, even of intellectual infatuation.

Waldo, sorrowing in an intellectually unriveting marriage, bonded with Margaret in a way that he would with no one else — not even his wife and children. “Most of the persons whom I see in my own house I see across a gulf,” he anguished in his own journal. “I cannot go to them nor they come to me.” He and Margaret found themselves on one side of an invisible wall, the rest of the world on the other. But neither knew what to make of this uncommon bond that didn’t conform to any existing template. The richest relationships are often those that don’t fit neatly into the preconceived slots we have made for the archetypes we imagine would populate our lives — the friend, the lover, the parent, the sibling, the mentor, the muse. We meet people who belong to no single slot, who figure into multiple categories at different times and in different magnitudes. We then must either stretch ourselves to create new slots shaped after these singular relationships, enduring the growing pains of self-expansion, or petrify.

Margaret Fuller experienced friendship and romance much as she did male and female — in a nonbinary way. A century before Virginia Woolf subverted the millennia-old cultural rhetoric of gender with her assertion that “in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” making her case for the androgynous mind as the best possible mind, “resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided,” Fuller denounced the dualism of gender and insisted that “there is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” The boundary, she argued far ahead of Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking Woman in the Nineteenth Century, is indeed porous, so that a kind of ongoing transmutation takes place: “Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid” as male and female “are perpetually passing into one another.” Fuller was highly discriminating about her intimate relationships, but once she admitted another into the innermost chambers of her being, she demanded of them nothing less than everything — having tasted Goethe’s notion of “the All,” why salivate over mere fragments of feeling?

But this boundless and all-consuming emotional intensity eventually repelled its objects — a parade of brilliant and beautiful men and women, none of whom could fully understand it, much less reciprocate it. Hers was a diamagnetic being, endowed with nonbinary magnetism yet repelling by both poles. Falling back on his trustiest faculty, Waldo tried to reason his way out of the emotional disorientation of his complex relationship with Margaret:

I would that I could, I know afar off that I cannot, give the lights and shades, the hopes and outlooks that come to me in these strange, cold-warm, attractive-repelling conversations with Margaret, whom I always admire, most revere when I nearest see, and sometimes love, — yet whom I freeze, and who freezes me to silence, when we seem to promise to come nearest.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

To hold space for complexity, to resist the violence of containing and classifying what transcends familiar labels, takes patience and a certain kind of moral courage, which Waldo seemed unable — or unwilling — to conjure up. “O divine mermaid or fisher of men, to whom all gods have given the witch-hazel-wand… I am yours & yours shall be,” he told Margaret in a letter in the early autumn of 1840. But the following day, he lashed out in his journal, writing at Margaret what he wouldn’t write to her:

You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought & said?… I see no possibility of loving any thing but what now is, & is becoming; your courage, your enterprize, your budding affection, your opening thought, your prayer, I can love, — but what else?

This false notion of the body as the testing ground for intimacy has long warped our understanding of what constitutes a romantic relationship. The measure of intimacy is not the quotient of friction between skin and skin, but something else entirely — something of the love and trust, the joy and ease that flow between two people as they inhabit that private world walled off from everything and everyone else.

Perhaps Waldo did recognize that he and Margaret had an undeniable intimate partnership, and it was this very recognition that made him bristle at the sense of being coerced into coupledom. He was, after all, the poet laureate of self-reliance, who believed that for the independent man “the Universe is his bride.” And yet, although he experienced himself as an individual, he had somehow conceded to the union of marriage and wedded a human bride — one who had grown to depend on him for her emotional well-being, which Waldo now experienced as a dead weight. He called it a “Mezentian marriage” — a grim allusion to the Roman myth of the cruel King Mezentius, known for tying men face-to-face with corpses and leaving them to die. He raged in his journal:

Marriage is not ideal but empirical. It is not the plan or prospect of the soul, this fast union of one to one; the soul is alone… It is itself the universe & must realize its progress in ten thousand beloved forms & not in one.

Margaret, too, tried to figure the form of their relationship. She wrote to Waldo with unprecedented candor, accusing him of being unclear in his feelings for her and commanding him to clarify where he stood, with an awareness that she might be yearning for more from him than he could ever give her:

We are to be much to one another. How often have I left you despairing and forlorn. How often have I said, this light will never understand my fire; this clear eye will never discern the law by which I am filling my circle; this simple force will never interpret my need to manifold being.

Acknowledging the agitation that bedeviled them both as they tried to make sense of their relationship, she promised that “this darting motion, this restless flame shall yet be attempered and subdued.” She sensed between them an infinite possibility, but “the sense of the infinite exhausts and exalts; it cannot therefore possess me wholly.” The paradox, of course, is that there is always something irresistibly vitalizing about our irresolvable passions, about that which we can never fully possess nor can fully possess us — some potent antidote to the wearying monotony of our settled possessions. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson would write in one of his most famous essays, published just a few months later, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” For now, he painted the dark contours of this recognition in his journal: “Between narrow walls we walk: insanity on one side, & fat dulness on the other.” Margaret, sensing the bipolar pull of his desires, demanded that he choose a pole:

Did not you ask for a “foe” in your friend? Did not you ask for a “large and formidable nature”? But a beautiful foe, I am not yet, to you. Shall I ever be? I know not.

And yet she told Waldo that with him alone she felt “so at home” that she couldn’t imagine finding another love as quenching: “I know not how again to wander and grope, seeking my place in another Soul.”

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1975 edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

But Emerson was not looking to be “at home” in anyone other than himself. Already feeling his independent nature stifled by his marriage, he could not — would not — let himself be trapped in a second relationship, his soul cemented and Mezented with a second weight of expectations. After nearly a month of stupefied silence, he finally responded to Margaret in a lengthy and conflicted letter:

My dear Margaret,

I have your frank & noble & affecting letter, and yet I think I could wish it unwritten. I ought never to have suffered you to lead me into any conversation or writing on our relation, a topic from which with all my persons my Genius ever sternly warns me away. I was content & happy to meet on a human footing a woman of sense & sentiment with whom one could exchange reasonable words & go away assured that wherever she went there was light & force & honour. That is to me a solid good; it gives value to thought & the day; it redeems society from that foggy & misty aspect it wears so often seen from our retirements; it is the foundation of everlasting friendship. Touch it not — speak not of it — and this most welcome natural alliance becomes from month to month, — & the slower & with the more intervals the better, — our air & diet. A robust & total understanding grows up resembling nothing so much as the relation of brothers who are intimate & perfect friends without having ever spoken of the fact. But tell me that I am cold or unkind, and in my most flowing state I become a cake of ice. I feel the crystals shoot & drops solidify. It may do for others but it is not for me to bring the relation to speech… Ask me what I think of you & me, — & I am put to confusion.

Four days earlier, he had entreated her: “Give me a look through your telescope or you one through mine; — an all explaining look.” Now he argues that they can neither be fully explained to the other, nor fully seen — they are as constitutionally different as if they “had been born & bred in different nations.” Inverting Margaret’s accusation of his withholding, he points out her own opacity:

You say you understand me wholly. You cannot communicate yourself to me. I hear the words sometimes but remain a stranger to your state of mind.

Yet we are all the time a little nearer. I honor you for a brave & beneficent woman and mark with gladness your steadfast good will to me. I see not how we can bear each other anything else than good will.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

This undulating emotional confusion runs through the entire letter as Waldo struggles to reconcile his seemingly irreconcilable desires — not to lose his uncommon and electrifying bond with Margaret, but not to be trapped in bondage. He tells her that a “vast & beautiful Power” has brought them into each other’s lives and likens them to two stars shining together in a single constellation. He urges her to let things be as they have been, to savor their uncommon connection without demanding more:

Let us live as we have always done, only ever better, I hope, & richer. Speak to me of every thing but myself & I will endeavor to make an intelligible reply. Allow me to serve you & you will do me a kindness; come & see me… let me visit you and I shall be cheered as ever by the spectacle of so much genius & character as you have always the gift to draw around you.

We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.

In their early correspondence, Waldo had articulated to Margaret a sentiment about the problem of translation in poetry, which now seemed to perfectly capture the problem of translating their interior worlds to each other:

We are armed all over with these subtle antagonisms which as soon as we meet begin to play, and translate all poetry into such stale prose!… All association must be compromise.

A decade later, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would limn this central paradox of intimacy in the philosophical allegory of the porcupine dilemma: In the cold of winter, a covenant of porcupines huddle together seeking warmth. As they draw close, they begin wounding each other with their quills. Warmed but maimed, they instinctually draw apart, only to find themselves shivering and longing for the heat of other bodies again. Eventually, they discover that unwounding warmth lies in the right span of space — close enough to share in a greater collective temperature, but not so close as to inflict the pricks of proximity.

How Margaret and Waldo negotiated that elusive optimal distance, how she finally found unreserved love elsewhere when she was least expecting it, and how her rich and enduring intellectual bond with Emerson shaped both of their bodies of work and the entire history of American letters, unfolds throughout the rest of Figuring.

For more excerpts from it, see Fuller on what makes a great leader, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to her own unclassifiable beloved, Rachel Carson’s timely advice to the next generations, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his neighbor and literary hero Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a stunning astrophysical reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.

BP

Rebecca Solnit on Love, Purposeful Work, and the Meaning of Liberty: An Empowered Retelling of Cinderella

“There are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.”

Rebecca Solnit on Love, Purposeful Work, and the Meaning of Liberty: An Empowered Retelling of Cinderella

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.

We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.

Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library) — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Governed by her conviction that “key to the work of changing the world is changing the story” and by her lifelong love of books as “toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart,” Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else’s story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.

In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:

Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.

Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.

But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.

There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.

On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.

In the end, each creature is liberated to become his or her “truest self” — even the pitiful stepsisters: One finds her sense of purpose by opening a salon “where she piles up people’s hair as high as it will go, and she’s happy because she’s doing what she loves,” and the other discovers that she likes “making beautiful dresses even more than wearing them,” and becomes a seamstress. Only the wicked stepmother remains unredeemed, for she has learned neither love nor the generosity of spirit necessary for contributing to the world in a meaningful way, and instead is operating from a small, dark place of seeing happiness as a limited zero-sum resource, wherein anything she gives to increase another’s wellbeing detracts from her own, and therefore she gives none. Turning the wicked stepmother into “the roaring in the trees on stormy nights,” Solnit writes:

Sometimes you can hear her outside, a strong wind rattling the windows and shaking the leaves off the trees, saying More and more and more, or Mine, mine, mine, and then the hungry wind dies down and she is gone until next time.

Sometimes that roaring is inside your own heart and head, and then it dies down there, too, the wind in all our heads that says we need more, we need to grab what someone else has and steal it away like the hungry wind. Everyone can be a fairy godmother if they help someone who needs help, and anyone can be a wicked stepmother. Most of us have some of that hunger in our hearts, but we can still try to be someone who says, I have plenty, or even Here, have this and How are you?

Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:

I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.

I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.

Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:

My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.

Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.

Complement the electrically wonderful Cinderella Liberator — at once an empowering gift to any young person beginning to behold the landscape of possibility we call life and powerful existential reboot for any grownup ready to break free of the world’s limiting stories — with Solnit on breaking silence, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, catastrophe as a catalyst for human goodness, and her lovely letter to children about how books solace, empower, and transform us, then revisit the story of how Arthur Rackham revolutionized book art with his 1907 illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, one of the first classic children’s books to cast a girl as a protagonist endowed with agency, curiosity, and self-determination.

BP

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