“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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.
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.
We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.
By Maria Popova
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
“Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’”
By Maria Popova
“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin reflected in his final interview. “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her superb meditation on the dignity of love. Both the danger and the responsibility of love lie in this refining of truth, which is at bottom a refining of self, for we are the sum total of the truths by which we live. In love — in the beauty and brutality of it — we can come completely undone. But we can also make and remake ourselves. From our formative attachments to our great loves, relationship is the seedbed of our becoming, the laboratory of our self-invention and reinvention.
A correspondent of Gandhi’s and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who also believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance” — Carpenter was one of the first Western thinkers to incorporate ancient Eastern philosophy into his moral universe. Entwined in mutual admiration with Walt Whitman, he went on to influence writers like D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster.
Carpenter composed his treatise on love two decades after he met his own great love, George Merrill, at the ripe age of fifty. They would spend the remainder of life together. Several months after Merrill’s death, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke. He died a year later and was buried next to his beloved.
Our first experience of great love, Carpenter observes, always shocks and unsteadies us, for universal as the experience may be, it “cannot very well be described in advance, or put into terms of reasonable and well-conducted words.” (In that sense, perhaps, love shares a great deal with loss — we can never prepare for either, and each snatches the reins of our psyche to govern us on its own non-negotiable terms.) He paints the delicious and disorienting madness familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love:
To feel — for instance — one’s whole internal economy in process of being melted out and removed to a distance, as it were into the keeping of some one else, is in itself a strange physiological or psychological experience… To lose consciousness never for a moment of the painful void so created — a void and a hunger which permeates all the arteries and organs, and every cranny of the body and the mind, and which seems to rob the organism of its strength, sometimes even to threaten it with ruin; to forego all interest in life, except in one thing — and that thing a person; to be aware, on the other hand, with strange elation and joy, that this new person or presence is infusing itself into one’s most intimate being — pervading all the channels, with promise [of] new life to every minutest cell, and causing 25 wonderful upheavals and transformations in tissue and fluids; to find in the mind all objects of perception to be changed and different from what they were before; and to be dimly conscious that the reason why they are so is because the background and constitution of the perceiving mind is itself changed — that, as it were, there is another person beholding them as well as oneself– all this defies description in words, or any possibility of exact statement beforehand; and yet the actual fact when it arrives is overwhelming in solid force and reality. If, besides, to the insurgence of these strange emotions we add — in the earliest stages of love at least — their bewildering fluctuation, from the deeps of vain longing and desire to the confident and ecstatic heights of expectation or fulfilment — the very joys of heaven and pangs of hell in swift and tantalizing alternation — the whole new experience is so extraordinary, so unrelated to ordinary work-a-day life, that to recite it is often only to raise a smile of dismissal of the subject — as it were into the land of dreams.
And yet, as we have indicated, the thing, whatever it is, is certainly by no means insubstantial and unreal. Nothing seems indeed more certain than that in this strange revolution in the relations of two people to each other — called “falling in love” — and behind all the illusions connected with it, something is happening, something very real, very important.
Carpenter then makes an astute point that remains thoroughly countercultural in the context of our rather limited and limiting romantic mythologies: He argues that whatever the outcome of a great love, whatever its duration, it is still a triumph and a transformation to be celebrated.
In Figuring, reflecting on Margaret Fuller’s remark at the end of a significant love affair that “the union of two natures for a time is so great,” I wrote:
Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only ‘for a time’? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.
I find such consonant consolation in Carpenter’s words:
The falling-in-love may be reciprocal, or it may be onesided; it may be successful, or it may be unsuccessful; it may be only a surface indication of other and very different events; but anyhow, deep down in the sub-conscious world, something is happening. It may be that two unseen and only dimly suspected existences are becoming really and permanently united; it may be that for a certain period, or (what perhaps comes to the same thing) that to a certain depth, they are transfusing and profoundly modifying each other; it may be that the mingling of elements and the transformation is taking place almost entirely in one person, and only to a slight degree or hardly at all in the other; yet in all these cases — beneath the illusions, the misapprehensions, the mirage and the maya, the surface satisfactions and the internal disappointments — something very real is happening, an important growth and evolution is taking place.
Noting that understanding this bewildering phenomenon, having even the slightest sense of “the points of the compass by which to steer over this exceedingly troubled sea,” is an operative imperative for any human being’s personal maturation, Carpenter adds:
Love is concerned with growth and evolution. It is — though as yet hardly acknowledged in that connection — a root-factor of ordinary human growth; for in so far as it is a hunger of the individual, the satisfaction of that hunger is necessary for individual growth — necessary (in its various forms) for physical, mental and spiritual nourishment, for health, mental energy, large affectional capacity, and so forth. And it is — though this too is not sufficiently acknowledged — a root-factor of the Evolution process. For in so far as it represents and gives rise to the union of two beings in a new form, it plainly represents a step in Evolution, and plainly suggests that the direction of that step will somehow depend upon the character and quality of the love concerned.
One of our greatest misunderstandings about love, and mispractices of it, is the tendency to focus on only those aspects of the other that rivet us most intensely — only the physical in an attraction dominated by lust, only the mental in an intellectual crush, only the emotional in a romantic infatuation. Cautioning against such fragmentary simulacra of love, Carpenter writes:
Love is a complex of human relations — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and so forth — all more or less necessary. And though seldom realized complete, it is felt, and feels itself, to be imperfect without some representation of every side. To limit it to the expression of one particular aspect would be totally inadequate, if not absurd and impossible. A merely physical love, for instance, on the sexual plane, is an absurdity, a dead letter — the enjoyment and fruition of the physical depending so much on the feeling expressed, that without the latter there is next to no satisfaction. At best there is merely a negative pleasure, a relief, arising from the solution of a previous state of corporeal tension. And in such cases intercourse is easily followed by depression and disappointment. For if there is not enough of the more subtle and durable elements in love, to remain after the physical has been satisfied, and to hold the two parties close together, why, the last state may well be worse than the first!
But equally absurd is any attempt to limit, for instance, to the mental plane, and to make love a matter of affectionate letter-writing merely, or of concordant views on political economy; or again, to confine it to the emotional plane, and the region of more or less sloppy sentiment; or to the spiritual, with a somewhat lofty contempt of the material — in which case it tends… to become too like trying to paint a picture without the use of pigments.
He notes the necessary complementarity of these elements in a truly satisfying love — a simple and rather obvious point, yet one to which we so readily turn a willfully blind eye when governed by a strong attraction:
The physical is desirable, for many very obvious reasons — including corporeal needs and health, and perhaps especially because it acts in the way of removal of barriers, and so opens the path to other intimacies. The mental is desirable, to give form and outline to the relation; the emotional, to provide the something to be expressed; and the spiritual to give permanence and absolute solidity to the whole structure.
Love has its two sides — its instantaneous inner side, and its complex outer side of innumerable detail. In consciousness it tends to appear in a flash — simple, unique, and unchangeable; but in experience it has to be worked out with much labor. All the elements have to come into operation, and to contribute their respective quota to the total result… Love searches the heart, drags every element of the inner nature forward from its lurking-place, gives it definition and shape, and somehow insists on it being represented.
If this holistic satisfaction of the soul is the one leg on which love stands, time is the other. In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s beautiful letter of advice to his lovestruck teenage son — “If it is right, it happens,” the Nobel laureate wrote. “The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” — Carpenter urges:
For any big relationship plenty of time has to be allowed. Whichever side of the nature — mental, emotional, physical, and so forth — may have happened to take the lead, it must not and cannot monopolize the affair. It must drag the other sides in and give them their place. And this means time, and temporary bewilderment and confusion.
For the complete action of that creative and organizing force plentiful time must be given; and the two lovers must possess their souls in patience till it has had its full and perfect work… A long foreground of approach, time and tact, diffusion of magnetism, mergence in one another, suffering, and even pain — all these must be expected and allowed for — though the best after all, in this as in other things, is often the unexpected and the unprepared.
A century earlier, the philosopher William Godwin had written in his stunning love letters to the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft as the two were forging the first true marriage of equals in the history of letters: “We love… to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.” Carpenter examines this most bewildering aspect of the experience — the curious interdependence between love and pain, which seems to be an inevitable function of the growth process love effects:
Love, if worth anything, seems to demand pain and strain in order to prove itself, and is not satisfied with an easy attainment. How indeed should one know the great heights except by the rocks and escarpments? And pain often in some strange way seems to be the measure of love — the measure by which we are assured that love is true and real; and so (which is one of the mysteries) it becomes transformed into a great joy.
Pain and suffering… have something surely to do with the inner realities of the affair, with the moulding or hammering or welding process whereby union is effected and, in some sense, a new being created. It seems as if when two naked souls approach, or come anywhere near contact with each other, the one inevitably burns or scorches the other. The intense chemistry of the psychic elements produces something like an actual flame. A fresh combination is entered into, profound transformations are effected, strange forces liberated, and a new personality perhaps created; and the accomplishment and evidence of the whole process is by no means only joy, but agony also, even as childbirth is.
In a passage evocative of Charlotte Brontë’s lament, penned in the grip of an unrequited love, that “when one does not complain… one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle,” Carpenter counsels the love-anguished:
All one can reasonably do is to endure. It is no good making a fuss. In affairs of the heart what we call suffering corresponds to what we call labor or effort in affairs of the body. When you put your shoulder to the cart-wheel you feel the pain and pressure of the effort, but that assures you that you are exercising a force, that something is being done; so suffering of the heart assures you that something is being done in that other and less tangible world. To scold and scowl and blame your loved one is the stupidest thing you can do. And worse than stupid, it is useless. For it can only alienate. Probably that other one is suffering as well as you — possibly more than you, possibly a good deal less. What does it matter? The suffering is there and must be borne; the work, whatever it is, is being done; the transformation is being effected. Do you want your beloved to suffer instead of you, or simply because you are suffering? Or is it Pity you desire rather than Love.
As useless as the protesting and complaining, Carpenter argues, is any effort to put into words the density and magnitude of one’s feelings — an experience this vast must only be expressed in the language of life itself. More than half a century before the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm published his influential book The Art of Loving, Carpenter writes:
Love is an art… As no mere talk can convey the meaning of a piece of music or a beautiful poem, so no verbal declaration can come anywhere near expressing what the lover wants to say. And for one very good and sufficient reason (among others) — namely, that he does not know himself! Under these circumstances to say anything is almost certainly to say something misleading or false. And the decent lover knows this and holds his tongue. To talk about your devotion is to kill it — moreover, it is to render it banal and suspect in the eyes of your beloved.
Nevertheless though he cannot describe or explain what he wants to say, the lover can feel it — is feeling it all the time; and this feeling, like other feelings, he can express by indirections — by symbols, by actions, by the alphabet of deed and gesture, and all the hieroglyphics of Life and Art.
Love can only say what it wants by the language of life, action, song, sacrifice, ravishment, death, and the great panorama of creation.
Carpenter insists that in the experience of love, however imperfect and tortuous, we learn more about ourselves and the world than any didactic form can teach us:
Love — even rude and rampant and outrageous love — does more for the moralizing of poor humanity than a hundred thousand Sunday schools. It cleans the little human soul from the clustered lies in which it has nested itself — from the petty conceits and deceits and cowardices and covert meannesses.
Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’ … And so too the whole modern period of commercial civilization and Christianity has been fatal to love… They have bred the self-regarding consciousness in the highest degree; and so — though they may have had their uses and their parts to play in the history of mankind, they have been fatal to the communal spirit in society, and they have been fatal to the glad expression of the soul in private life.
Self-consciousness is fatal to love, which is the true expression of the soul.