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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

Love, Pain, and Growth: The Forgotten Philosopher, Poet, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Activist Edward Carpenter on How to Survive the Agony of Falling in Love

“Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’”

Love, Pain, and Growth: The Forgotten Philosopher, Poet, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Activist Edward Carpenter on How to Survive the Agony of Falling in Love

“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.

Nearly a century before Rich and Baldwin, the English philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) examined this eternal question of how we grow and refine ourselves through the turbulent process of love in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library).

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.

Edward Carpenter, 1900

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.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being.

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.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love

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.

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

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.

More than a century before the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asserted that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Carpenter argues that love is not merely an internal state — it is also an outward practice, to be mastered and refined by engaging every aspect of oneself and the beloved:

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.

Art by Jennifer Orkin Lewis from Love Found: 50 Classic Poems of Desire, Longing, and Devotion

A century before the Lebanese-American poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran contemplated the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, Carpenter adds:

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.

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

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.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

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.

In fact, he argues, the teachings of our civilization have been detrimental to our mastery of love. In a sentiment that calls to mind E.E. Cummings’s assertion that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Carpenter writes of the art of love:

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.

In the remainder of The Drama of Love and Death, Carpenter goes on to examine what it takes to make love last over the long arc of a shared life, unwearied by friction and unblunted by habit. Complement it with Hannah Arendt on how to love despite the fundamental fear of loss, Rilke on the difficult art of giving space in love, and Jane Welsh Carlyle on loving vs. being in love, then revisit Carpenter’s contemporary Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage.

BP

Anne Gilchrist’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters to Walt Whitman

“Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity… that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me.”

Anne Gilchrist’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters to Walt Whitman

“No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind,” Hermann Melville wrote as he began falling under Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spell. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Robert Browning exulted in the first of his love letters to Elizabeth Barrett, “and I love you too.” To be a passionate reader is indeed to live with the risk of becoming besotted with the author of a beloved book. No author has cast a wider or deeper enchantment on more varied human hearts than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).

Just before Leaves of Grass stirred the young Bram Stoker to compose his extraordinary stream-of-consciousness love letter to the American poet, Whitman’s verse ignited an even more fervent outpouring of adoration from a compatriot of Stoker’s of the opposite sex: Anne Gilchrist (February 25, 1828–November 29, 1885), whose correspondence with the beloved poet survives in the stunning forsaken volume The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (free ebook | public library).

waltwhitman
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

At the age of twenty-three, after a two-year engagement, Anne had married a talented art and literary critic of humble means, whose writing would soon earn the friendship of some of Great Britain’s most celebrated authors: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Herbert Spencer, Christina Rossetti. The couple would eventually settle next door to Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Ten years into the marriage, scarlet fever suddenly widowed Anne and left her to raise her four children as a single mother at thirty-three. Lettered, brilliant, intensely interested in science and philosophy, and enchanted by the channeling of beauty, be it in poetry or in painting, she endeavored to finish the biography of William Blake that her husband had begun, which she published in 1863 to great acclaim with the help of William and Gabriel Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brothers.

That is how Walt Whitman came to animate Anne Gilchrist’s life. At the time, William Rossetti was readying to publish the long-belated English edition of Leaves of Grass. Intuiting a kindred sensibility, he gave Gilchrist some of Whitman’s poems. She was instantly besotted. In June of 1869, she exulted in a letter to Rossetti:

Your edition of Walt Whitman’s poems… holds me entirely spellbound, and I go through it again and again with deepening delight and wonder.

On those pages began what would become a rich and unclassifiable bond. “Among the perfect women I have met,” Whitman would later reflect, “I have known none more perfect in every relation, than my dear, dear friend, Anne Gilchrist.” In a conversation with his biographer, he would liken her to Lincoln, whom he considered “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” in America:

Have you noticed that the time to look for the best things in best people is the moment of their greatest need? Look at Lincoln: he is our proudest example: he proved to be big as, bigger than, any emergency — his grasp was a giant’s grasp — made dark things light, made hard things easy…. [Anne] belonged to the same noble breed: seized the reins, was competent; her head was clear, her hand was firm.

Anne Gilchrist

Gilchrist’s first love letter to Whitman was not private but public — an essay titled “An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman,” published anonymously in Boston’s Radical a year after she first became enamored of his verses. Whitman was 51 and Gilchrist 42. Lauding the poems’ “penetrating sweetness, set in the midst of rugged grandeur,” she enthused:

For me the reading of his poems is truly a new birth of the soul.

[…]

I had not dreamed that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these… I am as one hurried through stormy seas, over high mountains, dazed with sunlight, stunned with a crowd and tumult of faces and voices, till I am breathless, bewildered, half dead. Then come parts and whole poems in which there is such calm wisdom and strength of thought, such a cheerful breadth of sunshine, that the soul bathes in them renewed and strengthened. Living impulses flow out of these that make me exult in life, yet look longingly towards “the superb vistas of Death.” … Not, of course, that all the pieces are equal in power and beauty, but that all are vital; they grew — they were not made. We criticise a palace or a cathedral; but what is the good of criticising a forest? … Seeds brought by the winds from north, south, east, and west, lying long in the earth, not resting on it like the stately building, but hid in and assimilating it, shooting upwards to be nourished by the air and the sunshine and the rain which beat idly against that, — each bough and twig and leaf growing in strength and beauty its own way, a law to itself, yet, with all this freedom of spontaneous growth, the result inevitable, unalterable (therefore setting criticism at naught), above all things, vital, — that is, a source of ever-generating vitality: such are these poems.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman, who cherished trees with a love approaching the divine, was in turn vitalized by this uncommon generosity of sentiment. Decades later, he would affectionately remember Gilchrist as “strangely different from the average; entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”

After reading her review, not yet knowing the author’s identity, he wrote to Rossetti: “I had hitherto received no eulogium so magnificent.” Having spent a decade learning how not to let criticism sink his confidence — something no artist ever fully learns but we spend a lifetime practicing — Whitman would later reflect on how much Gilchrist’s plaudit meant to him:

Almost everybody was against me — the papers, the preachers, the literary gentlemen — nearly everybody with only here and there a dissenting voice — when it looked on the surface as if my enterprise was bound to fail… then this wonderful woman. Such things stagger a man… I had got so used to being ignored or denounced that the appearance of a friend was always accompanied with a sort of shock… There are shocks that knock you up, shocks that knock you down.

It would be more than two years before Gilchrist summoned the courage to reach out to Whitman directly and reveal her identity as the reviewer whose praise had so salved him. In early September 1871, months before Bram Stoker composed his own exhilarated love letter to the poet, she wrote to him:

The time will come when man will understand that a woman’s soul is as dear and needful to his and as different from his as her body to his body. This was what happened to me when I had read for a few days, nay, hours, in your books. It was the divine soul embracing mine. I never before dreamed what love meant: not what life meant. Never was alive before — no words but those of “new birth” can hint the meaning of what then happened to me.

After recounting to Whitman the shock of bereavement she had experienced with her husband’s sudden death a decade earlier, she writes as a woman already in love with a stranger whose words have reached to her across time, space, and reason to cast the thickest spell:

In May, 1869, came the voice over the Atlantic to me — O, the voice of my Mate: it must be so — my love rises up out of the very depths of the grief & tramples upon despair. I can wait — any time, a lifetime, many lifetimes — I can suffer, I can dare, I can learn, grow, toil, but nothing in life or death can tear out of my heart the passionate belief that one day I shall hear that voice say to me, “My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!” It is not happiness I plead with God for — it is the very life of my Soul, my love is its life. Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing, this love; it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred; it yearns with such passion to soothe and comfort & fill thee with sweet tender joy; it aspires as grandly as gloriously as thy own soul. Strong to soar—soft & tender to nestle and caress. If God were to say to me, “See — he that you love you shall not be given to in this life — he is going to set sail on the unknown sea — will you go with him?” never yet has bride sprung into her husband’s arms with the joy with which I would take thy hand & spring from the shore.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Addressing as “dear love” and “my darling” this enchanting stranger whose poems felt as intimate and personal as love letters, Gilchrist writes with an unguarded heart:

O dear Walt, did you not feel in every word the breath of a woman’s love? did you not see as through a transparent veil a soul all radiant and trembling with love stretching out its arms towards you? I was so sure you would speak, would send me some sign: that I was to wait — wait. So I fed my heart with sweet hopes: strengthened it with looking into the eyes of thy picture. O surely in the ineffable tenderness of thy look speaks the yearning of thy man-soul towards my woman-soul? But now I will wait no longer. A higher instinct dominates that other, the instinct for perfect truth. I would if I could lay every thought and action and feeling of my whole life open to thee as it lies to the eye of God. But that cannot be all at once. O come. Come, my darling: look into these eyes and see the loving ardent aspiring soul in them. Easily, easily will you learn to love all the rest of me for the sake of that and take me to your breasts for ever and ever. Out of its great anguish my love has risen stronger, more triumphant than ever: it cannot doubt, cannot fear, is strong, divine, immortal, sure of its fruition this side the grave or the other.

Six weeks later, not having received a response — a stretch of silence unfathomable to the modern reader, in an age when a two-hour text response lag can induce nothing less than heartbreak — Gilchrist writes again with explosive candor, beseeching for an acknowledgement of her letter and her love:

Spare me the needless suffering of uncertainty on this point & let me have one line, one word, of assurance that I am no longer hidden from you by a thick cloud — I from thee — not thou from me: for I that have never set eyes upon thee, all the Atlantic flowing between us, yet cleave closer than those that stand nearest & dearest around thee — love thee day & night: — last thoughts, first thoughts, my soul’s passionate yearning toward thy divine Soul, every hour, every deed and thought — my love for my children, my hopes, aspirations for them, all taking new shape, new height through this great love. My Soul has staked all upon it. In dull dark moods when I cannot, as it were, see thee, still, still always a dumb, blind yearning towards thee — still it comforts me to touch, to press to me the beloved books — like a child holding some hand in the dark — it knows not whose — but knows it is enough — knows it is a dear, strong, comforting hand. Do not say I am forward, or that I lack pride because I tell this love to thee who have never sought or made sign of desiring to seek me. Oh, for all that, this love is my pride my glory. Source of sufferings and joys that cannot put themselves into words. Besides, it is not true thou hast not sought or loved me. For when I read the divine poems I feel all folded round in thy love… I know not how to bear the yearning answering tenderness that fills my breast.

At this point, one is tempted to regard Gilchrist with the peculiar fusion of admiration and pity that such unbridled self-prostration inspires in an impartial observer; or, less charitably, to dismiss her as an infatuated fan who has constructed the elaborate scaffolding of a fantasy love around a distant public figure. But just as her despair — and that of any reader of these rending letters — approaches the unbearable, Whitman writes back. Two weeks later — practically instantaneously, given the pace of transatlantic mail — he sends her a short, largehearted letter, emotionally generous yet deliberately reserved by comparison to her effusive outpourings of love:

I have been waiting quite a while for time and the right mood, to answer your letter in a spirit as serious as its own, and in the same unmitigated trust and affection. But more daily work than ever has fallen to me to do the present season, and though I am well and contented, my best moods seem to shun me. I wish to give to it a day, a sort of Sabbath, or holy day, apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences, confident that I could then write you a letter which would do you good, and me too. But I must at least show without further delay that I am not insensible to your love. I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write so briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body and spirit. You understand this better and fuller and clearer than any one else. And I too fully and clearly understand the loving letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists so beautiful and a delicate relation, accepted by both of us with joy.

Willfully unwitting of Whitman’s gentle message that his art is his love, which is not the personal love she craves, Gilchrist responds with the insistence that she only knew what the word “love” meant after she read his poems. Envisioning “the sweetest, noblest, closest, tenderest companionship ever yet tasted by man & woman” as available to them, weaving Whitman’s own words into her plea for requital, she writes:

Your book does indeed say all — book that is not a book, for the first time a man complete, godlike, august, standing revealed the only way possible, through the garment of speech… quickened into life through such love, such sympathy, such resistless attraction.

[…]

I know how hard to attain to this greatness, the grandest lot ever aspired to by woman. I know too my own shortcomings, faults, flaws. You might not be able to give me your great love yet — to take me to your breast with joy. But I can wait. I can grow great & beautiful through sorrow & suffering, working, struggling, yearning, loving so, all alone, as I have done now nearly three years… Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity, are so conscious of their own deathless reality, that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me. I know that “greatness will not ripen for me like a pear.” But I could face, I could joyfully accept, the fiercest anguish, the hardest toil, the longest, sternest probation, to make me fit to be your mate — so that at the last you should say, “This is the woman I have waited for, the woman prepared for me: this is my dear eternal comrade, wife — the one I so much want.” Life has no other meaning for me than that — all things have led up to help prepare me for that. Death is more welcome to me than life if it means that — if thou, dear sailor, thou sailing upon thy endless cruise, takest me on board — me, daring, all with thee, steering for the deep waters, bound where mariner has not yet dared to go: hand in hand with thee, nestled close — one with thee.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman, too, seems willfully unwitting of the discomfiting truth at the heart of her letters — that she loves him with a self-generated ardor he could never return, so vast and all-demanding and uncalibrated to his nature as a queer man. When he responds by saying that he dreams of going to “Old England” one day, and thus seeing her and her children — “but it is a dream only” — he seems not to realize that “only” is so infinite a landscape for fantasy in the mind of the hopelessly infatuated. And yet he does warn her, in his gentle poetic way, that the love she experiences may be a misplaced projection at his private person on the basis of his public art. Gilchrist responds with an impassioned, almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking counter-insistence, reasoning against reason:

If it seems to you there must needs be something unreal, illusive, in a love that has grown up entirely without the basis of personal intercourse, dear Friend, then you do not yourself realize your own power nor understand the full meaning of your own words, “whoso touches this, touches a man” — “I have put my Soul & Body into these Poems.” Real effects imply real causes. Do you suppose that an ideal figure conjured up by her own fancy could, in a perfectly sound, healthy woman of my age, so happy in her children, so busy & content, practical, earnest, produce such real & tremendous effect — saturating her whole life, colouring every waking moment — filling her with such joys, such pains that the strain of them has been well nigh too much even for a strong frame, coming as it does, after twenty years of hard work?

Therefore please, dear Friend, do not “warn” me any more — it hurts so, as seeming to distrust my love. Time only can show how needlessly. My love, flowing ever fresh & fresh out of my heart, will go with you in all your wanderings, dear Friend, enfolding you day and night, soul & body, with tenderness that tries so vainly to utter itself in these poor, helpless words, that clings closer than any man’s love can cling.

And yet despite the all-consuming cloud of her infatuation, Gilchrist manages — as we all manage, even in our most enchanted states — to maintain some lucid part of herself, some clear awareness of the asymmetrical intensity of feeling. Eight months into the correspondence, in between effusions, she gives that part a share of voice:

Perhaps the letters that I have sent you since that first, have given you a feeling of constraint towards me because you cannot respond to them. I will not write any more such letters; or, if I write them because my heart is so full it cannot bear it, they shall not find their way to the Post. But do not, because I give you more than friendship, think that it would not be a very dear & happy thing to me to have friendship only from you.

Anyone who has vowed not to text a crush, then watched the resolve melt into permissive rationalizations of why texting is a good idea, knows the polarized place of resignation and electric desire from which Gilchrist is composing these futile words — for, in the very next breath, she uncorks the longing she has just resolved to keep bottled up, imploring him to write and insisting that her love, though it had begun in his poems, is irrepressibly aimed at his person:

I am sure dear friend, if you realize the joy it is to me to receive a few words from you — about anything that is passing in your thoughts & around — how beaming bright & happy the day a letter comes & many days after — how light hearted & alert I set about my daily tasks, it would not seem irksome to you to write. And if you say, “Read my books, & be content — you have me in them,” I say, it is because I read them so that I am not content. It is an effort to me to turn to any other reading… I want nothing else — am fully fed & satisfied there. I sit alone many hours… brooding over the poems, sunning myself in them, pondering the vistas — all the experience of my past life & all its aspirations corroborating them — all my future & so far as in me lies the future of my children to be shaped modified vitalized by & through these — outwardly & inwardly. How can I be content to live wholly isolated from you? I am sure it is not possible for any one, — man or woman, it does not matter which, to receive these books, not merely with the intellect critically admiring their power & beauty, but with an understanding responsive heart, without feeling it drawn out of their breasts so that they must leave all & come to be with you sometimes without a resistless yearning for personal intercourse that will take no denial.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Although the correspondence continued to be staggeringly asymmetrical, with a ten-month silence from Whitman, Gilchrist’s “resistless yearning for personal intercourse” remained undeterred indeed. Whitman was never cool to her. But he met her boundless passion with contained warmth — a tragic asymmetry of affection evocative of Emily Dickinson’s lifelong ardor for Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Governed by her devotion and willfully blind to the asymmetry, Gilchrist began dreaming of moving to America to be near her “darling Walt” — dreams that fermented into plans after Whitman’s paralytic stroke in 1873, followed closely by the death of his beloved sister and mother. He wrote to her from the thick fog of these losses:

Since I last wrote, clouds have darkened over me, and still remain.

[…]

Do not think hard of me for not writing in reply. If you could look into my spirit & emotion you would be entirely satisfied & at peace… I am at present temporarily here at Camden, on the Delaware river, opposite Philadelphia, at the house of my brother, and I am occupying, as I write, the rooms wherein my mother died… You must not be unhappy about me, as I am as comfortably situated as can be — & many things — indeed every thing — in my case might be so much worse. Though my plans are not definite, my intention as far as anything is on getting stronger.

He then did something astounding — something the effect of which on a lovestruck heart he must not have realized:

The enclosed ring I have just taken from my finger, & send to you, with my love.

How the besotted Gilchrist interpreted the gesture is hardly surprising. Addressing him as “my Beloved,” she gushes:

O the precious letter, bearing to me the living touch of your hand, vibrating through & through me as I feel the pressure of the ring that pressed your flesh — & now will press mine so long as I draw breath. My Darling! take comfort & strength & joy from me that you have made so rich & strong.

[…]

When my eyes first open in the morning, often such tender thoughts, yearning ineffably, pitying, sorrowful, sweet thoughts flow into my breast that longs & longs to pillow on itself the suffering head (with white hair more beautiful to me than the silvery clouds which always make me think of it.)

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

The ring only amplified her longing to be near him, to care for him as part-wife, part-mother, part-comrade — she decided to move to America. Whitman immediately discouraged the plan, perhaps sensing that he could never meet her love in kind. Even if he were not the poet laureate of same-sex love, he must have intuited that she loved a version of him so idealized, so exalted to the point of worship, that his mortal reality could only ever disappoint her to the point of devastation — the pedestal would topple, crushing a tender heart he cared to protect. Nowhere is the collision between the ideal and the real more violent, nor more mutually wounding, than in an asymmetrical love warped by one-sided idealization.

Gilchrist did not heed his deterrence. She had seen her migration to America as her “settled, steady purpose (resting on a deep, strong faith) ever since 1869,” when she first devoured Leaves of Grass. Now she began actively imagining their life together in a mutually enriching partnership:

I turn my face to the westward sky before I lie down to sleep, deep & steadfast within me the silent aspiration that every year, every month & week, may help something to prepare and make fitter me and mine to be your comfort and joy. We are full of imperfections, short-comings but half developed, but half “possessing our own souls.” But we grow, we learn, we strive — that is the best of us. I think in the sunshine of your presence we shall grow fast — I too, my years notwithstanding.

Under this blinding vision, she once again returns to the seedbed of her love for him — his art:

No one hundreds of years hence will find deeper joy in these poems than I — breathe the fresh, sweet, exhilarating air of them, bathe in it, drink in what nourishes & delights the whole being, body, intellect & soul, more than I. Nor could you, when writing them, have desired to come nearer to a human being & be more to them forever & forever than you are & will be to me. O I take the hand you stretch out each day — I put mine into it with a sense of utter fulfilment: I ask nothing more of time and of eternity but to live and grow up to that companionship that includes all.

Her physical presence in his life, she insists, would be nothing less than medicinal. It would be a love that meets every need — the most treacherous promise of our romantic mythology, for no one person could ever meet the tessellated needs of another fully. She writes:

I believe if I could only make you conscious of the love, the enfolding love, my heart breathes out toward you it would do you physical good; many-sided love — Mother’s love that cherishes, that delights so in personal service, that sees in sickness & suffering such dear appeals to an answering, limitless tenderness — wife’s love — ah, you draw that from me too, resistlessly — I have no choice — comrade’s love, so happy in sharing all, pain, sorrow, toil, effort, enjoyments, thoughts, hopes, aims, struggles, disappointment, beliefs, aspirations. Child’s love, too, that trusts utterly, confides unquestioningly.

On August 30, 1876, after a seven-year longing, Gilchrist set sail for America with three of her children. To the reluctant Whitman, who had tried to dissuade her by stressing the perilousness of transatlantic travel and cautioning her that the “crudeness” of Americans might offend her sensibility, she cited her eldest daughter’s future as a primary motivation — Beatrice was determined to become a doctor, but proper medical education was not yet available to women in England, for they were not permitted to enter any hospital for the clinical portion of their studies. A quarter century earlier, Gilchrist’s compatriot Elizabeth Blackwell had traversed the Atlantic to set precedent as the first woman to receive a medical degree in America.

The family settled in Concord, where Gilchrist soon made the acquaintance of Emerson — by that point, America’s most esteemed literary tastemaker, whose extraordinary letter to the young Whitman had pivoted the fate of Leaves of Grass from a derided and dismissed creative experiment to a literary masterpiece on the lips, minds, and shelves of every book-lover in America. In Concord, in “the companionship of very lovable men and women,” Gilchrist began enjoying outdoor pleasures, so dear to Whitman himself and so central to his makeshift physical therapy while recovering from the stroke. She reported to him:

They lead an easy-going life here — seem to spend half their time floating about on the river — or meeting in the evening to talk & read aloud.

Anne Gilchrist. Photogravure of a portrait by her son, Herbert Gilchrist.

We shall never know what was exchanged, thought, felt when Gilchrist and Whitman first met. (The loss of letters, Margaret Fuller had lamented, “makes irreparable gaps in the history of feeling,” and an even vaster abyss gapes across the unrecorded moments that take place in the intimacy of physical proximity and presence — letters, after all, presuppose distance and absence.) What we do know is that, under the hard light of reality, Gilchrist’s idealized romantic love soon melted into a warm and largehearted affection that would bind the two for the remainder of their lives. Whitman dined at her house frequently and her children came to call him “Uncle Walt.” Her artist son painted a portrait of him. The poet would later write of his uncommon and label-defying regard for her:

I have that sort of feeling about her which cannot easily be spoken of — …: love (strong personal love, too), reverence, respect — you see, it won’t go into words: all the words are weak and formal.

Despite being nearly a decade her elder, Whitman would go on to outlive Gilchrist. Upon received word of her death from her son, he could only summon these spare, sundering words:

Dear Herbert:

I have received your letter. Nothing now remains but a sweet and rich memory — none more beautiful all time, all life all the earth — I cannot write anything of a letter to-day. I must sit alone and think.

Walt Whitman.

He would remember her as “a sort of human miracle,” “a supreme character of whom the world knows too little for its own good,” one whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come.” He would commemorate her in one of his most beautiful poems:

GOING SOMEWHERE

My science-friend, my noblest woman-friend
(Now buried in an English grave — and this a memory — leaf for her dear sake),
Ended our talk — “The sum, concluding all we know of old or modern learning, intuitions deep,
Of all Geologies — Histories — of all Astronomy — of Evolution, Metaphysics all,
Is, that we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering,
Life, life an endless march, an endless army (no halt, but, it is duly over),
The world, the race, the soul — in space and time the universes,
All bound as is befitting each — all surely going somewhere.”

The whole of The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman is the kind of soulful, heartbreakingly beautiful read that reminds us what we stand to lose with the loss of letter writing — “the humane art,” Virginia Woolf called it. Though bittersweetly dated in their form, these letters speak to and salve the most timeless palpitations of the human heart. Complement them with other uncommonly splendid exemplars of the love letter form: Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokova, Iris Murdoch to Brigit Brophy, Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

BP

Anatomy of Deception and Self-Delusion: Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly

“If the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown.”

Anatomy of Deception and Self-Delusion: Walter Lippmann on Public Opinion, Our Slippery Grasp of Truth, and the Discipline of Apprehending Reality Clearly

“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion,” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal in the middle of the nineteenth century as he tussled with the eternal question of why we conform. Around the same time, across the Atlantic, Emerson fumed in his own diary as he contemplated the supreme existential challenge of individual integrity in a mass society: “Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence… I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.” A century later, Eleanor Roosevelt would sharpen this sentiment in her abiding meditation on happiness and conformity: “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Why even the soundest-minded of us are so susceptible to such unconscious surrender and what it takes to uphold a clear view of reality is what the great writer, media theorist, and political critic Walter Lippmann (September 23, 1889–December 14, 1974) — whose moral courage of shedding light on the pitfalls of society and the human psyche Eleanor Roosevelt greatly admired, and whom Theodore Roosevelt considered the “most brilliant young man of his age in all the United States” — explores in his timelessly insightful 1922 book Public Opinion (free ebook | public library).

Walter Lippmann

Lippmann — who coined the word stereotype in its contemporary sense — begins by considering just how porous to ambient information we are in the constitution of our inner landscape opinion, and how absurd it is to regard ourselves as having firm and final grasp of reality when the entire history of our species is the history of misapprehension and pseudoreality tightly held as truth. He writes:

Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live. We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself. It is harder to remember that about the beliefs upon which we are now acting, but in respect to other peoples and other ages we flatter ourselves that it is easy to see when they were in deadly earnest about ludicrous pictures of the world. We insist, because of our superior hindsight, that the world as they needed to know it, and the world as they did know it, were often two quite contradictory things. We can see, too, that while they governed and fought, traded and reformed in the world as they imagined it to be, they produced results, or failed to produce any, in the world as it was. They started for the Indies and found America. They diagnosed evil and hanged old women. They thought they could grow rich by always selling and never buying. A caliph, obeying what he conceived to be the Will of Allah, burned the library at Alexandria.

Nearly a century before the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman came to study how our minds mislead us and observed that “the confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,” Lippmann illustrates this elemental human tendency with the example of the sixth-century Alexandrian monk Cosmas, who set out to disprove pre-Christian geographers’ assertion that our planet is spherical.

Cosmas’s map of the Earth

Although the belief that Earth is flat had been steadily falling out of favor over the preceding three centuries, Cosmas held tightly to his religious mythology, positing that Earth was structurally modeled on the house of worship God describes to Moses during the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Determined to reconcile reality and religion, Cosmas devised a theoretical model of the universe he called “Christian Topography.” Drawn centuries before the development of perspective, his map depicts the world as a flat parallelogram, twice as wide from east to west as it is high from north to south, containing the Earth at the center, surrounded by an ocean, in turn contained by another Earth, where humans lived before the flood of the Genesis myth. Atop this other Earth — Noah’s point of embarkation — is a conical mountain, behind which the Sun and Moon revolve like a celestial chandelier spinning to turn day into night. Specific compartments of this universe-within-a-world are allotted to the mortals, the blessed, and the angels.

Mountain detail from Cosmas’s model of the universe

Cosmas enfolded the map into his treatise Christian Opinion Concerning the World, and yet he seemed unwitting of the fact that the map was indeed an opinion rather than a representation of reality. He did what we have always done as human beings — mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves. In the ancient monk, Lippmann finds a living allegory for the human pathology to see what we wish to believe:

For Cosmas there was nothing in the least absurd about his map. Only by remembering his absolute conviction that this was the map of the universe can we begin to understand how he would have dreaded Magellan or Peary or the aviator who risked a collision with the angels and the vault of heaven by flying seven miles up in the air. In the same way we can best understand the furies of war and politics by remembering that almost the whole of each party believes absolutely in its picture of the opposition, that it takes as fact, not what is, but what it supposes to be the fact.

Our opinions of the world and of other people, Lippmann argues, form much the way Cosmas constructed his map — governed less by a clear view of the relevant facts and the inner motives of others than by our theoretical models of what happened and why it happened, informed largely by our own beliefs and feelings. Decades before neuroscientists located the central mystery of consciousness in qualia — the subjective interiority of any human experience, so opaque to outside observers — Lippmann writes:

The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts.

(A century later, that impossibility stands as the greatest challenge to artificial intelligence.)

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

The most interesting question, then, as well as the most pressing in matters both political and personal, is what makes us vulnerable to such self-inflicted blindnesses and delusions, and what can be done about it. Lippmann writes:

It is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.

[…]

In [such] instances we must note particularly one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. Then comes the sensation of butting one’s head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment. For certainly, at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.

Fictions, Lippmann is careful to point out, need not be blatant lies — they can be, and most often are, the subtle deformations of reality in which a sapling of truth is grafted onto a robust trunk of Cosmian interpretation to produce a bramble of pseudo-reality. Three centuries after Galileo admonished against the folly of believing our preconceptions, as he defied the geocentric model of the universe nearly at the cost of his life, Lippmann writes:

By fictions I do not mean lies. I mean a representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree made by man himself… A work of fiction may have almost any degree of fidelity, and so long as the degree of fidelity can be taken into account, fiction is not misleading. In fact, human culture is very largely the selection, the rearrangement, the tracing of patterns upon, and the stylizing of, what William James called “the random irradiations and resettlements of our ideas.” The alternative to the use of fictions is direct exposure to the ebb and flow of sensation. That is not a real alternative, for however refreshing it is to see at times with a perfectly innocent eye, innocence itself is not wisdom, though a source and corrective of wisdom. For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To traverse the world men must have maps of the world. Their persistent difficulty is to secure maps on which their own need, or someone else’s need, has not sketched in the coast of Bohemia.

‘Fool’s Cap Map of the World’ (1580–1590), from Cosmigraphics

And yet the maps two people make of the same reality may be so staggeringly divergent as to lead us to believe that the mappers inhabit different worlds. Once again anticipating the notion of qualia, Lippmann refines the sentiment by pointing out that “they live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.” It is through this draughtsmanship of thought and feeling that we draw the highly subjective maps by which we navigate the real world:

What each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. If his atlas tells him that the world is flat he will not sail near what he believes to be the edge of our planet for fear of falling off. If his maps include a fountain of eternal youth, a Ponce de Leon will go in quest of it. If someone digs up yellow dirt that looks like gold, he will for a time act exactly as if he had found gold. The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results.

[…]

The very fact that men theorize at all is proof that their pseudo-environments, their interior representations of the world, are a determining element in thought, feeling, and action. For if the connection between reality and human response were direct and immediate, rather than indirect and inferred, indecision and failure would be unknown.

Our inferences about and representations of reality, Lippmann observes, are so misshapen because the world we try to apprehend is invariably “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind” — a world that, especially politically, must be “explored, reported, and imagined” in order for us to have any picture of it at all. (Trailblazing astronomer and key Figuring figure Maria Mitchell captured this native limitation of the human mind exquisitely: “We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”) Lippmann writes:

Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time are but a few moments of insight and happiness. Yet this same creature has invented ways of seeing what no naked eye could see, of hearing what no ear could hear, of weighing immense masses and infinitesimal ones, of counting and separating more items than he can individually remember. He is learning to see with his mind vast portions of the world that he could never see, touch, smell, hear, or remember. Gradually he makes for himself a trustworthy picture inside his head of the world beyond his reach.

But the pictures our mind’s eye constructs by inference and common sense — that most pernicious traitor of reality — are inherently untrustworthy. They are always partial and gravely warped by the illusion of completeness — especially when it comes to what we call public opinion. Lippmann anchors his argument to a definition:

Those features of the world outside which have to do with the behavior of other human beings, in so far as that behavior crosses ours, is dependent upon us, or is interesting to us, we call roughly public affairs. The pictures inside the heads of these human beings, the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship, are their public opinions. Those pictures which are acted upon by groups of people, or by individuals acting in the name of groups, are Public Opinion with capital letters.

Considering why our mental pictures so habitually misrepresent reality, Lippmann identifies our limited access to facts as the key factor — we simply don’t have the time and opportunity to take into account every relevant data point and contextual quotient in forming our opinions about a person or situation. Half a century after the English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford extolled the discipline of doubt and plainly observed that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence,” and nearly a century before our so-called social media, Lippmann laments “the distortion arising because events have to be compressed into very short messages,” compounded by the flattening of dimension and the erasure of nuance induced by compressing a complex world into a limited vocabulary. More than half a century before James Baldwin admonished that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” Lippmann observes that these distortions and deceptions converge to foment a “fear of facing those facts which would seem to threaten the established routine of men’s lives.” In other words, we instinctively partake in willful blindness, attending only to those facts which corroborate our existing model of reality — the model by which our lives operate with the lowest degree of friction.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Lippmann returns to the central causality of our misapprehension — our limited access to facts, barred from us by various layers of circumstantial opacity and deliberate privacy — and offers a vital calibration of the confidence we have in our world-picture:

Whether the reasons for privacy are good or bad, the barriers exist. Privacy is insisted upon at all kinds of places in the area of what is called public affairs. It is often very illuminating, therefore, to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which you have an opinion? Was it the man who told you, or the man who told him, or someone still further removed? And how much was he permitted to see?

[…]

You can ask yourself these questions, but you can rarely answer them. They will remind you, however, of the distance which often separates your public opinion from the event with which it deals. And the reminder is itself a protection.

In a single succinct prescription for effective critical thinking, Lippmann distills the antidote to our susceptibility to outside manipulation and our propensity for self-deception:

In truly effective thinking the prime necessity is to liquidate judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious and open-hearted.

In the remainder of Public Opinion — a sobering and immensely insightful read in its entirety — Lippmann goes on to examine “how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them,” “how opinions are crystallized into what is called Public Opinion,” and “how a National Will, a Group Mind, a Social Purpose, or whatever you choose to call it, is formed.” Complement it with James Baldwin on resisting the mindless majority and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Bertrand Russell on our most effective self-defense against propaganda and Karl Popper on seeking truth over certainty.

BP

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