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Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.”

Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Half a century before Walt Whitman considered what makes life worth living when a paralytic stroke boughed him to the ground of being, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) placed that question at the beating heart of The Last Man (free ebook | public library) — the 1826 novel she wrote in the bleakest period of her life: after the deaths of three of her children, two by widespread infectious diseases that science has since contained; after the love of her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident.

From that fathomless pit of sorrow, on the pages of a novel about a pandemic that begins erasing the human species one by one until a sole survivor — Shelley’s autobiographical protagonist — remains, she raised the vital question: Why live? By her answer, she raised herself from the pit to go on living, becoming the endling of her own artistic species — Mary Shelley outlived all the Romantics, composing prose of staggering poetic beauty and singlehandedly turning her then-obscure husband into the icon he now is by her tireless lifelong devotion to the posthumous editing, publishing, and glorifying of his poetry.

Shelley had set her far-seeing Frankenstein, written a decade earlier, a century into her past; she sets The Last Man a quarter millennium into her future, in the final decade of the twenty-first century, culminating in the year 2092 — the tricentennial of her beloved’s birth.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney — an idealistic young man, more porous than most to both the deepest suffering of living and the most transcendent beauty of life — is the closest Mary Shelley, stoical and guarded, came to painting a psychological self-portrait. As the pandemic sweeps the world and vanquishes his loved ones one by one, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to seek safety “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquillity.” There, in the strange stillness, stripped of the habitual busynesses and distractions of social existence, he finds himself contemplating the essence of life:

How unwise had the wanderers been, who had deserted [the nest’s] shelter, entangled themselves in the web of society, and entered on what men of the world call “life,” — that labyrinth of evil, that scheme of mutual torture. To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days… Who that knows what “life” is, would pine for this feverish species of existence? I have lived. I have spent days and nights of festivity; I have joined in ambitious hopes…: now — shut the door on the world, and build high the wall that is to separate me from the troubled scene enacted within its precincts.

In consonance with Whitman — “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the American poet would ask across space and time, then answer: “Nature remains.” — Shelley’s protagonist finds the meaning of life not in the whirlwind of the human-made world with its simulacra of living but in the simple creaturely presence with nature’s ongoing symphony of life:

Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.

First Signal by Maria Popova

At the height of the deadly pandemic, nature seems all the more quietly determined to affirm the resilience of life — spring arrives with its irrepressible bursts of beauty, untrammeled by human suffering and a supreme salve for it. It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression, by surrendering to its sweep, that Lionel regains his faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.

A generation before the young Emily Dickinson delighted in the poetry of spring, Shelley writes:

Winter passed away; and spring, led by the months, awakened life in all nature. The forest was dressed in green; the young calves frisked on the new-sprung grass; the wind-winged shadows of light clouds sped over the green cornfields; the hermit cuckoo repeated his monotonous all-hail to the season; the nightingale, bird of love and minion of the evening star, filled the woods with song; while Venus lingered in the warm sunset, and the young green of the trees lay in gentle relief along the clear horizon.

From this open presence with the non-human world, Shelley’s protagonist extracts the essence of what it means to be human:

There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.

Mary Shelley

Complement with Rebecca Elson’s stunning poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Shelley’s contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning — a trailblazing poet who was dealt an inordinate share of suffering and who made of it inordinate beauty — on what makes life worth living, and the story of how young Isaac Newton’s plague quarantine fomented humanity’s greatest leap in science, then revisit the gorgeous advice on life Shelley’s mother, the trailblazing political philosopher and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, never lived to give her daughter, having died in giving her birth.

BP

Virginia Woolf on Finding Beauty in the Uncertainty of Time, Space, and Being

Calibration and consolation for those moments when it seems impossible that we should ever again recompose the world’s broken fragments into a harmonious whole.

Virginia Woolf on Finding Beauty in the Uncertainty of Time, Space, and Being

“How should we like it were stars to burn with a passion for us we could not return?” asked W.H. Auden in one of the greatest poems ever written — a subtle, playful, poignant meditation on what it takes to go on living — to go on making poems and symphonies and equations, to go on loving — when faced with something so much vaster than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe enfolding us or the sovereign cosmos of another heart.

A generation before him, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — another subtle illuminator of the human spirit in its cosmic dimensions — shone a sidewise gleam on the blunt edge of that eternal question of how to live with, and perhaps even find beauty, in the elemental uncertainty of time, space, and being — a question suddenly sharpened at times of especial uncertainty.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

In one of the most ravishing passages from her 1927 masterwork To the Lighthouse (public library | free ebook) — the most autobiographical of her novels — Woolf writes:

What after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollows of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flesh of tattered flags kindling in the doom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

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

In the breaking waves, Woolf finds a staggering emblem of our struggle to hold the larger wholeness in view, in faith, when our worlds come momentarily disworlded:

It seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth.

Radiating from Woolf’s gorgeous words is the reminder that all states of mind, all territories of feeling, even those that feel most unsurvivable — perhaps especially those that feel most unsurvivable — are merely moments in time, and yet they are not islanded in the river of being but belong with the rest of the current, the current that springs from the selfsame source as our capacity for beauty, for transcendence, for experiencing ourselves as “the thing itself”:

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

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

If you have survived your life so far without reading To the Lighthouse, and suddenly find yourself with new orders of time, space, and being on your hands, this might be the moment to savor Woolf’s timeless treasure — the kind of book that leaves you feeling nothing less than reborn. Complement this particular fragment with an antidote to helplessness and disorientation from the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, then revisit Woolf on being ill, why we read, what it means to be an artist, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, and her transcendent account of a total solar eclipse.

BP

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

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

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

“I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances,” Charles Darwin wrote in the spring of 1864 to a young and obscure German correspondent who had just sent him two folios of his stunningly illustrated studies of tiny single-celled marine organisms — a masterwork that enchanted Darwin as one of the most majestic things he had ever seen.

But Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the term ecology and become a preeminent champion of evolution, could not banish the unbanishable: Months earlier, on his thirtieth birthday, Anna, the love of his life, had been snatched from him by a sudden death medicine failed to explain; the couple were about to be married that summer after a long engagement, having finally scraped together enough to start a family when Ernst received his first academic appointment.

Anna Sethe and Ernst Haeckel shortly before her death.

In the wake of his fathomless bereavement, the young marine biologist applied the Joan Didion method of dealing with grief by motion and headed for France. Pacing the beaches of Nice, his mind on an irretrievable elsewhere and his heart a menacing vacuity, he stopped mid-stride — something had clutched his attention with the claim only wonder can lay on the worst-stung soul: afloat near the surface of the tide pool was a jellyfish — a medusa species he had never seen before.

Thamnostylus Dinema (available as a print)

Haeckel had fallen under the spell of medusae ten years earlier, at twenty, while accompanying a mentor on a fishing and research expedition. He had exulted in a letter to his parents:

You cannot believe what new things I see and learn here every day; it exceeds by far my most exaggerated expectations and hopes. Everything that I studied for years in books, I see here suddenly with my own eyes, as if I were cast under a spell, and each hour, which brings me surprises and instruction, prepares wonderful memories for the future.

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

The jellyfish the boat pulled up staggered Haeckel’s imagination with both their otherworldly beauty and the unsolved scientific mysteries they held: He knew that polyps were thought to develop from jellyfish eggs and wondered whether this might suggest that these complex translucent marvels themselves evolved from such simple organisms. But when he posed “this rather forward question” to his mentor, he was surprised to receive only excited bafflement — the elder scientist admitted that the origin of the species was completely unknown.

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

Now, a decade and a devastation later, Haeckel surrendered to this early enchantment to steady himself on the parallel bannisters of wonder and discovery, of aesthetic splendor and scientific challenge. In The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (public library), Robert J. Richards argues that “Haeckel’s science and his legacy for modern evolutionary theory display the features they do because of his tragic sense of life,” and considers how this young man’s deeply human coping mechanism for his personal devastation shaped his scientific outlook and his artistic imagination:

Ernst Haeckel experienced the passion for transcendence through a love that lifted him to ecstasy and then crushed him in despair. This experience invaded his insistently rational attitudes, even transforming his science into a means for escaping the grasping hand of mortality.

[…]

With the extinction of love came emptiness, a void that quickly filled with the miasma of great stridency, bitterness, and ineluctable sadness, which not even friends… could clear away. Through this acid mist, Haeckel resolved to devote himself single-mindedly to a cause that might transcend individual fragility. He would incessantly push the Darwinian ideal and oppose it to those who refused to look at life, to look at death, face on.

Haeckel spent the next fifteen years studying and illustrating these strange and beautiful creatures — creatures evocative of trees and mushrooms, of ovaries and spaceships — naming the most beautiful of the species he encountered for his lost beloved: Mitrocoma Annae — “Anna’s headband.”

Mitrocoma (available as a print)

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

Mitrocoma Annae belongs to the most charming and delicate of all the medusae. It was first observed by me in April 1864, in the Bay of Villafranca near Nice… The movement of this wonderful Eucopide offered a magical view, and I enjoyed several happy hours watching the play of her tentacles, which hang like blond hair-ornaments from the rim of the delicate umbrella-cap and which with the softest movement would roll up into thick short spirals… I name this species, the princess of the Eucopiden, as a memorial to my unforgettable true wife, Anna Sethe. If I have succeeded, during my earthly pilgrimage in accomplishing something for natural science and humanity, I owe the greatest part to the ennobling influence of this gifted wife, who was torn from me through sudden death…

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

When Haeckel, almost fifty, was able to built a house of his own in Jena, he adorned its walls with frescoes of medusae and called it Villa Medusa.

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

Anyone who has suffered savaging personal loss knows intimately that moment — a moment that can last months, years, a lifetime — when it seems like the only way to lose one’s suffering is to lose oneself. Perhaps what drew Haeckel to these particular creatures was their particular evolutionary biology, which dissolves the very notion of a self. In their complex life-cycles, the concept of individuality ceases to make sense — the psychological reality of our human existence, in which we spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, is a physiological reality for jellyfish. (The great scientist and poet Lewis Thomas would explore this a century after Haeckel in The Medusa and the Snail — one of the profoundest, most beautiful things ever written about the paradoxes of the self.) Some jellyfish species pulse into existence via a process of alternating generation — the adult animals swim untethered and reproduce sexually, but the larvae that emerge from their fertilized eggs become hydra-like creatures that root to the seafloor, asexually sprouting buds that then restart the cycle by developing into the drifting, mate-seeking grown jellyfish. Some exist as specialized parts of a vast colonial animal, in which individuals become organs — reproductive, digestive, motive — of this collective being.

For Haeckel, much of the medusae’s enchantment and consolation radiated from this very unselfing. Likening them to bouquets of flowers endowed with “an intricate structure indicating a most interesting and rather advanced division of labor,” he wrote:

Think of a delicate slim bouquet of flowers, the leaves and colored buds of which are as transparent as glass, a bouquet that winds through the water in a graceful and lively fashion — then you’ll have an idea of these wonderful, beautiful, and delicate colonial animals.

In this flowering collectivism Haeckel found not only solace for the aches of the self but affirmation of the central ideas that animated him into becoming one of the most ardent and effective advocates for Darwin’s evolutionary theory against the era’s ferocious tide of dogmatic opposition. Darwin, who had waded through his own fathomless loss when his daughter Annie died despite his every effort to save her, placed at the center of his scientific work the notion of natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Such an understanding, scientific or personal, renders death not a slight by fate but an ally of nature, part of the impartial laws holding the universe together — mortality unmoored from morality and metaphysics. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin whispered to himself in the closing pages of a book bellowing a new scientific truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of nature.

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

A century later, picking up where Haeckel left off and wresting ecology from the insular vernacular of science to embed it into the popular lexicon, Rachel Carson — another visionary marine biologist who lived between the tragic and the transcendent — reaffirmed that grandeur in a pioneering masterwork of scientific poetics, writing that “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”

Pectanthis Asteroides (available as a print)
BP

The Haunting Beauty of Snowflakes: Wilson Bentley’s Pioneering 19th-Century Photomicroscopy of Snow Crystals

The quest to capture nature’s vanishing masterpieces, endowed with the delicacy of flowers and the mathematical precision of honeycombs.

The Haunting Beauty of Snowflakes: Wilson Bentley’s Pioneering 19th-Century Photomicroscopy of Snow Crystals

Hardly any scientific finding has permeated popular culture more profoundly, transmuted its truth into a more pervasive cliché, or inspired more uninspired college application essays than the fact that no two snowflakes are alike. But for the vast majority of human history, the uniqueness of snowflakes was far from an established fact.

In the early seventeenth century, while revolutionizing science with the celestial mechanics of the macro scale that would land his mother in a witchcraft trial, Johannes Kepler turned his inquisitive imagination to the micro scale with a rather unusual Christmas present he made for a friend — a booklet titled The Six-Cornered Snowflake, exploring in a playful and poetic way the science of why snowflakes have six sides. When one landed on his sleeve in the bitter Prague winter, Kepler found himself wondering why snowflakes “always come down with six corners and with six radii tufted like feathers” — and not, say, with five or seven. Centuries before the advent of crystallography, the visionary astronomer became the first to invite science into this ancient dwelling place of beauty and to ask, essentially, why snowflakes are the way they are. But it would be another two centuries before this intersection of science and splendor enraptures the popular imagination with the nexus of truth and beauty in the form of ice crystals — a task that would fall on a teenage farm-boy in Vermont.

Wilson Bentley (February 9, 1865–December 23, 1931) was fifteen when his mother, aware of her son’s sensitive curiosity and artistic bent, strained the family’s means to give him a microscope for his birthday. Over the next four years, while Walt Whitman was exulting a state over that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Wilson placed every curio he could find under his microscope: blades of grass, pebbles, insects. The day he managed to place a snowflake on the glass plate and to savor its microscopic perfection before it melted, he was besotted. Snowflakes became his life. “Miracles of beauty,” he called them. He began sketching what he saw through his microscope, but felt that his drawings failed to capture the full miraculousness before it vanished into liquid erasure. Although his father was already irate with the boy’s artistic deviation from farm labor, “fussing with snowflakes” rather than pulling potatoes, Wilson somehow persuaded him to invest in a camera.

Weeks before his twentieth birthday, he mounted his new 1.5-inch microscope eyepiece to the lens of his enormous view camera with its accordion-like body fully extended. On January 15, 1880, Wilson Bentley took his first photograph of a snowflake. Mesmerized by the beauty of the result, he transported his equipment to the unheated wooden shed behind the farmhouse and began recording his work in two separate sets of notebooks — one filled with sketches and dedicated to refining his artistic photomicroscopy; the other filled with weather data, carefully monitoring the conditions under which various snowflakes were captured.

For forty-six winters to come, this slender quiet boy, enchanted by the wonders of nature and attentive to its minutest manifestations, would hold his breath over the microscope-camera station and take more than 5,000 photographs of snow crystals — each a vanishing masterpiece with the delicacy of a flower and the mathematical precision of a honeycomb, a ghost of perfection melting onto the glass plate within seconds, a sublime metaphor for the ecstasy and impermanence of beauty, of life itself. A generation after the invention of photography recalibrated our relationship to impermanence, Wilson Bentley devoted his life to popularizing the uniqueness of snowflakes and helping others appreciate the ephemeral “masterpiece of design” that each snowflake is, its singular and fleeting existence never to be replicated, its beauty gone “without leaving any record behind.”

Wilson Bentley at work

In his later years, he reflected on the adolescent passion that would become his life’s work:

I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness, an ambition to become, in some measure, its preserver.

And so he did. Wilson Bentley, who comes alive in Duncan Blanchard’s wonderful 1998 biography The Snowflake Man (public library), grew famous as Snowflake Bentley, establishing himself as the world’s first snowflake photographer and enrapturing vast audiences with nature’s masterworks of ephemeral perfection.

Half a century after he first grew enchanted with the photomicroscopy of snowflakes, in a 1922 article for Popular Mechanics, Bentley extolled the rewards of this art purchased by physical hardship in below-freezing temperatures:

Every snowflake has an infinite beauty which is enhanced by knowledge that the investigator will, in all probability, never find another exactly like it. Consequently, photographing these transient forms of Nature gives to the worker something of the spirit of a discoverer. Besides combining her greatest skill and artistry in the production of snowflakes, Nature generously fashions the most beautiful specimens on a very thin plane so that they are specially adapted for photomicrographical study.

Months before his death, his life’s work was finally published under the title Snow Crystals — a scrumptious monograph of 2,500 of his most beguiling photographs, which remains in print today as Snowflakes in Photographs (public library).

Complement with artist Rose-Lynn Fisher’s haunting photomicroscopy of tears cried under various emotions and these gorgeous vintage illustrations of scientific process and phenomena — including an early diagram of snowflake geometries — from a French physics textbook predating the widespread application of photography, then revisit the story of how, a generation before Bentley, the young photographer John Adams Whipple changed our relationship to impermanence with his pioneering astrophotography.

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