“Those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.”
By Maria Popova
“Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” a trio of psychologists wrote in their wonderful inquiry into limbic revision and how love rewires the brain. But whom we love equally depends on who we are and who we want to become. Love, like time, is as much a function of us as we are a function of it.
An especially striking illustration of this equivalence, both for its intensity and its unexpectedness, comes from the adolescent love letters the future Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) to his teacher, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, collected and translated by Amy Richlin two millennia later in Marcus Aurelius in Love (public library) — a most improbable addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.
Fatherless since childhood, Marcus Aurelius was raised by his wealthy single mother, Domitia Lucilla. In 139, she hired Fronto — an African immigrant to Rome who described himself as “a Libyan of the Libyan nomads,” by then one of the era’s preeminent orators — to teach her eighteen-year-old son the art of rhetoric in preparation for his political career.
Across caste and rank, across twenty-some years of age difference, the two Marcuses fell in love.
For six years, until Marcus Aurelius’s socially necessitated marriage, they lived in close proximity and exchanged letters of devotion and tenderness, laced with intellectual admiration and erotic longing. Although their love was edged with danger under Roman law, it was not its same-sex nature that imperiled them — a grown man charged with seducing an adolescent male could be charged with adultery, the penalty for which was exile or death. But the seduction, if the term applies to their case at all, flowed the other way: Marcus Aurelius inundated Fronto with ardor that at first received only a timorous echo.
In the preface to the collection, Richlin draws on the early Stoic philosophers’ forgotten axioms of sexuality to provide the deeper cultural context beneath the shallow reach of Roman law:
Zeno (335–263 BCE) and his successor, Chrysippus (280–207 BCE), argued that sex between human beings who have learned the proper principles of respect and true friendship is a good thing, and that the ideal society would be one in which sex was enjoyed freely, without propertarian bonds of marriage. In particular, the young person just turning toward philosophy, the prokopton, should be trained by his mentor first through a sexual relationship, which should grow into an understanding of philosophy.
And so it did for Marcus Aurelius and his mentor-turned-paramour.
It was through the portal of intellectual reverence that the young man marched his heart into love. By the end of 139, he had already become besotted with Fronto. After receiving one of his tutor’s essays, he exults:
Should I not burn with love of you when you’ve written this to me? What should I do? I can’t stop.
Soon, the young man began addressing his beloved as “my Fronto,” unselfconsciously calling him “my number one delight,” “my dearest and most loving,” “my biggest thing under heaven,” “breath of my life.” Fronto, at first, met this ardor with considerable reserve — self-restraint, perhaps — but it was an ambivalent reserve. Aware that Marcus was being courted by another man — not uncommon practice in their time and place — and that this suitor already considered him his “He-Sweetheart,” Fronto writes:
You seem likely, dear Boy, to want to understand… why, pray, I who am not in love strive so eagerly to gain the same Things that Lovers do. So will I tell you first how that may be. By Zeus, that Fellow who is so very a Suitor was not born with a sharper Pair of Eyes than I who am no Lover, yet I in fact am sensible of your Beauty no less than the rest; I might say, more acutely so than your Suitor.
Me you approach not at your Peril, nor at the Cost of any Harm will you keep Company with me; nay, ’twill do you every Good. Indeed, Beauties are help’d and benefitted more by those who love them not, as green Shoots are help’d by the Waters. For Springs and Rivers love not green Shoots, yet in their going near and their flowing past do they make them to flower and to bloom.
Go ahead, as much as you like, threaten me, accuse me… with whole clumps of arguments, but you will never put off your Suitor — I mean me. Nor will I proclaim it any less that I love Fronto, or will I be less in love, because you’ve proven, and with such strange and strong and elegant expressions, that those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.
Marcus accelerates the propulsion of his undeterred ardor:
God, no, I am dying so for love of you, and I’m not scared off by this doctrine of yours, and if you’re going to be more ripe and ready for others who don’t love you, I will still love you as long as I live and breathe.
Socrates didn’t burn more with desire for Phaedrus than I’ve burned during these days — did I say days? I mean months — for the sight of you. Your letter fixed it so a person wouldn’t have to be Dion to love you so much — if he isn’t immediately seized with love of you.
And then, in a touchingly innocent closing line, he adds:
My lady mother says hello.
On Fronto’s birthday, Marcus writes:
Because I love you next to my own self, I want to make a wish for myself on this day.
In an imaginative romp through the intellectual and spiritual epicenters of the ancient world, he gathers a posy of blandishments and beneficences for his beloved:
I go down to Athens, and on bended knee I beseech and beg Minerva that whatever I may ever learn about letters should above all journey from Fronto’s mouth to my heart.’ Now I return to Rome, and I call on the gods of roads and voyages with wishes that every trip I take may be with you beside me, and that I may not be worn out so frequently by such ferocious longing. In the end I ask all the guardian gods of all the nations, and Jupiter himself, who thunders over the Capitol Hill, to grant us that I should celebrate this day, on which you were born for me, along with you, and a happy, strong you.
Fronto did not remain unresponsive. “With good reason I’ve devoted myself to you,” he eventually writes, “considering your love for me, which I feel so lucky to have.” Whatever the nature and magnitude of his own feelings may have been, he makes no pretense of denying that he loves being so loved:
Good-bye, Caesar, and love me the most, as you do. I truly love to pieces every little letter of every word you.
Plucked from antiquity when the manuscript was discovered in 1815, and reanimated by Richlin’s painstaking scholarship despite missing pages, illegible handwriting, and untranslatable sentiments, the forty-six letters collected in Marcus Aurelius in Love radiate a testament to an elemental fact I have observed elsewhere: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.
“Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give.”
By Maria Popova
Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.
First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).
In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.
With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:
We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.
A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:
Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.
Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.
Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:
Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?
When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:
My Dear Doctor,
Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.
With a parent- or teacher-like magnanimity, Jacoby extends extraordinary patience to her doctor. To his self-righteous and patronizing remark that he pities her children on account of her atheism, she responds with a humble, generous reflection on how she hopes her nonreligious morality and spirituality would sculpt her children’s character:
I always feel that we, who are better off, are responsible for having let the poor get so low, and that it is duty, not charity, to help. Charles [her young son], the farmer that is to be, has promised always to keep a cow, to call it by my name, and let the milk of that cow go to the poor around his farm. Should he choose another profession, he will find that the idea of the cow can be worked differently. I hope he will follow my lead in living happy and dying content.
Jacoby takes particular issue with the idea of original sin, with which young minds are so ruthlessly branded and scarred under Christian dogma:
Why start an infant’s life with ideas of fear and sin? Let love be their only religion — a love they can understand and handle. With so many people hungering for love, why give so great a part up to Deity? Acknowledge, Doctor, if you had not had your good share of human love, a mother’s, a wife’s, and your children’s, you would not so well understand the other. A child, I think, is taught untruthfulness when you make him say that he loves God.
Have you ever come across a baby whose eyes were not all innocence and inquiry? And from the first you crush that innocence with those terrible biblical words. Mind you, they are words only. A sincere man will never agree to them when it comes to his own children, and a generous heart must repel them as strongly when they apply to others.
She turns to another damaging aspect of religious dogma — its stunting of children’s natural curiosity about how the world works by keeping certain scientific truths from them or deliberately displacing those truths with mythic fictions:
As to children’s inquiries, they are often wrongly answered, and the higher the subject, the more you think yourself justified in lying to them. From these same children you expect in return truly felt love, good acts, truthfulness and a desire to learn… You absolutely cripple a child by not allowing him to think clearly on all subjects — and no dogmatic religion will stand thinking.
Jacoby proceeds to offer a lucid and luminous vision for what our moral and spiritual life could look like without religious delusion:
My idea is not a life without religion; it is a nobler religion I want. Of course, very good men have lived and are living, to whom your religion has been a help, but science is progressing daily, and in harmony with it our moral standard should be higher — high enough to do right simply because it is right. A religion that has helped mankind to get somewhat better should be resigned to let a still better one take its place. Like a growing child, humanity must outgrow its infancy, must stand alone one day and be able to stand straight without support.
To me a good man with his failings seems a better ideal than a perfect God. We feel nearer to him and nearer to the possibility of attaining his standard. This kind of ideal actually helps people to improve, and is therefore of more value to the world.
I do believe strongly in universal good, but not in individual good. As I ask for no help from God, I ask for no explanation from him of my sufferings. I just try to suffer the least possible, and still get a fair part of my aim in life — happiness. You see, I am not ashamed to say that to be happy seems to me a reason for living — as long as you don’t make others unhappy.
When her doctor condemns and insults her credo as a weakness, she responds with a passionate defense of what the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell termed our native “hunger of the mind,” which is the supreme strength of our species:
It is knowledge we want, the better and better understanding of magnificent Nature with its powerful laws that forces our soul to love, admire and submit. That is religion! My religion! How can you call it a weak and godless one?
Science is turning on the light, but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out, and as it cannot succeed it puts blinkers on its followers, and tries to make them believe that to remove them would be sin. This is the only way in which I can understand their continual warning against knowledge.
Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:
Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.
Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.
We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.
By Maria Popova
“I had seen the Universe,” the revolutionary education reformer and entrepreneur Elizabeth Peabody recalled of first meeting the adolescent Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850), who had already mastered Latin, French, Italian, Greek, and pure mathematics, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning just for mental discipline. “I am determined on distinction,” Fuller wrote to her former teacher at fifteen. By thirty, this fierce determination would establish her as the most erudite woman in America.
In Fuller’s twenty-fifth year, she met the person with whom she would form her most intense lifelong bond and who would in turn come to consider her his greatest influence: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882). “She bound in the belt of her sympathy and friendship all whom I know and love,” he would write upon her tragic and untimely death. “Her heart, which few knew, was as great as her mind, which all knew.” Occupying a significant portion of Figuring, from which this essay is adapted, Emerson and Fuller’s bond would challenge conventional relationship categories and shape the foundational philosophical, political, and aesthetic ideas and ideals of contemporary culture.
Immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of liberal New England, Fuller had long yearned to know the man revered as the country’s most daring intellect. But it was Emerson who made the first overture to the young woman whose reputation had rippled to Concord. He asked Elizabeth Peabody for a formal introduction. In early 1835, Peabody arranged for her young friend to visit Emerson in his home.
At first jarred by Fuller’s freely expressed strong opinions and lack of deference, Emerson was eventually won over — quite possibly by a poem she had recently written and published in a Boston newspaper, under the near-anonymous byline “F,” elegizing the death of Emerson’s beloved younger brother; or possibly by her countercultural proclamation that “all the marriages she knew were a mutual degradation,” which Waldo — as the Sage of Concord was known to his intimates — later reported to Peabody. He affirmed her admiration for Fuller’s intellect, writing that “she has the quickest apprehension.” Within two years, Fuller would become the first woman to attend Emerson’s all-male Transcendental Club — an occasional gathering of like-minded liberals, in which even Peabody was not included, despite the fact that she had coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England.
But Margaret and Waldo’s initial meeting of minds soon became a contact point magnetized by something beyond the intellect — something she hoped, at least for a while, would propel each toward the “fulness of being” she held up as the ultimate aim of existence, something that would prompt him to shudder in the pages of his journal: “There is no terror like that of being known.”
In 1839, having used her meager earnings as a teacher and writer to put her younger brothers through Harvard — an institution closed to women — Fuller founded a groundbreaking series of “Conversations” for women, which would seed the ideas harvested by the feminist movement of the twentieth century. Held at Elizabeth Peabody’s house in Boston on the mornings of Emerson’s successful Wednesday evening lectures, so that commuters could attend both in a single trip, these conversational salons explored subjects ranging from education to ethics, with session titles like “Influence,” “Mistakes,” “Creeds,” “The Ideal,” and “Persons Who Never Awake to Life in This World.”
After the staggering success of the first gathering, when a small group of Transcendentalists set out to do in print what Fuller was doing in conversation, Emerson proposed her for the editorship of a new periodical, promising her a share of the proceeds large enough to alleviate her ongoing financial struggles. Fuller accepted. They called this unexampled journal The Dial — the title that cofounder Bronson Alcott had given to his daily log of sayings by his two young daughters, Anna and Louisa May. Nothing like it had existed before — it was America’s first truly independent magazine, unaffiliated with any university or church, devoted not to a religious ideology or a single genre of literature, but to a kaleidoscope of intellectual and creative curiosity: philosophy, poetry, art, science, law, criticism. A century and a half before the TED conference claimed “ideas worth spreading” as a motto, Emerson envisioned The Dial as precisely that — a publication “so broad & great in its survey that it should lead the opinion of this generation on every great interest,” a sort of manual on “the whole Art of Living.” Fuller aimed even higher. On the prospectus printed on the back of the inaugural issue, published on July 4, 1840 — just after her thirtieth birthday — she vowed to aim “not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and more nobly, by letting him see how some minds are kept alive by a peculiar self-trust.”
In the course of their professional collaboration, Margaret and Waldo’s relationship swelled with complexity that strained the boundaries of friendship, of soul kinship, even of intellectual infatuation.
Waldo, sorrowing in an intellectually unriveting marriage, bonded with Margaret in a way that he would with no one else — not even his wife and children. “Most of the persons whom I see in my own house I see across a gulf,” he anguished in his own journal. “I cannot go to them nor they come to me.” He and Margaret found themselves on one side of an invisible wall, the rest of the world on the other. But neither knew what to make of this uncommon bond that didn’t conform to any existing template. The richest relationships are often those that don’t fit neatly into the preconceived slots we have made for the archetypes we imagine would populate our lives — the friend, the lover, the parent, the sibling, the mentor, the muse. We meet people who belong to no single slot, who figure into multiple categories at different times and in different magnitudes. We then must either stretch ourselves to create new slots shaped after these singular relationships, enduring the growing pains of self-expansion, or petrify.
Margaret Fuller experienced friendship and romance much as she did male and female — in a nonbinary way. A century before Virginia Woolf subverted the millennia-old cultural rhetoric of gender with her assertion that “in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” making her case for the androgynous mind as the best possible mind, “resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided,” Fuller denounced the dualism of gender and insisted that “there is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” The boundary, she argued far ahead of Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking Woman in the Nineteenth Century, is indeed porous, so that a kind of ongoing transmutation takes place: “Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid” as male and female “are perpetually passing into one another.” Fuller was highly discriminating about her intimate relationships, but once she admitted another into the innermost chambers of her being, she demanded of them nothing less than everything — having tasted Goethe’s notion of “the All,” why salivate over mere fragments of feeling?
But this boundless and all-consuming emotional intensity eventually repelled its objects — a parade of brilliant and beautiful men and women, none of whom could fully understand it, much less reciprocate it. Hers was a diamagnetic being, endowed with nonbinary magnetism yet repelling by both poles. Falling back on his trustiest faculty, Waldo tried to reason his way out of the emotional disorientation of his complex relationship with Margaret:
I would that I could, I know afar off that I cannot, give the lights and shades, the hopes and outlooks that come to me in these strange, cold-warm, attractive-repelling conversations with Margaret, whom I always admire, most revere when I nearest see, and sometimes love, — yet whom I freeze, and who freezes me to silence, when we seem to promise to come nearest.
To hold space for complexity, to resist the violence of containing and classifying what transcends familiar labels, takes patience and a certain kind of moral courage, which Waldo seemed unable — or unwilling — to conjure up. “O divine mermaid or fisher of men, to whom all gods have given the witch-hazel-wand… I am yours & yours shall be,” he told Margaret in a letter in the early autumn of 1840. But the following day, he lashed out in his journal, writing at Margaret what he wouldn’t write to her:
You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought & said?… I see no possibility of loving any thing but what now is, & is becoming; your courage, your enterprize, your budding affection, your opening thought, your prayer, I can love, — but what else?
This false notion of the body as the testing ground for intimacy has long warped our understanding of what constitutes a romantic relationship. The measure of intimacy is not the quotient of friction between skin and skin, but something else entirely — something of the love and trust, the joy and ease that flow between two people as they inhabit that private world walled off from everything and everyone else.
Perhaps Waldo did recognize that he and Margaret had an undeniable intimate partnership, and it was this very recognition that made him bristle at the sense of being coerced into coupledom. He was, after all, the poet laureate of self-reliance, who believed that for the independent man “the Universe is his bride.” And yet, although he experienced himself as an individual, he had somehow conceded to the union of marriage and wedded a human bride — one who had grown to depend on him for her emotional well-being, which Waldo now experienced as a dead weight. He called it a “Mezentian marriage” — a grim allusion to the Roman myth of the cruel King Mezentius, known for tying men face-to-face with corpses and leaving them to die. He raged in his journal:
Marriage is not ideal but empirical. It is not the plan or prospect of the soul, this fast union of one to one; the soul is alone… It is itself the universe & must realize its progress in ten thousand beloved forms & not in one.
Margaret, too, tried to figure the form of their relationship. She wrote to Waldo with unprecedented candor, accusing him of being unclear in his feelings for her and commanding him to clarify where he stood, with an awareness that she might be yearning for more from him than he could ever give her:
We are to be much to one another. How often have I left you despairing and forlorn. How often have I said, this light will never understand my fire; this clear eye will never discern the law by which I am filling my circle; this simple force will never interpret my need to manifold being.
Acknowledging the agitation that bedeviled them both as they tried to make sense of their relationship, she promised that “this darting motion, this restless flame shall yet be attempered and subdued.” She sensed between them an infinite possibility, but “the sense of the infinite exhausts and exalts; it cannot therefore possess me wholly.” The paradox, of course, is that there is always something irresistibly vitalizing about our irresolvable passions, about that which we can never fully possess nor can fully possess us — some potent antidote to the wearying monotony of our settled possessions. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson would write in one of his most famous essays, published just a few months later, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” For now, he painted the dark contours of this recognition in his journal: “Between narrow walls we walk: insanity on one side, & fat dulness on the other.” Margaret, sensing the bipolar pull of his desires, demanded that he choose a pole:
Did not you ask for a “foe” in your friend? Did not you ask for a “large and formidable nature”? But a beautiful foe, I am not yet, to you. Shall I ever be? I know not.
And yet she told Waldo that with him alone she felt “so at home” that she couldn’t imagine finding another love as quenching: “I know not how again to wander and grope, seeking my place in another Soul.”
But Emerson was not looking to be “at home” in anyone other than himself. Already feeling his independent nature stifled by his marriage, he could not — would not — let himself be trapped in a second relationship, his soul cemented and Mezented with a second weight of expectations. After nearly a month of stupefied silence, he finally responded to Margaret in a lengthy and conflicted letter:
My dear Margaret,
I have your frank & noble & affecting letter, and yet I think I could wish it unwritten. I ought never to have suffered you to lead me into any conversation or writing on our relation, a topic from which with all my persons my Genius ever sternly warns me away. I was content & happy to meet on a human footing a woman of sense & sentiment with whom one could exchange reasonable words & go away assured that wherever she went there was light & force & honour. That is to me a solid good; it gives value to thought & the day; it redeems society from that foggy & misty aspect it wears so often seen from our retirements; it is the foundation of everlasting friendship. Touch it not — speak not of it — and this most welcome natural alliance becomes from month to month, — & the slower & with the more intervals the better, — our air & diet. A robust & total understanding grows up resembling nothing so much as the relation of brothers who are intimate & perfect friends without having ever spoken of the fact. But tell me that I am cold or unkind, and in my most flowing state I become a cake of ice. I feel the crystals shoot & drops solidify. It may do for others but it is not for me to bring the relation to speech… Ask me what I think of you & me, — & I am put to confusion.
Four days earlier, he had entreated her: “Give me a look through your telescope or you one through mine; — an all explaining look.” Now he argues that they can neither be fully explained to the other, nor fully seen — they are as constitutionally different as if they “had been born & bred in different nations.” Inverting Margaret’s accusation of his withholding, he points out her own opacity:
You say you understand me wholly. You cannot communicate yourself to me. I hear the words sometimes but remain a stranger to your state of mind.
Yet we are all the time a little nearer. I honor you for a brave & beneficent woman and mark with gladness your steadfast good will to me. I see not how we can bear each other anything else than good will.
This undulating emotional confusion runs through the entire letter as Waldo struggles to reconcile his seemingly irreconcilable desires — not to lose his uncommon and electrifying bond with Margaret, but not to be trapped in bondage. He tells her that a “vast & beautiful Power” has brought them into each other’s lives and likens them to two stars shining together in a single constellation. He urges her to let things be as they have been, to savor their uncommon connection without demanding more:
Let us live as we have always done, only ever better, I hope, & richer. Speak to me of every thing but myself & I will endeavor to make an intelligible reply. Allow me to serve you & you will do me a kindness; come & see me… let me visit you and I shall be cheered as ever by the spectacle of so much genius & character as you have always the gift to draw around you.
We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.
In their early correspondence, Waldo had articulated to Margaret a sentiment about the problem of translation in poetry, which now seemed to perfectly capture the problem of translating their interior worlds to each other:
We are armed all over with these subtle antagonisms which as soon as we meet begin to play, and translate all poetry into such stale prose!… All association must be compromise.
A decade later, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would limn this central paradox of intimacy in the philosophical allegory of the porcupine dilemma: In the cold of winter, a covenant of porcupines huddle together seeking warmth. As they draw close, they begin wounding each other with their quills. Warmed but maimed, they instinctually draw apart, only to find themselves shivering and longing for the heat of other bodies again. Eventually, they discover that unwounding warmth lies in the right span of space — close enough to share in a greater collective temperature, but not so close as to inflict the pricks of proximity.
How Margaret and Waldo negotiated that elusive optimal distance, how she finally found unreserved love elsewhere when she was least expecting it, and how her rich and enduring intellectual bond with Emerson shaped both of their bodies of work and the entire history of American letters, unfolds throughout the rest of Figuring.
An elegy for the triumph of commodity over creativity.
By Maria Popova
At its dawn, every technology — like every new love — is aglow with the exhilaration of endless possibility. Its dark sides and eventual demise are unfathomable to the wildly optimistic psyche of the besotted, and besotted we invariably are with each new medium that sweeps across the landscape of culture with the forceful promise of a revolution.
The polymath John Herschel, nephew of the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel and discoverer of Uranus, coined the word photography in 1839 in his correspondence with Henry Fox Talbot — a onetime aspiring artist turned amateur inventor. (The invention of photography and how the new technology revolutionized both art and science occupies Chapter 14 of Figuring, titled “Shadowing the Light of Immortality,” from which this essay is adapted.) For several years, Talbot had been experimenting with techniques for transmuting the impermanence of light and shadow into permanent prints on paper coated with receptive chemicals. But his images failed to last — exposed to natural light, the prints faded over time. Just as he finally perfected the process with help from Herschel, who had proposed using a sodium thiosulfate coating to make the images more permanent, Talbot got word that a French rival by the name of Louis Daguerre had devised an image-making process, which he had named after himself and was planning on presenting at a joint meeting of the Academy of Sciences and the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris on January 7.
Talbot realized that the revolution he had spent years planning was already afoot and might have another leader. He wrote to Herschel frantically in the last week of January that he must present his own findings before the Royal Society, for “no time ought to be lost, the Parisian invention having got the start of 3 weeks.” He scrambled to rally excitement for his “art of photogenic drawing.”
In a letter of February 28, 1839, Herschel objected to the term “photogeny” to describe Talbot’s new image-making process, noting that it “recalls Van Mons’s exploded theories of thermogen & photogen.” This associative defect, Herschel argued, is amplified by the word’s poetic deficiencies: “It also lends itself to no inflexions & is not analogous with Litho & Chalcography.” Instead, Herschel proposed “photography.” On March 12, he read before the Royal Society a paper titled “Note on the Art of Photography or the Application of the Chemical Rays of Light to the Purposes of Pictorial Representation” — the first public utterance of the word photography.
A quarter century later, an Indian-born Englishwoman by the name of Julia Margaret Cameron pioneered soft-focus photographic portraiture after receiving a camera as a fiftieth-birthday gift from her son. Cameron photographed some of the most prominent figures of her day, including Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Alice Liddell (the real-life girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland), and Herschel himself. In 1926, Virginia Woolf — whose mother was Cameron’s cousin and favorite photographic subject — published a posthumous volume of Cameron’s photographs under her own independent Hogarth Press imprint. She prefaced the monograph with a biographical sketch of her great-aunt, who had died before Woolf’s birth and whom she had gotten to know primarily through family anecdotes and letters.
The Victorian age killed the art of letter writing by kindness: it was only too easy to catch the post. A lady sitting down at her desk a hundred years before had not only certain ideals of logic and restraint before her, but the knowledge that a letter which cost so much money to send and excited so much interest to receive was worth time and trouble. With Ruskin and Carlyle in power, a penny post to stimulate, a gardener, a gardener’s boy, and a galloping donkey to catch up the overflow of inspiration, restraint was unnecessary and emotion more to a lady’s credit, perhaps, than common sense. Thus to dip into the private letters of the Victorian age is to be immersed in the joys and sorrows of enormous families, to share their whooping coughs and colds and misadventures, day by day, indeed hour by hour.
Woolf’s point applies not only to letter writing but to the very medium celebrated by the book in which her essay appears, and in fact to every technology that ever was and ever will be. She couldn’t have — or could she have? — envisioned what would become of photography as the technology became commonplace over the coming decades, much less what digital photography would bring. But her insight holds true — the easier it becomes to convey a message in a certain medium, the less selective we grow about what that message contains, and soon we are conveying the trifles and banalities of our day-to-day life, simply because it is effortless to fill the page (or feed, or screen, or whatever medium comes next). Letters about lunch items have been supplanted by Instagram photographs of lunch items, to which we apply the ready-made filters that have purported to supplant the artistry of light, shadow, and composition. The art of photography, too, is being killed by kindness.