John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.
By Maria Popova
Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:
Granted, the book isn’t actually as much an autobiography so much as it is a biography collaged through interviews with 20 people close to Warhol at the end of the 60’s — from Nico to Taylor Mead to Lou Reed — trying to “explain” and make sense of the pop art icon. Still, it’s a remarkable piece of cultural history offering a rare glimpse of a man full of contradictions.
A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper. He’s become a kind of icon, kind of representative of what the 60’s were.” ~ John Wilcock
Wilcock is a self-admitted expert on Warhol — he used to go to The Factory, Warhol’s famous studio, two or three times a week during the sixties and early seventies, and accompanied him to the sets of his first films.
Andy taught me an awful lot about life. I learned that artist and poets who hang around together basically tell the future, and even though they maybe explain it in words or in images that you’re not quite clear about, somebody interprets that. And, to some extent, I felt that was my role — to hang around artists and try and explain what I thought was some of the meaning.” ~ John Wilcock
A spindly middle-aged mathematician with a soaring mind, a sunken heart, and bad skin is being thrown about the back of a carriage in the bone-hollowing cold of a German January. Since his youth, he has been inscribing into family books and friendship albums his personal motto, borrowed from a verse by the ancient poet Perseus: “O the cares of man, how much of everything is futile.” He has weathered personal tragedies that would level most. He is now racing through the icy alabaster expanse of the countryside in the precarious hope of averting another: Four days after Christmas and two days after his forty-fourth birthday, a letter from his sister has informed him that their widowed mother is on trial for witchcraft — a fact for which he holds himself responsible.
He has written the world’s first work of science fiction — a clever allegory advancing the controversial Copernican model of the universe, describing the effects of gravity decades before Newton formalized it into a law, envisioning speech synthesis centuries before computers, and presaging space travel three hundred years before the Moon landing. The story, intended to counter superstition with science through symbol and metaphor inviting critical thinking, has instead effected the deadly indictment of his elderly, illiterate mother.
The year is 1617. His name is Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571–November 15, 1630) — perhaps the unluckiest man in the world, perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived.
He inhabits a world in which God is mightier than nature, the Devil realer and more omnipresent than gravity. All around him, people believe that the sun revolves around the Earth every twenty-four hours, set into perfect circular motion by an omnipotent creator; the few who dare support the tendentious idea that the Earth rotates around its axis while revolving around the sun believe that it moves along a perfectly circular orbit. Kepler would disprove both beliefs, coin the word orbit, and quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted. He would be the first astronomer to develop a scientific method of predicting eclipses and the first to link mathematical astronomy to material reality — the first astrophysicist — by demonstrating that physical forces move the heavenly bodies in calculable ellipses. All of this he would accomplish while drawing horoscopes, espousing the spontaneous creation of new animal species rising from bogs and oozing from tree bark, and believing the Earth itself to be an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. Three centuries later, the marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson would reimagine a version of this view woven of science and stripped of mysticism as she makes ecology a household word.
Kepler’s life is a testament to how science does for reality what Plutarch’s thought experiment known as “the Ship of Theseus” does for the self. In the ancient Greek allegory, Theseus — the founder-king of Athens — sailed triumphantly back to the great city after slaying the mythic Minotaur on Crete. For a thousand years, his ship was maintained in the harbor of Athens as a living trophy and was sailed to Crete annually to reenact the victorious voyage. As time began to corrode the vessel, its components were replaced one by one — new planks, new oars, new sails — until no original part remained. Was it then, Plutarch asks, the same ship? There is no static, solid self. Throughout life, our habits, beliefs, and ideas evolve beyond recognition. Our physical and social environments change. Almost all of our cells are replaced. Yet we remain, to ourselves, “who” “we” “are.”
So with science: Bit by bit, discoveries reconfigure our understanding of reality. This reality is revealed to us only in fragments. The more fragments we perceive and parse, the more lifelike the mosaic we make of them. But it is still a mosaic, a representation — imperfect and incomplete, however beautiful it may be, and subject to unending transfiguration. Three centuries after Kepler, Lord Kelvin would take the podium at the British Association of Science in the year 1900 and declare: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” At the same moment in Zurich, the young Albert Einstein is incubating the ideas that would converge into his revolutionary conception of spacetime, irreversibly transfiguring our elemental understanding of reality.
Even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, but the horizon shifts with each incremental revolution as the human mind peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens. We sieve the world through the mesh of these certitudes, tautened by nature and culture, but every once in a while — whether by accident or conscious effort — the wire loosens and the kernel of a revolution slips through.
Kepler first came under the thrall of the heliocentric model as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory. The twenty-two-year-old Kepler, studying to enter the clergy, wrote a dissertation about the Moon, aimed at demonstrating the Copernican claim that the Earth is moving simultaneously around its axis and around the sun. A classmate by the name of Christoph Besold — a law student at the university — was so taken with Kepler’s lunar paper that he proposed a public debate. The university promptly vetoed it. A couple of years later, Galileo would write to Kepler that he’d been a believer in the Copernican system himself “for many years” — and yet he hadn’t yet dared to stand up for it in public and wouldn’t for more than thirty years.
Kepler’s radical ideas rendered him too untrustworthy for the pulpit. After graduation, he was banished across the country to teach mathematics at a Lutheran seminary in Graz. But he was glad — he saw himself, mind and body, as cut out for scholarship. “I take from my mother my bodily constitution,” he would later write, “which is more suited to study than to other kinds of life.” Three centuries later, Walt Whitman would observe how beholden the mind is to the body, “how behind the tally of genius and morals stands the stomach, and gives a sort of casting vote.”
While Kepler saw his body as an instrument of scholarship, other bodies around him were being exploited as instruments of superstition. In Graz, he witnessed dramatic exorcisms performed on young women believed to be possessed by demons — grim public spectacles staged by the king and his clergy. He saw brightly colored fumes emanate from one woman’s belly and glistening black beetles crawl out of another’s mouth. He saw the deftness with which the puppeteers of the populace dramatized dogma to wrest control — the church was then the mass media, and the mass media were as unafraid of resorting to propaganda as they are today.
As religious persecution escalated — soon it would erupt into the Thirty Years’ War, the deadliest religious war in the Continent’s history — life in Graz became unlivable. Protestants were forced to marry by Catholic ritual and have their children baptized as Catholics. Homes were raided, heretical books confiscated and destroyed. When Kepler’s infant daughter died, he was fined for evading the Catholic clergy and not allowed to bury his child until he paid the charge. It was time to migrate — a costly and trying endeavor for the family, but Kepler knew there would be a higher price to pay for staying:
I may not regard loss of property more seriously than loss of opportunity to fulfill that for which nature and career have destined me.
Returning to Tübingen for a career in the clergy was out of the question:
I could never torture myself with greater unrest and anxiety than if I now, in my present state of conscience, should be enclosed in that sphere of activity.
Instead, Kepler reconsidered something he had initially viewed merely as a flattering compliment to his growing scientific reputation: an invitation to visit the prominent Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in Bohemia, where he had just been appointed royal mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor.
Kepler made the arduous five-hundred-kilometer journey to Prague. On February 4, 1600, the famous Dane welcomed him warmly into the castle where he computed the heavens, his enormous orange mustache almost aglow with geniality. During the two months Kepler spent there as guest and apprentice, Tycho was so impressed with the young astronomer’s theoretical ingenuity that he permitted him to analyze the celestial observations he had been guarding closely from all other scholars, then offered him a permanent position. Kepler accepted gratefully and journeyed back to Graz to collect his family, arriving in a retrograde world even more riven by religious persecution. When the Keplers refused to convert to Catholicism, they were banished from the city — the migration to Prague, with all the privations it would require, was no longer optional. Shortly after Kepler and his family alighted in their new life in Bohemia, the valve between chance and choice opened again, and another sudden change of circumstance flooded in: Tycho died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-four. Two days later, Kepler was appointed his successor as imperial mathematician, inheriting Tycho’s data. Over the coming years, he would draw on it extensively in devising his three laws of planetary motion, which would revolutionize the human understanding of the universe.
How many revolutions does the cog of culture make before a new truth about reality catches into gear?
Three centuries before Kepler, Dante had marveled in his Divine Comedy at the new clocks ticking in England and Italy: “One wheel moves and drives the other.” This marriage of technology and poetry eventually gave rise to the metaphor of the clockwork universe. Before Newton’s physics placed this metaphor at the ideological epicenter of the Enlightenment, Kepler bridged the poetic and the scientific. In his first book, The Cosmographic Mystery, Kepler picked up the metaphor and stripped it of its divine dimensions, removing God as the clockmaster and instead pointing to a single force operating the heavens: “The celestial machine,” he wrote, “is not something like a divine organism, but rather something like a clockwork in which a single weight drives all the gears.” Within it, “the totality of the complex motions is guided by a single magnetic force.” It was not, as Dante wrote, “love that moves the sun and other stars” — it was gravity, as Newton would later formalize this “single magnetic force.” But it was Kepler who thus formulated for the first time the very notion of a force — something that didn’t exist for Copernicus, who, despite his groundbreaking insight that the sun moves the planets, still conceived of that motion in poetic rather than scientific terms. For him, the planets were horses whose reins the sun held; for Kepler, they were gears the sun wound by a physical force.
In the anxious winter of 1617, unfigurative wheels are turning beneath Johannes Kepler as he hastens to his mother’s witchcraft trial. For this long journey by horse and carriage, Kepler has packed a battered copy of Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music by Vincenzo Galilei, his sometime friend Galileo’s father — one of the era’s most influential treatises on music, a subject that always enchanted Kepler as much as mathematics, perhaps because he never saw the two as separate. Three years later, he would draw on it in composing his own groundbreaking book The Harmony of the World, in which he would formulate his third and final law of planetary motion, known as the harmonic law — his exquisite discovery, twenty-two years in the making, of the proportional link between a planet’s orbital period and the length of the axis of its orbit. It would help compute, for the first time, the distance of the planets from the sun — the measure of the heavens in an era when the Solar System was thought to be all there was.
As Kepler is galloping through the German countryside to prevent his mother’s execution, the Inquisition in Rome is about to declare the claim of Earth’s motion heretical — a heresy punishable by death.
Behind him lies a crumbled life: Emperor Rudolph II is dead — Kepler is no longer royal mathematician and chief scientific adviser to the Holy Roman Emperor, a job endowed with Europe’s highest scientific prestige, though primarily tasked with casting horoscopes for royalty; his beloved six-year-old son is dead — “a hyacinth of the morning in the first day of spring” wilted by smallpox, a disease that had barely spared Kepler himself as a child, leaving his skin cratered by scars and his eyesight permanently damaged; his first wife is dead, having come unhinged by grief before succumbing to the pox herself.
Before him lies the collision of two worlds in two world systems, the spark of which would ignite the interstellar imagination.
In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.
Kepler knew what we habitually forget — that the locus of possibility expands when the unimaginable is imagined and then made real through systematic effort. Centuries later, in a 1971 conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration, science fiction patron saint Ray Bradbury would capture this transmutation process perfectly: “It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.” Like any currency of value, the human imagination is a coin with two inseparable sides. It is our faculty of fancy that fills the disquieting gaps of the unknown with the tranquilizing certitudes of myth and superstition, that points to magic and witchcraft when common sense and reason fail to unveil causality. But that selfsame faculty is also what leads us to rise above accepted facts, above the limits of the possible established by custom and convention, and reach for new summits of previously unimagined truth. Which way the coin flips depends on the degree of courage, determined by some incalculable combination of nature, culture, and character.
In a letter to Galileo containing the first written mention of The Dream’s existence and penned in the spring of 1610 — a little more than a century after Columbus voyaged to the Americas — Kepler ushers his correspondent’s imagination toward fathoming the impending reality of interstellar travel by reminding him just how unimaginable transatlantic travel had seemed not so long ago:
Who would have believed that a huge ocean could be crossed more peacefully and safely than the narrow expanse of the Adriatic, the Baltic Sea or the English Channel?
Kepler envisions that once “sails or ships fit to survive the heavenly breezes” are invented, voyagers would no longer fear the dark emptiness of interstellar space. With an eye to these future explorers, he issues a solidary challenge:
So, for those who will come shortly to attempt this journey, let us establish the astronomy: Galileo, you of Jupiter, I of the moon.
Newton would later refine Kepler’s three laws of motion with his formidable calculus and richer understanding of the underlying force as the foundation of Newtonian gravity. In a quarter millennium, the mathematician Katherine Johnson would draw on these laws in computing the trajectory that lands Apollo 11 on the Moon. They would guide the Voyager spacecraft, the first human-made object to sail into interstellar space.
In The Dream, which Kepler described in his letter to Galileo as a “lunar geography,” the young traveler lands on the Moon to find that lunar beings believe Earth revolves around them — from their cosmic vantage point, our pale blue dot rises and sets against their firmament, something reflected even in the name they have given Earth: Volva. Kepler chose the name deliberately, to emphasize the fact of Earth’s revolution — the very motion that made Copernicanism so dangerous to the dogma of cosmic stability. Assuming that the reader is aware that the Moon revolves around the Earth — an anciently observed fact, thoroughly uncontroversial by his day — Kepler intimates the unnerving central question: Could it be, his story suggests in a stroke of allegorical genius predating Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland by nearly three centuries, that our own certitude about Earth’s fixed position in space is just as misguided as the lunar denizens’ belief in Volva’s revolution around them? Could we, too, be revolving around the sun, even though the ground feels firm and motionless beneath our feet?
The Dream was intended to gently awaken people to the truth of Copernicus’s disconcerting heliocentric model of the universe, defying the long-held belief that Earth is the static center of an immutable cosmos. But earthlings’ millennia-long slumber was too deep for The Dream — a deadly somnolence, for it resulted in Kepler’s elderly mother’s being accused of witchcraft. Tens of thousands of people would be tried for witchcraft by the end of the persecution in Europe, dwarfing the two dozen who would render Salem synonymous with witchcraft trials seven decades later. Most of the accused were women, whose inculpation or defense fell on their sons, brothers, and husbands. Most of the trials ended in execution. In Germany, some twenty-five thousand were killed. In Kepler’s sparsely populated hometown alone, six women had been burned as witches just a few weeks before his mother was indicted.
An uncanny symmetry haunts Kepler’s predicament — it was Katharina Kepler who had first enchanted her son with astronomy when she took him to the top of a nearby hill and let the six-year-old boy gape in wonderment as the Great Comet of 1577 blazed across the sky.
By the time he wrote The Dream, Kepler was one of the most prominent scientists in the world. His rigorous fidelity to observational data harmonized with a symphonic imagination. Drawing on Tycho’s data, Kepler devoted a decade and more than seventy failed trials to calculating the orbit of Mars, which became the yardstick for measuring the heavens. Having just formulated the first of his laws, demolishing the ancient belief that the heavenly bodies obey uniform circular motion, Kepler demonstrated that the planets orbit the sun at varying speeds along ellipses. Unlike previous models, which were simply mathematical hypotheses, Kepler discovered the actual orbit by which Mars moved through space, then used the Mars data to determine Earth’s orbit. Taking multiple observations of Mars’s position relative to Earth, he examined how the angle between the two planets changed over the course of the orbital period he had already calculated for Mars: 687 days. To do this, Kepler had to project himself onto Mars with an empathic leap of the imagination. The word empathy would come into popular use three centuries later, through the gateway of art, when it entered the modern lexicon in the early twentieth century to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a painting in an effort to understand why art moves us. Through science, Kepler had projected himself into the greatest work of art there is in an effort to understand how nature draws its laws to move the planets, including the body that moves us through space. Using trigonometry, he calculated the distance between Earth and Mars, located the center of Earth’s orbit, and went on to demonstrate that all the other planets also moved along elliptical orbits, thus demolishing the foundation of Greek astronomy — uniform circular motion — and effecting a major strike against the Ptolemaic model.
Kepler published these revelatory results, which summed up his first two laws, in his book Astronomia nova — The New Astronomy. That is exactly what it was — the nature of the cosmos had forever changed, and so had our place in it. “Through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy,” Kepler wrote to his former professor, reflecting on having traded a career in theology for the conquest of a greater truth.
By the time of Astronomia nova, Kepler had ample mathematical evidence affirming Copernicus’s theory. But he realized something crucial and abiding about human psychology: The scientific proof was too complex, too cumbersome, too abstract to persuade even his peers, much less the scientifically illiterate public; it wasn’t data that would dismantle their celestial parochialism, but storytelling. Three centuries before the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote that “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” Kepler knew that whatever the composition of the universe may be, its understanding was indeed the work of stories, not of science — that what he needed was a new rhetoric by which to illustrate, in a simple yet compelling way, that the Earth is indeed in motion. And so The Dream was born.
Even in medieval times, the Frankfurt Book Fair was one of the world’s most fecund literary marketplaces. Kepler attended it frequently in order to promote his own books and to stay informed about other important scientific publications. He brought the manuscript of The Dream with him to this safest possible launchpad, where the other attendees, in addition to being well aware of the author’s reputation as a royal mathematician and astronomer, were either scientists themselves or erudite enough to appreciate the story’s clever allegorical play on science. But something went awry: Sometime in 1611, the sole manuscript fell into the hands of a wealthy young nobleman and made its way across Europe. By Kepler’s account, it even reached John Donne and inspired his ferocious satire of the Catholic Church, Ignatius His Conclave. Circulated via barbershop gossip, versions of the story had reached minds far less literary, or even literate, by 1615. These garbled retellings eventually made their way to Kepler’s home duchy.
“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath would write to her mother three centuries later. But interpretation invariably reveals more about the interpreter than about the interpreted. The gap between intention and interpretation is always rife with wrongs, especially when writer and reader occupy vastly different strata of emotional maturity and intellectual sophistication. The science, symbolism, and allegorical virtuosity of The Dream were entirely lost on the illiterate, superstitious, and vengeful villagers of Kepler’s hometown. Instead, they interpreted the story with the only tool at their disposal — the blunt weapon of the literal shorn of context. They were especially captivated by one element of the story: The narrator is a young astronomer who describes himself as “by nature eager for knowledge” and who had apprenticed with Tycho Brahe. By then, people far and wide knew of Tycho’s most famous pupil and imperial successor. Perhaps it was a point of pride for locals to have produced the famous Johannes Kepler, perhaps a point of envy. Whatever the case, they immediately took the story to be not fiction but autobiography. This was the seedbed of trouble: Another main character was the narrator’s mother — an herb doctor who conjures up spirits to assist her son in his lunar voyage. Kepler’s own mother was an herb doctor.
Whether what happened next was the product of intentional malevolent manipulation or the unfortunate workings of ignorance is hard to tell. My own sense is that one aided the other, as those who stand to gain from the manipulation of truth often prey on those bereft of critical thinking. According to Kepler’s subsequent account, a local barber overheard the story and seized upon the chance to cast Katharina Kepler as a witch — an opportune accusation, for the barber’s sister Ursula had a bone to pick with the elderly woman, a disavowed friend. Ursula Reinhold had borrowed money from Katharina Kepler and never repaid it. She had also confided in the old widow about having become pregnant by a man other than her husband. In an act of unthinking indiscretion, Katharina had shared this compromising information with Johannes’s younger brother, who had then just as unthinkingly circulated it around the small town. To abate scandal, Ursula had obtained an abortion. To cover up the brutal corporeal aftermath of this medically primitive procedure, she blamed her infirmity on a spell — cast against her, she proclaimed, by Katharina Kepler. Soon Ursula persuaded twenty-four suggestible locals to give accounts of the elderly woman’s sorcery — one neighbor claimed that her daughter’s arm had grown numb after Katharina brushed against it in the street; the butcher’s wife swore that pain pierced her husband’s thigh when Katharina walked by; the limping schoolmaster dated the onset of his disability to a night ten years earlier when he had taken a sip from a tin cup at Katharina’s house while reading her one of Kepler’s letters. She was accused of appearing magically through closed doors, of having caused the deaths of infants and animals. The Dream, Kepler believed, had furnished the superstition-hungry townspeople with evidence of his mother’s alleged witchcraft — after all, her own son had depicted her as a sorcerer in his story, the allegorical nature of which eluded them completely.
For her part, Katharina Kepler didn’t help her own case. Prickly in character and known to brawl, she first tried suing Ursula for slander — a strikingly modern American approach but, in medieval Germany, effective only in stoking the fire, for Ursula’s well-connected family had ties to local authorities. Then she tried bribing the magistrate into dismissing her case by offering him a silver chalice, which was promptly interpreted as an admission of guilt, and the civil case was escalated to a criminal trial for witchcraft.
In the midst of this tumult, Kepler’s infant daughter, named for his mother, died of epilepsy, followed by another son, four years old, of smallpox.
Having taken his mother’s defense upon himself as soon as he first learned of the accusation, the bereaved Kepler devoted six years to the trial, all the while trying to continue his scientific work and to see through the publication of the major astronomical catalog he had been composing since he inherited Tycho’s data. Working remotely from Linz, Kepler first wrote various petitions on Katharina’s behalf, then mounted a meticulous legal defense in writing. He requested trial documentation of witness testimonies and transcripts of his mother’s interrogations. He then journeyed across the country once more, sitting with Katharina in prison and talking with her for hours on end to assemble information about the people and events of the small town he had left long ago. Despite the allegation that she was demented, the seventy-something Katharina’s memory was astonishing — she recalled in granular detail incidents that had taken place years earlier.
Kepler set out to disprove each of the forty-nine “points of disgrace” hurled against his mother, using the scientific method to uncover the natural causes behind the supernatural evils she had allegedly wrought on the townspeople. He confirmed that Ursula had had an abortion, that the teenaged girl had numbed her arm by carrying too many bricks, that the schoolmaster had lamed his leg by tripping into a ditch, that the butcher suffered from lumbago.
None of Kepler’s epistolary efforts at reason worked. Five years into the ordeal, an order for Katharina’s arrest was served. In the small hours of an August night, armed guards barged into her daughter’s house and found Katharina, who had heard the disturbance, hiding in a wooden linen chest — naked, as she often slept during the hot spells of summer. By one account, she was permitted to clothe herself before being taken away; by another, she was carried out disrobed inside the trunk to avoid a public disturbance and hauled to prison for another interrogation. So gratuitous was the fabrication of evidence that even Katharina’s composure through the indignities was held against her — the fact that she didn’t cry during the proceedings was cited as proof of unrepentant liaison with the Devil. Kepler had to explain to the court that he had never seen his stoic mother shed a single tear — not when his father left in Johannes’s childhood, not during the long years Katharina spent raising her children alone, not in the many losses of old age.
Katharina was threatened with being stretched on a wheel — a diabolical device commonly used to extract confessions — unless she admitted to sorcery. This elderly woman, who had outlived her era’s life expectancy by decades, would spend the next fourteen months imprisoned in a dark room, sitting and sleeping on the stone floor to which she was shackled with a heavy iron chain. She faced the threats with self-possession and confessed nothing.
In a last recourse, Kepler uprooted his entire family, left his teaching position, and traveled again to his hometown as the Thirty Years’ War raged on. I wonder if he wondered during that dispiriting journey why he had written The Dream in the first place, wondered whether the price of any truth is to be capped at so great a personal cost.
Long ago, as a student at Tübingen, Kepler had read Plutarch’s The Face on the Moon — the mythical story of a traveler who sails to a group of islands north of Britain inhabited by people who know secret passages to the Moon. There is no science in Plutarch’s story — it is pure fantasy. And yet it employs the same simple, clever device that Kepler himself would use in The Dream fifteen centuries later to unsettle the reader’s anthropocentric bias: In considering the Moon as a potential habitat for life, Plutarch pointed out that the idea of life in saltwater seems unfathomable to air-breathing creatures such as ourselves, and yet life in the oceans exists. It would be another eighteen centuries before we would fully awaken not only to the fact of marine life but to the complexity and splendor of this barely fathomable reality when Rachel Carson pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic science writing, inviting the human reader to consider Earth from the nonhuman perspective of sea creatures.
Kepler first read Plutarch’s story in 1595, but it wasn’t until the solar eclipse of 1605, the observations of which first gave him the insight that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than circles, that he began seriously considering the allegory as a means of illustrating Copernican ideas. Where Plutarch had explored space travel as metaphysics, Kepler made it a sandbox for real physics, exploring gravity and planetary motion. In writing about the takeoff of his imaginary spaceship, for instance, he makes clear that he has a theoretical model of gravity factoring in the demands that breaking away from Earth’s gravitational grip would place on cosmic voyagers. He goes on to add that while leaving Earth’s gravitational pull would be toilsome, once the spaceship is in the gravity-free “aether,” hardly any force would be needed to keep it in motion — an early understanding of inertia in the modern sense, predating by decades Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a body will move at a steady velocity unless acted upon by an outside force.
In a passage at once insightful and amusing, Kepler describes the physical requirements for his lunar travelers — a prescient description of astronaut training:
No inactive persons are accepted…no fat ones; no pleasure-loving ones; we choose only those who have spent their lives on horseback, or have shipped often to the Indies and are accustomed to subsisting on hardtack, garlic, dried fish and unpalatable fare.
Three centuries later, the early polar explorer Ernest Shackleton would post a similar recruitment ad for his pioneering Antarctic expedition:
Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.
When a woman named Peggy Peregrine expressed interest on behalf of an eager female trio, Shackleton dryly replied: “There are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.” Half a century later, the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova would become the first woman to exit Earth’s atmosphere on a spacecraft guided by Kepler’s laws.
After years of exerting reason against superstition, Kepler ultimately succeeded in getting his mother acquitted. But the seventy-five-year-old woman never recovered from the trauma of the trial and the bitter German winter spent in the unheated prison. On April 13, 1622, shortly after she was released, Katharina Kepler died, adding to her son’s litany of losses. A quarter millennium later, Emily Dickinson would write in a poem the central metaphor of which draws on Kepler’s legacy:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
A few months after his mother’s death, Kepler received a letter from Christoph Besold — the classmate who had stuck up for his lunar dissertation thirty years earlier, now a successful attorney and professor of law. Having witnessed Katharina’s harrowing fate, Besold had worked to expose the ignorance and abuses of power that sealed it, procuring a decree from the duke of Kepler’s home duchy prohibiting any other witchcraft trials unsanctioned by the Supreme Court in the urban and presumably far less superstitious Stuttgart. “While neither your name nor that of your mother is mentioned in the edict,” Besold wrote to his old friend, “everyone knows that it is at the bottom of it. You have rendered an inestimable service to the whole world, and someday your name will be blessed for it.”
Kepler was unconsoled by the decree — perhaps he knew that policy change and cultural change are hardly the same thing, existing on different time scales. He spent the remaining years of his life obsessively annotating The Dream with two hundred twenty-three footnotes — a volume of hypertext equal to the story itself — intended to dispel superstitious interpretations by delineating his exact scientific reasons for using the symbols and metaphors he did.
In his ninety-sixth footnote, Kepler plainly stated “the hypothesis of the whole dream”: “an argument for the motion of the Earth, or rather a refutation of arguments constructed, on the basis of perception, against the motion of the Earth.” Fifty footnotes later, he reiterated the point by asserting that he envisioned the allegory as “a pleasant retort” to Ptolemaic parochialism. In a trailblazing systematic effort to unmoor scientific truth from the illusions of commonsense perception, he wrote:
Everyone says it is plain that the stars go around the earth while the Earth remains still. I say that it is plain to the eyes of the lunar people that our Earth, which is their Volva, goes around while their moon is still. If it be said that the lunatic perceptions of my moon-dwellers are deceived, I retort with equal justice that the terrestrial senses of the Earth-dwellers are devoid of reason.
In another footnote, Kepler defined gravity as “a power similar to magnetic power — a mutual attraction,” and described its chief law:
The attractive power is greater in the case of two bodies that are near to each other than it is in the case of bodies that are far apart. Therefore, bodies more strongly resist separation one from the other when they are still close together.
A further footnote pointed out that gravity is a universal force affecting bodies beyond the Earth, and that lunar gravity is responsible for earthly tides: “The clearest evidence of the relationship between earth and the moon is the ebb and flow of the seas.” This fact, which became central to Newton’s laws and which is now so commonplace that schoolchildren point to it as plain evidence of gravity, was far from accepted in Kepler’s scientific community. Galileo, who was right about so much, was also wrong about so much — something worth remembering as we train ourselves in the cultural acrobatics of nuanced appreciation without idolatry. Galileo believed, for instance, that comets were vapors of the earth — a notion Tycho Brahe disproved by demonstrating that comets are celestial objects moving through space along computable trajectories after observing the very comet that had made six-year-old Kepler fall in love with astronomy. Galileo didn’t merely deny that tides were caused by the Moon — he went as far as to mock Kepler’s assertion that they do. “That concept is completely repugnant to my mind,” he wrote — not even in a private letter but in his landmark Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems — scoffing that “though [Kepler] has at his fingertips the motions attributed to the Earth, he has nevertheless lent his ear and his assent to the Moon’s dominion over the waters, to occult properties, and to such puerilities.”
Kepler took particular care with the portion of the allegory he saw as most directly responsible for his mother’s witchcraft trial — the appearance of nine spirits, summoned by the protagonist’s mother. In a footnote, he explained that these symbolize the nine Greek muses. In one of the story’s more cryptic sentences, Kepler wrote of these spirits: “One, particularly friendly to me, most gentle and purest of all, is called forth by twenty-one characters.” In his subsequent defense in footnotes, he explained that the phrase “twenty-one characters” refers to the number of letters used to spell Astronomia Copernicana. The friendliest spirit represents Urania — the ancient Greek muse of astronomy, which Kepler considered the most reliable of the sciences:
Although all the sciences are gentle and harmless in themselves (and on that account they are not those wicked and good-for-nothing spirits with whom witches and fortune-tellers have dealings…), this is especially true of astronomy because of the very nature of its subject matter.
When the astronomer William Herschel discovered the seventh planet from the sun a century and a half later, he named it Uranus, after the same muse. Elsewhere in Germany, a young Beethoven heard of the discovery and wondered in the marginalia of one of his compositions: “What will they think of my music on the star of Urania?” Another two centuries later, when Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan compose the Golden Record as a portrait of humanity in sound and image, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sails into the cosmos aboard the Voyager spacecraft alongside a piece by the composer Laurie Spiegel based on Kepler’s Harmony of the World.
Kepler was unambiguous about the broader political intent of his allegory. The year after his mother’s death, he wrote to an astronomer friend:
Would it be a great crime to paint the cyclopian morals of this period in livid colors, but for the sake of caution, to depart from the earth with such writing and secede to the moon?
Isn’t it better, he wonders in another stroke of psychological genius, to illustrate the monstrosity of people’s ignorance by way of the ignorance of imaginary others? He hoped that by seeing the absurdity of the lunar people’s belief that the Moon is the center of the universe, the inhabitants of Earth would have the insight and integrity to question their own conviction of centrality. Three hundred fifty years later, when fifteen prominent poets are asked to contribute a “statement on poetics” for an influential anthology, Denise Levertov — the only woman of the fifteen — would state that poetry’s highest task is “to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” This must have been what Kepler aimed to do with The Dream — his serenade to the poetics of science, aimed at awakening.
In the wake of his mother’s witchcraft trial, Kepler made another observation centuries ahead of its time, even ahead of the seventeenth-century French philosopher François Poullain de la Barre’s landmark assertion that “the mind has no sex.” In Kepler’s time, long before the discovery of genetics, it was believed that children bore a resemblance to their mothers, in physiognomy and character, because they were born under the same constellation. But Kepler was keenly aware of how different he and Katharina were as people, how divergent their worldviews and their fates — he, a meek leading scientist about to turn the world over; she, a mercurial, illiterate woman on trial for witchcraft. If the horoscopes he had once drawn for a living did not determine a person’s life-path, Kepler couldn’t help but wonder what did — here was a scientist in search of causality. A quarter millennium before social psychology existed as a formal field of study, he reasoned that what had gotten his mother into all this trouble in the first place — her ignorant beliefs and behaviors taken for the work of evil spirits, her social marginalization as a widow — was the fact that she had never benefited from the education her son, as a man, had received. In the fourth section of The Harmony of the World — his most daring and speculative foray into natural philosophy — Kepler writes in a chapter devoted to “metaphysical, psychological, and astrological” matters:
I know a woman who was born under almost the same aspects, with a temperament which was certainly very restless, but by which she not only has no advantage in book learning (that is not surprising in a woman) but also disturbs the whole of her town, and is the author of her own lamentable misfortune.
In the very next sentence, Kepler identifies the woman in question as his own mother and proceeds to note that she never received the privileges he did. “I was born a man, not a woman,” he writes, “a difference in sex which the astrologers seek in vain in the heavens.” The difference between the fate of the sexes, Kepler suggests, is not in the heavens but in the earthly construction of gender as a function of culture. It was not his mother’s nature that made her ignorant, but the consequences of her social standing in a world that rendered its opportunities for intellectual illumination and self-actualization as fixed as the stars.
Read other excerpts from Figuring here; read more about the book’s overarching aboutness here.
From the hidden universe beneath our feet to delight as a countercultural force of courage and resistance, by way of Patti Smith, Toni Morrison, and the Greek myths.
By Maria Popova
Long ago, when the present and the living appealed to me more, I endeavored to compile “best of” reading lists at the close of each year. Even then, those were inherently incomplete and subjective reflections of one person’s particular tastes, but at least my scope of contemporary reading was wide enough to narrow down such a selection.
In recent years, these subjective tastes have taken me further and further into the past, deeper and deeper into the common record of wisdom recorded decades, centuries, millennia ago, drawn from the most timeless recesses of the human heart and mind. Outside the year’s loveliest children’s books — a stratum of literature with which I still actively and ardently engage — I now nurse no illusion of having an even remotely adequate sieve for the “best” of what is published each passing year, given that I read so very little of it (and given, too, that this particular year I birthed the first book of my own — itself the product of a long immersion in the past). But of the books I did read in 2019, these are the ones that will stay with me for life.
YEAR OF THE MONKEY
“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.
There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.
That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.
Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.
As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.
Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching in all directions, star-salted and possible.
She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.
In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:
He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.
There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:
Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.
A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:
Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.
There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.
“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poetRoss Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”
Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.
Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.
Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.
In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:
It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.
And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.
When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.
To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:
For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.
One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:
I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.
In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:
I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.
Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.
It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?
“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.
We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.
Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:
Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.
Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.
The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.
“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.
But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:
We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.
Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:
When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.
Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.
Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.
A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:
I am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.
What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.
Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:
I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.
We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.
The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:
Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.
It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.
Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:
“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.
He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:
I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.
A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?
For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”
Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.
The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) is the book companion, a decade in the making, to Alain de Botton’s wonderful global academy for self-refinement, a project born just a few years after Brain Pickings and tremendously kindred in spirit. At the heart of it is De Botton’s conviction that of all the species of intelligence, emotional intelligence is the one most vital to our sense of being, to our sanity, to our selfhood, yet our entire educational model omits it completely in favor of other, more reducible intelligences. He writes:
The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.
Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.
The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.
This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:
The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.
In 1983, the psychologist Howard Gardner devised his seminal theory of multiple intelligences, expanding our narrow cultural definition of intelligence as verbal and mathematical skill to include seven other modes of intellectual ability. A decade later, Daniel Goleman added a tenth form of intelligence — emotional intelligence — which quickly permeated the fabric of popular culture as hoards of humans felt suddenly recognized in an endowment long neglected as a valuable or even extant faculty of consciousness. Building on that legacy, De Botton brings his own sensitive perspicacity to a richer, more dimensional definition:
The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm… There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.
De Botton is careful to acknowledge that this line of inquiry might trigger the modern intellectual allergy to the genre of learning dismissively labeled self-help. And yet he reminds us that the quest for self-refinement has always accompanied the human experience and animated each civilization’s most respected intellects — it is there at the heart of the Stoics, and in the essays of Montaigne, and at the center of Zen Buddhism, and in the literary artistry of Proust (whom De Botton has especially embraced as a fount of existential consolation). He aims a spear of simple logic to the irrational and rather hubristic disdain for self-help:
To dismiss the idea that underpins self-help — that one might at points stand in urgent need of solace and emotional education — seems an austerely perverse prejudice.
That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.
That question — along with myriad other auxiliary scientific and moral questions strewn across the lacuna between the canine consciousness and our projectionist, propertarian orientation toward it — is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).
Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:
As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?
Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!
Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.
Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.
Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.
But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.
And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:
As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).
I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.
In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.
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.
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.
“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”
That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.
Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:
A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.
For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.
When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.
Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.
Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.
In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.
“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.
We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.
Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library), also among the year’s loveliest children’s books — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.
In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:
Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.
Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.
But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.
There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.
On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.
Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:
I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.
I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.
Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:
My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.
Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.
“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “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.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.
All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.
Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.
It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.
At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.
As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.
We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.
Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:
My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.
But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:
She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.
Continue reading what Folds learned about creativity, empathy, and the courage to know yourself here.
I am done waiting. My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.
This letter is an invocation, a calling up. I have tried to allow my father to speak to me as he would speak. Although I have written the words I needed my father to say to me, I had to make space for him to come through me.
There is so much about him, his history, that he never shared with me, so I have had to conjure much of that as well.
This letter is my attempt to endow my father with the will and the words to cross the border, and speak the language, of apology so that I can finally be free.
What is an apology? It is a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight.
Channeling her father’s voice — the voice he never used to speak the words of apology that every survivor of violence wishes to hear from the perpetrator of that violence — she writes:
An apology must be thorough and can only be trusted in its veracity and dedication to details. I have done my best. I have followed your very strict guidelines: Recognize what I have done as a crime. Face how deeply my actions and violations have impacted and devastated you. See you as a human being. Attempt to experience or feel what it felt like inside you. Feel profound remorse and regret over my actions. And finally, take responsibility for my actions by doing extensive work to understand what made me do what I did.
What emerges from these intensely beautiful and harrowing pages is the reminder that redemption for our suffering is not something we get from others but something we claim for ourselves — that most difficult, most rewarding pinnacle of personal responsibility. (The act of writing the book prompted Ensler to reflect on her own creaturely responsibility in a different light, which she channeled in a stunning letter of apology to Mother Nature — the single most beautiful and important thing I read all year).
“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?
Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.
So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths, illuminating the origins of so many of our cultural givens: the names of planets and constellations and chemical elements and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom” and “enthusiasm,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love.
Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:
Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?
Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.
As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.
Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.
Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.
So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.
There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:
We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.
The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…
Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.
In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”
In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.
Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:
My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.
A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.
Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.
They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)
Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:
What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.
They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.
I’d be remiss not to mark 2019 as the year that greeted the book that took twelve years of Brain Pickings and the most beautiful, difficult, disorienting experience of my personal life.
Figuring (public library) — some excerpts from which I have published throughout the year — explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.
Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.
Long ago, a kindly interviewer asked me why I routinely declined offers for the types of easy, marketable books I am frequently approached about doing. I told him (please suspend judgment: I was in my twenties) that I had no interest in putting into the world a book that has the shelf life of a banana. I hope Figuring has the shelf life of a shelf.
Here is the prelude — chapter 0 of 29:
All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.
How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet’s letters in my friend Wendy’s backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision — that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution — pulls me toward a miraculous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no — it remains suspended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider’s web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.
Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider — and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.
We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.
Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry — intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth — not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of “biography” but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams. Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love? Two Nobel Prizes don’t seem to recompense the melancholy radiating from every photograph of the woman in the black laboratory dress. Is success a guarantee of fulfillment, or merely a promise as precarious as a marital vow? How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?
There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections — between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture, between faint figures who pass each other in the nocturne before the torchlight of a revolution lights the new day, with little more than a half-nod of kinship and a match to change hands.
Although fragments hardly serve a book so predicated on the cohesive interleaving of lives and ideas, you can read some excerpts here.