“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”
By Maria Popova
“Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of life’s most haunting hour. But what we find in that intermediate space between past and future, between the costumed simulacrum of reality we so painstakingly construct with our waking lives and reality laid bare in the naked nocturnal mind, is not always a resting place of ease — for there dwells the self at its most elemental, which means the self most lucidly awake to its foibles and its finitude.
The disquietude this haunted hour can bring, and does bring, is what another titanic writer and rare seer into the depths of the human spirit — James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — explored 130 years after Hawthorne in one of his least known, most insightful, and most personal essays.
In 1964, as the Harlem riots were shaking the foundation of society and selfhood, Baldwin joined talent-forces with the great photographer Richard Avedon — an old high school friend of his — to hold up an uncommonly revelatory cultural mirror with the book Nothing Personal (public library). Punctuating Avedon’s signature black-and-white portraits — of Nobel laureates and Hollywood celebrities, of the age- and ache-etched face of an elder born under slavery and the idealism-lit young faces of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia, of the mentally ill perishing in asylums and the newlyweds at City Hall ablaze with hope — are four stirring essays by Baldwin, the first of which gave us his famous sobering observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”
At no time does the terror within, Baldwin argues in the third essay, bubble to the surface of our being more ferociously than in that haunting hour between past and future, between our illusions of permanence and perfection, and the glaring fact of our finitude and our fallibility, between being and non-being. He writes:
Four AM can be a devastating hour. The day, no matter what kind of day it was is indisputably over; almost instantaneously, a new day begins: and how will one bear it? Probably no better than one bore the day that is ending, possibly not as well. Moreover, a day is coming one will not recall, the last day of one’s life, and on that day one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed.
It is a fearful speculation — or, rather, a fearful knowledge — that, one day one’s eyes will no longer look out on the world. One will no longer be present at the universal morning roll call. The light will rise for others, but not for you.
Sometimes, at four AM, this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error. Since, anyway, it will end one day, why not try it — life — one more time?
After singing some beautiful and heartbreaking Bessie Smith lyrics into his essay — lyrics from “Long Road,” a song about reconciling the knowledge that one is ultimately alone with the irrepressible impulse to reach out for love, “to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand” — Baldwin continues:
I think all of our voyages drive us there; for I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.
That alone, Baldwin insists, is reason enough to be, as Nietzsche put it, a “yea-sayer” to life — to face the uncertainty of our lives with courage, to face the fact of our mortality with courage, and to fill this blink of existence bookended by nothingness with the courage of a bellowing aliveness.
In a passage that calls to mind Galway Kinnell’s lifeline of a poem “Wait,” composed for a young friend on the brink of suicide, Baldwin writes:
For, perhaps — perhaps — between now and the last day, something wonderful will happen, a miracle, a miracle of coherence and release. And the miracle on which one’s unsteady attention is focused is always the same, however it may be stated, or however it may remain unstated. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or, to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity. For some deep and ineradicable instinct — I believe — causes us to know that it is only this passionate achievement which can outlast death, which can cause life to spring from death.
And yet, so often, we lose faith in this miracle, lose the perspective we call faith — so often it slips between the fingers fanned with despair or squeezes through the fist clenched with rage. We lose perspective most often, Baldwin argues, at four AM:
At four AM, when one feels that one has probably become simply incapable of supporting this miracle, with all one’s wounds awake and throbbing, and all one’s ghastly inadequacy staring and shouting from the walls and the floor — the entire universe having shrunk to the prison of the self — death glows like the only light on a high, dark, mountain road, where one has, forever and forever! lost one’s way. — And many of us perish then.
But if one can reach back, reach down — into oneself, into one’s life — and find there some witness, however unexpected or ambivalent, to one’s reality, one will be enabled, though perhaps not very spiritedly, to face another day… What one must be enabled to recognize, at four o’clock in the morning, is that one has no right, at least not for reasons of private anguish, to take one’s life. All lives are connected to other lives and when one man goes, much more goes than the man goes with him. One has to look on oneself as the custodian of a quantity and a quality — oneself — which is absolutely unique in the world because it has never been here before and will never be here again.
Baldwin — whom U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks described as “love personified” in introducing his last public appearance before his death — wedges into this foundational structure of soul-survival the fact that in a culture of habitual separation and institutionalized otherness, such self-regard is immensely difficult. And yet, he insists with the passion of one who has proven the truth of his words with his own life, we must try — we must reach across the divides within and without, across the abysses of terror and suspicion, with a generous and largehearted trust in one another, which is at bottom trust in ourselves.
Echoing his contemporary and kindred visionary Leonard Bernstein’s insistence that “we must believe, without fear, in people,” Baldwin adds what has become, or must become, the most sonorous psychosocial refrain bridging his time and ours:
Where all human connections are distrusted, the human being is very quickly lost.
Harriet Hosmer — whose remarkable forgotten story I tell in Figuring (public library), from which this essay too is adapted — was not yet thirty when she became the world’s first successful female sculptor, claimed a place for American art in the European pantheon, and furnished queer culture with a bold new vocabulary of being. Her studio in Rome became a pilgrimage site for royalty and luminaries, drawing such esteemed admirers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Maria Mitchell, the Prince of Wales, the Crown Princess of Germany, and the exiled queen of Naples (who would become Hosmer’s lover).
Among her famous visitors was Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805–August 4, 1875) — a man of supreme storytelling genius and aching self-alienation, which Hosmer instantly intuited. In a letter home, she described Andersen as “a tall, gaunt figure of the Lincoln type with long, straight, black hair, shading a face striking because of its sweetness and sadness,” adding that “it was perhaps by reason of the very bitterness of his struggles, that he loved to dwell among the more kindly fairies in whose world he found no touch of hard humanity.”
Andersen’s struggles were ones of a heart unsettled, ambivalent, at war with itself. By all biographical evidence, he died a virgin. For years, he was infatuated with the Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind, but his great erotic love was reserved for Edvard Collin — a boyhood beloved who remained the single most intense emotional relationship throughout Andersen’s life. “The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery,” he wrote to Edvard, who left in his memoir a forlorn record of the dual heartbreak that scars all such relationships between people who love each other deeply but differently: “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” Andersen was unambiguous about both his feelings and his suffering, writing to Edvard with heart-rending plaintiveness:
I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman.
Jenny Lind, on the other hand, was a woman of the highest caliber of femininity, and one of the most successful women artists of her time. Andersen sent her passionate, pouting letters, then wrote his classic story “The Nightingale” out of his frustrated reverence shortly before making an awkward marriage proposal in a letter handed to her on a train platform. The tale didn’t earn him Lind’s reciprocity, but it earned her the monicker “the Swedish Nightingale.”
To make art out of heartache is, of course, the most beautiful thing one could do with one’s sorrow, as well as the most generous — no artist knows how the transfiguration of their pain into beauty will salve another heart, give another sorrower the language of their own truth, the vessel for navigating their own experience.
Across the Atlantic, Andersen’s heartbreak-fermented fairy tales furnished the language of understanding between two other deeply entwined hearts. Susan Gilbert — the love of Emily Dickinson’s life, to whom the poet had written those electrifying love letters — had married Emily’s brother to be near her. Having managed marital celibacy for an impressive five years, Susan eventually gave birth to her first child. That season, Dickinson sent to her editor a famed cryptic letter on the meaning of which biographers would speculate for centuries to come, telling him of some great unnamed and perhaps unnameable hurt:
I had a terror… I could tell to none, and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid.
Not a “fright,” not a “shock,” but a terror. Whether or not she was the cause, Susan knew of Emily’s suffering and suffered in consonance, for any two hearts bound by love are also bound to share in sorrow. Drawing on an image from Andersen’s fairy tale “The Nightingale and the Rose” — which in turn drew, as most of his fairy tales did, on the terrors of his own unmet heart — Susan captured the parallel heartbreak of their impossible love in a letter apologizing for turning away from Emily’s kiss:
If you have suffered this past Summer — I am sorry — I Emily bear a sorrow that I never uncover — If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?
But what if shedding the words is a step in learning to see better, to apprehend more clearly?
Nearly a century before infographics and data visualization became the cultural ubiquity they are today, the pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher of science, social reformer, and curator Otto Neurath (December 10, 1882–December 22, 1945), together with his not-yet-wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the visionary pictogram language that furnished the vocabulary of modern infographics.
Several years earlier, Neurath had co-founded the Vienna Circle — the materialist parish of paradox that shaped the intellectual life of the twentieth century by introducing the philosophical movement known as logical positivism. While the Circle grew preoccupied with debating, almost to the point of rupture, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his pictorial theory of language — “A proposition states something only insofar as it is a picture,” Wittgenstein proclaimed — Neurath set out to bypass language altogether and devise a system of communication based entirely on icons. But, invariably and rather ironically, he fell back on language, writing a series of slogans — words at their most pointed — to convey the urgency and necessity of this new visual language:
Words divide, pictures unite!
Whatever can be shown by a picture must not be told in words.
Remembering simplified pictures is better than forgetting exact numbers.
Whoever leaves the most out is the best teacher.
Anticipating Oxford economist Kate Raworth devised her visionary “donut economics” model of a more sustainable, equitable, and universally beneficial global economy by a century, Neurath insisted:
A pictorial survey of the world economy is not just a scholarly representation of important facts; it is also the first step toward a planned world economy.
Contemporary people receive a great deal of their information and their general education through pictures, illustrations, slides, and films… Up till now, the method of pictorial representation has been underdeveloped. Our aim is to create pictures that can be understood without words, if possible… We have to create symbols that can be “read” by all of us, just as we all can read letters, and just as experts can read musical notes. This requires the creation of a set of “hieroglyphs,” which can be used internationally.
These “hieroglyphs” became the pictograms we know today — building blocks of the visual statistics by which so much information is now communicated, and to the art-science of which entire volumes are devoted.