Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “this is a poem that heals fish”

This Is a Poem That Heals Fish: An Almost Unbearably Wonderful Picture-Book About How Poetry Works Its Magic

“A poem … is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.”

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating the cultural power of poetry. But what is a poem, really, and what exactly is its use?

Every once in a while, you stumble upon something so lovely, so unpretentiously beautiful and quietly profound, that you feel like the lungs of your soul have been pumped with a mighty gasp of Alpine air. This Is a Poem That Heals Fish (public library) is one such vitalizing gasp of loveliness — a lyrical picture-book that offers a playful and penetrating answer to the question of what a poem is and what it does. And as it does that, it shines a sidewise gleam on the larger question of what we most hunger for in life and how we give shape to those deepest longings.

Written by the French poet, novelist, and dramatist Jean-Pierre Simeón, translated into English by Enchanted Lion Books founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick (the feat of translation which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska had in mind when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original”), and illustrated by the inimitable Olivier Tallec, this poetic and philosophical tale follows young Arthur as he tries to salve his beloved red fish Leon’s affliction of boredom.

Arthur’s mommy looks at him.
She closes her eyes,
she opens her eyes…

Then she smiles:

— Hurry, give him a poem!

And she leaves for her tuba lesson.

Puzzled and unsure what a poem is, Arthur goes looking in the pantry, only to hear the noodles sigh that there is no poem there. He searches in the closet and under his bed, but the vacuum cleaner and the dust balls have no poem, either.

Determined, Arthur continues his search.
He runs to Lolo’s bicycle shop.
Lolo knows everything, laughs all the time, and is always in love.
He is repairing a tire and singing.

So begins the wonderful meta-story of how poetry comes into being as a tapestry of images, metaphors, and magpie borrowings. Each person along the way contributes to Arthur’s tapestry a different answer, infused with the singular poetic truth of his or her own life. Lolo offers:

— A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.

— Oh…? Okay.

Next, he visits his friend the baker, Mrs. Round, who echoes Thom Gunn’s insistence that “poetry is of many sorts and is all around us,” rather than something reserved for the special formal class of “poets.”

Mrs. Round tells Arthur:

— A poem? I don’t know much about that.
But I know one, and it is hot like fresh bread.
When you eat it, a little is always left over.

— Oh…? Okay.

Arthur turns to his neighbor next, “old Mahmoud who comes from the desert and waters his rhododendrons every morning at 9 o’clock.”

Mahmoud offers his answer with easeful conviction:

— A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.

— Oh…? All right.

Arthur hastens home to check on poor Leon, who appears to be asleep, “floating gently amidst the seaweed as if thinking.” And because this is the sort of story in which a canary can only be named after an Ancient Greek comic playwright, Arthur next seeks an answer from his canary named Aristophanes, “who is no bird brain.”

Our imagination is left to ponder why, on the next page, the cage contains not the yellow canary but a red-haired woman, who sings Aristophanes’s answer. Perhaps she is a visual allusion to Aristophanes’s play Assemblywomen, or perhaps she represents a muse, whom Tallec invokes to remind us that the muse hides in many guises and reveals herself in the most improbable of places.

— A poem is when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.

— Oh…? Okay.

Just then, Arthur’s grandmother arrives and is met with the same question, which she answers after thinking hard, evidenced by the way “she always smiles a silly smile when thinking.”

— When you put your old sweater on backwards or inside out, dear Arthur, you might say that it is new again.
A poem turns words around, upside down, and — suddenly! — the world is new.

But grandma encourages Arthur to ask his grandfather, too, who “often writes poems … instead of repairing pipes.”

— A poem? grandpa says, tugging on his mustache and looking worried. A poem, well… it’s what poets make.

— Oh…? All right.

— Even if the poets do not know it themselves!

Frustrated with the multitude of confounding answers, Arthur returns to Leon’s fishbowl only to find him sound asleep beneath his large stone, enveloped in seaweed.

— I’m sorry, Leon, I have not found a poem. All I know is this:

A poem
is when you have the sky in your mouth.
It is hot like fresh bread,
when you eat it,
a little is always left over.

A poem
is when you hear
the heartbeat of a stone,
when words beat their wings.
It is a song sung in a cage.

A poem
is words turned upside down
and suddenly!
the world is new.

Leon opens one eye, then the other, and for the first time in his life he speaks.

— Then I am a poet, Arthur.

— Oh…?

Complement the almost unbearably wonderful This Is a Poem That Heals Fish with other poetic and profound Enchanted Lion treasures: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life, What Color Is the Wind?, a French serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child, and Pinocchio: The Origin Story, an Italian inquiry into the grandest questions of existence, then revisit poet Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

BP

The Gold Leaf: An Enchanting Modern Fable About Possessiveness Redeemed by Unselfish Appreciation of Life’s Shared Wonder

A gentle reminder that the most beautiful things in life belong to no one and to everyone.

The Gold Leaf: An Enchanting Modern Fable About Possessiveness Redeemed by Unselfish Appreciation of Life’s Shared Wonder

Wellbeing, argued the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm in his treatise on having vs. being and how to master the art of living, requires “breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.” Indeed, few things limit our wellbeing more than the compulsion toward ownership, from our conquest of material possessions as a metric of self-actualization to our relationship with time, which becomes another good to “save” or “waste.” But the most joyous things in life, as Hermann Hesse hinted a century ago, are best beheld rather than held in the grip of possession; best appreciated rather than appropriated.

That’s what Brooklyn-based writer Kirsten Hall and Canadian illustrator Matthew Forsythe explore with great gentleness in The Gold Leaf (public library) — an enchanting modern fable about covetous possessiveness redeemed by the unselfish appreciation of life’s unownable wonder.

The story begins on an ordinary day in a forest just awakening from winter’s slumber, awash in spring’s “jungle green, laurel green, moss green, mint green, pine green, avocado green, and, of course, sap green.”

At first, bustling with the thrill of the changing season, none of the creatures notices a most unusual visitation — a gold leaf, shimmering in the canopy.

But one by one, they see it, and one by one, they seek to possess it. “Each wanted it more than anything else in the world,” writes Hall, whose grandfather was a gold leaf artist responsible for embellishing some of New York City’s most iconic buildings, including Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall.

Suddenly, the harmony of the forest turns into chaotic competition for the gold leaf, which leaps from the page in actual gold ink against the textured vibrancy of Forsythe’s gorgeous illustrations, echoing a Bambi-era vintage Disney aesthetic.

A warbler plucks it first, but a chipmunk snatches it away, then a mouse steals it, then a deer, then a fox.

With each wily heist, we see little flecks of gold fly off from the leaf as it grows more and more tattered by the rapacity of its captors.

At last, no one has the leaf — its countless pieces scatter at the animals’ feet in a state of unbelonging. Hall writes:

The forest grew still. The only sound was the wind rustling the leaves, which sent bits of gold swirling in every direction.

With sorrow, the animals realized that their precious leaf was gone.

And so the seasons turn again — summer swelters in, the animals begin to forget about the gold life, and life in the forest slowly returns to normal.

Autumn comes, with its kaleidoscopic foliage of yellows — “waxberry yellow, bumblebee yellow, mustard yellow, candle-glow yellow, maize yellow, harvest-moon yellow, even yellow ochre.” And yet, no gold.

Another winter comes, then another spring rejuvenates the forest.

And then, once again, the miracle grows aspark in the forest — the gold leaf has returned. Hall writes:

The forest was alive with wonder. But this time, no one wanted the gold leaf.

We see the creatures leaping in jubilation, some now golden themselves, for they have learned that their satisfaction lies in the shared glee of bearing witness to beauty that belongs to no one and therefore to everyone.

The Gold Leaf, which follows Hall’s The Jacket, comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such imaginative treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life; What Color Is the Wind?, a French serenade to the senses inspired by a blind child; Pinocchio: The Origin Story, an Italian inquiry into the grandest questions of existence; and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, possibly the loveliest picture-book since The Little Prince.

BP

A New Vocabulary of Attention: Iris Murdoch on Reimagining Freedom, Moral Progress, Aloneness, and Our Inner Lives

“The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself… We need a new vocabulary of attention.”

A New Vocabulary of Attention: Iris Murdoch on Reimagining Freedom, Moral Progress, Aloneness, and Our Inner Lives

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Carl Jung observed as he contemplated human personality in a BBC interview at the end of his life. But how do we wrest meaning from existence, or rather make meaning through the force of our personhood?

That is what another titanic mind of the twentieth century — the rare philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — took up in the year of Jung’s death, in an essay titled “Against Dryness,” originally published in the literary magazine Encounter and later included in the sublimely insightful posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and the key to good writing.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

With an eye to how the landmark developments of the twentieth century — chiefly, the way scientific materialism has enfeebled the dogmas and precepts of religion — have left us triangulating uncomfortably between the traditions of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Liberalism, Murdoch writes:

We have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality… [The Anglo-Saxon] conception consists in the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will. These subtly give support to each other. From Hume through Bertrand Russell, with friendly help from mathematical logic and science, we derive the idea that reality is finally a quantity of material atoms and that significant discourse must relate itself directly or indirectly to reality so conceived. This position was most picturesquely summed up in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

[…]

This is one side of the picture, the Humian and post-Humian side. On the other side, we derive from Kant, and also Hobbes and Bentham through John Stuart Mill, a picture of the individual as a free rational will. With the removal of Kant’s metaphysical background this individual is seen as alone. (He is in a certain sense alone on Kant’s view also, that is: not confronted with real dissimilar others.) With the addition of some utilitarian optimism he is seen as eminently educable. With the addition of some modern psychology he is seen as capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense. So we have the modern man*, as he appears in many recent works on ethics and I believe also to a large extent in the popular consciousness.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

A century after John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s trailblazing partnership of equals shaped the scaffolding of Liberalism, Murdoch points out a crucial blind spot of this otherwise noble-minded and far-seeing tradition of thought:

For the Liberal world, philosophy is not in fact at present able to offer us any other complete and powerful picture of the soul.

[…]

Our central conception is still a debilitated form of Mill’s equation: happiness equals freedom equals personality. There should have been a revolt against utilitarianism; but for many reasons it has not taken place.

She considers what we have lost by blindly adopting this worldview and what we were never given in the first place:

We have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity. What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background.

We have never solved the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. Between the various concepts available to us the real question has escaped: and now, in a curious way, our present situation is analogous to an eighteenth-century one. We retain a rationalistic optimism about the beneficent results of education, or rather, technology. We combine this with a romantic conception of “the human condition,” a picture of the individual as stripped and solitary: a conception which has, since Hitler, gained a peculiar intensity.

Solitary. Photograph by Maria Popova.

Writing at a time when W.H. Auden — one of her great intellectual heroes — insisted that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act,” and in concord with her own lifelong insistence that art is essential for a democratic society, Murdoch considers the role of art and of literature in particular in furnishing a fuller, truer model of human personality, necessary for a thriving political conscience:

The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.

[…]

The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behaviourism, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. It is natural that a Liberal democratic society will not be concerned with techniques of improvement, will deny that virtue is knowledge, will emphasise choice at the expense of vision; and a Welfare State will weaken the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society.

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

In a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary critic, who tends to merely point out the flaw in a system, with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, without a lucid and largehearted vision for solutions, Murdoch considers what it would take to remedy this impoverished Liberal model of human personality:

We need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.

The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with the poet Mary Oliver’s lovely assertion that “attention without feeling… is only a report” and with Ursula K. Le Guin’s bold conviction that “literature is the operating instructions” for a noble and fulfilling life, Murdoch insists upon the power of literature to furnish a vocabulary of feeling with which to better express who we are and what we value — the supreme language of human personality, of our morality, of our personal and political ideals:

Through literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Since literature rests upon language, it is language that needs to be reinvigorated. A century after Nietzsche weighed how language can both conceal and reveal truth, Murdoch adds:

I would connect eloquence with the attempt to speak the truth.

[…]

Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied individual… Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination… Too much contingency of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete, art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.

In morals and politics we have stripped ourselves of concepts. Literature, in curing its own ills, can give us a new vocabulary of experience, and a truer picture of freedom. With this, renewing our sense of distance, we may remind ourselves that art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure. Perhaps only Shakespeare manages to create at the highest level both images and people; and even Hamlet looks second-rate compared with Lear. Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.

Every page of Existentialists and Mystics is saturated with Murdoch’s uncommonly eloquent insight into the richest, deepest strata of human experience. Complement this portion with Toni Morrison on the fullest meaning of freedom, Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a human being, then revisit Murdoch on language as a bastion of truth, how love gives meaning to our existence, and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.

BP

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

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

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

“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin reflected in his final interview. “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her superb meditation on the dignity of love. Both the danger and the responsibility of love lie in this refining of truth, which is at bottom a refining of self, for we are the sum total of the truths by which we live. In love — in the beauty and brutality of it — we can come completely undone. But we can also make and remake ourselves. From our formative attachments to our great loves, relationship is the seedbed of our becoming, the laboratory of our self-invention and reinvention.

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

A correspondent of Gandhi’s and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who also believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance” — Carpenter was one of the first Western thinkers to incorporate ancient Eastern philosophy into his moral universe. Entwined in mutual admiration with Walt Whitman, he went on to influence writers like D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster.

Carpenter composed his treatise on love two decades after he met his own great love, George Merrill, at the ripe age of fifty. They would spend the remainder of life together. Several months after Merrill’s death, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke. He died a year later and was buried next to his beloved.

Edward Carpenter, 1900

Our first experience of great love, Carpenter observes, always shocks and unsteadies us, for universal as the experience may be, it “cannot very well be described in advance, or put into terms of reasonable and well-conducted words.” (In that sense, perhaps, love shares a great deal with loss — we can never prepare for either, and each snatches the reins of our psyche to govern us on its own non-negotiable terms.) He paints the delicious and disorienting madness familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love:

To feel — for instance — one’s whole internal economy in process of being melted out and removed to a distance, as it were into the keeping of some one else, is in itself a strange physiological or psychological experience… To lose consciousness never for a moment of the painful void so created — a void and a hunger which permeates all the arteries and organs, and every cranny of the body and the mind, and which seems to rob the organism of its strength, sometimes even to threaten it with ruin; to forego all interest in life, except in one thing — and that thing a person; to be aware, on the other hand, with strange elation and joy, that this new person or presence is infusing itself into one’s most intimate being — pervading all the channels, with promise [of] new life to every minutest cell, and causing 25 wonderful upheavals and transformations in tissue and fluids; to find in the mind all objects of perception to be changed and different from what they were before; and to be dimly conscious that the reason why they are so is because the background and constitution of the perceiving mind is itself changed — that, as it were, there is another person beholding them as well as oneself– all this defies description in words, or any possibility of exact statement beforehand; and yet the actual fact when it arrives is overwhelming in solid force and reality. If, besides, to the insurgence of these strange emotions we add — in the earliest stages of love at least — their bewildering fluctuation, from the deeps of vain longing and desire to the confident and ecstatic heights of expectation or fulfilment — the very joys of heaven and pangs of hell in swift and tantalizing alternation — the whole new experience is so extraordinary, so unrelated to ordinary work-a-day life, that to recite it is often only to raise a smile of dismissal of the subject — as it were into the land of dreams.

And yet, as we have indicated, the thing, whatever it is, is certainly by no means insubstantial and unreal. Nothing seems indeed more certain than that in this strange revolution in the relations of two people to each other — called “falling in love” — and behind all the illusions connected with it, something is happening, something very real, very important.

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

Carpenter then makes an astute point that remains thoroughly countercultural in the context of our rather limited and limiting romantic mythologies: He argues that whatever the outcome of a great love, whatever its duration, it is still a triumph and a transformation to be celebrated.

In Figuring, reflecting on Margaret Fuller’s remark at the end of a significant love affair that “the union of two natures for a time is so great,” I wrote:

Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only ‘for a time’? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.

I find such consonant consolation in Carpenter’s words:

The falling-in-love may be reciprocal, or it may be onesided; it may be successful, or it may be unsuccessful; it may be only a surface indication of other and very different events; but anyhow, deep down in the sub-conscious world, something is happening. It may be that two unseen and only dimly suspected existences are becoming really and permanently united; it may be that for a certain period, or (what perhaps comes to the same thing) that to a certain depth, they are transfusing and profoundly modifying each other; it may be that the mingling of elements and the transformation is taking place almost entirely in one person, and only to a slight degree or hardly at all in the other; yet in all these cases — beneath the illusions, the misapprehensions, the mirage and the maya, the surface satisfactions and the internal disappointments — something very real is happening, an important growth and evolution is taking place.

Noting that understanding this bewildering phenomenon, having even the slightest sense of “the points of the compass by which to steer over this exceedingly troubled sea,” is an operative imperative for any human being’s personal maturation, Carpenter adds:

Love is concerned with growth and evolution. It is — though as yet hardly acknowledged in that connection — a root-factor of ordinary human growth; for in so far as it is a hunger of the individual, the satisfaction of that hunger is necessary for individual growth — necessary (in its various forms) for physical, mental and spiritual nourishment, for health, mental energy, large affectional capacity, and so forth. And it is — though this too is not sufficiently acknowledged — a root-factor of the Evolution process. For in so far as it represents and gives rise to the union of two beings in a new form, it plainly represents a step in Evolution, and plainly suggests that the direction of that step will somehow depend upon the character and quality of the love concerned.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love

One of our greatest misunderstandings about love, and mispractices of it, is the tendency to focus on only those aspects of the other that rivet us most intensely — only the physical in an attraction dominated by lust, only the mental in an intellectual crush, only the emotional in a romantic infatuation. Cautioning against such fragmentary simulacra of love, Carpenter writes:

Love is a complex of human relations — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and so forth — all more or less necessary. And though seldom realized complete, it is felt, and feels itself, to be imperfect without some representation of every side. To limit it to the expression of one particular aspect would be totally inadequate, if not absurd and impossible. A merely physical love, for instance, on the sexual plane, is an absurdity, a dead letter — the enjoyment and fruition of the physical depending so much on the feeling expressed, that without the latter there is next to no satisfaction. At best there is merely a negative pleasure, a relief, arising from the solution of a previous state of corporeal tension. And in such cases intercourse is easily followed by depression and disappointment. For if there is not enough of the more subtle and durable elements in love, to remain after the physical has been satisfied, and to hold the two parties close together, why, the last state may well be worse than the first!

But equally absurd is any attempt to limit, for instance, to the mental plane, and to make love a matter of affectionate letter-writing merely, or of concordant views on political economy; or again, to confine it to the emotional plane, and the region of more or less sloppy sentiment; or to the spiritual, with a somewhat lofty contempt of the material — in which case it tends… to become too like trying to paint a picture without the use of pigments.

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

He notes the necessary complementarity of these elements in a truly satisfying love — a simple and rather obvious point, yet one to which we so readily turn a willfully blind eye when governed by a strong attraction:

The physical is desirable, for many very obvious reasons — including corporeal needs and health, and perhaps especially because it acts in the way of removal of barriers, and so opens the path to other intimacies. The mental is desirable, to give form and outline to the relation; the emotional, to provide the something to be expressed; and the spiritual to give permanence and absolute solidity to the whole structure.

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

Love has its two sides — its instantaneous inner side, and its complex outer side of innumerable detail. In consciousness it tends to appear in a flash — simple, unique, and unchangeable; but in experience it has to be worked out with much labor. All the elements have to come into operation, and to contribute their respective quota to the total result… Love searches the heart, drags every element of the inner nature forward from its lurking-place, gives it definition and shape, and somehow insists on it being represented.

If this holistic satisfaction of the soul is the one leg on which love stands, time is the other. In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s beautiful letter of advice to his lovestruck teenage son — “If it is right, it happens,” the Nobel laureate wrote. “The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” — Carpenter urges:

For any big relationship plenty of time has to be allowed. Whichever side of the nature — mental, emotional, physical, and so forth — may have happened to take the lead, it must not and cannot monopolize the affair. It must drag the other sides in and give them their place. And this means time, and temporary bewilderment and confusion.

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

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

For the complete action of that creative and organizing force plentiful time must be given; and the two lovers must possess their souls in patience till it has had its full and perfect work… A long foreground of approach, time and tact, diffusion of magnetism, mergence in one another, suffering, and even pain — all these must be expected and allowed for — though the best after all, in this as in other things, is often the unexpected and the unprepared.

A century earlier, the philosopher William Godwin had written in his stunning love letters to the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft as the two were forging the first true marriage of equals in the history of letters: “We love… to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.” Carpenter examines this most bewildering aspect of the experience — the curious interdependence between love and pain, which seems to be an inevitable function of the growth process love effects:

Love, if worth anything, seems to demand pain and strain in order to prove itself, and is not satisfied with an easy attainment. How indeed should one know the great heights except by the rocks and escarpments? And pain often in some strange way seems to be the measure of love — the measure by which we are assured that love is true and real; and so (which is one of the mysteries) it becomes transformed into a great joy.

[…]

Pain and suffering… have something surely to do with the inner realities of the affair, with the moulding or hammering or welding process whereby union is effected and, in some sense, a new being created. It seems as if when two naked souls approach, or come anywhere near contact with each other, the one inevitably burns or scorches the other. The intense chemistry of the psychic elements produces something like an actual flame. A fresh combination is entered into, profound transformations are effected, strange forces liberated, and a new personality perhaps created; and the accomplishment and evidence of the whole process is by no means only joy, but agony also, even as childbirth is.

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

In a passage evocative of Charlotte Brontë’s lament, penned in the grip of an unrequited love, that “when one does not complain… one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle,” Carpenter counsels the love-anguished:

All one can reasonably do is to endure. It is no good making a fuss. In affairs of the heart what we call suffering corresponds to what we call labor or effort in affairs of the body. When you put your shoulder to the cart-wheel you feel the pain and pressure of the effort, but that assures you that you are exercising a force, that something is being done; so suffering of the heart assures you that something is being done in that other and less tangible world. To scold and scowl and blame your loved one is the stupidest thing you can do. And worse than stupid, it is useless. For it can only alienate. Probably that other one is suffering as well as you — possibly more than you, possibly a good deal less. What does it matter? The suffering is there and must be borne; the work, whatever it is, is being done; the transformation is being effected. Do you want your beloved to suffer instead of you, or simply because you are suffering? Or is it Pity you desire rather than Love.

As useless as the protesting and complaining, Carpenter argues, is any effort to put into words the density and magnitude of one’s feelings — an experience this vast must only be expressed in the language of life itself. More than half a century before the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm published his influential book The Art of Loving, Carpenter writes:

Love is an art… As no mere talk can convey the meaning of a piece of music or a beautiful poem, so no verbal declaration can come anywhere near expressing what the lover wants to say. And for one very good and sufficient reason (among others) — namely, that he does not know himself! Under these circumstances to say anything is almost certainly to say something misleading or false. And the decent lover knows this and holds his tongue. To talk about your devotion is to kill it — moreover, it is to render it banal and suspect in the eyes of your beloved.

Nevertheless though he cannot describe or explain what he wants to say, the lover can feel it — is feeling it all the time; and this feeling, like other feelings, he can express by indirections — by symbols, by actions, by the alphabet of deed and gesture, and all the hieroglyphics of Life and Art.

[…]

Love can only say what it wants by the language of life, action, song, sacrifice, ravishment, death, and the great panorama of creation.

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

Carpenter insists that in the experience of love, however imperfect and tortuous, we learn more about ourselves and the world than any didactic form can teach us:

Love — even rude and rampant and outrageous love — does more for the moralizing of poor humanity than a hundred thousand Sunday schools. It cleans the little human soul from the clustered lies in which it has nested itself — from the petty conceits and deceits and cowardices and covert meannesses.

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

Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’ … And so too the whole modern period of commercial civilization and Christianity has been fatal to love… They have bred the self-regarding consciousness in the highest degree; and so — though they may have had their uses and their parts to play in the history of mankind, they have been fatal to the communal spirit in society, and they have been fatal to the glad expression of the soul in private life.

Self-consciousness is fatal to love, which is the true expression of the soul.

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

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.