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Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

“Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!”

Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

Four months before her twentieth birthday, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) met the person who became her first love and remained her greatest — an orphaned mathematician-in-training by the name of Susan Gilbert, nine days her junior. Throughout the poet’s life, Susan would be her muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World.”

I devote more than one hundred pages of Figuring to their beautiful, heartbreaking, unclassifiable relationship that fomented some of the greatest, most original and paradigm-shifting poetry humanity has ever produced. (This essay is drawn from my book.)

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. The only authenticated photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Susan Gilbert had settled in Amherst, to be near her sister, after graduating from the Utica Female Academy — one of a handful of academically rigorous educational institutions available to women at the time. She entered Dickinson’s life in the summer of 1850, which the poet would later remember as the season “when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens.”

Poised and serious at twenty, dressed in black for the sister who had just died in childbirth and who had been her maternal figure since their parents’ death, Susan cast a double enchantment on Emily and Austin Dickinson. Sister and brother alike were taken with her poised erudition and her Uranian handsomeness — her flat, full lips and dark eyes were not exactly masculine, her unchiseled oval face and low forehead not exactly feminine.

Susan Gilbert (Harvard University, Houghton Library)

“Best Witchcraft is Geometry,” Emily Dickinson would later write. Now both she and her brother found themselves in a strange bewitchment of figures, placing Susan at one point of a triangle. But Emily’s was no temporary infatuation. Nearly two decades after Susan entered her heart, she would write with unblunted desire:

To own a Susan of my own
Is of itself a Bliss —
Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
Continue me in this!

A tempest of intimacy swirled over the eighteen months following Susan’s arrival into the Dickinsons’ lives. The two young women took long walks in the woods together, exchanged books, read poetry to each other, and commenced an intense, intimate correspondence that would evolve and permute but would last a life- time. “We are the only poets,” Emily told Susan, “and everyone else is prose.”

By early 1852, the poet was besotted beyond words. She beckoned to Susan on a Sunday:

Come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love — shall intercede for us!

When Susan accepted a ten-month appointment as a math teacher in Baltimore in the autumn of 1851, Emily was devastated at the separation, but tried to keep a buoyant heart. “I fancy you very often descending to the schoolroom with a plump Binomial Theorem struggling in your hand which you must dissect and exhibit to your uncomprehending ones,” she teased in a letter. Susan was science personified, capitalized — she would haunt Dickinson’s poems for decades to come as “Science.”

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium — a forgotten masterpiece at the intersection of poetry and science.

In a comet of a letter from the early spring of 1852, eight months into Susan’s absence, Emily hurls a grenade of conflicted self-revelation:

Will you be kind to me, Susie? I am naughty and cross, this morning, and nobody loves me here; nor would you love me, if you should see me frown, and hear how loud the door bangs whenever I go through; and yet it isn’t anger — I don’t believe it is, for when nobody sees, I brush away big tears with the corner of my apron, and then go working on — bitter tears, Susie — so hot that they burn my cheeks, and almost scorch my eyeballs, but you have wept much, and you know they are less of anger than sorrow.

And I do love to run fast — and hide away from them all; here in dear Susie’s bosom, I know is love and rest, and I never would go away, did not the big world call me, and beat me for not working… Your precious letter, Susie, it sits here now, and smiles so kindly at me, and gives me such sweet thoughts of the dear writer. When you come home, darling, I shan’t have your letters, shall I, but I shall have yourself, which is more — Oh more, and better, than I can even think! I sit here with my little whip, cracking the time away, till not an hour is left of it — then you are here! And Joy is here — joy now and forevermore!

That year, in a Prussian lab, the physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz measured the speed of nerve conduction at eighty feet per second. How unfathomable that sentiments this intense and emotions this explosive, launched from a mind that seems to move at light-years per second, can be reduced to mere electrical impulses. And yet that is what we are — biomechanical creatures, all of our creative force, all of our mathematical figurings, all the wildness of our loves pulsating at eighty feet per second along neural infrastructure that evolved over millennia. Even the fathoming faculty that struggles to fathom this is a series of such electrical impulses.

The electricity of Dickinson’s love would endure, coursing through her being for the remainder of her life. Many years later, she would channel it in this immortal verse:

I chose this single star
From out the wide night’s numbers —
Sue — forevermore!

But now, in the dawning fervor of early love, forevermore collides with the immediacy of want. Midway through her spring outpouring, Emily suddenly casts Susan in the third person, as if beseeching an omnipotent spectator to grant her desire in the drama of their impending reunion:

I need her — I must have her, Oh give her to me!

The moment she names her longing, she tempers its thrill with the lucid terror that it might be unspeakable:

Do I repine, is it all murmuring, or am I sad and lone, and cannot, cannot help it? Sometimes when I do feel so, I think it may be wrong, and that God will punish me by taking you away; for he is very kind to let me write to you, and to give me your sweet letters, but my heart wants more.

Here, as in her poetry, Dickinson’s words cascade with multiple meanings beyond literal interpretation. Her invocation of “God” is not a cowering before some Puritanical punishment for deviance but an irreverent challenge to that very dogma. What kind of “God,” she seems to be asking, would make wrong a love of such infinite sweetness?

Four years earlier, during her studies at Mount Holyoke — the “castle of science” where she crafted her stunning herbarium — Emily had begun giving shape to the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had been gnawing at her since childhood — doubt she would later immortalize in verse:

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a child —
Deciding how an atom — fell —
And yet the heavens — held.

Facing her desire for Susan, her deepest fear was not punishment from “God” but that her wayward heart was its own retribution — as well as its own reward. She writes plaintively that heated summer:

Have you ever thought of it, Susie, and yet I know you have, how much these hearts claim; why I don’t believe in the whole, wide world, are such hard little creditors — such real little misers, as you and I carry with us, in our bosom every day. I can’t help thinking sometimes, when I hear about the ungenerous, Heart, keep very still — or someone will find you out! . . . I do think it’s wonderful, Susie, that our hearts don’t break, every day . . . but I guess I’m made with nothing but a hard heart of stone, for it don’t break any, and dear Susie, if mine is stony, yours is stone, upon stone, for you never yield, any, where I seem quite beflown. Are we going to ossify always, say Susie — how will it be?

There is palpable restlessness in Emily’s oscillation between resignation and demand, between love’s longing to be unmasked and the fear of being found out. Later that month, she exhorts Susan: “Loved One, thou knowest!” — an allusion to Juliet’s speech in Romeo and Juliet: “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”

By June, anticipating Susan’s return from Baltimore in three weeks, Emily is pining with unbridled candor:

When I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider . . . every day you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie… Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you . . . yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me… I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for til now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.

She ends her letter with aching awareness of the dissonance between her private desire and the public norms of love:

Now, farewell, Susie . . . I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?

Two weeks later, with Susan’s return now days away, her anticipatory longing rises to a crescendo:

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you — that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast — I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday… Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon — and my heart must be so busy, making ready for him.

Dickinson would frequently and deliberately reassign gender pronouns for herself and her beloveds, recasting her love in the acceptable male-female battery of desire. Throughout her life, she would often use the masculine in referring to herself — writing of her “boyhood,” signing letters to her cousins as “Brother Emily,” calling herself a “boy,” “prince,” “earl,” or “duke” in various poems, in one of which she unsexes herself in a violent transfiguration:

Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a Man!

Again and again, she would tell all the truth but tell it slant, unmooring the gender of her love objects from the pronouns that befit their biology. Later in life, in flirting with the idea of publication, she would masculinize the pronouns in a number of her love poems — “bearded” pronouns, she called these — to fit the heteronormative mold, so that two versions of these poems exist: the earlier addressed to a female beloved, the later to a male.

That insufferable spring, she had already declared to Susan that her “heart wants more.” Twenty Augusts after they met, Dickinson would write:

Enough is so vast a sweetness, I suppose it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead. The poet’s bedroom — the “chamber facing West” where she composed nearly all of her poetry — is located in the right-hand corner above the porch. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

But when Susan returned from Baltimore on that long-awaited Saturday, something had shifted between them. Perhaps the ten-month absence, filled not with their customary walks in the woods but with letters of exponentially swelling intensity, had revealed to Susan that Emily’s feelings for her were not of a different hue but of a wholly different color — one that she was constitutionally unable to match. Or perhaps Emily had always misdivined the contents of Susan’s heart, inferring an illusory symmetry of feeling on the basis not of evidence but of willfully blind hope.

Few things are more wounding than the confounding moment of discovering an asymmetry of affections where mutuality had been presumed. It is hard to imagine how Dickinson took the withdrawal — here was a woman who experienced the world with a euphoria of emotion atmospheres above the ordinary person’s and who therefore likely plummeted to the opposite extreme in equal magnitude. But she seems to have feared it all along — feared that her immense feelings would never be wholly met, as is the curse of those who love with unguarded abandon. Five months earlier, she had written to Susan:

I would nestle close to your warm heart… Is there any room there for me, or shall I wander away all homeless and alone?

She suspected, too, that she might injure — and not only herself — with the force of her love:

Oh, Susie, I often think that I will try to tell you how dear you are . . . but the words won’t come, tho’ the tears will, and I sit down disappointed… In thinking of those I love, my reason is all gone from me, and I do fear sometimes that I must make a hospital for the hopelessly insane, and chain me up there such times, so I won’t injure you.

Even in her ardent anticipatory letter penned before Susan’s return, she questions for a moment whether the love that stands as the central truth of her daily being is real:

Shall I indeed behold you, not “darkly, but face to face” or am I fancying so, and dreaming blessed dreams from which the day will wake me?

Now she had been awakened — not rudely, but unmistakably and irreversibly. In the anxious insistence of her entreaty is the sorrowful sense that Susan is slipping away from her — and toward Austin, who commenced an open courtship of her.

That summer, Emily Dickinson cut off her auburn hair.

The following autumn, Susan Gilbert married Austin Dickinson, largely to be near Emily, and they moved into the Evergreens — the house erected for the newlyweds by Austin and Emily’s father, across the lawn from the Homestead, the house where the lovesick poet lived.

A corridor denuded of grass soon formed between the Homestead and the Evergreens as Emily and Susan traversed the lawn daily to see each other or to press into the other’s hand a letter unpinned from the bosom of a dress. A “little path just wide enough for two who love,” Dickinson called it. Over the next quarter century, 276 known poems would travel between their homes — some by hand and foot, but many by post. I have often wondered what prompted the poet to head for the mailbox and not the hedge, stuffing her sentiments into an envelope addressed to a house a stone’s throw from her own. And yet the heart is not a stone — it is a thing with feathers.

Emily Dickinson’s porch, facing the Evergreens. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

“She loved with all her might,” a girlhood friend of Dickinson’s would recall after the poet’s death, “and we all knew her truth and trusted her love.” No one knew that love more intimately, nor had reason to trust it more durably, than Susan. Where Austin’s love washed over her with the stormy surface waves of desire, Emily’s carried her with the deep currents of devotion — a love Dickinson would compare to the loves of Dante for Beatrice and Swift for Stella. To Susan, Dickinson would write her most passionate letters and dedicate her best-beloved poems; to Susan she would steady herself, to her shore she would return again and again, writing in the final years of her life:

Show me Eternity, and I will show you Memory —
Both in one package lain
And lifted back again —
Be Sue — while I am Emily —
Be next — what you have ever been — Infinity.

Something of the infinite would always remain between them. Thirty years into the relationship, Susan would give Emily a book for Christmas — Disraeli’s romance novel Endymion, titled after the famous Keats poem that begins with the line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” — inscribed to “Emily, Whom not seeing, I still love.” Their uncommon relationship, the splendors and sorrows of which I explore further in Figuring, would become the pulse-beat of Dickinson’s body of work, which radicalized its era and forever changed the landscape of literature — a shimmering testament to the fact that love, longing, and the restlessness of the human heart are the catalyst for every creative revolution.

BP

The Year of the Whale: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to Our Planet’s Largest-Brained Creature

“Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.”

The Year of the Whale: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to Our Planet’s Largest-Brained Creature

“The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he would dedicate the novel, “and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”

A century later, marine biologist and author Victor B. Scheffer (November 27, 1906–September 20, 2011) would make that white colossus of wonder the subject of his short, lyrical book The Year of the Whale (public library) — a forgotten gem I discovered through one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, in which author, historian, and anthropologist of science Laurel Braitman recounts the formative influence of Scheffer’s quiet masterwork, bequeathed to her by her father.

With an eye to the ancient enchantment of this unusual and inadequately understood creature, Scheffer writes in the prologue:

The sperm whale has held for mankind a special, mystical meaning from the time of Moby-Dick down to today. Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.

Published in 1969, the book emanates Rachel Carson’s influence. Three decades earlier, Carson had pioneered a new way of writing about the natural world with her masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had long ago called “the world below the brine,” a world more mysterious then than the Moon. Carson invited the human reader to fathom the most enigmatic recesses of Earth from the perspective of nonhuman creatures. Nothing like this had ever been before. She eventually expanded the essay into the stunning book Under the Sea-Wind, exploring each of the three main areas of marine life through the eyes and senses of a particular, personified creature in order to avoid the human bias of popular books about the ocean, always written from the perspective of a human observer — a fisherman, a deep-sea diver, a shore wanderer.

Carson modeled not only this novel perspectival lens on the natural world, but also a new aesthetic of science as a literary subject. She would soon become the most esteemed and influential science writer in the country. “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” she would assert in her 1951 National Book Award acceptance speech. “And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

It is with this dual Carsonian influence of a nonhuman perspective lyrically conveyed that Scheffer approaches his inquiry into the world of this enormous and enigmatic mammal. Alongside beguiling illustrations by artist Leonard Everett Fisher, winner of the Pulitzer Art Prize, he tells the story of a mother whale and her baby, Little Calf. Fittingly, he chooses as the book’s epigraph Henry Beston’s poetic insistence that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”

Scheffer limns the moment of birth, itself a miracle of nature as this fourteen-foot baby that weighs one ton takes its first breath of weightless air:

It is early September when for the first time the Little Calf sees light — a blue-green, dancing light. He slips easily from his mother’s body beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean two hundred miles west of Mexico, on the Tropic of Cancer. He trembles, for the water is cold and he has lain for sixteen months in a warm chamber at ninety-six degrees. He gasps for air as his mother nudges him anxiously to the surface with her broad snout. He breathes rapidly and desperately for a while, puffing with each breath a small cloud of vapor down the autumn breeze.

Already at birth, Little Calf has overcome immense peril. Together with sea cows and hippopotamuses, whales are the only mammals born underwater. Unlike a human baby, a whale is born tail first, backing into the outer world. Its enormous, awkward head — a head that would grow to hold Earth’s largest brain, fivefold the size of a human’s — follows the comma of its tadpole-shaped body, narrowly escaping the noose of the five-foot umbilical cord.

Scheffer writes:

As mother and calf roll in the wash the cord snaps. The baby opens a pink mouth with knobby, toothless gums and seems suddenly to smile, for the upturned corners of his mouth break into a satisfied smirk. This is illusion, of course; the smile of a whale is a built-in feature with which it is endowed at birth and retains throughout life.

[…]

Little Calf… is far more advanced in body development than any newborn human child. He is wide-eyed, alert, and fully able to swim. Every whale of every kind is in fact precocious at brith; it has to be, for within brief moments it finds itself awash in the grown-up world — no nest, no den, no shelter except the dark shadow of the mother floating beside it.

By the following summer, this precocious baby has begun mastering life in the open ocean. Scheffer describes the beautiful dance between Little Calf’s fledgling independence and the deep bond with his mother:

In the year of the whale there are days when nothing is new. One such a day in July the air is filled with a monotonous hissing of sound as one rain squall pursues another across the dappled sea. The Little Calf swims beneath his mother’s body in a dark shadow illuminated at the edges by a blue-gray light from above. Subconsciously he tries to match the rhythmic undulating sameness of her body, for the beating impulses of her flesh and the suffocating water have been one great throbbing part of his life from its beginning. In trying to keep pace, he sometimes falls behind and must sprint for a dozen strokes to re-enter the comforting zone of the shadow.

[…]

As the year ends, the form of the Little Calf leaves a thin track on the flat immensity, a swirling punctuation, a blend of liquid and life. A cool wind moves. The red light gleams on the wave at his brow. Then the sun sinks below the sea, and the tiny whale is gone.

Following Little Calf month by month, as different constellations come to populate the season’s skies, Scheffer goes on to explore the courtship of whales, the fascinating science of their underwater communication, their ferocious protectiveness of one another, the courageous battles they wage against the unforgiving ocean, the dynamics of a whale “family” — a loose social group of thirty or so individuals — and various other aspects of lives so wildly and wondrously different from our own, yet so strangely kindred, evocative of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s lovely observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom… far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Underlying Little Calf’s story are the subtle but palpable pulses of an environmental conscience, wistfully aware — even in 1969 — that unless we radically reform our civilizational regard for the natural world, this remarkable creature may vanish forever. Scheffer opens the first chapter with the cautionary words of former United States Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall — one of Carson’s most spirited champions and a fierce conservation advocate himself:

This decade may go down in history as marking the end of life for the largest animal ever to inhabit this earth. If so, it will be another morbid monument to man’s short-sighted exploitation of the world’s wildlife bounty.

Complement The Year of the Whale with this poetic stop-motion animation about the afterlife of the whale, the illustrated story of Mocha-Dick — the real-life sperm whale who inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick — and this lovely picture-book about the blue whale, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery — one of the most lyrical science writers of our own time — on how to be a good creature.

BP

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion… The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.”

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.

A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.

Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:

As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.

If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1956 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:

The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…

The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:

A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.

Illustration from Henry Hikes to Fitchburg — a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy.

One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:

To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.

Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:

In my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:

Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.

Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:

Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.

To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:

All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.

A century later, Bertrand Russell — himself a humanist of the highest order and a rare seer of elemental truth — would liken the optimal human existence to a river.

Couple this particular fragment of Thoreau’s abidingly insightful A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which also gave us his wisdom on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius — with his contemporary Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of social change, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, the myth of productivity, knowing vs. seeing, and defining your own success.

BP

Emblem of My Work: Artists Reimagine Laurence Sterne’s Iconic Marbled Page

A vibrant celebration of the imagination at the intersection of unpredictability and creative constraint.

On the last page of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, I offered a short note on our endpaper choice — a special treat for lovers of literature, hidden in plain sight. This is what I wrote:

ENDPAPER NOTE

“I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper,’” E.B. White wrote to his editor, the visionary Ursula Nordstrom, before insisting that the endpapers of his Charlotte’s Web be beautiful. The loveliest of books are touched by the author’s thoughtfulness and care in every detail. 

A Velocity of Being borrows its endpapers from one of the most imaginative details an author ever slipped into a book. 

In 1759, Laurence Sterne began composing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — a seven-volume novel that would take him a decade to complete and would revolutionize the art of storytelling. Midway through the third volume, he placed a single marbled page — a shock of swirling color, strange and beautiful against the black-and-white of the book. Sterne himself considered it the “motley emblem” of his work, imbued with meaning open to interpretation but never fully penetrable. It was a small revolution — aesthetically, because the craft of marbling, developed in the Middle East, was a curious novelty in mid-18th-century Britain; conceptually, because the fluid dynamics of the dyes make each marbling unique and irreplicable, like each reading of a book, colored by the dynamics we bring to it, the swirl of its meaning co-created by author and reader.

Years ago, when A Velocity of Being was still an untitled baby of a project, my then-partner and I had the fortune of acquiring one of the handful of surviving first editions of Tristram Shandy at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. As I marveled at this centuries-old marbled page, I knew instantly that it would make the perfect endpaper — aesthetically and symbolically, a “motley emblem” of the joy and ever-swirling meaning of literature itself.

The original marbled page in Tristram Shandy

This famed marbled page has inspired a great many homages in the quarter millennium since its creation, but none lovelier than Emblem of My Work — a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Sterne’s visionary masterpiece, presenting 170 artists with the opportunity to reimagine and reinterpret the iconic page 169. Each was sent a blank template of the page and invited to create within its bounds the emblem of his or her own work. The resulting artwork — spanning pen and ink, oil, watercolor, collage, photography, data art, and more, imaginative and unpredictable like the art of marbling itself — stands as a testament to the power of creative constraint, embodying Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

The project was exhibited in 2011 and the pieces were sold in an auction benefiting the Laurence Stern Trust. A list of the participating artists — among them John Baldessari, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, and Tom Gauld — was provided, but the creator of each piece was not identified, instead inviting visitors to speculate on authorship. Some, though not all, artists offered a few words about the concept and materials of their interpretation.

These are some of the pieces:

Emblem 3
Emblem 4
Emblem 5
Emblem 6. Artist’s description and materials: “Tristram’s father decreed that the boy would receive an especially auspicious name, Trismegistus, after the esoteric mystic Hermes Trismegistus. This image is an invented alchemical monogram representing the name of Trismegistus. Silkscreen and black ink on paper.”
Emblem 9
Emblem 14
Emblem 19
Emblem 20
Emblem 27
Emblem 29. Artist’s description and materials: “Fragment from an old poem circa 1969, used as a memory of the recovery of an Olympia Splendid 66 portable typewriter, originally designed by Max Bill in 1939, and once bought in Nottingham in 1966 with Elite pitch and its keys altered for accents. Lost in a Paris street market in 1987, and another found at Ludgate Typewriters in London in 1994 with Pica pitch, its fraction keys also altered identically for accents.”
Emblem 36
Emblem 40
Emblem 41. Artist’s description and materials: “While still only a ‘homunculus’ Tristram’s implantation within his mother’s womb was disturbed. At the very moment of procreation, his mother asked his father if he had remembered to wind up the clock. My print thus illustrates the key used to wind said clock. C.M.Y.K colour separation screen print.”
Emblem 47. Artist’s description and materials: “I have been making a series of drawings and prints of the development of the London Olympic site which is only a few minutes’ walk away from my studio. This unfinished print of which you see a fragment was worked over many months, its many layers combining to create the sense of flux that is a cornerstone of my work’s identity.”
Emblem 48
Emblem 58
Emblem 59
Emblem 64
Emblem 65. Artist’s description and materials: “One thousand, one hundred and ninety-six 0805 surface-mounted resistors and very small bits of wire.”
Emblem 69
Emblem 80
Emblem 85
Emblem 89: Artist’s description and materials: “Image-making of all kinds is often a result of some kind of pigment in suspension: the marbled page was created by a pattern of resistance by colours while suspended on a meniscus of water. My work is primarily about the push and pull of tides and I have used watercolours and pigmented inks to create these opposing flows. In my alternative life as a fish I variously resist or exploit these currents: hence the fish appearing in white gouache.”
Emblem 91
Emblem 93
Emblem 100
Emblem 102
Emblem 106
Emblem 113. Artist’s description and materials: “Pencil, acrylic, 2 dreams.”
Emblem 117. Artist’s description and materials: “I have used a ‘wet on wet’ process, with intense liquid watercolour on 638 gsm Saunders Waterford. The ink travels in a way that is controlled but random, wandering, meandering, diverting, returning — following but not following the direction of travel. For me, the marble page is already a journey, unpredictable, open and fluid.”
Emblem 125
Emblem 126
Emblem 133. Artist’s description and materials: “‘Asterisk,’ created for ‘The Emblem of My Work,’ uses antiquated dry-transfer lettering applied one at a time to create a melancholy emblem of the passing of time. Once ubiquitous in business and graphic design, dry-transfer lettering is now a cultural artefact denigrated to artistic production. Using only full-stops, dashes and asterisks, ‘Asterisk’ celebrates the absence, the unstated, the censored and the long-forgotten. For art in the age of mechanical reproduction, the forgotten is ‘The Emblem of my Work.’”
Emblem 138. Artist’s description and materials: “This little picture is dedicated to the memory of Brian Robb, friend & mentor & creator of (in my view) the best set of illustrations to Tristram Shandy. Waverley nib; Indian ink; magic pencil; watercolour.”
Emblem 142
Emblem 143
Emblem 146
Emblem 149
Emblem 153
Emblem 155. Artist’s description and materials: “The period is the typographic representation of an end. It is neither an expression of humour nor of sentiment. It simply is what it is. The image was printed using a Vandercook letterpress machine. Letterpress allows typography to sing and so while the character has passed, the letterpressed period signifies a poetic reminder to the reader of his previous existence. Definitions were taken from The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, copyright 1993.”
Emblem 159
Emblem 160: Artist’s description and materials: “The emblem of my work is my ‘mini meadow.’ This picture has been created to look like a blooming meadow on a summer’s day. It has been marbled on a very small tray using Designers’ Gouache paint, floated onto a substance called Carrageen moss. Each meadow is one of a kind as every one is produced individually.”
BP

Romanian Philosopher Emil Cioran on the Courage to Disillusion Yourself

“The man who unmasks his fictions renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depths.”

Romanian Philosopher Emil Cioran on the Courage to Disillusion Yourself

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster,” James Baldwin wrote in a staggeringly prescient piece from 1953. And yet shutting our eyes is how we humans have coped, again and again, with our own discomfort and helplessness in the face of inconvenient realities — indeed, it could be said that our existential eyelids evolved precisely for this survivalist function, maladaptive and supremely adaptive at the same time. Virginia Woolf articulated the intoxicating chill of this truth: “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades.”

Our illusions are self-cast enchantments that sever our contact with truth by paralyzing what Bertrand Russell called “the will to doubt” — the vital moral faculty that protects us from manipulation and from the credulity Russell considered our “intellectual original sin.” It is a vicious cycle of delusion — one which W.H. Auden described in his incisive meditation on enchantment: “We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny… The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.”

To break the spell of self-deception, then, is one of the greatest moral triumphs a human being — or a society, or a civilization — can claim.

Emil Cioran

That is what the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (April 8, 1911–June 20, 1995) — whom Susan Sontag celebrated as one of the most lucid, powerful, and nuanced thinkers of the twentieth century, a writer concerned with “consciousness tuned to the highest pitch of refinement” — explores in a passage from his arrestingly titled and arrestingly argued 1956 book The Temptation to Exist (public library).

Echoing Woolf’s insight into the necessity and convenience of illusions — even harmful illusions — Cioran writes:

The destruction of idols involves that of prejudices. Now, prejudices — organic fictions of a civilization — assure its duration, preserve its physiognomy. It must respect them: if not all of them, at least those which are its own and which, in the past, had the importance of a superstition, a rite. If a civilization entertains them as pure conventions, it will increasingly release itself from them without being able to replace them by its own means. And what if it has worshipped caprice, freedom, the individual? A high-class conformism, no more. Once it ceases to “conform,” caprice, freedom, and the individual will become a dead letter.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

It is hard to miss the parallels between the civilizational and the social, the political and the personal — we are as susceptible, or perhaps even more susceptible, to such distortions of reality in our private lives. Too often, we frame our emotional motives as moral motives, inflicting our illusions upon others with an air of self-righteousness — the most noxious of self-delusion’s fumes. These tendencies creep up to every level of society as our individual decisions coalesce into collective actions, which are then codified into the stories, policies, and selective memories of events we call history. Cioran writes:

A minimum of unconsciousness is necessary if one wants to stay inside history. To act is one thing; to know one is acting is another. When lucidity invests the action, insinuates itself into it, action is undone and, with it, prejudice, whose function consists, precisely, in subordinating, in enslaving consciousness to action. The man* who unmasks his fictions renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depths. No man concerned with his equilibrium may exceed a certain degree of lucidity and analysis. How much more this applies to a civilization, which vacillates as soon as it exposes the errors which permitted its growth and its luster, as soon as it calls into question its own truths!

Around the time Baldwin was exhorting his compatriots to wake up and own up to their own monstrosities and ugly truths, Cioran bellows prophetically from the poorest reaches of Eastern Europe, just north of where I was born, in a country centuries the United States’ senior:

America stands before the world as an impetuous void, a fatality without substance. Nothing prepared her for hegemony; yet she tends toward it, not without a certain hesitation. Unlike the other nations which have had to pass through a series of humiliations and defeats, she has known till now only the sterility of an uninterrupted good fortune. If, in the future, everything should continue to go as well, her appearance on the scene will have been an accident without influence. Those who preside over her destiny, those who take her interests to heart, should prepare for bad times; in order to cease being a superficial monster, she requires an ordeal of major scope. Having lived, hitherto, outside hell, she is preparing to descend into it. If she seeks a destiny for herself, she will find it only on the ruins of all that was her raison d’etre.

The Temptation to Exist is a densely sobering read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides on truth and doubt, Emerson on individual integrity and resisting the tyranny of the masses, Bertrand Russell on freedom of thought and our best defense against propaganda, and the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman on why doubt is the wellspring of morality.

BP

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