“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.
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.
“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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.
“Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it… The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds.”
By Maria Popova
The summer when nineteen-year-old Emily Dickinson met the love of her life — the orphaned mathematician-in-training Susan Gilbert, who would come to be the poet’s greatest muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World” — another intense, label-defying love was igniting in the heart of another literary titan-to-be some fifty miles westward. That other love unfolds alongside Dickinson’s in Figuring — a book I wrote to explore, among other existential perplexities, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves. (This essay is adapted from the book.)
On August 5, 1850, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne at a literary gathering in the Berkshires. Hawthorne was forty-six. The achingly shy, brooding writer, once celebrated as “handsomer than Lord Byron,” had risen to celebrity a decade earlier, much thanks to a glowing endorsement by Margaret Fuller. Melville — whose debut novel had rendered him a literary star in his twenties — had just turned thirty-one.
A potent intellectual infatuation ignited between the two men — one that, at least for Melville, seems to have grown from the cerebral to the corporeal. Within days, the young author reviewed Hawthorne’s short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse in Literary World under the impersonal byline “a Virginian Spending July in Vermont.” No claim of this intentional ambiguity was true — Melville was a New Yorker, the month was August, and he was spending it in Massachusetts.
The review, nearing seven thousand words, was nothing less than an editorial serenade. “A man of a deep and noble nature has seized me in this seclusion… His wild, witch voice rings through me,” Melville wrote of reading Hawthorne’s stories in a remote farmhouse nestled in the summer foliage of the New England countryside. “The soft ravishments of the man spun me round in a web of dreams.” Melville couldn’t have known that his allusions to witchcraft, intended as compliment, had disquieting connotations for Hawthorne. Born Nathaniel Hathorne, he had added a w to the family name in order to distance himself from his ancestor John Hathorne — a leading judge involved in the Salem witch trials, who, unlike the other culpable judges, never repented of his role in the murders. Unwitting of the dark family history, Melville found himself under “this Hawthorne’s spell” — a spell cast first by his writing, then by the constellation of personal qualities from which the writing radiated. Who hasn’t fallen in love with an author in the pages of a beautiful book? And if that author, when befriended in the real world, proves to be endowed with the splendor of personhood that the writing intimates, who could resist falling in love with the whole person? Melville presaged as much:
No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind… There is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet. Or, love and humor are only the eyes, through which such an intellect views this world. The great beauty in such a mind is but the product of its strength.
After comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, he writes:
In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, — even though it be covertly, and by snatches.
“I am Posterity speaking by proxy,” Melville bellows from the page, “when I declare — that the American, who up to the present day, has evinced, in Literature, the largest brain with the largest heart, that man is Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In an aside on the process of composing his review, he notes that twenty-four hours into writing, he found himself “charged more and more with love and admiration of Hawthorne.” Quoting an especially beguiling line of Hawthorne’s, he insists that “such touches… can not proceed from any common heart.” No, they bespeak “such a depth of tenderness, such a boundless sympathy with all forms of being, such an omnipresent love” that they render their author singular in his generation — as singular as the place he would come to occupy in Melville’s heart.
Fervid correspondence and frequent visits followed over the next few months. Only ten of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne survive, but their houses were just six miles apart and they saw each other quite often — “discussing the Universe with a bottle of brandy & cigars,” as Melville put it in one invitation, and talking deep into the night about “time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters,” as Hawthorne recounted in his diary. Punctuating the invisible log of all that was written but destroyed is all that was spoken but unwritten, all that was felt but unspoken.
Melville’s ardor was most acute during the period of writing Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. Printed immediately after the title page was “In Token of My Admiration for his Genius, This Book is Inscribed to Nathanial [sic] Hawthorne.”
One November evening over dinner, a restlessly excited Herman presented Nathaniel with a lovingly inscribed copy of the novel whose now-legendary protagonist sails from Nantucket into the existential unknown. I can picture the brooding Hawthorne turning the leaf and suppressing a beam of delight upon discovering the printed dedication. In the following century, Virginia Woolf would perform a similar gesture with her groundbreaking, gender-bending novel Orlando, inspired by her lover Vita Sackville-West and later described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita would receive a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specially for her in Niger leather and stamped with her initials on the spine.
But after the elated private presentation, a very different public fate awaited Moby-Dick. Its 1851 publication was met with a damning review in New York’s Literary World, which set the tone for its American reception and precipitated its decades-long plunge into obscurity. The reviewer’s chief complaint was that the novel “violated and defaced” “the most sacred associations of life”—an indictment aimed at the homoeroticism of Melville’s choice to depict Ishmael and Queequeg as sharing a “marriage bed” in which they awaken with their arms around each other.
Ten days later, Hawthorne lamented the obtuseness of the review and praised Moby-Dick as Melville’s best work yet. Touched to the point of delirium by this “exultation-breeding letter,” Melville hastened to reply:
Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.
Aware of how his intemperate fervor might incinerate his relationship with the cooler-tempered Hawthorne, Melville reasons with himself for a moment, then chooses to abandon reason:
My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning.
After signing, he adds a feverish postscript:
I can’t stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of [magicians], I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand — a million — billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question — they are One.
The intensity proved too concussing for Hawthorne — he pulled away from the divine magnet. Melville seems to have presaged the eclipse of their relationship in the review in which the magnetism had begun:
It is that blackness in Hawthorne… that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark.
As Hawthorne retreated into his cool darkness, Melville suffered with the singular anguish of unreturned ardor—anguish that stayed with him for the remaining four decades of his life, for he eulogized it in one of his last poems, “Monody,” penned in his final year:
To have known him, to have loved him,
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!
By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.
Meanwhile, the gaps of the invisible and the unspoken are filled with posterity’s questions about specifics that vibrate with the universal: What happened between Melville and Hawthorne in the unrecorded hours? Why did Nathaniel ultimately repel the divine magnet of Herman’s love? Most probably, we’ll never know. Possibly, they themselves never fully did. It is almost banal to say, yet it needs to be said: No one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. One thing is certain: The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
By Maria Popova
“Our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom,” naturalist Sy Montgomery wrote in her lyrical reflection on what thirteen animals taught her about how to be a good creature. And yet, for millennia, we left this old, shimmering world unfathomed — for all but the last blink of our species’ history, non-human animals have been little more than a preying feast for the human body and fertile metaphors for the human mind. Not until Jane Goodall upended the conceit that we are the only tool-wielding animals, against enormous tides of resistance from the scientific establishment, did we slowly and reluctantly begin shunning the specter of Descartes, haunting us for centuries with the haughty dogma that we alone are in possession of minds, while other animals are mere automata — moving machines, governed by instinct alone. Our definitions of what it means to be human have always perched atop a constructed hierarchy of beings, casting the otherness of other creatures as inferior. And yet even Darwin, who radicalized our understanding of nature by demonstrating the evolutionary ladder of life, scribbled in the margins of a natural history book: “Never say higher or lower. Say more complicated.”
The beauty of that unfathomed complexity and its attendant cry for a new way of apprehending non-human animals are what Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968) — one of the most lyrical nature writers our species has produced, and Rachel Carson’s greatest literary hero — examines a lovely passage from his 1928 classic The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (public library).
In a chapter titled “Autumn, Oceans, Birds,” Beston writes:
No aspect of nature on this beach is more mysterious to me than the flights of these shorebird constellations. The constellation forms… in an instant of time, and in that same instant develops its own will. Birds which have been feeding yards away from each other, each one individually busy for his individual body’s sake, suddenly fuse into this new volition and, flying, rise as one, coast as one, tilt their dozen bodies as one, and as one wheel off on the course which the new group will has determined… By what means, by what methods of communication does this will so suffuse the living constellation that its dozen or more tiny brains know it and obey it in such an instancy of time? Are we to believe that these birds, all of them, are machina, as Descartes long ago insisted, mere mechanisms of flesh and bone so exquisitely alike that each cogwheel brain, encountering the same environmental forces, synchronously lets slip the same mechanic ratchet? or is there some psychic relation between these creatures?
From this constellating marvel bordering on magic, Beston wrests a poetic antidote to our anthropocentrism — part requiem for our misplaced millennia-old hubris, part prescient and largehearted invitation to regard the otherness of this living world as a sovereign splendor measured not against but alongside and apart from our own.
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.