“Now I will do nothing but listen, / To accrue what I hear into this song…”
By Maria Popova
“Every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote as he contemplated the interconnectedness of the universe not long after Walt Whitman issued his timeless, exquisite reminder that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” And yet, Muir recognized, “the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself.” To hear the song of existence — ours, or another, or the entire symphony of being — is the supreme task of life. But how do we listen to that song when it is drowned out by the ceaseless noise of daily distraction, muffled by apathy, or crowded out by a cacophony of demands?
That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores with characteristic splendor of sentiment in the twenty-sixth of the fifty-two numbered section of Song of Myself included in the fourth edition of his revolutionary 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | free ebook).
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)
I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.
I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music — this suits me.
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.
This eternal question of what genius actually is and how we measure it — one of the major themes in Figuring — is what the Romantic poet laureate of human consciousness, William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770–April 23, 1850), examines in a prefatory essay from the 1815 edition of the two-volume set Poems by William Wordsworth (public library | free ebook).
Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before: Of genius, in the fine arts, the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honor, and benefit of human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the application of powers to objects on which they had not before been exercised, or the employment of them in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown.
True genius, he argues, does not merely bestow a work of art or a discovery upon a passive audience but cultivates in that audience the very capacity for understanding, appreciating, and being transformed by the product of genius — something another great poet, Joseph Brodsky, would echo generations later in his meditation on how to develop one’s taste in reading. A century and a half before the pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner asserted in his analysis of the psychology of storytelling that “the great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer,” Wordsworth adds:
What is all this but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the Poet? Is it to be supposed that the Reader can make progress of this kind, like an Indian Prince or General — stretched on his Palanquin, and borne by his Slaves? No, he is invigorated and inspirited by his Leader, in order that he may exert himself, for he cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be carried like a dead weight. Therefore to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.
“A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.”
By Maria Popova
I have worried, and continue to worry, that we have relinquished the reflective telescopic perspective for the reactionary microscopic perspective. When we surrender the grandest, often unanswerable questions to the false certitudes of the smallest, we lose something essential of our humanity. When we aim the spears of those certitudes at one another, more interested in being right than in understanding, we lose something essential. How did we get to a place where to have an opinion is more culturally rewarded than to have a question? Hannah Arendt admonished against this dehumanizing loss decades ago in her trailblazing Gifford lecture on the life of the mind: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”
How to guard against the decivilizing tyranny of unthinking opinion over perspectival thought is what the English poet, essayist, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, and art critic G. K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) — an imperfect man, to be sure, but also a brilliant one belonging to that rare species of truth-seers — addressed in the opening chapter of his 1905 essay collection Heretics (free ebook | public library).
In former days… the man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right… The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right.
It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter.
Chesterton laments that in the exponential narrowing of focus toward more and more hard-held opinions about smaller and smaller dimensions of life, we have increasingly lost perspective — that telescopic perspective — of the largest, most enduring, most important questions of existence. He writes:
Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations… A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything.
Chesterton — who vehemently and publicly opposed eugenics when Britain was passing the Mental Deficiency Act and considering sterilizing the mentally ill — admonishes against the perils of surrendering the grand perspective. Noting that “the human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions,” he considers the two great and opposite evils of bigotry and fanaticism — “bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism which is a too great concentration” — and asserts that the only thing worse than both, “more firm than a bigot and more terrible than a fanatic,” is “a man with a definite opinion.” What we lose by electing opinion over perspective, he argues, is cosmic truth:
When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating.
But there are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.
In a sentiment of chilling relevance more than a century later, he adds:
This repudiation of big words and big visions has brought forth a race of small men in politics… Our modern politicians claim the colossal license of Caesar and the Superman, claim that they are too practical to be pure and too patriotic to be moral.
This tyranny of definite opinions about the smallest questions, at the expense of broad perspective on the largest, effects a kind of worship of blind practicality over philosophy — the field most directly tasked with the seeing of truth. Chesterton writes:
It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality… Nothing in this universe is so unwise as that kind of worship of worldly wisdom. A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.
Six decades later, John F. Kennedy would hold up art as the social corrective for politics. But art can only be a corrective, Chesterton argues, if it manages not to succumb to the same opinion-constricted narrowing of view that paralyzes and corrupts politics:
A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.
In a sobering allegory, he illustrates this deeply damaging loss of perspective at the altar of opinion and petty practicality:
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good — ” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
“In the name of daybreak / and the eyelids of morning / and the wayfaring moon / and the night when it departs,” Diane Ackerman wrote in her wondrous poem-prayer for presence. There is a singular and deeply assuring beauty to the prayerful optimism that daybreak brings. On the darkest of days, the knowledge that the sun will rise is the sole certainty we can hold on to. And when it does rise, it ignites the splendor of a world becoming conscious of itself — the first birdsong, the first breath, the first catlike stretch, the first cup of tea.
That splendor is what the great Polish-American children’s book author and illustrator Uri Shulevitz (b. February 27, 1935) celebrates with uncommon tenderness of heart and brush in his 1974 masterpiece Dawn (public library) — a watercolor serenade to the world as it becomes conscious of itself.
The book opens with a splash of quiet stillness in the final stretch of night.
Under a tree on the shore of the moonlit lake, an old man and a small boy sleep curled beneath their blankets. In spare words and soft watercolors, Shulevitz unspools the new day across the pages. The mountain stands solemn guard over the lake, its reflection shivering under the gentle touch of the breeze.
We see creatures slowly come awake.
Radiating from Shulevitz’s paintings is the aura of absolute, unassailable presence as the old man wakes his grandson and the two begin the quiet ritual of morning — drawing water from the lake, making fire, rolling up their blankets.
With the landscape still blue under the unrisen sun, they push their boat onto the water and row it to the middle of the lake to witness that magical moment when the first rays turn the sky, the mountain, the lake, the whole world from blue to green — the diurnal ignition spark of aliveness.
Complement Dawn, the analog loveliness of which cannot be even half-conveyed on this screen, with Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known vintage celebration of the coming of the new day, The Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Ohara Hale’s splendid Be Still, Life.
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