“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?”
By Maria Popova
When Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) was a young man, having already outlived the prognosis he had been given with ALS, he built on earlier theories about what happens to a dying star as it collapses to form a singularity — that tiny point of zero radius, infinite density, and infinite curvature of spacetime at the heart of a black hole. But then Hawking did something radical — he took this final death-stage and flipped the arrow of time to consider what would happen if that singularity exploded outward and began expanding. He theorized that perhaps that is how the universe was born. So began his half-century intellectual adventure that shaped the course of modern physics and changed our common understanding of why everything that is is.
A crowning moment of the 2018 Universe in Verse was a tribute to Hawking’s legacy by one of the great poets of our time: Marie Howe. Because Howe is an artist extremely considered in what she releases into the world, often devoting a decade to a single poem, it was a tremendous honor to have her premiere a new poem composed for the occasion in a blink of cosmic time and inspired by her young daughter’s love of physics. Howe’s prefatory meditations are as magnificent and full of wisdom as the poem itself — please enjoy both:
SINGULARITY by Marie Howe
(after Stephen Hawking)
Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?
so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —
nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone
pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.
For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you. Remember?
There was no Nature. No them. No tests
to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf or if
the coral reef feels pain. Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;
would that we could wake up to what we were
— when we were ocean and before that
to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not
at all — nothing
before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.
Can molecules recall it?
what once was? before anything happened?
No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with
Cerulean splendor from Goethe, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Rachel Carson, Toni Morrison, and other literary masters.
By Maria Popova
With Carl Sagan’s poetic Pale Blue Doton my mind lately, I have found myself dwelling on the color blue and the way our planet’s elemental hue, the most symphonic of the colors, recurs throughout our literature as something larger than a mere chromatic phenomenon — a symbol, a state of being, a foothold to the most lyrical and transcendent heights of the imagination.
Gathered here is a posy of blue from some of my favorite encounters with this more-than-color in the literature of the past two centuries.
“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe wrote, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” The treatise, composed as a refutation of Newton, turned out to have no scientific validity. But its conceptual aspects fascinated and inspired generations of philosophers and scientists ranging from Arthur Schopenhauer to Kurt Gödel.
Goethe writes in the section allotted to blue:
As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.
This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.
As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.
But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.
Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade… Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.
The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1843)
“Where is my cyanometer,”Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) exclaimed in his splendid journal on a blue-skied spring day, referring to the curious device invented by the Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure a century earlier to measure the blueness of the sky, which the polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt enthusiastically embraced. “We love to see any part of the earth tinged with blue, cerulean, the color of the sky, the celestial color,” Thoreau wrote in another spring entry. “The blue of my eye sympathizes with this blue in the snow,” he recorded in a winter one. “Blue is light seen through a veil,” he wrote on the precipice of the two seasons.
Thoreau’s writings, dancing at the borderline between observation and contemplation, are strewn with his love of blue. Most often, he records his delight at the raw reality of the color as he encounters it in nature. Occasionally, however, he leaps from the actual into the abstract, drawing from physical blueness insight into the metaphysical dimensions of existence.
We resolved to scale the blue wall which bound the western horizon… In the spaces of thought are the reaches of land and water, where men go and come. The landscape lies far and fair within, and the deepest thinker is the farthest travelled.
Peering into the blue horizon from the conquered mountain summit at the end of the journey, he finds in it a metaphor for the boundlessness of the human spirit:
We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue; that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.
The power of profound meaning is found in blue, and first in its physical movements (1) of retreat from the spectator, (2) of turning in upon its own centre. The inclination of blue to depth is so strong that its inner appeal is stronger when its shade is deeper. Blue is the typical heavenly colour… The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest… [Footnote:] Supernatural rest, not the earthly contentment of green. The way to the supernatural lies through the natural.
When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human… When it rises towards white, a movement little suited to it, its appeal to men grows weaker and more distant. In music a light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello; a still darker a thunderous double bass; and the darkest blue of all — an organ.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1916)
When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her dearest friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”
Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…
The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.
Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —
It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful —
Two decades later, O’Keeffe revisited blue in her contribution to An American Place — the catalogue for an exhibition of Ansel Adams’s photographs her great love and spouse, Alfred Stieglitz, had put on in New York City. (Thanks, Natalie, for the discovery.) O’Keeffe writes:
When I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones — what I saw through them — particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world… they were most beautiful against the Blue — that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.
MARGARET MEAD (1926)
For Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978), the color blue appeared not in the attentive observation of the real world that made her one of the most visionary and influential anthropologists in history, but in a nocturnal visitation of her own unconscious mind — a strange and wondrous dream about the meaning of life.
Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”
But when she does turn to blue, it becomes more than a color, more than a mood — a subtle yet piercing hue of being, or rather the color of the lacuna between being and nonbeing. In an entry from April 9 of 1937, four springs before the blue of her lifelong depression and the River Ouse swallowed her, Woolf limns the singular blue of a particular interior space. Alluding to Wordsworth’s verse addressing “the heart that lives alone, housed in a dream,” she quotes another line and argues with the poet:
“Such happiness wherever it is known is to be pitied for tis surely blind.” Yes, but my happiness isn’t blind. That is the achievement, I was thinking between 3 and 4 this morning, of my 55 years. I lay awake so calm, so content, as if I’d stepped off the whirling world into a deep blue quiet space and there open eyed existed, beyond harm; armed against all that can happen. I have never had this feeling before in all my life; but I have had it several times since last summer: when I reached it, in my worst depression, as if I stepped out, throwing aside a cloak, lying in bed, looking at the stars, these nights at Monks House. Of course it ruffles, in the day, but there it is.
RACHEL CARSON (1941)
A quarter century before marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring, she performed another unprecedented feat. In a lyrical essay about the underwater world — a world then more mysterious than the moon — she invited the human reader to experience the reality of life on this planet from the nonhuman perspective of marine creatures. Nothing like it had been done before. Published in The Atlantic, the essay became Carson’s first literary breakthrough and led to her 1941 book Under the Sea-Wind (public library) — a series of lyrical narratives about the life of the shore, the open sea, and the oceanic abyss.
In a passage about the migration and mating of eels, she bridges the scientific and the poetic to plunge the human imagination into the otherworldly blue of the deep sea:
The young eels first knew life in the transition zone between the surface sea and the abyss. A thousand feet of water lay above them, straining out the rays of the sun. Only the longest and strongest of the rays filtered down to the level where the eels drifted in the sea — a cold and sterile residue of blue and ultraviolet, shorn of all its warmth of reds and yellows and greens. For a twentieth part of the day the blackness was displaced by a strange light of a vivid and unearthly blue that came stealing down from above. But only the straight, long rays of the sun when it passed the zenith had power to dispel the blackness, and the deep sea’s hour of dawn light was merged in its hour of twilight. Quickly the blue light faded away, and the eels lived again in the long night that was only less black than the abyss, where the night had no end.
“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Shepherd wrote. She found the most powerful transmutation agent of that alchemy in the singular blue of the mountain air:
The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil. It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings. Brown for the most part in themselves, as soon as we see them clothed in air the hills become blue. Every shade of blue, from opalescent milky-white to indigo, is there. They are most opulently blue when rain is in the air. Then the gullies are violet. Gentian and delphinium hues, with fire in them, lurk in the folds. These sultry blues have more emotional effect than a dry air can produce. One is not moved by china blue. But the violet range of colours can trouble the mind like music.
VLADIMIR NABOKOV (1951)
“The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are,”Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) wrote in his 1951 autobiography, Speak, Memory (public library), describing the lifelong crossing of the senses that resulted in his synesthetic alphabet.
In aiding the non-synesthete to experience this strange parallel reality of sensory perception, Nabokov constructs a color wheel of the alphabet, allotting each letter to a particular portion of the spectrum. These are his blues:
Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.
Although the letters of the alphabet spilled across the entire spectrum of his mind’s eye, Nabokov had an especial fondness for the color blue. He recalls how, as a youngster, his teacher would take the class to the park and enchant them by arranging the autumn maple leaves in a large circle forming “a near complete spectrum” — but, crucially, without the blue, which was “a big disappointment” to the young Nabokov. Perhaps this is why, when he turned his cross-disciplinary curiosity to lepidoptery later in life, the butterflies that most captivated his imagination and became his greatest scientific legacy were the azure-colored Latin American Polyommatini, colloquially known as the “blues.”
I saw in a blue haze all the world poured flat and pale between the mountains.
Some of it transports to places of the natural world and places of the interior world we rarely let ourselves notice, much less visit, by our own accord. Dillard invites the imagination into the inky enchantment of nightfall in winter:
Yesterday I watched a curious nightfall. The cloud ceiling took on a warm tone, deepened, and departed as if drawn on a leash. I could no longer see the fat snow flying against the sky; I could see it only as it fell before dark objects. Any object at a distance — like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window — looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue. It was like dying, this watching the world recede into deeper and deeper blues while the snow piled; silence swelled and extended, distance dissolved, and soon only concentration at the largest shadows let me make out the movement of falling snow, and that too failed. The snow on the yard was blue as ink, faintly luminous; the sky violet. The bay window betrayed me, and started giving me back the room’s lamps. It was like dying, that growing dimmer and deeper and then going out.
TONI MORRISON (1987)
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Toni Morrison wrote in her spectacular acceptance speech as she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize. The cornerstone for the trailblazing distinction was Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved (public library), inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.
In a scene on the banks of the river, where the fugitive heroine gives birth to her baby daughter aided by the cover of night and the white woman with the kind hands, Morrison shines a sidewise gleam on the abiding question of destiny. She contemplates what fate may hold for this new life that had so closely escaped death before entering a pitiless world; what it may hold for any life. Morrison wrests from one of this planet’s rare blue plants an exquisite existential metaphor:
Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects — but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one — will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.
In an exquisite centrifugal unfolding from the scientific into the poetic, Solnit writes:
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. “Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.
This blue of distance and unmet longing, Solnit argues, is what makes desire so disquieting. We seek to silence it either by grasping toward its object in hungry hope of consummation or with the restless resistance of denial and suppression. We seem unable to befriend desire on its own terms and to approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic and self-defeating anxiety:
We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.
After relaying the personal significance of blue in a vividly remembered childhood experience, Solnit closes an altogether extraordinary essay with a return to the universal coloring of distance and longing:
The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.
Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.
The richest, most enchanting aspect of the book is the way it illuminates just how inseparable our so-called personal lives are from our public contribution — how Turing and Gödel’s singular lonelinesses and loves shaped their character, informing and inspiring the landmark breakthroughs we celebrate as their scientific genius. For Turing, the most formative fact of his life was his deep adoration of his boyhood classmate Christopher Morcom, with whom he fell in love at the boarding school where the teenage Alan was mercilessly bullied by the other boys, nearly to death. Christopher was everything Alan was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, aglow with charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics. For the remainder of his life, Turing would consider Morcom his soul mate.
It is an intense blue that Levin chooses as the backdrop of their improbable love. In a stunning scene suspended between science and romance — two realms of the human experience grounded in a shared longing to make the impossible possible — she writes:
Chris had shown him the reaction between solutions of iodates and sulfites. Holding the mixture in a clear beaker near his face, he watched Alan’s response as the solution turned a bold blue, tinting Christopher’s hair and deepening the hue of his eyes. To Alan it seemed the other way around, as though Chris’s beautiful eyes had stained the beaker blue.
He often tries to re-create the moment when Chris’s spirit seeped out of the portals of his eyes and infused the room, a stunning concentration of his soul trapped in the indigo liquid in the beaker. He knows the simple form of the chemicals and the rules of their combination, but he can’t shake the force of the impression that Chris makes on him. He can’t limit the experience to the confines of ordinary matter. In the privacy of his room, he re-creates the experiment, waiting for thirty seconds before the sudden rush of color tears through the fluid. While the process enhances the vibrancy of his memory of that moment, the color never quite strikes the peak hue it reached the time Chris held the tube suspended near his eyes. Where is the spirit in human cells and chemicals and glass?
Three years later, Christopher would die of bovine tuberculosis from infected milk, breaking Alan’s heart and thrusting him into an existential tussle with the binary code of body and spirit. The inextinguishable heartache of the loss would haunt Turing for the remainder of his life, fomenting the restless soul from which his science sprang. Levin writes:
Although Alan is agitated by his own faith — a faith that has never crystallized as well as he had hoped — he does not allow his spiritual leniency to corrupt his pure view of mathematics. As a tribute to Morcom, Turing analyzed sulfur dioxide and iodic acid in explicit mathematical detail. Beneath the differential equations and the chemical compositions he found a sharp result. Lucid and true. He recorded it in black ink on white paper. His proof did not glow in blue or throb with the thrill of the moment the beaker trapped Chris’s radiance. But it was honest and right. His homage to Chris.
It doesn’t seem accidental that Williams chooses to begin with the most elemental color of our planet, recording the wild and wildly sundry manifestations of blue with a naturalist’s observation of detail and a poet’s largeness of contemplation. In the small blue notebook inscribed “Day One,” she writes:
Blue is bunting, indigo and quick. Blue is jay, its chatter like jazz. Blue is grosbeak is bluebird is blackbird turned sky. The Chisos mountains at dusk are blue. Blue is ghost-like. Twilight. Deep border blue. Once is the blue moon where panthers dance. Twice is the blue belly of lizards flashing. Blue waves are heat waves, dervishes in sand. Blue is the long song of storm clouds gathering with rain.
“It’s a mercy that time runs in one direction only, that we see the past but darkly and the future not at all.”
By Maria Popova
“The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river,” Virginia Woolf wrote some years before she filled her coat-pockets with stones, waded into the River Ouse near her house, and, unwilling to endure what she had barely survived in the past, slid beneath the smooth surface of life.
One midsummer morning seven decades after Woolf was swallowed by the Ouse, Olivia Laing set out to walk the river’s banks from source to sea while navigating her own upheaval of the soul in the wake of heartbreak. She recorded her forty-two-mile existential expedition in To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface (public library) — one of those stunning, unclassifiable, uncommonly poetic books that seep into crevices of your psyche you didn’t know existed and settle into the groundwater of your being.
I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. “When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.
Laing examines the particular pull of the Ouse and its riverine stretch across “233 square miles of land the shape of a collapsed lung,” haunted by Woolf yet animated by some singular spirit of its own:
For a while I used to swim with a group of friends at South-ease, near where her body was found. I’d enter the swift water in trepidation that gave way to ecstasy, tugged by a current that threatened to tumble me beneath the surface and bowl me clean to the sea. The river passed in that region through a chalk valley ridged by the Downs, and the chalk seeped into the water and turned it the milky green of sea glass, full of little shafts of imprisoned light. You couldn’t see the bottom; you could barely make out your own limbs, and perhaps it was this opacity which made it seem as though the river was the bearer of secrets: that beneath its surface something lay concealed.
It wasn’t morbidity that drew me to that dangerous place but rather the pleasure of abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control. I was pulled to the Ouse as a magnet is pulled to metal, returning on summer nights and during the short winter days to repeat some walks, some swims through turning seasons until they amassed the weight of ritual.
Reflecting on the cataclysm that thrust her toward this riverine journey — “one of those minor crises that periodically afflict a life, when the scaffolding that sustains us seems destined to collapse” — and the aim of her unusual experiment, Laing writes:
I wanted somehow to get beneath the surface of the daily world, as a sleeper shrugs off the ordinary air and crests towards dreams.
A river passing through a landscape catches the world and gives it back redoubled: a shifting, glinting world more mysterious than the one we customarily inhabit. Rivers run through our civilisations like strings through beads, and there’s hardly an age I can think of that’s not associated with its own great waterway. The lands of the Middle East have dried to tinder now, but once they were fertile, fed by the fruitful Euphrates and the Tigris, from which rose flowering Sumer and Babylonia. The riches of Ancient Egypt stemmed from the Nile, which was believed to mark the causeway between life and death, and which was twinned in the heavens by the spill of stars we now call the Milky Way. The Indus Valley, the Yellow River: these are the places where civilisations began, fed by sweet waters that in their flooding enriched the land. The art of writing was independently born in these four regions and I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water.
But whatever rivers may nurture with their physical presence, Laing argues, they also foment some essential metaphysical part of our humanity:
There is a mystery about rivers that draws us to them, for they rise from hidden places and travel by routes that are not always tomorrow where they might be today. Unlike a lake or sea, a river has a destination and there is something about the certainty with which it travels that makes it very soothing, particularly for those who’ve lost faith with where they’re headed.
A river moves through time as well as space. Rivers have shaped our world; they carry with them, as Joseph Conrad had it, “the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.” Their presence has always lured people, and so they bear like litter the cast-off relics of the past.
Echoing Woolf’s metaphor of the river as the permeable boundary between the present and the past, Laing writes:
At times, it feels as if the past is very near. On certain evenings, when the sun has dropped and the air is turning blue, when barn owls float above the meadow grass and a pared-down moon breaches the treeline, a mist will sometimes lift from the surface of the river. It is then that the strangeness of water becomes apparent. The earth hoards its treasures and what is buried there remains until it’s disinterred by spade or plough, but a river is more shifty, relinquishing its possessions haphazardly and without regard to the landlocked chronology historians hold so dear. A history compiled by way of water is by its nature quick and fluid, full of submerged life and capable, as I would discover, of flooding unexpectedly into the present.
The supreme allure of rivers may be the intoxicating interplay between what they reveal and what they conceal, and that may also be what makes the river such a wellspring of metaphors — for, as Nietzsche well knew, this duality is at the heart of every potent metaphor. In consonance with astrophysicist Janna Levin’s beautiful and disquieting intimation that truth may be something you can see “only out of the corner of your eye,” Laing writes:
There are sights too beautiful to swallow. They stay on the rim of the eye; it cannot contain them… We talk of drinking in a sight, but what of the excess that cannot be caught? So much goes by unseen… No matter how long I stayed outdoors, there was a world that would remain invisible to me, just at the cusp of perception, glimpsable only in fragments, as when the delphinium at dusk breathes back its unearthly, ultraviolet blue.
And yet the journey itself seems to train in Laing this essential receptivity to beauty — or, rather, to untrain the imperviousness to it that so-called civilization seeds in us, affirming Terry Tempest Williams’s assertion that beauty is our natural inheritance.
What a multitude of mirrors there are in the world! Each blade of grass seemed to catch the sun and toss it back to the sky.
The wheat was preoccupying me. It had here reached another stage, the long greenish hairs unfurling and turning it into an ocean of grass, in which the wind moved as it will across water, folding the pile first back, now forth. The wind worked across it and so did the light, and I could not at first piece together how the trick was mastered. The stalks here, on this sloped field, were almost blue, a blue that increased from the boot upward like a flush, though later in the month they would grow gilded and then bleach daily until they were almost drained of colour, becoming the common straw that was once used to roof most of England and is still required by law for repairing the thatch of some listed buildings. The heads of the wheat were golden; the hairs that are known as the beard a watery greenish gold that became bronze towards the tip. When the wind flattened the heads — ah, that was it! — they caught the light, which rippled and rushed down the hill in little ebbs and flurries.
And yet, even as these internal transformations come abloom, Laing carries with her and continually revisits the heartache that set her off on the journey. In one of those cyclical thrusts into bleakness that are the hallmark of every grief, she writes:
It began to occur to me that the whole story of love might be nothing more than a wicked lie; that simply sleeping beside another body night after night gives no express right of entry to the interior world of their thoughts or dreams; that we are separate in the end whatever contrary illusions we may cherish; and that this miserable truth might as well be faced, since it will be dinned into one, like it or not, by the attritions of time if not by the failings of those we hold dear… It would be a long time before I trusted someone, for I’d seen how essentially unknowable even the best loved might prove to be.
Still, the most remarkable aspect of the human heart may be just how elastic our range of experience is — how, even at its most contracted by loss and turmoil, the heart can be seized with delight and surprised by visitations of acute joy. Laing is swallowed by one such moment when, delirious and almost euphoric with hunger and fatigue, she finally reaches the Ouse’s homecoming to the sea:
What a bay! What a day! I turned full circle, treading water, liking the way the land seemed to hold out two chalky arms to fend off or embrace the waves. I could see all the way to Seaford Head in the east, and in the west there were the two lighthouses that marked the mouth of the Ouse, gushing out into the Channel at a thousand tonnes a minute. There must have been the odd molecule drifting in these crashing waters that had travelled south beside me, working its way from the oak-shadowed source down the deep gulleys of Sheffield Park, across the gravel beds of Sharpsbridge, over the fish ladders at Barcombe Mills, past the wharves of Lewes and out through the maze-ways of the Brooks… I kicked out my legs and wallowed there in joy.
This cyclical interplay of joy and despair parallels the fate of the physical world. Beholding a dry riverbed where the Ouse meets the sea — the remains of Tide Mills Creek — Laing draws on her riverine journey to contemplate the largest questions of existence and its counterpoint:
It’s a mercy that time runs in one direction only, that we see the past but darkly and the future not at all. But we all have an inkling of what lies ahead, for against the ruins of the ages it is apparent that our time is nothing more than the passing of a shadow and that our lives… run like sparks through the stubble.
The tenacity of our physical remains, their unwillingness to fully disappear, is at odds with whatever spark provides our animation, for the whereabouts of that after death is a mystery yet to be unpicked. What is this world, really? We’re told we have infinite choice and yet there’s so much that occurs beyond the perimeters of our command. We do not know why we’re set down here and though we may choose the moment when we leave, not a single one of us can shift the position we’ve been assigned in time, nor bring back those we love once they have ceased to breathe.
These sound like cheerless thoughts, but they filled me with a strange exhilaration… Down in the riverbed, in this territory of vanishings, I might have been at loose in any time. The things that survived here did so against all odds, blooming into the teeth of the wind, amid the shifting beds of shingle. The plants rose from the stones like a conjurer’s trick, working roots down into hidden pockets of sabulous soil: white and gold stonecrops with their flowers like stars; the spiked leaves and overblown petals of yellow horned poppy; great outcrops of sea kelp, the leaves whittled into extraordinary shapes by the relentless churnings of the air… [I was] as purely happy as I’ve ever been right then, in that open passageway beneath the blue vault of sky, walking the measure allotted me, with winter on each side… I had the sense I’d fallen into some other world, adjacent to our own, and though I would at any moment be pitched back, I thought I might have grasped the knack of slipping to and fro.
It is not an accident but some elemental part of our humanity that the sea should catalyze such existential revelations at the borderline of the tragic and the transcendent. “Against this cosmic background,” Rachel Carson wrote when she invited the human imagination into the life of the sea decades before Laing walked the Ouse and shortly before Virginia Woolf drowned in it, “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
At this shoreside endpoint of her journey, Laing offers a poetic denouement:
Outside the Downs had disappeared, obliterated by a swelling wall of thunderheads. The cloud was growing as I watched, banking up into headwalls and cornices and deep ice-blue gullies. It looked like the aftermath of an explosion, like the world beyond the hills had been bombed to smithereens. But that’s how we go, is it not, between nothing and nothing, along this strip of life, where the ragworts nod in the repeating breeze? Like a little strip of pavement above an abyss, Virginia Woolf once said. And if she’s right, then the only home we’ll ever have is here. This is it, this spoiled earth. We crossed the river then and pulled away, and in the empty fields the lark still spilled its praise.
More than a century after James, Rilke, and Dickinson, a different Emily — the pathbreaking comedian, philosopher, steward of poetry, and my beloved friend Emily Levine — offers a brilliant, funny, bittersweet, largehearted meditation on the existential art of befriending our finitude as she faces her own terminal illness:
We don’t live in Newton’s clockwork universe anymore — we live in a banana peel universe, and we won’t ever be able to know everything, or control everything, or predict everything.
If you’re anti-death — which to me translates as anti-life, which to me translates as anti-nature — it also translates to me as anti-woman, because women have long been identified with nature. My source on this is Hannah Arendt — the German philosopher who wrote a book called The Human Condition. In it, she says that classically, work is associated with men. Work is what comes out of the head — it’s what we invent, it’s what we create, it’s how we leave our mark upon the world — whereas labor is associated with the body; it’s associated with the people who perform labor or undergo labor. So, to me, the mindset that denies this — that denies that we’re in sync with the biorhythms, the cyclical rhythms of the universe — does not create a hospitable environment for women or for people associated with labor, which is to say, people that we associate as descendants of slaves, or people who perform manual labor.
I love being in sync with the cyclical rhythms of the universe. That’s what’s so extraordinary about life — it’s a cycle of generation, degeneration, regeneration. “I” am just a collection of particles that is arranged into this pattern, then will decompose and be available, all of its constituent parts, to nature, to reorganize into another pattern. To me, that is so exciting, and it makes me even more grateful to be part of that process.
Abiding insight into the aim of human existence from the man who revolutionized science and coined the word “philosopher.”
By Maria Popova
The Greek polymath Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 BC) ignited the golden age of mathematics with the development of numerical logic and the discovery of his namesake theorem of geometry, which furnished the world’s first foothold toward the notion of scientific proof and has been etched into the mind of every schoolchild in the millennia since. His ideas went on to influence Plato, Copernicus, Descartes, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein, and the school he founded made the then-radical decision to welcome women as members, one of whom was Hypatia of Alexandria — the world’s first known woman astronomer.
Alongside his revolutionary science, Pythagoras coined the word philosopher to describe himself as a “lover of wisdom” — a love the subject of which he encapsulated in a short, insightful meditation on the uses of philosophy in human life. According to the anecdote, recounted by Cicero four centuries later, Pythagoras attended the Olympic Games of 518 BC with Prince Leon, the esteemed ruler of Phlius. The Prince, impressed with his guest’s wide and cross-disciplinary range of knowledge, asked Pythagoras why he lived as a “philosopher” rather than an expert in any one of the classical arts.
Life… may well be compared with these public Games for in the vast crowd assembled here some are attracted by the acquisition of gain, others are led on by the hopes and ambitions of fame and glory. But among them there are a few who have come to observe and to understand all that passes here.
It is the same with life. Some are influenced by the love of wealth while others are blindly led on by the mad fever for power and domination, but the finest type of man gives himself up to discovering the meaning and purpose of life itself. He seeks to uncover the secrets of nature. This is the man I call a philosopher for although no man is completely wise in all respects, he can love wisdom as the key to nature’s secrets.
“True glory cannot be obtained by relative celebrity.”
By Maria Popova
Germaine de Staël (April 22, 1766–July 14, 1817) is celebrated as the first Modern Woman. Tolstoy counted her among the “influential forces” that have propelled humanity’s progress. Lord Byron considered her the greatest living writer. Emerson credited her with introducing him to German thought, which shaped his own influential philosophy. She was among a handful of women, alongside Joan of Arc and Sappho, included in Auguste Comte’s famous Calendar of Great Men — a compendium of 559 world-changing minds, spanning from Saint Augustine to Galileo to Zeno. (Lest we forget, brilliant women have been “men” for the vast majority of human history.) Napoleon — who banished her from Paris for a decade for opposing his dictatorial regime and punished all who visited her in exile — reportedly recognized only three powers in Europe: Britain, Russia, and Germaine de Staël.
One of the most insightful portions of the book deals with the proper aim of ambition — or what De Staël terms “the love of glory” — and the crucial difference between ego and genius. Half a century before Dostoyevsky contemplated ambition and success, De Staël writes:
Of all the passions of which the human heart is susceptible, there is none which possesses so striking a character as the Love of Glory. The traces of its operations may be discovered in the primitive nature of man, but it is only in the midst of society that this sentiment acquires its true force.
According to that sublimity of virtue which seeks in our own conscience for the motive and the end of conduct, the love of glory is the most exalted principle which can actuate the soul.
And yet this universal motive force has as its object something that eludes all but the very few who possess true genius. A century and a half before Einstein lamented the charade of celebrity, De Staël writes:
True glory cannot be obtained by relative celebrity. We always summon the universe and posterity to confirm the title of so august a crown. It cannot be preserved, then, but by genius, or by virtue.
Noting that the “fleeting success” attained by ambition can only resemble but is not glory — “that which is truly just and great” — De Staël admonishes that ambition syphons happiness with “the seducing brilliancy of its charms,” which yield no satisfaction of substance. She paints the social contract at the heart of vain ambition — a contract that aims at the gratification of the ego but masquerades as selfless contribution to the greater good:
The honorable and sincere friend of glory proposes a magnanimous treaty with the human race. He thus addresses them: “I will consecrate my talents to your service. My ruling passion will incessantly impel me to communicate happiness to the greatest portion of mankind by the fortunate result of my efforts. Even countries and nations unknown to me shall have right to the fruit of my wakeful toils. Every thinking being possesses common relations to me; and, free from the contracted influence of individual sentiments, I measure the degree of my happiness only by the extent of my beneficence. As the reward of this devoted attachment, all I ask is, that you celebrate its author, that you command fame to discharge your debt of gratitude. Virtue, I know, constitutes its own enjoyment and reward. For me, however, I require your assistance, in order to obtain that reward which is necessary to my happiness, that the glory of my name be united to the merit of my actions.” What openness, what simplicity in this contract! How is it possible … that genius alone should have fulfilled its conditions?
Doubtless it is a most fascinating enjoyment, to make the universe resound with our name, to exist so far beyond ourselves that we can reconcile our minds to any illusion, both as to the nature of space and the duration of life, and believe that we constitute some of the metaphysical attributes of the Eternal. The soul swells with elevated delight, by the habitual consciousness that the whole attention of a great number of men is directed towards you, that you exist in their hopes, that every idea that rises in your mind may influence the destiny of multitudes, that great events ripen and unfold themselves in your breast, and in the name of the people who rely upon your knowledge demand the most lively attention to your own thoughts. The acclamations of the multitude agitate the soul at once by the reflexions which they inspire, and by the commotions which they produce.
The vision of such electrifying acclaim, De Staël argues, is a powerful animating force, particularly for those still young and hungry to establish themselves as worthy of the world’s admiration. It is curious and disquieting to consider how, a quarter millennium later, the Pavlovian feedback loop of social media is only deepening the groove of this perilous human hunger for glory — or, in our modern case, the vacant simulacra of glory in the form of “likes.” De Staël considers the addictive allure of this pursuit of validation:
The paths which lead to this great end are strewed with charms. The exertions which the ardour of attaining it prescribes, are themselves accompanied with delight; and in the career of success, sometimes the most fortunate incidents with which it is attended arise from the interests by which it was preceded, and which communicate an active energy to life.
Such vain ambition hangs happiness on the amount of attention and acclamation one receives from one’s peers and contemporaries. As its counterpoint, De Staël paints true genius, which unmoors its happiness from both popular opinion and time:
Every discovery which knowledge has produced, by enriching the mass, diminishes the empire of the individual. Human kind is the heir of genius, and the truly great men are those who have rendered such superior beings as themselves less necessary to future generations. The more the mind is allowed to expatiate in the future career of possible perfectibility, the more we see the advantages of understanding surpassed by positive knowledge, and the spring of virtue more powerful than the passion of glory.
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