A rare and rapturous glimpse of the slow double embrace by which some of Earth’s tenderest creatures make more of themselves.
By Maria Popova
In February 2018, I found myself on a friend’s fruit farm in Kauai, having gratefully escaped the short bleak days of Brooklyn winter to finish Figuring. Each day, being a creature of loops and routines, I did my daily sprints along the exact same stretch of gravel by a blooming grapefruit tree on the edge of the farm.
One morning, just before Valentine’s Day, I halted my stride abruptly to avoid something peach-colored and lovely that the evolutionary triumph of my peripheral vision had registered in my path: two splendid rosy wolfsnails (Euglandina rosea), about to engage in the instantaneous courtship the human version of which has evolved to involve roses and love songs. I knelt on the gravel, sweaty and wondersmitten, to film these slow sensorial lovers with my already antique smartphone for as long as my knee could stand it.
At the time, I had just begun incubating the idea that eventually became The Snail with the Right Heart. As I composed the manuscript over the following months, I kept thinking about these tender creatures, learning about the science behind their mating, and chuckling at the thought of what the perfect soundtrack to their dance might be.
The privilege of witnessing this love-dance at such intimate range inspired the central metaphor with which I met the greatest conceptual challenge with this children’s book predicated on the romance of reality — the portion of the story about how snails beget snails, tasked with accurately conveying concepts of science and sexuality to young readers who might not have the frame of reference for either:
This is how it happens: When a snail finds a partner, the two face each other, gently touching their tentacles together to feel if they like each other. And if they do, they glide their bodies alongside one another in a slow double embrace, until their baby-making parts fit together like puzzle pieces. Then, they gently pierce each other with tiny spears called “love darts,” which contain their genes — the building blocks of bodies. Genes are like tiny seeds your parents plant in the garden that becomes your body — your special combination of seeds is what makes you you, what makes your body-garden unlike anyone else’s. Genes are how life talks to the future.
When artist Ping Zhu first began working on the paintings that would eventually become the illustrations for the book, I giddily sent her the footage of the two rosy wolfsnails, which went on to inform and inspire her soulful interpretation of this wondrous evolutionary dance.
For a poetic PG counterpart, here is the incomparable Sir David Attenborough narrating the almost otherworldly mating dance of the snail’s unshelled cousin, filmed with far superior cinematic technology (if scored with an inferior soundtrack):
A bittersweet signal from the discomposing territory between reason and hope.
By Maria Popova
This essay is excerpted from the thirteenth chapter of Figuring, titled “The Banality of Survival.”
In the spring of 1849, ten years before On the Origin of Species shook the foundation of humanity’s understanding of life, the polymathic astronomer John Herschel — coiner of the word photography, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional female astronomer — invited the forty-year-old Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) to contribute the section on geology to an ambitious manual on ten major branches of science, commissioned by the Royal Navy. Darwin produced a primer that promised to make good geologists even of readers with no prior knowledge of the discipline, so that they might “enjoy the high satisfaction of contributing to the perfection of the history of this wonderful world.”
In submitting his manuscript, Darwin wrote to Herschel:
I much fear, from what you say of size of type that it will be too long; but I do not see how I could shorten it, except by rewriting it, & that is a labour which would make me groan. I do not much like it, but I have in vain thought how to make it better. I should be grateful for any corrections or erasures on your part.
A perfectionist prone to debilitating anxiety, Darwin was vexed by the editorial process. But in the autumn of 1850, just as the manual was about to go to press, trouble of a wholly different order eclipsed the professional irritation: The Darwins’ beloved nine-year-old daughter, Annie — the second of their ten children and Charles’s favorite, fount of curiosity, sunshine of the household — fell ill with a mysterious ailment.
When Charles and Emma first realized that their daughter’s condition was more than a fleeting sickness, they turned to what the era’s medical authorities prescribe for sickly children: sea-bathing, believed to be a reliable cure-all for symptoms ranging from “languor and weakness of circulation,” per one medical encyclopedia, to cases of “listless and indolent state of the mind.” A natural history and travel guide from the era describes the craze for sea-bathing at Ramsgate, a coastal resort in Kent: “A sudden plunge into the ocean causes the blood to circulate briskly, and promotes the heat of the body.” It was to Ramsgate that the Darwins first sent Annie, hoping for maritime recovery. But her illness only escalated into fever and headaches.
A year earlier, the Darwins had traveled to the spa village of Malvern, where Charles was to try a new “cold water cure” devised by a Dr. James Gully. Darwin’s chronic illness at times manifested as insomnia, at other times as “dreadful vomiting every week.” It was never accurately diagnosed nor treated, and he was desperate for relief. One contemporary theory holds that he suffered from an acute anxiety disorder. Having read Dr. Gully’s The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, Darwin set his scientific skepticism aside and wrote to the physician, willing to try his treatment — he worried that the constant vomiting was getting in the way of his work. “If once half-well,” he wrote to his best friend, “I could do more in six months than I now do in two years.”
Dr. Gully’s treatment, developed in response to his two-year-old daughter’s death, included the vehement disavowal of medication. The little girl had been treated with every known drug at the time — including heavy metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic — and had died convulsed with harrowing pain. The bereaved father had set out to devise a course of alternative medicine. His hydropathy drew such famous patients as Lord Tennyson and Florence Nightingale — and now Charles Darwin.
In Darwin’s defense, this was a time when medical science was so rudimentary that it bled into the same metaphysical manipulation techniques that religious rhetoric used to keep belief systems and power structures in place. Such manipulation was only possible because the line between science and pseudoscience was blurred again and again as modern medicine was finding its footing. Because the body — especially woman’s body — was so poorly understood and the paradigm of clinical trials was generations away, most medical treatments in Darwin’s day were based on some combination of speculation, common lore, and anecdotal trial and error. This was an era when bloodletting was the primary treatment of a vast array of sickness and the majority of early childhood illnesses — from diarrhea and colic to fever and restlessness — were attributed to teething. The all-inclusive malady was the most commonly listed cause of infant death in local registers and was treated with a litany of allegedly curative barbarisms — blistering, bloodletting, and massive doses of dubious medication. Parents would lance the inflamed gums of their infants using unsterilized kitchen utensils, which often inflicted infections that ended up as the true cause of fatality. One of the most common medications was a solution of calomel powder — mercury — given to the child until he or she began to salivate, now a recognized symptom of acute mercury poisoning. With their tongues swollen to manyfold the usual size, children often died of dehydration following calomel treatment, but neither parents nor physicians implicated the drug in causality for half a century. It took many more decades to uncover the permanent neurological damage — from seizures to tremors to chronic fatigue — on those who survived the treatment, with mercury lodged in their bodies for life.
Because it bears repeating again and again that even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, Darwin was trapped between the medical lore of his day and the ineradicable human hope for miracles. Although Dr. Gully’s belief in clairvoyance and general susceptibility to unscientific thought sat uncomfortably with Darwin, he came to like the hydropath a great deal and readily submitted to his methods — which included “cold feet baths and compress on the stomach,” as well as a proprietary “sweating process.”
The Darwins left Malvern after three months. In a letter to John Herschel penned in June 1849, Charles set aside his discontentment over the editorial tensions with the manual and instead enthused about the treatment’s “astonishingly renovating action” on his health:
Before coming here I was almost quite broken down, head swimming, hands tremulous & never a week without violent vomiting, all this is gone, & I can now walk between two & three miles. Physiologically it is most curious how the violent excitement of the skin, produced by simple water, has acted on all my internal organs.
I mention all this out of gratitude to a process which I thought quackery a year since, but which now I most deeply lament I had not heard of some few years ago.
Despite Darwin’s elation over the effect of the “cold water treatment” on his own health, when Annie fell gravely ill, he couldn’t set aside his scientific doubts about Dr. Gully’s dubious beliefs in clairvoyance, homeopathy, and other pseudoscience. He scoffed in a letter:
[Homœopathy] is a subject which makes me more wroth, even than does Clairvoyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy common sense & common observation come into play, & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever… No one knows in disease what is the simple result of nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare Homœopathy & all other such things.
Such things were out of the question when it came to Darwin’s most beloved child — he entrusted her health to traditional medicine. In November 1850, the Darwins took their daughter to London to be seen by the prominent physician who had supervised her birth. After a second futile visit the following month — Annie had added a barking cough to her swelling chest of symptoms — Darwin was once again desperate, betrayed by medical science. He finally gave in and wrote to Dr. Gully for advice, then commenced a water treatment at home under the doctor’s instruction, planning to take Annie back to Malvern in the spring for a proper “water cure.” But even this home remedy Darwin approached with scientific rigor. In a medical diary of sorts, he meticulously recorded Annie’s changing condition as he applied the six-part method, which included Dr. Gully’s proprietary “spinal wash” (a towel repeatedly drenched in icy water is swept up and down the patient’s spine) and “sweating by the lamp” (the patient is draped with a tent of sheets, under which a lamp containing alcohol is lit, producing nearly unbearable heat).
Although Annie would show intermittent signs of improvement — enough to give the anxious parents hope that what they were doing was effective — her health declined over the longer span of weeks. In the first days of spring, Darwin gave up on his home treatment, ended the medical diary, and braved the two-day passage to Malvern with Annie and two of her siblings, leaving Emma at home, seven months pregnant with the ninth of their ten children.
As Annie was lying mortally ill, Charles Dickens and his wife were also at Malvern, where Catherine Dickens was undergoing hydropathy to improve her shaky health. Dickens, who had just lost his father, left Kate at Malvern just after Darwin arrived with Annie and returned home, where he was given harrowing news: His youngest daughter, Dora — named after David Copperfield’s child bride — had died, not yet one, after a sudden and inexplicable series of seizures. A decade later, in a letter of consolation to his sister upon the loss of her husband, Dickens would write that while grief never fully leaves, “a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit” is necessary if one is to go on with life — observing that in “a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.” The strategy seems almost banal. But anyone who has lived through loss will recognize in it the essential banality of survival — we come unmoored, then buoy ourselves up with the flimsiest of lifeboats, cobbled together out of any plank and rope we can grasp.
On April 23, 1851, Annie Darwin dies in her father’s arms. Eight years later, On the Origin of Species would subvert the elemental human instinct with its argument for natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Death, Darwin would imply, is not unjust but inherently natural — part of the impartial laws holding the universe together, mortality unshackled from morality and metaphysics, leaving no room for charges of blame and pleas for mercy. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin would write, speaking perhaps to himself. Across the Atlantic, Emily Dickinson would ponder this cycle — “circuit,” she called it — of life and death:
Seed, summer, tomb.
Who’s doom —
With Annie’s body still warm beside him, Darwin drags the pen across the letter paper, across the British archipelago, across his lacerated consciousness, to deliver to Emma the most undeliverable news in the universe.
“I am so thankful for the daguerreotype,” he writes.
“Through your words I feel so close to you that I can feel your laughter, so clean and honest.”
By Maria Popova
In the hottest month of 1913, the Stockinger Printing Company in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hired as a colorist and engraver a twenty-one-year-old Hungarian artist who had just arrived in America as a refugee with $25 and an Esperanto dictionary in his pocket. Having grown up looking in on the fencing academy in his neighborhood that only the privileged could attend — a separation the boy saw as emblematic of the antisemitism that swarmed his childhood — he had escaped into beauty, into dreams of seeing “all the paintings in the world.” In pursuit of that dream, he studied color separation and photochemistry in Germany and wandered the hallways of the great European art museums, absorbing the classics in the marrow of his imagination and growing especially enchanted by the seventeenth-century Dutch painters’ mastery of color and light. Like other visionary artists of his ancestry and generation, he fled across the Atlantic when the situation of European Jews grew grim on the cusp of the world’s first global war.
Born Miklós Mandl, he became Nickolas Muray (February 15, 1892–November 2, 1965) upon landing at Ellis Island with an English vocabulary of four dozen words and the unassailable determination to become an artist. Within a decade, he became one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of all time, doing for color photography what Julia Margaret Cameron had done a century earlier just after the invention of photography, turning a new technology regarded as a crude tool of chemistry into a medium of fine art and a portal to beauty. The soirees at his Greenwich Village studio drew such dignitaries of creative culture as Langston Hughes, Martha Graham, Eugene O’Neill, and Jean Cocteau. He would live into his seventies and die a triumphant artist and a fencing champion, having competed for the U.S. Olympic team twice and having photographed some of the most recognizable faces of the twentieth century.
But none of his work would be more significant, to Muray or to the world, than his portrait of one of the most original and influential artists our civilization has produced — the great unexpected love of Muray’s life.
Nickolas Muray met Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) in 1931, while visiting the prominent painter, caricaturist, and art historian Miguel Covarrubias in Mexico. Muray had befriended him fifteen years earlier when the nineteen-year-old former student of Diego Rivera’s arrived in New York on a six-month stipend from the Mexican government and instantly captivated the art world with his singular caricatures; Covarrubias had used the platform of his own visibility to lift his friend up, becoming instrumental in Muray’s ascent to recognition.
Shortly after Covarrubias married another Mexican friend of Muray’s, the photographer traveled to visit the enamored couple, partly to restore his own faith in love after his bitter divorce from an advertising executive he had married a year earlier. That year, shortly after their own wedding, Frida and Diego had moved to San Francisco, attracting the attention of the city’s vibrant creative community as much with their art as with their vivacious and devoted open marriage. It as there that Kahlo and Muray first crossed orbits, but it was only when she returned to Mexico alone and ahead of Diego that they connected and commenced the decade-long romantic relationship that would eventually become a lifelong friendship.
Whatever transpired between Frida and Nick that spring in 1931, unwitnessed and unrecorded like all the great atomic passions, it imprinted them both deeply. What does survive from their first encounter are two parting gifts she gave him — items as curious for their intimacy as they are for their orthogonal messages. The first was a paper dolly, the kind used for serving sweets, inscribed with a dictionary-assisted attempt at Hungarian, broken and touching:
I love you like I would love an angel
You are a Lillie of the valley my love.
I will never forget you, never, never.
You are my whole life
I hope you will never forget this.
Beneath the date — the last day of May, 1931 — she added in English a passionate insistence that he return to Mexico that summer as he had promised he would, then sealed the note with the lipstick print of a kiss, beneath which she wrote:
This is specifically for the back of your neck.
The second parting gift was a small self-portrait, almost a line drawing, in which Frida depicted herself holding Diego’s hand, with the faint outline of a fetus drawn over her dress. It foreshadowed the great heartbreak of Nick’s life — the abyssal mismatch between his longing to be her husband and her wish that he be only her lover. But at the elated outset of infatuation, we see only what we wish to see, turning a willfully blind eye to the very signs that would eventually spell the end of love. Nick could not have known it then, nor would he have wished to believe it, but Frida’s otherworldly bond to Diego — to whom she wrote her most soulful and passionate love letters — would survive their multiple sidewise passions and even their divorce, eclipsing their multiple respective affairs with its unparalleled totality of devotion. Nick knew none of this at the dawn of their love, and perhaps nor did Frida. We hardly know where our hearts will go in the future, or where they will return. He would come to terms with this sadness only a decade into the relationship and only in facing the stark fact of Frida’s remarriage to Diego after their divorce. They would remain close friends for the remainder of Frida’s life. He would take more portraits of her than of any other person beyond his children. She would give him, straight from the easel, one of her most arresting and disquieting self-portraits, which would hang in his family living room for the remainder of his life.
Affectionately calling Nick her “child” despite his being fifteen years her senior, she writes to him in New York from Mexico:
My beloved Nick,
This morning I received your letter after so many days of waiting. I felt such happiness that I started crying even before I read it. My child, I really should not complain about anything that happens to me in life, so long as you love me and I love you. [This love] is so real and beautiful that it makes me forget all my pain and problems; it makes me forget even distance. Through your words I feel so close to you that I can feel your laughter, so clean and honest, that only you have. I’m counting the days until my return. One more month! Then we’ll be together again.
In a passage bespeaking the boundless sweetness between them, she adds:
Darling, I must tell you that you’ve misbehaved. Why did you send that check for 400 dollars? Your friend “Smith” is imaginary. It was a very nice gesture, but tell him that I will keep his check untouched until I come back to New York; we’ll discuss this matter then. My nick, you’re the sweetest person I’ve ever met. But listen, my love, I really don’t need the money now. I still have a little bit from Mexico; plus I’m a very rich bitch, did you know that? I have enough to stay one more month. I already have my return ticket. Everything is under control; it’s true, my love, it’s not fair that you spend extra money… I any event, you don’t know how thankful I am for your willingness to help me. I don’t have the words to describe how happy I am, knowing that you tried to make me happy and that you are so good and adorable… My lover, my heaven, my Nick, my life, my child, I adore you.
With a playful petulance, she proceeds to give him a winking list of instructions on his conduct until her return to New York, invoking objects in his home she had given him over the years as tokens of her love:
Listen, my child, do you touch every day that thing for fires that hangs on the stair landing? Don’t forget to do it every day. Also, don’t forget to sleep on your little cushion, because I really like it. Don’t kiss anyone while you read the signs and names on the street. Don’t take anyone else to our Central Park. It belongs to Nick and Xóchitl [Frida’s nickname for herself, Aztec for flower] exclusively… Don’t kiss anyone on the couch in your office. Blanche Heys is the only one who may massage your neck. You can only kiss Mam as much as you want. Don’t make love to anyone, if you can help it. Do it only in case you find a real F.W. [fucking wonder], but don’t fall in love. Play with the electric train every once in a while if you aren’t too tired after work.
In an expression of tenderly touching selflessness, in light of her own lifelong bodily devastation after the accident on an actual electric tram that had nearly killed her as a teenager and sent her into a series of brutalizing spinal surgeries, she adds:
Darling, don’t work so hard if you can help it, since it makes your neck and back tired. Tell Mam to take care of you and make you rest when you’re tired. Tell her that I’m much more in love with you, that you are my darling and lover, and that when I’m not around she has to love you more than ever to make you happy.
Is your neck bothering you a lot? I am sending you millions of kisses for your beautiful neck, so it will feel better, and all my tenderness and all my caresses for your body, from head to toe. I kiss each inch from far away.
Play the Maxine Sullivan record on the gramophone very often. I’ll be there with you listening to her voice. I can imagine you lying on the blue couch with your white cape on… and I hear your laughter — a child’s laughter… Oh, my dear Nick, I adore you so much. I need you so much that my heart hurts.
I will never forget the day I first encountered, in the midst of heartache, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) — a poem I have lived with for years, a poem that has helped me live.
Composed when Bishop was sorrowing after a separation from her partner, Alice Methfessel, it is a staggering poem about love and loneliness, about the feigned fearlessness and forced levity we put on like an armor, like a costume, to cope with the terrifying heaviness of loss. Originally published in The New Yorker on April 24, 1976, twenty years after Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize and six years after she won the National Book Award, the following year it crowned the final book of poems published in Bishop’s lifetime and now lives on in her indispensable posthumously collected Poems (public library).
Alongside classics like Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” “One Art” remains one of the greatest and most influential villanelles in the English language — sculptural masterworks of creative constraint, in which the virtuosity of language meets an exquisite mathematical precision in nineteen measured lines: five three-line stanzas and a final stanza of four lines, with the first and third line of the first stanza forming a refrain of alternating repetition across the remaining stanzas and then coming together into a chorus of a couplet in the closing verse. A haiku in the higher mathematics of meter.
It is the only villanelle Bishop ever wrote. She surprised even herself. A spare and careful poet who published very few and very meticulous poems, she composed it with astonishing rapidity, feeling that it was “like writing a letter,” redrafting and retitling it over and over.
“How to Lose Things.”
“The Gift of Losing Things.”
“The Art of Losing Things.”
And finally, fifteen drafts later, “One Art.”
It is always a delight to witness someone you love discover something you have long loved, and so it was with immense delight that I watched my dear friend Amanda Palmer discover “One Art” in real time while we were smiling at each other screen-mediated and pandemic-strewn across opposite corners of the globe, each comforting the other’s recent losses. Having just come upon the poem via one of her patrons and not yet read it, she read it to me extemporaneously while I mouthed the words committed to heart. I watched ripples of deeply personal resonance animate Amanda’s face as she made her way through the poem — a poem universal and timeless, a beautiful and brutal emissary of elemental truth, written half a century ago out of the tumults of the poet’s personal life, out of her very particular time and place and circumstance, suddenly rendered the ultimate pandemic poem for this moment we share and the myriad personal losses within it — a testament to the young Sylvia Plath’s precocious observation that an artist never knows how their work will live in the world and touch other lives, that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”
Bridging this bittersweet unbidden moment with our longtime collaboration around poetry, I asked Amanda to record a reading of the poem as it made its way into her veins to live with her as it has lived with, and as it will live with you.
ONE ART by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Bishop died not long after composing “One Art,” having requested the last two lines of another poem of hers as an epitaph:
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.