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Mental Health, Free Will, and Your Microbiome

“We are legion, each and every one of us. Always a ‘we’ and never a ‘me.’”

Mental Health, Free Will, and Your Microbiome

“I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” Galileo marveled as he peered through his microscope — a tool that, like the telescope, he didn’t invent himself but he used with in such a visionary way as to render it revolutionary. The revelatory discoveries he made in the universe within the cell are increasingly proving to be as significant as his telescopic discoveries in the universe without — a significance humanity has been even slower and more reluctant to accept than his radical revision of the cosmos.

That multilayered significance is what English science writer and microbiology elucidator Ed Yong explores in I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (public library) — a book so fascinating and elegantly written as to be worthy of its Whitman reference, in which Yong peels the veneer of the visible to reveal the astonishing complexity of life thriving beneath and within the crude confines of our perception.

Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolaria, one of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel
Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolarians, some of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel

Artist Agnes Margin memorably observed that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” but Yong offers a biopoetic counterpoint in the fact that we are never truly alone. He writes:

Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis — a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right — a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.


All zoology is really ecology. We cannot fully understand the lives of animals without understanding our microbes and our symbioses with them. And we cannot fully appreciate our own microbiome without appreciating how those of our fellow species enrich and influence their lives. We need to zoom out to the entire animal kingdom, while zooming in to see the hidden ecosystems that exist in every creature. When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a “we” and never a “me.”

There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled “our” Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planet’s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse that the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.

Illustration by Emily Sutton from Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies

But perhaps most impressively — for we are, after all, the solipsistic species — they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:

The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.

Illustration by Alice and Margin Provensen from The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales

Kafka believed that we look at life through the narrow keyhole of our personal existence and in order to distinguish between appearance and reality, we “must keep the keyhole clean.” Yong performs a masterful act of keyhole-cleaning in demonstrating just how intimately entwined our personal existence is with that of the microbes that inhabit our bodies — a relationship nowhere more counterintuitive yet rife with promise than when it comes to our mental health. It’s hardly instinctive to consider that biology, much less microbiology, can influence the seething cauldron of mental and emotional experience we call psychology. And yet given the centrality of microbes to our immune system microbes and the constant dialogue between our immune system and our central nervous system in shaping our susceptibility to stress and burnout, it pays to probe how our microbiome might interact with our mental health.

Yong notes that research into this question is still in its nascency, so most studies are small and inconclusive, but he points to several curious and promising strands of research. One fMRI study by Kirsten Tillisch found that women who consumed a microbe-rich yoghurt displayed less activity in brain areas implicated in processing emotions, compared to those who consumed a microbe-free yogurt. In a clinical trial by Stephen Collins for patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a probiotic bacterium reduced symptoms of depression. Psychiatrist Ted Dinan, who runs a clinic for patients with depression, is wrapping up a clinical trial on “psychobiotics” — probiotics that might help people manage stress and depression. Although Dinan himself is skeptical that such treatments would be effective for those with debilitating clinical depression, he is hopeful that people with milder mood disorders might find some relief.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

But the most striking implication of even the very possibility that microbes might shape our moods is that they might also shape our choices and, in consequence, our very destinies. Yong considers the overwhelming range of imputations:

These studies are already forcing scientists to view different aspects of human behaviour through a microbial lens. Drinking lots of alcohol makes the gut leakier, allowing microbes to more readily influence the brain — could that help to explain why alcoholics often experience depression or anxiety? Our diet reshapes the microbes in our gut — could those changes ripple out to affect our minds? The gut microbiome becomes less stable in old age — could that contribute to the rise of brain diseases in the elderly? And could our microbes manipulate our food cravings in the first place? If you reach for a burger or a chocolate bar, what exactly is pushing that hand forward? From your perspective, choosing the right item on a menu is the difference between a good meal and a bad one. But for your gut bacteria, the choice is more important. Different microbes fare better on certain diets. Some are peerless at digesting plant fibres. Others thrive on fats. When you choose your meals, you are also choosing which bacteria get fed, and which get an advantage over their peers. But they don’t have to sit there and graciously await your decision. As we have seen, bacteria have ways of hacking into the nervous system. If they released dopamine, a chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and reward, when you ate the ‘right’ things, could they potentially train you to choose certain foods over others? Do they get a say in your menu picks?

These questions flirt with the conundrum of free will by making us contend with the discomfiting notion that each of us might after all be what neuroscientist Sam Harris has called “a biochemical puppet.” And although these puzzlements are still largely in the realm of the hypothetical, Yong points out that such dependencies are far from uncommon in nature. He writes:

Nature is full of parasites that control the minds of their hosts. The rabies virus infects the nervous system and makes its carriers violent and aggressive; if they lash out at their peers, and inflict bites and scratches, they pass the virus on to new hosts. The brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii is another puppetmaster. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodent’s natural fear of cat odours and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards nearby cats, with fatal results, and T. gondii gets to complete its life cycle.

The rabies virus and T. gondii are outright parasites, selfishly reproducing at the expense of their hosts, with detrimental and often fatal results. Our gut microbes are different. They are natural parts of our lives. They help to construct our bodies — our gut, our immune system, our nervous system. They benefit us. But we shouldn’t let that lure us into a false sense of security. Symbiotic microbes are still their own entities, with their own interests to further and their own evolutionary battles to wage. They can be our partners, but they are not our friends. Even in the most harmonious of symbioses, there is always room for conflict, selfishness, and betrayal.

In the remainder of the intensely interesting I Contain Multitudes, Yong goes on to explore how these lines are drawn and what we can do to make the most of those alliances. Complement it with Tiny Creatures — a lovely children’s book primer on the universe of microbes — then grow agape at Yong’s terrific and slightly terrifying TED talk about mind-controlling parasites:


A Revolution With No Rewind: Galileo’s Daughter and How the Patron Saint of Astronomy Reconciled Science and Spirituality

“Although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle.”

A Revolution With No Rewind: Galileo’s Daughter and How the Patron Saint of Astronomy Reconciled Science and Spirituality

Like Blake and Beethoven, Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564–January 8, 1642) lived a life animated by the tragic genius of outsiderdom. It was only by standing apart from his society that he was able to cast dogma and convention aside, oppose the core beliefs of his era, and peer into the very fabric of eternity from his lonesome-making lookout. If anyone in his world made him feel less alone and misunderstood, it was Virginia — the eldest of his three children, with whom he identified and connected most closely. In a letter to a colleague, he once extolled her as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to [him].” He saw in her a counterpart to his own intellect, sensibility, and restless seeker spirit. But one enormous incongruity marked their relationship: On her thirteenth birthday, Virginia entered a convent and remained there for the rest of her short life, devout yet devoted to her father, in constant correspondence with him as he set about upending the most fundamental tenets of religion with his revolutionary scientific discoveries.

In her 1999 masterwork Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love (public library) — a book so fantastic that it has been blatantly plagiarized — science writer extraordinaire Dava Sobel mines the 124 surviving letters between father and daughter for insight into the multitudes that Galileo contained and the complex relationship between science and spirituality that permeated his life, his work, and his love for Virginia.


The backdrop Sobel paints is a mosaic of contrasts:

Galileo’s daughter, born of his long illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, entered the world in the summer heat of a new century, on August 13, 1600 — the same year the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for insisting, among his many heresies and blasphemies, that the Earth traveled around the Sun, instead of remaining motionless at the center of the universe. In a world that did not yet know its place, Galileo would engage this same cosmic conflict with the Church, treading a dangerous path between the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through his telescope.


Virginia adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars. Even after she professed a life of prayer and penance, she remained devoted to Galileo as though to a patron saint.


No detectable strife ever disturbed the affectionate relationship between Galileo and his daughter. Theirs is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities. Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy, and a mystery.

The most palpable mystery, of course, is that of how Galileo was able to reconcile his scientific devotion to critical thinking with his daughter’s unquestioning faith, and how Virginia was able to reconcile her religious devotion with her father’s continual flirtation with heresy. Centuries later, Pope John Paul II would point to Galileo as the chief culprit in what he called the “tragic mutual incomprehension” between science and religion, but Sobel argues that Galileo and Virginia themselves made sense of this perplexity through a categorically different orientation of mind and spirit — rather than seeing it as a paradox, much less a contradiction, they were able to make loving room for a simultaneity of devotions, both between and within themselves.

To the modern mind, so bedeviled by binaries, such a simultaneity of conflicting convictions seems almost incomprehensible — which is why the quantum notion of complementarity can be so challenging to wrap one’s head around. And yet this disposition was the key to Galileo’s relationship with his daughter and, as Sobel suggests, to the very quality of character from which his cataclysmic contribution to science sprang. She writes:

[Their] letters, which have never been published in translation, recast Galileo’s story. They recolor the personality and conflict of a mythic figure, whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. For although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle, still burdened by an impression of Galileo as a renegade who scoffed at the Bible and drew fire from a Church blind to reason.


Yet the Galileo of Suor Maria Celeste’s letters recognized no such division during his lifetime. He remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul. “Whatever the course of our lives,” Galileo wrote, “we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine.”

This proclamation stands as an irrefutable testament to the fact that even the most visionary genius is a product of her or his time and cannot fully escape the era’s blinders. But, far more important, it also attests to the enrichment and expansion of vision that comes from recognizing that each interpretation of reality is rife with subjectivity and actor-observer bias, from allowing multiple perspectives, from folding multitudes of experience and understanding unto a single self. Although he entrusted Providence with elevating Earthly minds, Galileo elevated his gaze to the cosmos by the power of his own will and continued to investigate its mysteries, every new discovery chipping away at dogma but not at his sense of divinity, for it furnished the divinest of all revelations and the supreme human zeal — that which Einstein called the “passion for comprehension.”

Galileo at age 42. Portrait by Domenico Robusti.
Galileo at age 42. Portrait by Domenico Robusti.

Although Galileo himself did not invent the telescope — neither the tool nor the term — he refined and reimagined its use. In doing so, he sparked a revolution at first quiet, then cacophonous. Sobel chronicles how this monumental shift in perception precipitated a monumental shift in understanding:

In the summer of 1609, Galileo was distracted from his motion experiments by rumors of a new Dutch curiosity called a spyglass, or eyeglass, that could make faraway objects appear closer than they were. Though few Italians had seen one firsthand, spectacle makers in Paris were already selling them in quantity.

Galileo immediately grasped the military advantage of the new spyglass, although the instrument itself, fashioned from stock spectacle lenses, was little more than a toy in its first incarnation. Seeking to improve the spyglass by augmenting its power, Galileo calculated the ideal shape and placement of glass, ground and polished the crucial lenses himself, and traveled to nearby Venice to show the doge, along with the entire Venetian senate, what his contrivance could do. The response, he reported, was “the infinite amazement of all.” Even the oldest senators eagerly scaled the highest bell towers of the city, repeatedly, for the unique pleasure of discerning ships on the horizon — through the spyglass — a good two to three hours before they became visible to the keenest-sighted young lookouts.

In exchange for the gift of his telescope (as a colleague in Rome later renamed the instrument), the Venetian senate renewed Galileo’s contract at the University of Padua for life, and raised his salary to one thousand florins per year — more than five times his starting pay.

Galileo proceeded to improve his lenses, doubling the magnifying power of his telescopes, and was soon able to produce his now-iconic detailed drawings of the Moon’s phases — a radical refutation of Aristotle’s longstanding claim that the celestial bodies were perfectly still and perfectly smooth fixtures in the Heavens. Instead, Galileo revealed them to be imperfect pieces of rock in perpetual motion.

Galileo’s Moon drawings, included in 100 Diagrams That Changed the World

The more intently and irreverently he peered into the cosmos, the more he saw, and soon he made his most groundbreaking discovery of all — Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, which remained the only known Jovian moons, out of 67 known today, up until the dawn of modern popular astronomy. In an exhilarated letter from January of 1610, Galileo called them “four planets never seen from the beginning of the world right up to our day.” Once again, he fused faith with science:

I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.

Jupiter's Galilean moons, in ascending order of distance from Earth: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. (Composite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/DLR)
Contemporary astrophotography of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, in ascending order of distance from Earth: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. (Composite image courtesy of NASA/JPL/DLR)

By March, he had published his Starry Messenger — perhaps the single most paradigm-shifting text in the history of our civilization, which created an instant sensation, sold out within a week of rolling off the press, and sparked a revolution with no rewind. For the perfect illustration of just how radical a shift this was, Sobel cites the letter accompanying the copy of Starry Messenger which Sir Henry Wotton, the British ambassador to Venice, sent to King James I:

I send herewith unto His Majesty the strangest piece of news (as I may justly call it) that he hath ever yet received from any part of the world; which is the annexed book (come abroad this very day) of the Mathematical Professor at Padua, who by the help of an optical instrument (which both enlargeth and approximateth the object) invented first in Flanders, and bettered by himself, hath discovered four new planets rolling about the sphere of Jupiter, besides many other unknown fixed stars; likewise, the true cause of the Via Lactea [Milky Way], so long searched; and lastly, that the moon is not spherical, but endued with many prominences, and, which is of all the strangest, illuminated with the solar light by reflection from the body of the earth, as he seemeth to say. So as upon the whole subject he hath first overthrown all former astronomy — for we must have a new sphere to save the appearances — and next all astrology. For the virtue of these new planets must needs vary the judicial part, and why may there not yet be more? These things I have been bold thus to discourse unto your Lordship, whereof here all corners are full. And the author runneth a fortune to be either exceeding famous or exceeding ridiculous. By the next ship your Lordship shall receive from me one of the above instruments, as it is bettered by this man.

Galileo continued to better his instrument. Shortly after Virginia entered the convent and became Suor Maria Celeste, he began his slow-motion collision with the Catholic Church, at the climax of which he wrote his famous letter about science, religion, and human nature to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany. Sobel writes of the period after the Inquisition pressed its knife to the bone of Galileo’s science:

For seven cautious years he turned his efforts to less perilous pursuits, such as harnessing his Jovian satellites in the service of navigation, to help sailors discover their longitude at sea. He studied poetry and wrote literary criticism. Modifying his telescope, he developed a compound microscope. “I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” he reported, “among which the flea is quite horrible, the gnat and the moth very beautiful; and with great satisfaction I have seen how flies and other little animals can walk attached to mirrors, upside down.”

Galileo at his microscope from I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen
Galileo at his microscope from I, Galileo by Bonnie Christensen

If Galileo was such a visionary seer, it was because his supreme tool was neither the microscope nor the telescope but curiosity itself — an indiscriminate curiosity that rendered him equally interested in the microscopic and the monumental. Perhaps peering into the cell and witnessing its miraculous marvels, invisible to the naked eye, was what granted him the confidence and faith that the cosmos might hide similar revelations, accessible to the curious, tireless, and well-equipped eye; what prompted him to quip defiantly: “Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”

But the most marvelous thing, the most humbling thing, is that even as this visionary seer peered into the fabric of reality, he only saw a fraction of what we know to exist today. As Galileo gazed through his primitive telescope from his vantage point at the dawn of observational astronomy, he couldn’t see — and likely couldn’t even imagine the existence of — celestial structures as basic as galaxies, to say nothing of cosmic marvels like pulsars and dark matter, which weren’t even theorized, much less detected, until centuries after Galileo became stardust. Today, we are warmed by the rays of a new dawn of gravitational astronomy and as we begin listening to the universe, we are well advised to expect being whispered or bellowed secrets as elemental yet unimaginable to us today as galaxies were to Galileo.

Complement the thoroughly terrific Galileo’s Daughter with the patron saint of astronomy on critical thinking, how books give us superhuman powers, the story of how he invented timekeeping and changed modern life, and this charming children’s book about his life and legacy, then revisit Alan Lightman on finding secular spirituality in science.


Blake, Beethoven, and the Tragic Genius of Outsiderdom

“It is the mark of a genius like Blake … that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Blake, Beethoven, and the Tragic Genius of Outsiderdom

There is a peculiar kind of loneliness seeded by the sense of being on the outside of the culture and the society inside which one is supposed to live. But along with its quiet anguish, outsiderdom brings its own recompenses and rewards. Hannah Arendt considered it a power and a privilege for the intellectually awake person. Pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff saw it as necessary for the visionary scientist. James Baldwin believed that the role and responsibility of the artist was to wage a “lover’s war” on his or her culture, tirelessly pushing in from the outside to upend society’s complacent interior stability.

But perhaps the greatest, most abiding case for this state of outsiderdom as a centerpiece of genius — outsiderdom both self-chosen and imposed by the peculiar burdens of brilliance — comes from William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). So argues Alfred Kazin, one of the most insightful and elegant writers of the past century, in his beautiful opening essay for The Portable William Blake (public library) — the indispensable 1977 volume that gave us Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and the creative spirit.

In his 1951 memoir, Kazin himself had written beautifully about the loneliness of outsiderdom — an experience so acute and so defining of his own life that it became the lens through which he examined Blake’s genius and its implications for our broader understanding of art, innovation, and the creative spirit.

William Blake (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven.
William Blake (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Kazin writes:

In 1827 there died, undoubtedly unknown to each other, two plebeian Europeans of supreme originality: Ludwig van Beethoven and William Blake.


Blake had instinctive musical gifts; in his youth and old age he spontaneously, when in company, sang melodies to his own lyrics. Musicians who heard them set them down; I wish I knew where. Even on his deathbed, where he worked to the last, he composed songs. But he had no formal musical knowledge and apparently no interest in musical thought. Self-educated in every field except engraving, to which he had been apprenticed at fourteen, his only interest in most ideas outside his own was to refute them. He always lived and worked very much alone, with a wife whom he trained to be the mirror of his mind. The world let him alone. He was entirely preoccupied with his designs, his poems, and the burden — which he felt more than any writer whom I know — of the finiteness of man before the whole creation.

Beethoven’s isolation, Kazin argues, was of a different nature — less conscious and less voluntary — and its consequences for the life of his creative spirit were therefore different as well. He writes of the great composer:

He was separated from society by his deafness, his pride, his awkward relations with women, relatives, patrons, inadequate musicians. He was isolated, as all original minds are, by the need to develop absolutely in his own way. The isolation was made tragic, against his will, by his deafness and social pride. At the same time he was one of the famous virtuosos of Europe, the heir of Mozart and the pupil of Haydn, and the occasional grumpy favorite of the musical princes of Vienna. His isolation was an involuntary personal tragedy, as it was by necessity a social fact. He did not resign himself to it, and only with the greatest courage learned to submit to it. If he was solitary, it was in a great tradition. As he was influenced by his predecessors, so he became the fountainhead of the principal musical thought that came after him.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Unlike Beethoven, Blake severed contact with his culture and his past completely and deliberately — something at the heart of the timelessly electrifying letter in which he defended himself against a patron who had accused him of being too unconcerned with the real world and too animated by the life of the imagination. His outsiderdom was fully self-elected — Blake flung the gates of his culture wide open with his own self-taught hands and marched boldly through them, his back forever turned to the citadel of convention.

Kazin, who two decades earlier had written beautifully about how our vantage point shapes our reality, writes:

Blake’s isolation was — I sometimes think it still is — absolute. It was the isolation of a mind that sought to make the best of heaven and earth, in the image of neither. It was isolation of a totally different kind of human vision; of an unappeasable longing for the absolute integration of man, in his total nature, with the universe. It was the isolation of a temperament run on fixed ideas; and incidentally, of a craftsman who could not earn a living.

Kazin considers Blake’s outsiderdom as an orientation of spirit both absolutely singular to the great artist and abounding with parallels across a great many facets of creative culture, familiar to those who have voyaged along the artist’s path:

There are analogies to Blake’s position in a world which has so many displaced persons as our own; but they are inadequate. Blake’s isolation may be likened to that of the revolutionary who sits in his grubby room writing manifestoes against a society that pays him no attention, with footnotes against other revolutionaries who think him mad. It was that of the author who prints his own books. It was that of the sweetly smiling crank who sits forever in publishers’ offices, with a vast portfolio under his arm, explaining with undiminishable confidence that only through his vision will the world be saved. It was that of the engraver who stopped getting assignments because he turned each one into an act of independent creation.

Celebrating Blake as “one of the subtlest and most far-reaching figures in the intellectual liberation of Europe,” Kazin once again contrasts Blake’s uncommon outsiderdom — the wellspring of his genius and visionary creativity — with that of his famously brilliant contemporaries, the Beethovens of creative history:

Beethoven could not hear the world, but he always believed in it. His struggles to sustain himself in it, on the highest level of his creative self-respect, were vehement because he could never escape the tyranny of the actual. He was against material despotisms, and knew them to be real. Blake was also against them; but he came to see every hindrance to man’s imaginative self-liberation as a fiction bred by the division in man himself. He was against society in toto: its prisons, churches, money, morals, fashionable opinions; he did not think that the faults of society stemmed from the faulty organization of society. To him the only restriction over man are always in his own mind.

Kazin contemplates how Blake’s particular paradox sheds light on our general notion of genius:

It is the mark of a genius like Blake, or Dostoevsky, or Lawrence, that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.


But there is even more in Blake’s total revelation of himself, a rage against society, a deeply ingrained personal misery, that underlies his creative exuberance and gives it a melancholy and over-assertive personal force. He defends himself in so many secret ways that when he speaks of himself, at abrupt moments, his utterances have the heart-breaking appeal of someone who cries out: “I am really different from what you know!”

In a closing passage that calls to mind James Baldwin’s abiding wisdom on how the artist’s struggle for integrity illuminates the universal human struggle of being, Kazin writes:

Blake’s tragedy was the human tragedy, made more difficult because his own fierce will to a better life prevented him from accepting any part of it… That is the personal cost he paid for his vision, as it helps us to understand his need of a myth that would do away with tragedy. But as there is something deeper than tragedy in Blake’s life, so at the heart of his work there is always the call to us to recover our lost sight. Blake was a man who had all the contraries of human existence in his hands, and he never forgot that it is the function of man to resolve them.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Portable William Blake with Virginia Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, then revisit Blake’s stunning engravings for Paradise Lost and Kazin on embracing contradiction and the power of the critical imagination.


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