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This Is Chance: The Story of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake and the Remarkable Woman Who Magnetized People into Falling Together as Their World Fell Apart

“What is safety, anyway? How can you predict where or when tragedy will occur? You can only learn to live with it and make the best of it when it happens.”

This Is Chance: The Story of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake and the Remarkable Woman Who Magnetized People into Falling Together as Their World Fell Apart

We might spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, but we save them by experiencing ourselves — our selves, each individual self — as “the still point of the turning world,” to borrow T.S. Eliot’s lovely phrase from one of the greatest poems ever written. And yet that point is pinned to a figment — our fundamental creaturely sense of reality is founded upon the illusion of absolute rest.

On March 27, 1964 — Good Friday — thousands of selves in Anchorage, Alaska came unpinned from their most elemental certitudes about reality, about safety, about the thousand small sanities by which we bestill this turning world to make it livable.

At 5:36PM, as the afternoon sun was slipping lazily toward the horizon — that quiet daily assurance that the Earth moves intact on its steady axis along its unfaltering orbital path — street lights began swaying, then flying. The pavement beneath them accordioned, then gaped open, swallowing cars and spitting them back up. Walls came unseamed and reseamed before disbelieving eyes that had not yet computed, for it was beyond the computational power of everyday consciousness, what was taking place.

Photograph by Genie Chance, taken immediately after the earthquake hit. (Courtesy of Jan Blankenship — her daughter — and Jon Mooallem.)

Buildings rippled “up and down in sections, just like a caterpillar,” in one observer’s recollection, before ripping apart and crumbling completely like the brittle simulacra of safety that buildings are. Inside them, books toppled from their shelves to take rapid turns levitating from the floor, flames engulfed school science labs as chemicals crumpled together, and cast-iron pots of moose stew jumped off kitchen stoves.

The city’s electric grid was snapped and uprooted — in the below-freezing cold, in the descending dusk, all power went out.

Photograph by Genie Chance, taken immediately after the earthquake hit. (Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

When people tried running for their lives, they found their basic biped function furloughed — the Earth hurled each step back at them, tossing their center of gravity like a marble around a child’s cupped hand.

Water levels jumped as far away as South Africa. I picture my grandparents’ well in Bulgaria undulating in the middle of the night as they slept heavily under their Rhodope wool blankets, having celebrated my mother’s second birthday in the hours before Anchorage came unborn.

At 9.2 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake was more powerful than any previously measured — so violent that, as one seismologist phrased it, “it made the earth ring like a bell.” Just as the collision of two black holes ripples the fabric of spacetime with such brutality that it rings a gravitational wave, two tectonic plates had been in slow-motion collision for millennia, building up pressure that finally, on that early-spring afternoon, rang the planet itself and discomposed Anchorage into a level of trauma that would devastate the community, then jolt it into discovering its own entirely unfathomed wellsprings of resilience, solidarity, and generosity.

Photograph by Genie Chance, taken immediately after the earthquake hit. (Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

Driving to the local bookstore with one of her three children was a woman who would emerge as the unlikely hero not only of the community’s survival but of its transformation through tragedy. As their world fell apart, she would magnetize people into falling together.

Genie Chance with dahlias, Alaska. (Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

Genie Chance (January 24, 1927–May 17, 1998) is the protagonist of Jon Mooallem’s uncommonly wonderful book This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together (public library). Driving the heart of this scrupulously researched and sensitively told story about a singular event at a particular time in a particular place is the timeless, universal pulse-beat of assurance, suddenly rendered timely to the point of prophetic — the assurance that comes from the lived record of communities surviving cataclysms even more savaging than our own and emerging from them stronger, more closely knit, more human.

Photograph by Genie Chance, taken immediately after the earthquake hit. (Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

In 1964, Anchorage had barely nursed its first generation of city-born citizens and Alaska itself had only just become a state five years earlier. The town existed, Mooallem writes, as “a blotch of Western civilization in the middle of emptiness,” on a patch of land “often disregarded as a kind of free-floating addendum to the rest of America.” Culture itself was in a state of disorientation — months earlier, JFK’s assassination and The Feminine Mystique had shaken the world with their respective dissolutions of certitudes. Anchorage was hungry to pin itself on the map, to self-create an identity and then to assert it with the fiery impatience of a teenager undergoing the developmental stage of individuation — a city that, in one visitor’s account, “reached aggressively and greedily to grasp the future, impatient with any suggestion that such things take time.” Mooallem writes:

That determination made it difficult for those who lived in Anchorage to recognize how indifferently the city they were building could be knocked down — to imagine that, early one Friday evening, the very ground beneath them might rear up and shake their town like “a dog shaking an animal he’s killed,” as one man later described it. Even while the earth was moving, the ferocious strangeness of what was happening to Anchorage was hard for people to internalize or accept. Buildings keeled off their foundations, slumped in on themselves, split in half or sunk. Four-foot-high ground waves rolled through the roads as though the pavement were liquid. A city of infallible right angles buckled and bent.

It wasn’t as though, before the quake, people in Anchorage pictured these things happening and dismissed them as impossible; they just never pictured them. They couldn’t. More to the point: Why would they? Like all of us, they looked around and registered what they saw as stable and permanent: a world that just was.

But there are moments when the world we take for granted instantaneously changes; when reality is abruptly upended and the unimaginable overwhelms real life. We don’t walk around thinking about that instability, but we know it’s always there: at random, and without warning, a kind of terrible magic can switch on and scramble our lives.

When the earthquake churned its terrible magic over Anchorage, Genie Chance — who described herself as “one of those people with an insatiable curiosity who wants to understand in depth what someone else is doing, thinking, or talking about” — was working as a part-time reporter for the local radio station, KENI. Part-time but triple-throttle: When she wasn’t racing on her daily rounds to the police station and the courthouse to report on local crime and punishment, she flew with the air patrol on wilderness rescue missions, trailed army units during Arctic training exercises, captured life on crab boats and in Inuit villages, forewitnessed death on nuclear missile testing sites, and had to be dissuaded from climbing a fire ladder with her tape recorder during a building fire while she was recovering from pneumonia.

Genie Chance reporting on a military exercise. (Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)
Genie Chance coming home from work. (Photograph Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

All of this she did before rushing home to make dinner for her three children and their father. But she inhabited these two radically different worlds as one extraordinary, integrated self — “a woman who bore the conspicuous burden of always being fully and unflaggingly herself,” in Mooallem’s lovely phrasing — a self outside its time and place, for being a working mother rather than a housewife was already countercultural enough, but being a working mother of unstoppable ambition covered her path with the shrapnel of shock and the indictments of arrogance with which women’s confident competence is often repudiated.

She was the only female newscaster in the state and little seemed to have changed in the century-some since Margaret Fuller became America’s first female news correspondent during a major upheaval as she was paving the way for what we now call feminism. Once, after Genie spent three days reporting on the search effort for a major airplane crash off the coast of Alaska, NBC’s national newscast came calling for her coverage, but requested that a man be sent to redo all of her interviews for a more authoritative air on the air. But her persistent dedication to this essential community-building work soon eclipsed the dismissal and established her as the trusted voice on the radio — trust that threaded the community as a lifetime in the wake of the catastrophe, as fifty-two aftershocks shook the city after the initial rupture. Mooallem writes:

As Anchorage staggered to its feet, each person, or cluster of people, was cut off from everyone else. There was no way to know exactly what had happened, or how thoroughly their world had been jumbled.

This feeling of vulnerability saturated the city. One man, discovering he’d fallen to the sandy bottom of a pit, explained, “You just wonder, ‘Where are you?’ You don’t know if anybody else is alive. Maybe you’re the last man.” Another remembered taking stock of the erratic transfiguration of his neighborhood and assuming that no other part of Anchorage could possibly have gotten hit so badly. Others made the opposite assumption: that the devastation they couldn’t see must be far worse. Both assumptions provoked loneliness. Each generated a slightly different species of despair.

It was reassuring, then, to hear another voice on the radio, talking to you — especially a familiar voice like Genie’s. It urged your imagination outward, encouraged you to picture other people, still out there, listening to the radio, too.

That voice had risked her own life in the determination to serve — having ensured her family’s safety, she had raced back downtown as buildings collapsed around her to assess what was actually going on and how she could help. She had seen things one never forgets — incomprehensible objects that mere hours ago had been bodies animated by human lives and loves and favorite songs — and she had discerned her task: to inform without alarming, to comfort without deluding, to be the steady hand in the small of the back guiding the buckle-kneed and the disoriented survivors toward safety, toward sanity, toward some version of sense-making amid the senseless ruin of their reality.

Genie Chance quickly grasped what our modern media have failed to grasp again and again in times of crisis: that past a certain tipping point of quantity, past a certain threshold of reliability, past a certain pitch level of delivery, facts cease to constellate into information and instead become slippery corpuscles saturating a fog of fright. Genie Chance’s job was choice — she had to perform that taxing calculus of moral judgment, that ultimate curatorial task of choosing what facts to broadcast and what to withhold in order to render people maximally equipped to protect themselves and minimally inclined toward panic, which she knew would hinder all rescue and recovery efforts in what was going to be days, weeks, possibly months of people trapped together in a crippled city. “Mass hysteria would have meant total destruction,” she would later recount.

Photograph by Genie Chance, taken immediately after the earthquake hit. (Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

Stationing herself at Anchorage’s Public Safety Building as night fell on the powerless city, she began working with the police chief, the fire chief, and various officials. As soon as KENI was back on the air with a generator, she began broadcasting the essentials of survival: where to take shelter, how to purify snow for drinking water. She instructed people to limit the use of candles to the bare minimum of necessity — candles were a fire hazard, the city had just evaded a conflagration by what seemed like a miracle, and the water supply system was too savaged to fight a fire outbreak.

She then began collating eyewitness accounts to give people an accurate picture of what had just unworlded them, careful to convey the gravity of the situation without details so gruesome that people would lose hope, still performing the impossible informational acrobatics at the balance-point on the beam between paralysis and panic. Mooallem writes:

Information was a form of comfort. Each stunned, eye-witness account on the radio that night appeared to help people in Anchorage find the contours of this sinister abstraction they were living through — and to locate their places in it.

Genie Chance (Photograph Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

Within hours, Genie Chance had become the city’s first public information officer. But she soon became something more. Distressed people began turning up at her makeshift desk, bearing the impossible weight of not knowing whether their loved ones were dead or alive. Recognizing the psychological emergency beyond the physical first aid, Genie Chance became the human hub of a vast network of need and began broadcasting these trembling-hearted messages.

“A message to Clyde Wythe at Homer: Your daughter is OK.”

“We have received a call from Joe Fernbeck who said that he’d gotten word on his radio from the oil crews at Beluga and Tyonek. They want their families to know that they are all OK.”

“We have a message reporting that an elderly lady at 216 East Eighth Avenue who lives alone. We have no name on her, but we do have a request for somebody in that neighborhood to please check and see if the sweet lady is all right.”

Mooallem writes:

You could hear the potential death toll in the city gradually ticking down. And with each small declaration of survival that aired, you could imagine a constellation of affirming flames slowly lighting the emptiness outside.

The words of one listener from the remote community of Clam Gulch bellow across space, time, and situation with especially poignancy and relevance today:

It made us who were fortunate realize that no matter what powerful forces nature unleashes, it also releases similar forces in our men and women to cope with them.

By Monday, as Anchorage began stumbling to its feet amid heavy snow and below-freezing temperatures, Genie Chance observed from the airwaves:

Tension is showing on the faces of a proud people. The realization that the Good Friday earthquake will have long-range repercussions on the entire state is beginning to strike at their hearts.

She took it upon herself to steady those hearts. How she did that — how she was in a position to help in the first place, having risen in radio across the personal abyss of depression and the cultural barriers of sexism; how her public service paved the way for her election to the Alaska Senate; how it illuminated what Martin Luther King, Jr. had so poetically termed a year earlier our “inescapable network of mutuality” and how it still illuminates the timeless centripetal forces holding communities together into something larger and more alive than coexisting individuals — that and a great, largehearted deal more is what Mooallem explores in the rest of This Is Chance!, which he ends with a gorgeous glimpse of Genie Chance’s animating spirit.

Genie Chance, 1964. (Courtesy Jan Blankenship and Jon Mooallem.)

The week following the earthquake, when her mother wrote from Texas beseeching her to send the children there for safety, Genie had a decision to make — a decision that might have appeared simple to a person of less penetrating vision into the innermost pillars of survival. Beneath that surface simplicity, which rests upon a view of safety as physical security, Genie Chance fathomed the layers of complexity: The very notion of physical security had just been unmasked as an illusion in the first place, in any place; but beneath it, she suddenly saw, there lay a stratum of psychological and emotional security from which we mine the building blocks of our only reliable human shelter. She wrote back to her mother:

I must admit that during that first dark, cold night, as I began to understand the tremendous scope of the problems that would be facing us in the months and years to come, I toyed with the idea of sending the children out on a plane to stay with you until everything settled down. Working there in the headquarters, where the reports were coming in from the survey teams throughout the city, I realized that there could possibly be a real health hazard for some time to come. I realized that the schools might not be able to resume for an indefinite period of time. It looked for a few hours as if the damage had been so extensive to all utilities and streets that even a semblance of normal life could not be resumed for weeks or months.

[…]

But this was just a fleeting thought in a weary mind. I would have been ashamed of myself had it not been for the next thought that came so swiftly: We must be together… That night I saw strain, heavy hearts, and fear in people separated from their loved ones by the sudden disaster… As long as we are together, we are confident of the future…

That Good Friday night I knew that we had survived miraculously. And for this reason, there must be a purpose to our lives. Apparently the children must sense this, too. For they have remained calm. They have been fully aware of the emergency, but they have not feared. We are proud that they are such dependable, responsible youngsters. I would not undermine their confidence in the future — in themselves — by sending them away for safety.

What is safety, anyway? How can you predict where or when tragedy will occur? You can only learn to live with it and make the best of it when it happens. These children have learned this — and they are all the better for it. They were in the midst of devastation. And they feel that they are a part of the tremendous task ahead in rebuilding this land we love… The children are not afraid. Their father and I are not afraid. Please, don’t you fear for us.

Mooallem — who previously composed the beautiful, bittersweet, and surprisingly buoyant ecological elegy Wild Ones — reflects on the disquieting confrontation with the nature of reality that the earthquake thrust upon the world it shattered, and wrests from the disquietude the kernel of a larger truth that makes reality not only bearable but beautiful:

What is safety, anyway? Genie seemed to be conceding how randomly our lives are jostled and spun around; that nothing is fixed; that even the ground we stand on is in motion. Underneath us, there is only instability. Beyond us, there’s only chance.

But she’d also recognized a way of surviving such a world. It was what Genie had created in Anchorage that weekend by talk- ing on the radio, and what she planned to stay focused on now: not an antidote to that unpredictability, exactly, but at least a strategy for withstanding it, for wringing meaning from a life we know to be unsteady and provisional. The best she and her family could do was to hold on to one another.

Our force for counteracting chaos is connection.

BP

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

“It avails not, time nor place… What is it then between us?… It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also.”

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.

from “CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY”
by Walt Whitman

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west — sun there half an hour high — I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future.

[…]

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place — distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.

[…]

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me

[…]

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

The Otherworldly Beauty of Jellyfish: How Ernst Haeckel Turned Personal Tragedy into Transcendent Art in the World’s First Encyclopedia of Medusae

A story of transmuting the grief of one life into a celebration of the grandeur of Life.

The Otherworldly Beauty of Jellyfish: How Ernst Haeckel Turned Personal Tragedy into Transcendent Art in the World’s First Encyclopedia of Medusae

“I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances,” Charles Darwin wrote in the spring of 1864 to a young and obscure German correspondent who had just sent him two folios of his stunningly illustrated studies of tiny single-celled marine organisms — a masterwork that enchanted Darwin as one of the most majestic things he had ever seen.

But Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the term ecology and become a preeminent champion of evolution, could not banish the unbanishable: Months earlier, on his thirtieth birthday, Anna, the love of his life, had been snatched from him by a sudden death medicine failed to explain; the couple were about to be married that summer after a long engagement, having finally scraped together enough to start a family when Ernst received his first academic appointment.

Anna Sethe and Ernst Haeckel shortly before her death.

In the wake of his fathomless bereavement, the young marine biologist applied the Joan Didion method of dealing with grief by motion and headed for France. Pacing the beaches of Nice, his mind on an irretrievable elsewhere and his heart a menacing vacuity, he stopped mid-stride — something had clutched his attention with the claim only wonder can lay on the worst-stung soul: afloat near the surface of the tide pool was a jellyfish — a medusa species he had never seen before.

Thamnostylus Dinema (available as a print)

Haeckel had fallen under the spell of medusae ten years earlier, at twenty, while accompanying a mentor on a fishing and research expedition. He had exulted in a letter to his parents:

You cannot believe what new things I see and learn here every day; it exceeds by far my most exaggerated expectations and hopes. Everything that I studied for years in books, I see here suddenly with my own eyes, as if I were cast under a spell, and each hour, which brings me surprises and instruction, prepares wonderful memories for the future.

Aequorea, Orchistoma, Zycocanna, Olindias (available as a print)
Pectyllis Arctica (available as a print)
Polybostricha (available as a print)

The jellyfish the boat pulled up staggered Haeckel’s imagination with both their otherworldly beauty and the unsolved scientific mysteries they held: He knew that polyps were thought to develop from jellyfish eggs and wondered whether this might suggest that these complex translucent marvels themselves evolved from such simple organisms. But when he posed “this rather forward question” to his mentor, he was surprised to receive only excited bafflement — the elder scientist admitted that the origin of the species was completely unknown.

Dipurena, Euphysa, Steenstupia (available as a print)
Cannorhiza, Versura (available as a print)

Now, a decade and a devastation later, Haeckel surrendered to this early enchantment to steady himself on the parallel bannisters of wonder and discovery, of aesthetic splendor and scientific challenge. In The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (public library), Robert J. Richards argues that “Haeckel’s science and his legacy for modern evolutionary theory display the features they do because of his tragic sense of life,” and considers how this young man’s deeply human coping mechanism for his personal devastation shaped his scientific outlook and his artistic imagination:

Ernst Haeckel experienced the passion for transcendence through a love that lifted him to ecstasy and then crushed him in despair. This experience invaded his insistently rational attitudes, even transforming his science into a means for escaping the grasping hand of mortality.

[…]

With the extinction of love came emptiness, a void that quickly filled with the miasma of great stridency, bitterness, and ineluctable sadness, which not even friends… could clear away. Through this acid mist, Haeckel resolved to devote himself single-mindedly to a cause that might transcend individual fragility. He would incessantly push the Darwinian ideal and oppose it to those who refused to look at life, to look at death, face on.

Haeckel spent the next fifteen years studying and illustrating these strange and beautiful creatures — creatures evocative of trees and mushrooms, of ovaries and spaceships — naming the most beautiful of the species he encountered for his lost beloved: Mitrocoma Annae — “Anna’s headband.”

Mitrocoma (available as a print)

A generation before his marine biology colleague and compatriot Carl Chun hired an artist to illustrate the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Haeckel himself illustrated the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea jellyfish — a multi-part catalogue of more than six hundred medusa species. Tucked into his otherwise coolly scientific prose is a deeply personal ember of his grief:

Mitrocoma Annae belongs to the most charming and delicate of all the medusae. It was first observed by me in April 1864, in the Bay of Villafranca near Nice… The movement of this wonderful Eucopide offered a magical view, and I enjoyed several happy hours watching the play of her tentacles, which hang like blond hair-ornaments from the rim of the delicate umbrella-cap and which with the softest movement would roll up into thick short spirals… I name this species, the princess of the Eucopiden, as a memorial to my unforgettable true wife, Anna Sethe. If I have succeeded, during my earthly pilgrimage in accomplishing something for natural science and humanity, I owe the greatest part to the ennobling influence of this gifted wife, who was torn from me through sudden death…

Ulmaris, Undosa, Aurosa (available as a print)
Floscula, Floresca (available as a print)
Cunarcha Aeginoides (available as a print)
Ephyra, Palephyra, Zonephyra, Nausicaa (available as a print)
Pectis Antarctica (available as a print)
Polycolpa Forskalii (available as a print)
Tesserantha Connectens (available as a print)
Periphylla Mirabilis (available as a print)
Leonura Terminalis (available as a print)
Tetranema, Dissonema, Thaumantias, Cosmetira, Melicertella, Polyorchis (available as a print)
Tessera, Depastrella (available as a print)
Pericolpa (available as a print)
Periphylla (available as a print)

When Haeckel, almost fifty, was able to built a house of his own in Jena, he adorned its walls with frescoes of medusae and called it Villa Medusa.

Codonium, Sarsia, Dicodonium, Amphicodon, Amalthaea (available as a print)
Drymonema Victoria (available as a print)

Anyone who has suffered savaging personal loss knows intimately that moment — a moment that can last months, years, a lifetime — when it seems like the only way to lose one’s suffering is to lose oneself. Perhaps what drew Haeckel to these particular creatures was their particular evolutionary biology, which dissolves the very notion of a self. In their complex life-cycles, the concept of individuality ceases to make sense — the psychological reality of our human existence, in which we spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, is a physiological reality for jellyfish. (The great scientist and poet Lewis Thomas would explore this a century after Haeckel in The Medusa and the Snail — one of the profoundest, most beautiful things ever written about the paradoxes of the self.) Some jellyfish species pulse into existence via a process of alternating generation — the adult animals swim untethered and reproduce sexually, but the larvae that emerge from their fertilized eggs become hydra-like creatures that root to the seafloor, asexually sprouting buds that then restart the cycle by developing into the drifting, mate-seeking grown jellyfish. Some exist as specialized parts of a vast colonial animal, in which individuals become organs — reproductive, digestive, motive — of this collective being.

For Haeckel, much of the medusae’s enchantment and consolation radiated from this very unselfing. Likening them to bouquets of flowers endowed with “an intricate structure indicating a most interesting and rather advanced division of labor,” he wrote:

Think of a delicate slim bouquet of flowers, the leaves and colored buds of which are as transparent as glass, a bouquet that winds through the water in a graceful and lively fashion — then you’ll have an idea of these wonderful, beautiful, and delicate colonial animals.

In this flowering collectivism Haeckel found not only solace for the aches of the self but affirmation of the central ideas that animated him into becoming one of the most ardent and effective advocates for Darwin’s evolutionary theory against the era’s ferocious tide of dogmatic opposition. Darwin, who had waded through his own fathomless loss when his daughter Annie died despite his every effort to save her, placed at the center of his scientific work the notion of natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Such an understanding, scientific or personal, renders death not a slight by fate but an ally of nature, part of the impartial laws holding the universe together — mortality unmoored from morality and metaphysics. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin whispered to himself in the closing pages of a book bellowing a new scientific truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of nature.

Pteronema, Gemmaria, Ctenaria, Dendronema (available as a print)

A century later, picking up where Haeckel left off and wresting ecology from the insular vernacular of science to embed it into the popular lexicon, Rachel Carson — another visionary marine biologist who lived between the tragic and the transcendent — reaffirmed that grandeur in a pioneering masterwork of scientific poetics, writing that “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.”

Pectanthis Asteroides (available as a print)
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An Antidote to Helplessness and Disorientation: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on Our Human Fragility as the Key to Our Survival and Our Sanity

“Only through full awareness of the danger to life can this potential be mobilized for action capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing society.”

An Antidote to Helplessness and Disorientation: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on Our Human Fragility as the Key to Our Survival and Our Sanity

To be human is to be a miracle of evolution conscious of its own miraculousness — a consciousness beautiful and bittersweet, for we have paid for it with a parallel awareness not only of our fundamental improbability but of our staggering fragility, of how physiologically precarious our survival is and how psychologically vulnerable our sanity. To make that awareness bearable, we have evolved a singular faculty that might just be the crowning miracle of our consciousness: hope.

Hope — and the wise, effective action that can spring from it — is the counterweight to the heavy sense of our own fragility. It is a continual negotiation between optimism and despair, a continual negation of cynicism and naïveté. We hope precisely because we are aware that terrible outcomes are always possible and often probable, but that the choices we make can impact the outcomes.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

How to harness that uniquely human paradox in living more empowered lives in even the most vulnerable-making circumstances is what the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in the 1968 gem The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (public library), written in an era when both hope and fear were at a global high, by a German Jew who had narrowly escaped a dismal fate by taking refuge first in Switzerland and then in America when the Nazis seized power.

Erich Fromm

In a sentiment he would later develop in contemplating the superior alternative to the parallel lazinesses of optimism and pessimism, Fromm writes:

Hope is a decisive element in any attempt to bring about social change in the direction of greater aliveness, awareness, and reason. But the nature of hope is often misunderstood and confused with attitudes that have nothing to do with hope and in fact are the very opposite.

Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene made his poetic case for our sense of mortality as the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives, Fromm argues that our capacity for hope — which has furnished the greatest achievements of our species — is rooted in our vulnerable self-consciousness. Writing well before Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of the universal pronoun, Fromm (and all of his contemporaries and predecessors, male and female, trapped in the linguistic convention of their time) may be forgiven for using man as shorthand for the generalized human being:

Man, lacking the instinctual equipment of the animal, is not as well equipped for flight or for attack as animals are. He does not “know” infallibly, as the salmon knows where to return to the river in order to spawn its young and as many birds know where to go south in the winter and where to return in the summer. His decisions are not made for him by instinct. He has to make them. He is faced with alternatives and there is a risk of failure in every decision he makes. The price that man pays for consciousness is insecurity. He can stand his insecurity by being aware and accepting the human condition, and by the hope that he will not fail even though he has no guarantee for success. He has no certainty; the only certain prediction he can make is: “I shall die.”

What makes us human is not the fact of that elemental vulnerability, which we share with all other living creatures, but the awareness of that fact — the way existential uncertainty worms the consciousness capable of grasping it. But in that singular fragility lies, also, our singular resilience as thinking, feeling animals capable of foresight and of intelligent, sensitive decision-making along the vectors of that foresight.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print.)

Fromm writes:

Man is born as a freak of nature, being within nature and yet transcending it. He has to find principles of action and decision making which replace the principles of instinct. He has to have a frame of orientation that permits him to organize a consistent picture of the world as a condition for consistent actions. He has to fight not only against the dangers of dying, starving, and being hurt, but also against another danger that is specifically human: that of becoming insane. In other words, he has to protect himself not only against the danger of losing his life but also against the danger of losing his mind. The human being, born under the conditions described here, would indeed go mad if he did not find a frame of reference which permitted him to feel at home in the world in some form and to escape the experience of utter helplessness, disorientation, and uprootedness. There are many ways in which man can find a solution to the task of staying alive and of remaining sane. Some are better than others and some are worse. By “better” is meant a way conducive to greater strength, clarity, joy, independence; and by “worse” the very opposite. But more important than finding the better solution is finding some solution that is viable.

Art by Pascal Lemaître from Listen by Holly M. McGhee

As we navigate our own uncertain times together, may a thousand flowers of sanity bloom, each valid so long as it is viable in buoying the human spirit it animates. And may we remember the myriad terrors and uncertainties preceding our own, which have served as unexpected awakenings from some of our most perilous civilizational slumbers. Fromm — who devoted his life to illuminating the inner landscape of the individual human being as the tectonic foundation of the political topography of the world — composed this book during the 1968 American Presidential election. He was aglow with hope that the unlikely ascent of an obscure, idealistic, poetically inclined Senator from Minnesota by the name of Eugene McCarthy (not to be confused with the infamous Joseph McCarthy, who stood for just about everything opposite) might steer the country toward precisely such pathways to “greater strength, clarity, joy, independence.”

McCarthy lost — to another Democratic candidate, who would in turn lose to none other than Nixon — and the country plummeted into more war, more extractionism, more reactionary nationalism and bigotry. But the very rise of that unlikely candidate contoured hopes undared before — hopes some of which have since become reality and others have clarified our most urgent work as a society and a species. Fromm writes:

A man who was hardly known before, one who is the opposite of the typical politician, averse to appealing on the basis of sentimentality or demagoguery, truly opposed to the Vietnam War, succeeded in winning the approval and even the most enthusiastic acclaim of a large segment of the population, reaching from the radical youth, hippies, intellectuals, to liberals of the upper middle classes. This was a crusade without precedent in America, and it was something short of a miracle that this professor-Senator, a devotee of poetry and philosophy, could become a serious contender for the Presidency. It proved that a large segment of the American population is ready and eager for Humanization… indicating that hope and the will for change are alive.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Having given reign to his own hope and will for change in this book “appealing to the love for life (biophilia) that still exists in many of us,” Fromm reflects on a universal motive force of resilience and change:

Only through full awareness of the danger to life can this potential be mobilized for action capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing society… One cannot think in terms of percentages or probabilities as long as there is a real possibility — even a slight one — that life will prevail.

Complement The Revolution of Hope — an indispensable treasure rediscovered half a century after its publication and republished in 2010 by the American Mental Health Foundation — with Fromm on spontaneity, the art of living, the art of loving, the art of listening, and why self-love is the key to a sane society, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and Rebecca Solnit on the real meaning of hope in difficult times.

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