An antidote to today’s perilous self-expatriation from history.
By Maria Popova
What a disorienting feeling to wake up one hot early-August morning and realize that exactly fifteen early-August mornings earlier, I had awakened to face my first day on American soil, having arrived alone as a teenage immigrant from Eastern Europe with $800 my parents had cobbled together to last me a year. I thought about how my life might have turned out if immigration policies and attitudes were then what they are now, and about the generations of immigrants who have devoted their lives to making this country what it is. I thought about the great physicist and inventor Michael Pupin, after whom the physics building at Columbia University is named, reflecting on his own improbable path from immigrant to inventor after arriving in America as a penniless teenage boy from Serbia, born across the border from my native Bulgaria. I thought about James Baldwin and Margaret Mead challenging the problematic nature of the melting pot metaphor and Hannah Arendt contemplating the many layers of the immigrant plight for identity. I thought about Alfred Kazin’s bittersweet meditation on the loneliness of the immigrant experience.
It seems to me that in a country so fundamentally shaped by immigrants, a societal sentiment so suddenly unwelcoming to them can only be the product of an absurd narrowing of perspective — an unthinking self-expatriation from history, a willful blindness to the cultural legacy of the past, and an inability to take the telescopic perspective so vital to inhabiting the present with lucidity, integrity, and a deep sense of connection to the whole of humanity.
Dyson writes in a letter from January 2, 1948, shortly after arriving in America as a twenty-four-year-old Englishman, having survived World War II to work on some of the most exciting scientific questions of the twentieth century:
Several of my friends are second-generation Americans, whose parents came over from Germany or Poland or Lithuania or some such place, and I am always curious to ask them questions about their parents’ histories in Europe and their reasons for emigrating and their emotional backgrounds. Always I have been amazed to find that the young people know practically nothing, and apparently care little, about such matters. It is very strange when one thinks how much we have absorbed about the history and society to which our family belonged.
Not that I dislike the Americans on the whole; it is probably in the long run a good thing that they live so much in the present and the future and so little in the past. The fact that they are more alone in the world than average English people probably accounts for their great spontaneous friendliness. I had heard this friendliness attributed to the size of the country and to people’s loneliness in space, but I think the loneliness in time is more important.
“All comes out even at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over.”
By Maria Popova
“Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his advice on how to grow old with contentment.
Nearly two centuries earlier, the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), lover of the trailblazing mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, offered a complementary perspective on what it means and what it takes to move through life undefeated by hardship and buoyed by a larger sense of meaning.
Weak as I am, I carry on the war to the last moment, I get a hundred pike-thrusts, I return two hundred, and I laugh. I see near my door Geneva on fire with quarrels over nothing, and I laugh again; and, thank God, I can look upon the world as a farce even when it becomes as tragic as it sometimes does. All comes out even at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over.
“To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”
By Maria Popova
“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” This particular color — or, rather, this universe of hues — seems to have drawn after it more minds than any other, inking the body of culture with a written record of adulation bordering on the religious.
After my recent excursion into the color blue across the past two hundred years of literature, a number of readers pointed out that I had missed an invaluable contemporary addition to the cerulean canon. (I might say “somehow missed,” but somehow implies a level of surprise at the fact, and it is hardly surprising that when one spends one’s days with dead poets, philosophers, scientists, and artists, the living cease to be one’s forte.) I had missed Bluets (public library) by Maggie Nelson — a slim, splendid collection of 240 numbered arguments? meditations? incantations? about the color blue, about its tentacled reach into nearly every chamber of Nelson’s life and into universal questions of desire and destiny, compulsion and choice, the disorienting delusions of memory, the delicious delusions of love.
Nelson begins with the elemental consideration of what it means to fall in love with a color:
A voluntary delusion, you might say. That each blue object could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.
Fifteen days after we are born, we begin to discriminate between colors. For the rest of our lives, barring blunted or blinded sight, we find ourselves face-to-face with all these phenomena at once, and we call the whole shimmering mess “color.” You might even say that it is the business of the eye to make colored forms out of what is essentially shimmering. This is how we “get around” in the world. Some might also call it the source of our suffering.
Again and again, Nelson interpolates between the poetic and the encyclopedic, the cerebral and the sensual, emerging with something larger, something William James might call noetic:
But what kind of love is it, really? Don’t fool yourself and call it sublimity. Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it? There is so little blue food in nature — mark food to avoid (mold, poisonous berries) — that cautionary advisers generally recommend against blue light, blue paint, and blue plates when and where serving food. But while the color may sap appetite in the most literal sense, it feeds it in others. You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world. You might want to dilute it and swim in it, you might want to rouge your nipples with it, you might want to paint a virgin’s robe with it. But still you wouldn’t be accessing the blue of it. Not exactly.
Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning.
With an eye to “the half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean,” Nelson writes:
That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless.
This question of agency — in life, in love, in the love of blue — undergirds the book as Nelson’s meditations on the color spill into a half-whispered dialogue with an unnamed, vanished lover, a Thisbe whispering to Pyramus through an impenetrable wall of blue. In the thirteenth fragment, she frames the central question that bridges her obsession with blue and the broader inquiry emanating from it:
At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
Invoking Goethe’s theory of color, in which the German polymath painted blue as apt “to disturb rather than enliven,” Nelson wonders about a color what we often wonder about the human heart:
Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?
Some of Nelson’s numbered passages shine a sidewise gleam on blue, the color itself absent as a subject but present as an aura around a state of being. Seventy years after May Sarton insisted in her stunning ode to solitude that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” Nelson writes:
I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.
It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? — No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink — Here you are again, it says, and so am I.
Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.
If this dazzling, kaleidoscopic book has a primary focal lens, it is memory — or, rather, memorialization — and its dueling desires: the wish to remember and the wish to forget, the warp thread and waft thread of which writing itself is woven. (Lest we forget, “forgetting” is one of the three essential elements of creativity and memory is more an act of creative retelling than one of recording.) Reflecting on what writing does to the writer’s memory, Nelson offers a meta-meditation on her subject:
At times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many specific blue things — I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.
But if writing displaces the idea — if it extrudes it, as it were, like grinding a lump of wet clay through a hole — where does the excess go?
I contemplate this where-does-it-go question often, in the context of the memory of feeling. Say someone has colored your entire world for a period of time. Say when you encounter them after another period of time has elapsed, you find yourself not only devoid of the feeling that filled you so intensely for so long, but unable to even retrieve the memory of the hue. Where has it gone? Where does love ever go when it goes? Nelson encapsulates this abiding question in a devastating metaphor:
To wish to forget how much you loved someone — and then, to actually forget — can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.
A dozen arguments later, in the context of another meditation, she seems to return to this heart-hollowing question and offers what might be there only consolation there is:
Look for yourself, and ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.
That the future is unknowable is, for some, God’s means of suturing us in, or to, the present moment. For others, it is the mark of a malevolence, a sure sign that our entire existence here is best understood as a sort of joke or mistake.
For me, it is neither. It is simply the way it is. Whether this accident be happy or unhappy is probably more a matter of mood than anything else; the difficulty is that “our moods do not believe in each other” (Emerson). One can wander about the landscape looking for clues, amassing evidence, but even the highest pile never seems to decide the case.
A poetic reflection on what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception.
By Maria Popova
Among the thousands of people around the world watching the livestream of the inaugural Universe in Verse was one spectator who would become a centerpiece of the show the following year: Natalie Batalha — an astrophysicist involved in the search for life on planets orbiting stars outside our Solar System and the project scientist on NASA’s Kepler mission, which has outlived its expected lifespan of 3.5 years nearly threefold and has discovered an astonishing 1,000 exoplanets.
In a beautiful essay marking the third anniversary of the mission, Batalha reflected on the life of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler, after whom it was named, and on the larger questions animating scientists in the search for other worlds. She wrote:
Reality is a poem on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite remember, familiar yet distant. It’s a form seen through a veil.
When she kindly agreed to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, I asked her to read a portion of a very old, very long poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950), which deals with this question of what we look at and what we see through the veils of our perception — an excerpt from the title poem in Millay’s 1917 collection Renascence and Other Poems (free ebook | public library).
Batalha prefaced her reading with the lyrical personal story of her uncommon path to science and recounted two formative experiences that awakened her to the beauty, fragility, and interconnectedness of life on our own planet — experiences remarkably resonant with Millay’s poem. Enjoy:
from “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And — sure enough! — I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
I screamed, and — lo! — Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
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