“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”
By Maria Popova
In 1962, after pioneering a new aesthetic of poetic writing about science and the natural world, the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring — a courageous exposé of the pesticide industry, illuminating the profound interconnectedness of nature. It stunned and sobered humanity’s moral imagination, effecting a tidal wave of unprecedented citizen concern, with consequences reaching across popular culture and policy, leading to the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Carson had been following the science of pesticides and their grim effects on nature, meticulously glossed over by the agricultural and chemical industries, for more than a decade. Already the most esteemed science writer in the country, she used her voice and credibility to hold the government accountable for its abuses of power in the assault on nature. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” she wrote to her beloved. Fully aware that speaking out against the pesticide industry would subject her — as it invariably did — to ruthless attacks by corporate and government interests, she saw no moral choice but to defend what she held dearest by catalyzing a new kind of conscience.
Carson’s aim with Silent Spring was threefold — to transmute hard facts into literature that stands the test of time, to awaken a public hypnotized into docility to the perils of substances so mercilessly marketed as panaceas by chemical companies, and to challenge the government to rise to its neglected responsibility in regulating these perils. She admonished against the fragmentation, commodification, and downright erasure of truth in an era when narrow silos blind specialists to the interconnected whole and market forces sacrifice truth on the altar of revenue. When citizens protest and try to challenge those forces with incontestable evidence, they are “fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.” In a sentiment of striking resonance half a century later, Carson exhorted: “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts.” Above all, she countered the pathological short-termism of commercial interests with a sobering look at “consequences remote in time and place” as poisons permeate a delicate ecosystem in which no organism is separate from any other and no moment islanded in the river of time.
In June 1962, five days before the first installment of Silent Spring made its debut in The New Yorker, the terminally ill Carson summoned the remnants of her strength to take her very first cross-country jetliner flight and deliver a long-awaited commencement address at Scripps College in California, excerpted in Figuring (public library), from which this piece is adapted. She titled it “Of Man and the Stream of Time” — hers, after all, was an era when every woman, too, was “man.” It was a crystallization of Carson’s moral philosophy, a farewell to the world she so cherished, and her baton-passing of that cherishment to the next generation.
She told graduates:
Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars.
The stream of time moves forward and mankind moves with it. Your generation must come to terms with the environment. You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.
“Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper.”
By Maria Popova
“This country,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she considered what makes a great leader, “needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”
Like all great seers of truth, for all her genius, Fuller was still a product of her time and place. Even as she was laying the groundwork for women’s political and civic empowerment, she chose “man” as the universal pronoun depicting the ideal leader — hers, after all, was still a time when every woman was a “man.” But how thrilled Fuller would have been to know that, exactly a century later, a leader would emerge to embody these very qualities — and she would be a woman.
Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) entered the White House on March 4, 1933, as the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the time she exited it twelve years later, she could be said to have effected more enduring social change than her husband. She had championed science as a centerpiece of a thriving democratic society, stood up for integrity and nonconformity, empowered individual citizens to take the reins of reform, and redefined the role of the First Lady not as a social decoration to the President but as a position of substantive leadership.
FDR’s election and the New Deal coalition also marked a turning point in another way, in the character and ambition of his wife, the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt. Born in New York in 1884, she’d been orphaned as a child. She married FDR, her fifth cousin, in 1905; they had six children. Nine years into their marriage, Franklin began an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, and when Eleanor found out, he refused to agree to a divorce, fearing it would end his career in politics. Eleanor turned her energies outward. During the war, she worked on international relief, and, after Franklin was struck with polio in 1921, she began speaking in public, heeding a call that brought so many women to the stage for the first time: she was sent to appear in her husband’s stead.
Eleanor Roosevelt became a major figure in American politics in her own right just at a time when women were entering political parties. It was out of frustration with the major parties’ evasions on equal rights that Alice Paul had founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916. Fearful that soon-to-be enfranchised female voters would form their own voting bloc, the Democratic and Republican Parties had then begun recruiting women. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) formed a Women’s Division in 1917, and the next year, the Republicans did the same, the party chairman pledging “to check any tendency toward the formation of a separate women’s party.” After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the League of Women Voters, steered women away from the National Woman’s Party and urged them to join one of the two major parties, advising, “The only way to get things in this country is to find them on the inside of the political party.” Few women answered that call more vigorously than Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a leader of the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Party while her husband campaigned and served as governor of the state. By 1928, she was one of the two most powerful women in American politics, head of the Women’s Division of the DNC.
Roosevelt rose to a role she never wanted, then rather than conforming to its existing template, she redefined it to suit her aptitudes and transfigured it into a platform for change — her kind of change, on her terms. Like Emily Dickinson, who revolutionized the written word and channeled infinities from the seventeen and a half square inches of her cherrywood writing desk, Roosevelt took the narrow parameters of her station and created from within them something unexampled and far-reaching. Lepore writes:
Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper. She hadn’t wanted her husband to run for president, mainly because she had so little interest in becoming First Lady, a role that, with rare exception, had meant serving as a hostess at state dinners while demurring to the men when the talk turned to affairs of state. She made that role her own, deciding to use her position to advance causes she cared about: women’s rights and civil rights. She went on a national tour, wrote a regular newspaper column, and in December 1932 began delivering a series of thirteen nationwide radio broadcasts. While not a naturally gifted speaker, she earned an extraordinarily loyal following and became a radio celebrity. From the White House, she eventually delivered some three hundred broadcasts, about as many as FDR. Perhaps most significantly, she reached rural women, who had few ties to the national culture except by radio. “As I have talked to you,” she told her audience, “I have tried to realize that way up in the high mountain farms of Tennessee, on lonely ranches in the Texas plains, in thousands and thousands of homes, there are women listening to what I say.”
Eleanor Roosevelt not only brought women into politics and reinvented the role of the First Lady, she also tilted the Democratic Party toward the interests of women, a dramatic reversal. The GOP had courted the support of women since its founding in 1854; the Democratic Party had turned women away and dismissed their concerns. With Eleanor Roosevelt, that began to change. During years when women were choosing a party for the first time, more of them became Democrats than Republicans. Between 1934 and 1938, while the numbers of Republican women grew by 400 percent, the numbers of Democratic women grew by 700 percent.
In January 1933, she announced that she intended to write a book. “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who has been one of the most active women in the country since her husband was elected President, is going to write a 40,000-word book between now and the March inauguration,” the Boston Globe reported, incredulous. “Every word will be written by Mrs. Roosevelt herself.”
It’s Up to the Women came out that spring. Only women could lead the nation out of the Depression, she argued — by frugality, hard work, common sense, and civic participation. The “really new deal for the people,” Eleanor Roosevelt always said, had to do with the awakening of women.
We are not “patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance” but “specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.”
By Maria Popova
“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in 1902, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
A year earlier, the Canadian psychiatrist and adventurer Maurice Bucke (March 18, 1837–February 19, 1902) published a stunning personal account and psychological study of a dazzling form of consciousness that lies just on the other side of that filmiest of screens, accessible to all. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (public library) went on to influence generations of thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, and Steve Jobs.
By his own account, Bucke was “born of good middle class English stock,” but grew up almost entirely without education, working tirelessly on his parents’ farm in the backwoods of Canada — tending cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, working in the hay field, driving oxen and horses, and running various errands from the earliest age. He learned to read when he was still a small child and soon began devouring novels and poetry. He remembers that, like Emily Dickinson, he “never, even as a child, accepted the doctrines of the Christian church” — a disposition utterly countercultural in that era of extreme religiosity.
Although his mother died when he was very young and his father shortly thereafter, Bucke recalls being often overcome by “a sort of ecstasy of curiosity and hope.” (What a lovely phrase.) At sixteen, he left the farm “to live or die as might happen,” trekking from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Ohio to San Francisco, working on farms and railroads and steamboats, narrowly escaping death by illness, starvation, and battle on several occasions. In his twentieth year, he heard of the first major discovery of silver ore in America and joined a mining party, of which he was the only survivor, and barely: On his way to California, while crossing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, he suffered frostbite so severe that one foot and a few toes on the remaining foot had to be amputated.
When he finally made it to the Pacific Coast, Bucke used a moderate inheritance from his mother to give himself a proper college education. He devoured ideas from books as wide-ranging as On the Origin of Species and Shelley’s poems. After graduating, he taught himself French so that he could read Auguste Comte and German so that he could read Goethe. At thirty, he discovered and became instantly besotted with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he felt contained vaster truth and richer meaning than any book he had previously encountered. It was Whitman who catalyzed Bucke’s transcendent experience.
More than a century before Michael Pollan insisted in his masterly inquiry into the science of psychedelics that “the Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Bucke suggests that it might be just a poem away. Writing in the third person, as was customary for “the writer” in the nineteenth century, he recounts his transformative illumination:
It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.
Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship. (“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” Patti Smith would write a century later.) In that instant, as “the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,” he experienced something he could never forget, which he called “cosmic consciousness” — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.
Bucke identifies three layers of consciousness, each built upon the lower: Simple Consciousness — a basic awareness, which most non-human animals also possess; Self-Consciousness, which render one aware not only of trees, rivers, and one’s own body, but also of oneself as “a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe,” capable of treating one’s own thoughts and feelings as objects of consciousness itself; and Cosmic Consciousness, which Bucke defines as an awareness of “the life and order of the universe.” In a passage of striking consonance with William James’s framework of transcendent experiences, he writes:
Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence — would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking and more important both to the individual and to the race than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.
In language that closely parallels the way people describe the effects of psychedelics, Bucke limns the nature and sequence of this revelatory experience:
Like a flash there is presented to [the person’s] consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise — is in very truth a living presence. He sees that instead of men being, as it were, patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance, they are in reality specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.
The person who passes through this experience will learn in the few minutes, or even moments, of its continuance more than in months or years of study, and he will learn much that no study ever taught or can teach. Especially does he obtain such a conception of THE WHOLE, or at least of an immense WHOLE, as dwarfs all conception, imagination or speculation, springing from and belonging to ordinary self consciousness, such a conception as makes the old attempts to mentally grasp the universe and its meaning petty and even ridiculous.
A year before William James published his classic treatise on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences, Bucke — whom James references — outlines the characteristics of cosmic consciousness, at the heart of which he places the Eastern concept of “Brahmic Splendor,” also reflected in Dante’s transhumanized state in Paradisio.
A sudden appearance, often accompanied by immersion in a cloud of haze or fire. “The instantaneousness of the illumination,” Bucke writes, “is one of its most striking features. It can be compared with nothing so well as with a dazzling flash of lightning in a dark night, bringing the landscape which had been hidden into clear view.” (A century later, physicist Freeman Dyson would describe one of his most significant scientific breakthroughs as “a flash of illumination.”)
An ecstatic surge of emotion — “joy, assurance, triumph, ‘salvation'” — transcending “the pleasures and pains, loves and hates, joys and sorrows,peace and war, life and death, of self conscious man.”
An intellectual illumination, arising from the emotional ecstasy, difficult to put into words. (William James also lists ineffability as the foremost feature of transcendent experiences.)
Dissolution of the fear of death.
Dissolution of the sense of sin or wrongness.
A sense of immortality accompanying the moral elevation. “This is not an intellectual conviction, such as comes with the solution of a problem, nor is it an experience such as learning something unknown before,” Bucke writes. “It is far more simple and elementary.”
Of central importance in this experience of illumination, he argues, are the character — “intellectual, moral and physical” — and age of the person undergoing it. The illumination is truer and richer, Bucke suggest, when experienced at a later age:
Should we hear of a case of cosmic consciousness occurring at twenty, for instance, we should at first doubt the truth of the account, and if forced to believe it we should expect the man (if he lived) to prove himself, in some way, a veritable spiritual giant.
Drawing on the memoirs, biographies, and letters of historical figures, he goes on to compose a kind of ledger of such spiritual giants who have reported experiences indicative of cosmic consciousness, noting next to each person the age at which they underwent the illumination. Among them he lists:
Francis Bacon (30)
William Blake (31)
Blaise Pascal (31)
Honoré de Balzac (32)
Walt Whitman (34)
Gautama Buddha (35)
Edward Carpenter (37)
Baruch Spinoza (45)
Bucke sees the attainment of cosmic consciousness as a vital step in the spiritual and moral evolution of our species, but he takes care to emphasize that it “must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal — as anything more or less than a natural growth.” With electric exuberance, he channels his optimism, both prescient and bittersweet in the hindsight of history:
The immediate future of our race… is indescribably hopeful. There are at the present moment impending over us three revolutions, the least of which would dwarf the ordinary historic upheaval called by that name into absolute insignificance. They are: (1) The material,economic and social revolution which will depend upon and result from the establishment of aerial navigation. (2) The economic and social revolution which will abolish individual ownership and rid the earth at once of two immense evils — riches and poverty. And (3) The psychical revolution of which there is here question.
Either of the first two would (and will) radically change the conditions of, and greatly uplift, human life; but the third will do more for humanity than both of the former, were their importance multiplied by hundreds or even thousands.
The three operating (as they will) together will literally create a new heaven and a new earth. Old things will be done away and all will become new.
The net result, Bucke envisions, will be nothing less than a revolution of the human soul. While human beings will remain resolutely spiritual, this revolution would be predicated on the dissolution of organized religion:
Religion will… not depend on tradition. It will not be believed and disbelieved. It will not be a part of life,belonging to certain hours, times, occasions. It will not be in sacred books nor in the mouths of priests. It will not dwell in churches and meetings and forms and days. Its life will not be in prayers,hymns nor discourses. It will not depend on special revelations, on the words of gods who came down to teach, nor on any bible or bibles. It will have no mission to save men from their sins or to secure them entrance to heaven. It will not teach a future immortality nor future glories, for immortality and all glory will exist in the here and now. The evidence of immortality will live in every heart as sight in every eye.
That singular power of literary art to cast a clarifying light on society’s most perilous breaking points is what the novelist, essayist, biographer, and jazz scholar Albert Murray (May 12, 1916–August 18, 2013) explores in a portion of his superb 1973 book The Hero and the Blues (public library), which I discovered through a passing mention in theoretical cosmologist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s marvelous The Jazz of Physics.
Having lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the cataclysmic dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Murray writes:
In truth, it is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place. The writer who creates stories or narrates incidents which embody the essential nature of human existence in his time not only describes the circumstances of human actuality and the emotional texture of personal experience, but also suggests commitments and endeavors which he assumes will contribute most to man’s immediate welfare as well as to his ultimate fulfillment as a human being.
It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the storyteller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man — perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.
To examine the mechanics and ideals of cultural mythmaking is to inevitably consider what makes a hero. Half a century after Joseph Campbell outlined his classic eleven stages of the hero’s journey, Murray locates the heart of heroism in what he terms antagonistic cooperation — the necessary tension between trial and triumph as the outside world antagonizes the hero with adversity that in turn anneals the hero’s character and cultivates in him or her the inner strength necessary for surmounting the trial. In consonance with Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Murray writes:
The image of the sword being forged is inseparable from the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation, a concept which is indispensable to any fundamental definition of heroic action, in fiction or otherwise. The fire in the forging process, like the dragon which the hero must always encounter, is of its very nature antagonistic, but it is also cooperative at the same time. For all its violence, it does not destroy the metal which becomes the sword. It functions precisely to strengthen and prepare it to hold its battle edge, even as the all but withering firedrake prepares the questing hero for subsequent trials and adventures. The function of the hammer and the anvil is to beat the sword into shape even as the most vicious challengers no less than the most cooperatively rugged sparring mates jab, clinch, and punch potential prize-fighters into championship condition.
Heroism, which like the sword is nothing if not steadfast, is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles it overcomes. Thus difficulties and vicissitudes which beset the potential hero on all sides not only threaten his existence and jeopardize his prospects; they also, by bringing out the best in him, serve his purpose. They make it possible for him to make something of himself. Such is the nature of every confrontation in the context of heroic action.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Viktor Frankl’s impassioned conviction that idealism is our best realism, Murray makes and unmakes an essential disclaimer:
Such a conception of heroism is romantic, to be sure, but after all, given the range of possibilities in human nature and conduct, so is the notion of the nobility of man. And so inevitably, whether obvious or not, are the fundamental assumptions underlying every character, situation, gesture, and story line in literature. For without the completely romantic presuppositions behind such elemental values as honor, pride, love, freedom, integrity, human fulfillment, and the like, there can be no truly meaningful definition either of tragedy or of comedy. Nor without such idealistic preconceptions can there be anything to be realistic about, to protest about, or even to be cynical about.
Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only the indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it is also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.
In a passage of striking timeliness amid our present cultural drama, Murray returns to the notion of antagonistic cooperation as a centerpiece of heroism, in literature and life:
The writer who deals with the experience of oppression in terms of the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation works in a context which includes the whole range of human motivation and possibility. Not only does such a writer regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards it as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance.