A spare serenade to the spectrum of wonder between black and white.
By Maria Popova
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in his gorgeous 1933 love letter to darkness. More than a century before him, Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion that “color itself is a degree of darkness.” Darkness, we could say, is the sum total of all the colors and all the emotions — a totality of consummate beauty awaiting those willing to look.
Half a century after the great graphic artist Edward Gorey invited children to contemplate why we have night, Snider invites them to learn how to have night, dispelling the specter of nocturnal fright, and replacing it with an exuberant hunt for beauty and delight.
He shepherds the reader to discover that night is not a mere mosaic of black and white but a vivid tessellation of “colors unseen” — subtle hues beckoning eye and heart alike — the silver of starshine, the warm brown of the moths flickering under the streetlamp, the neon green of the raccoon’s flash-lit eyes, the spectrum-crowning miracle of moonbow.
“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”
By Maria Popova
To recognize that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives is to step outside the self, beyond its particular conceptions of beauty — which includes, of course, moral beauty — and walking beside it with humble, nonjudgmental curiosity about the myriad other selves afoot on their own paths, propelled by their own ideals of the Good.
Such recognition requires what the great moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) termed unselfing — a difficult, triumphant act for which, Murdoch argues in her 1970 masterpiece The Sovereignty of Good (public library), nature and art uniquely train us.
Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.
Oliver Sacks would come to echo the sentiment decades later in his observation that meeting nature on its own terms and timescales broadens our perspective by effecting “a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life.” But this unselfing, Murdoch cautions, cannot arise from a straining of the will, for the will is a clenching of the very self which true beauty deconditions; rather, it comes as a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence:
A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.
This “self-forgetful pleasure” calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s wonderfully paradoxical notion of active surrender as the crucible of our joy in art and the fulcrum for art’s transformative power over the self. But while there is a distinct difference between how nature and art each effect unselfing, Murdoch argues that what separates great art from the bad and the mediocre is precisely this capacity for stripping down the self rather than inflating the ego — a notion evocative of Tolstoy’s insistence that “a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” Murdoch writes of this dissolution of the self in the presence of great art:
The experience of art is more easily degraded than the experience of nature. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect. Art, and by “art” from now on I mean good art, not fantasy art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.
And yet, Murdoch argues, any real understanding of goodness is necessarily an embrace of imperfection — something philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in many ways Murdoch’s only worthy intellectual heir, would argue brilliantly a generation later in her incisive case for the intelligence of emotions. Murdoch writes:
The concept of Good… is a concept which is not easy to understand partly because it has so many false doubles, jumped-up intermediaries invented by human selfishness to make the difficult task of virtue look easier and more attractive: History, God, Lucifer, Ideas of power, freedom, purpose, reward, even judgment are irrelevant. Mystics of all kinds have usually known this and have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good, its absolute for-nothingness. One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good. When Plato wants to explain Good he uses the image of the sun. The moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.
We may also speak seriously of ordinary things, people, works of art, as being good, although we are also well aware of their imperfections. Good lives as it were on both sides of the barrier and we can combine the aspiration to complete goodness with a realistic sense of achievement within our limitations.
With an eye to the legacy of the Romantics, who married nature and art in their model of happiness and transcendence, Murdoch returns to the notion of unselfing and the beautiful tessellation of possibility and limitation that defines our nature:
The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.
What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.
Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:
I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.
We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.
The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:
Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.
It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.
Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:
“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.
He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:
I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.
A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?
For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”
Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.
“One may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty.”
By Maria Popova
“Happy people die whole,” Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) wrote in one of his poems. “Integrity is wholeness,” he wrote in another. For Jeffers, whose verses became revered hymns of the environmental movement as Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word, this meant wholeness not only within oneself but also wholeness with the rest of the natural world, with the integrity of the universe itself — an ethos consonant with his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Jeffers coined the term inhumanism to describe the perilous counterpoint to this awareness. Humanity, he worried, had become too solipsistic, too divorced from the rest of nature, too blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” — beauty the protection of and participation in which is both our natural inheritance and our civilizational responsibility.
Although Jeffers’s ideas moved and influenced generations of readers, writers, artists, activists, and even policymakers — from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams — he never formally articulated his spiritual credo outside of verse. Never, except once.
In the autumn of 1934, Jeffers received a letter from Sister Mary James Power — a principal and teacher at a girls’ Catholic high school in Massachusetts. A lifelong lover of poetry, Power had endeavored to edit an anthology of prominent poets’ reflections on the spiritual dimensions of their art and their creative motive force. She invited Jeffers to contribute, asking about his “religious attitudes.” His response, originally published in Powers’s 1938 book Poets at Prayer and later included in The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (public library), is one of the most beautiful and succinct articulations of a holistic, humanistic moral philosophy ever committed to words — some of the wisest words to live and think and feel by.
It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending — I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)
Writing in the same era in which Carson revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our place in it with her lyrical writings about the sea, observing that “against this cosmic background 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,” Jeffers adds:
The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.
But this “salvation,” Jeffers observes in a sensitive caveat, is not something that happens to us, passively — it is something that happens in us, through our active participation in life, through the choices we make during the brief interlude of our existence as animate beings in an animate universe. Wholeness itself is a participatory act — both a faculty of being and a function of becoming, to be mastered and refined in the course of living. (I too have wondered how, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we attain completeness of being.) Jeffers writes:
I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.