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The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty: How Founding Father Benjamin Rush Revolutionized Our Understanding of Mental Health

“How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!”

The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty: How Founding Father Benjamin Rush Revolutionized Our Understanding of Mental Health

“It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them,” the theologian Thomas Merton wrote to Rachel Carson in his letter of appreciation, commending her for diagnosing one of the most pernicious maladies of our civilization. “Otherwise,” he warned, “our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness.”

Few visionaries have diagnosed more societal ills, more accurately and more presciently, or devised and championed more effective treatments, than Benjamin Rush (January 4, 1746–April 19, 1813).

Benjamin Rush (Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1773-1776)

Half-orphaned at the age of five and raised by his widowed mother, Rush was thirty when he signed the Declaration of Independence. He had graduated from what is now Princeton sixteen years earlier and had been a practicing physician for seven years. He would go on to became George Washington’s Surgeon General and America’s preeminent physician and most influential public health champion. He would advocate for public schooling and for opening education to women, Africans (who, in an era of enslavement and complete political disenfranchisement, were yet to be African American), and immigrants who spoke no English. He would rail against racism and capital punishment, found the nation’s first rural college, and help black clergymen establish two of the nation’s first churches for black congregations. In the final stretch of his life, in his collection of pithy assessments of the founding fathers, he would encapsulate himself in only three words: “He aimed well.”

But Rush’s most profound contribution to progress was arguably something different, springing from this selfsame devotion to equality — the groundwork he laid for modern notions of and practices regarding mental health, or what we now know as psychiatry, clinical psychology, and addiction medicine, based on his then-countercultural insistence that mentally ill people are still, first and foremost, people. A century before Nellie Bly’s paradigm-shifting exposé “Ten Days at the Madhouse,” at a time when mental asylum patients were housed in rat-infested stables, habitually brutalized by guards, and chained to the floor until they “improved,” Rush advocated for honoring their humanity and dignity in treatment, pioneering forms of psychiatric care closely resembling the modern. At the heart of his ethos and its revolutionary enactment in medicine was a fiery rebellion against the Cartesian mind-body divide. A century before William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity”, a quarter millennium before scientists began understanding now our minds and our bodies converge in the healing of trauma and that mental illnesses like anxiety are deeply embodied experiences, and with the birth of neuroscience still more than half a century away, Rush believed that physical, emotional, mental, moral, spiritual, and political health, as well as public and private health, were interleaved into one indivisible ecosystem of wellbeing.

This was a radical notion, and Rush was a radical man epochs ahead of his time. He knew it, and he was content to pay the price. Two centuries before Bertrand Russell exhorted in the seventh of his ten commandments of critical thinking“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Rush wrote:

The most acceptable men in practical society, have been those who have never shocked their contemporaries, by opposing popular or common opinions. Men of opposite characters, like objects placed too near the eye, are seldom seen distinctly by the age in which they live. They must content themselves with the prospect of being useful to the distant and more enlightened generations which are to follow them.

More than two centuries later, this extraordinary and underappreciated man is reinstated to his rightful place in the canon of civilizational advancement in Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (public library) by Stephen Fried — my first and foremost writing mentor, whose research intern I had the pleasure of being long ago, spending countless hours squinting at microfilm of 19th-century newspapers in exchange for two subway tokens a week and his immense wisdom on writing and scholarship.

Fried writes of Rush — a lean, tall, handsome, “promiscuously opinionated young fellow” with lively blue-gray eyes and a blond-brown ponytail trailing his noticeably large head — and the heart of his uncommon genius:

Unlike the pedigreed doctors who had trained him in America, Scotland, England, and France, Dr. Rush was a medical and political prodigy from a middle-class family on the humbler side of Philadelphia. He had lost his father, a gunsmith, at the age of five, leaving him and his five siblings to be raised by their mother, who opened a package goods store and tavern just down the street from Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and post office. But because of young Rush’s astonishing mind — besides total recall, he had what he referred to as the “peculiar happiness” of being able to synthesize and humanize disparate ideas into searing rhetoric — he had finished school at thirteen, graduated from the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton) at fourteen, finished medical training in Edinburgh and London at twenty-two, and begun practicing and teaching medicine at twenty-three. He was still single in his late twenties because his family had convinced him it would be bad for his career to marry before thirty.

[…]

Rush seemed to understand people unusually well for a man so young, and his analysis moved easily from politics to religion to medicine to the calculus of liberty.

Rush would go on to churn his country’s revolution, political and social, by diagnosing the gravest ills of his culture — nowhere more astutely than in a landmark speech he delivered before the American Philosophical Society on February 27, 1786, just after his fortieth birthday. Titled “The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty,” the speech examined the physical basis of what we now call mental illness — a notion foreign in an era when all psychiatric disorders were considered a function of vice, moral weakness, and personal failure. Against the favor of his time, Rush insisted that “melancholy and madness, in all their variety of species, yield with more facility to medicine, than simply to polemical discourses, or to casuistical advice.”

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Rush begins with a necessary definition, distinguishing between morality and conscience — a distinction he likens to that between sensation and perception. He writes:

The moral faculty… is quick in its operations, and like the sensitive plant, acts without reflection, while conscience follows with deliberate steps, and measures all her actions by the unerring square of right and wrong.

[…]

As I consider virtue and vice to consist in action, and not in opinion, and as this action has its seat in the will, and not in the conscience, I shall confine my inquiries chiefly to the influence of physical causes upon that moral power of the mind, which is connected with volition, although many of these causes act likewise upon the conscience, as I shall show hereafter. The state of the moral faculty is visible in actions, which affect the well-being of society. The state of the conscience is invisible, and therefore removed beyond our investigation.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Noting that medicine has already identified a physical basis of such mental faculties as memory, judgment, and imagination, Rush argues that morality, too, has physical correlates. Aware of just how countercultural this proposition is at the time, he presages:

Men who have been educated in the mechanical habits of adopting popular or established opinions will revolt at the doctrine I am about to deliver, while men of sense and genius will hear my propositions with candour, and if they do not adopt them, will commend that boldness of inquiry, that prompted me to broach them.

Rush goes on to enumerate the effects of various physical conditions and habits — climate, weather, diet, alcohol, exercise, sleep — on mental states. Centuries before our understanding of the gut-brain connection and the advent of what we now call functional medicine, he illustrates his insight into the relationship between food and mood with a charming anecdote:

One of the worthiest men I ever knew, who made his breakfast his principal meal, was peevish and disagreeable to his friends and family, from the time he left his bed till he sat down to his morning repast; after which, cheerfulness sparkled in his countenance, and he became the delight of all around him.

But even more notable is his reach, perhaps inadvertent and intuitive, into the Eastern contemplative traditions of nondualism. Among the various physical habits and faculties he considers essential to moral development, he includes two rather Buddhist concepts: solitude and silence. Long before Hermann Hesse extolled solitude as the forge of destiny, Rush writes:

I hope I shall be excused in placing SOLITUDE among the physical causes which influence the moral faculty, when I add, that I confine its effects to persons who are irreclaimable by rational or moral remedies… Where the benefit of reflection, and instruction from books, can be added to solitude and confinement, their good effects are still more certain… Connected with solitude, as a mechanical means of promoting virtue, SILENCE deserves to be mentioned in this place.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

He goes even further in his daring conception of holistic health. Centuries before Oliver Sacks revolutionized medicine by illuminating the powerful effects of music on neurologic function, Rush contributes to the canon of great minds extolling the power of music:

The effects of music, when simply mechanical, upon the passions, are powerful and extensive. But it remains yet to determine the degrees of moral ecstacy, that may be produced by an attack upon the ear, the reason, and the moral principle, at the same time, by the combined powers of music and eloquence.

Observing that in every culture, “the most accomplished orators have generally been the most successful reformers of mankind,” he adds the literary arts to the arsenal of morally beneficial human endeavors:

The language and imagery of a Shakespeare, upon moral and religious subjects, poured upon the passions and the senses, in all the beauty and variety of dramatic representation; who could resist, or describe their effects?

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Given this interplay of the physical and the psychic, Rush marvels at the intricately interconnected structure of the human mind and its incessant dialogue with the body:

From a review of our subject, we are led to contemplate with admiration, the curious structure of the human mind. How distinct are the number, and yet how united! How subordinate and yet how coequal are all its faculties! How wonderful is the action of the mind upon the body! Of the body upon the mind!

In this yet-unmined relationship, Rush sees golden potential for improving human flourishing and moral development:

The extent of the moral powers and habits in man is unknown. It is not improbable, but the human mind contains principles of virtue, which have never yet been excited into action. We behold with surprise the versatility of the human body in the exploits of tumblers and rope-dancers… We feel a veneration bordering upon divine homage, in contemplating the stupendous understandings of Lord Verulam and Sir Isaac Newton; and our eyes grow dim, in attempting to pursue Shakespeare and Milton in their immeasurable flights of imagination. And if the history of mankind does not furnish similar instances of the versatility and perfection of our species in virtue, it is because the moral faculty has been the subject of less culture and fewer experiments than the body, and the intellectual powers of the mind.

Noting the advances of medicine in “mitigating the violence of incurable diseases” — from the alleviation of fevers to the proto-vaccination developed to curb smallpox, which had claimed more lives in the preceding century than all wars combined and which has since been completely eradicated — Rush argues that similar advances are to be made in alleviating psychic suffering through moral development:

A physical regimen should as necessarily accompany a moral precept, as directions with respect to the air — exercise — and diet, generally accompany prescriptions for the consumption and the gout… Medicine… has penetrated the deep and gloomy abyss of death, and acquired fresh honours in his cold embraces. — Witness the many hundred people who have lately been brought back to life, by the successful efforts of the humane societies, which are now established in many parts of Europe, and in some parts of America. Should the same industry and ingenuity, which have produced these triumphs of medicine over diseases and death, be applied to the moral science, it is highly probable, that most of those baneful vices, which deform the human breast, and convulse the nations of the earth, might be banished from the world. I am not so sanguine as to suppose, that it is possible for man to acquire so much perfection from science, religion, liberty and good government, as to cease to be mortal; but I am fully persuaded, that from the combined action of causes, which operate at once upon the reason, the moral faculty, the passions, the senses, the brain, the nerves, the blood and the heart, it is possible to produce such a change in his moral character, as shall raise him to a resemblance of angels — nay more, to the likeness of GOD himself.

Benjamin Rush. (Portrait by Thomas Sully circa 1812. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.)

Rush’s conviction that the mind is manageable and healable through the body would soon be elevated by the mightiest, most intimate motive fulcrum: personal experience. Two decades after delivering his visionary speech, he would watch his eldest child descend into mental illness — a devastation that would inspire him to compose the first American book on “diseases of the mind.” In his superb biography, Fried writes:

Through it all, Benjamin Rush contended openly and engagingly with the same challenge he had put to the new nation: how to be a man of science, a man of liberty, and a man of faith — all while striving to be a good friend, husband, and father of nine children. Rush was a medical pioneer and a political pathfinder, donating his time, his money, even, at times, his sanity for the causes he worried were beyond the reach of laws. His life and writings provide a guided tour through the most public and private moments of the Revolution and the creation of America, seen through the eyes — first awestruck, then frustrated, and finally worldly wise — of a physician and reformer who was, in every sense, revolutionary.

[…]

He also understood, as a physician and scientist, how many things he knew for certain would later be proved wrong; how many diseases, medical and social, could appear to be cured but later recur. In this was the “peculiar happiness” of cautious optimism, the comfort and discomfort of the truly long view.

Had I read Fried’s Rush before the year’s end, it would have crowned my favorite books of 2018. Mercifully, a chronicle of a 200-year past so masterly that it will endure for at least 200 years into the future is impervious to the time-strained omissions of any mortal.

BP

Favorite Books of 2018

The anatomy of feeling, the science of psychedelics, Ursula K. Le Guin’s final poetry collection, arresting essays by Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, and Audre Lorde, a physicist’s lyrical meditation on science and spirituality, and more.

I treat my annual best-of reading lists as Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which frame aspirational priorities for the new year, they present a record of the reading that merited priority over the year past. In consequence, they are invariably subjective and incomplete — a shelf’s worth of books that I, one person, read and enjoyed in the time given, with the sensibility I have. Since this year I finished writing one book and putting together another, my reading time for new releases has been especially limited, which means these annual selections are especially subjective — no doubt I missed a great many worthy and wonderful books. But of those I did read, here — in excerpts from the pieces I originally wrote about them earlier in the year — are the ones I loved with all my heart and mind:

SO FAR SO GOOD

In November of 2014, the wise and wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) — one of the great losses of 2018 — accepted the National Book Award with a stunning speech that quickly became our era’s supreme manifesto for protecting the art of the written word from the assault of the market. In consonance with her conviction, Le Guin sent the manuscript of her final poetry collection to an independent nonprofit poetry publisher, Copper Canyon Press, who turned directly to her readers to bring it to life. And oh how alive So Far So Good (public library) is — a sort of existential atlas, traversing bordering territories of mediations, incantations, and divinations on subjects like time, impermanence, and the splendors of uncertainty. Undergirding the verses is Le Guin’s largehearted generosity of spirit — toward the reader, toward nature and reality, toward the intertwined natures of life and art.

One of the loveliest poems in the book serenades a theme recurring throughout Le Guin’s body of work as her central poetic preoccupation and an animating force of her philosophical fiction: time.

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME
Ursula K. Le Guin

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

FEEL FREE

In the superb essay collection Feel Free (public library), Zadie Smith applies her symphonic mind to subjects as varied as music, what writers can learn from dancers, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media.

In one of the most arresting essays, titled “On Optimism and Despair,” Smith takes on an eternal question that has bared its sharpest edges in our cultural moment — the question John Steinbeck tussled with when he wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being, as I wrote in Figuring, not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.

Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:

My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.

[…]

He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.

This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.

Continue reading here.

SEARCHING FOR STARS ON AN ISLAND IN MAINE

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she contemplated science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth. A century later, Carl Sagan tussled with the same question shortly before his death: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

It is, of course, an abiding question, as old as consciousness — we are material creatures that live in a material universe, yet we are capable of experiences that transcend what we can atomize into physical facts: love, joy, the full-being gladness of a Beethoven symphony on a midsummer’s night.

The Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr articulated the basic paradox of living with and within such a duality: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Nearly a century after Bohr, the physicist and writer Alan Lightman takes us further, beyond these limiting dichotomies, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — a lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Through the lens of his personal experience as a working scientist and a human being with uncommon receptivity to the poetic dimensions of life, Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and the luminous.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

Lightman, who has previously written beautifully about his transcendent experience facing a young osprey, relays a parallel experience he had one summer night on an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife have been going for a quarter century. On this small, remote speck of land, severed from the mainland without ferries or bridges, each of the six families has had to learn to cross the ocean by small boat — a task particularly challenging at night. Lightman recounts the unbidden revelation of one such nocturnal crossing:

No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical drawings.

Lightman — the first professor at MIT to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities — syncopates this numinous experience with the reality of his lifelong devotion to science:

I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I’d read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.

Yet after my experience in that boat many years later… I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes — ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.

Against our human finitude, temporality, and imperfection, these “Absolutes” offer infinity, eternity, perfection. Lightman defines them as concepts and beliefs that “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives” — notions like constancy, immortality, permanence, the soul, “God”; notions unprovable by the scientific method. Conversely, however, notions that belong to this realm of Absolutes fall apart when they make claims in the realm of science — claims disproven by the facts of the material world. With an eye to how the discoveries of modern science — from heliocentricity to evolution to the chemical composition of the universe — have challenged many of these Absolutes, Lightman writes:

Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.

Generations after Henry Miller insisted that “it is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Lightman adds:

From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.

[…]

On the one hand, such an onslaught of discovery presents a cause for celebration… Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief lifespans, stuck on our one planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature? On the other hand, we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still. If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.

Continue reading here.

HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE

“To be a good human being,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control” — to have, that is, a willingness to regard with an openhearted curiosity what is other than ourselves and therefore strange, discomfiting, difficult to fathom and relate to, difficult at first to love, for we cannot love what we do not understand. Out of such regard arises the awareness at the heart of Lucille Clifton’s lovely poem “cutting greens” — a recognition of “the bond of live things everywhere,” among which we are only a small part of a vast and miraculous world, and from which we can learn a great deal about being better versions of ourselves.

That is what naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, one of the most poetic science writers of our time, explores in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (public library), illustrated by artist Rebecca Green — an autobiographical adventure into the wilderness of our common humanity, where the world of science and the legacy of Aesop converge into an existential expedition to uncover the elemental truth that “knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

Looking back on her unusual and passionate life of swimming with electric eels, digging for mistletoe seeds in emu droppings, and communing with giant octopuses, Montgomery reflects on what she learned about leadership from an emu, about ferocity and forgiveness from an ermine, about living with a sense of wholeness despite imperfection from a one-eyed dog named Thurber (after the great New Yorker cartoonist and essayist James Thurber, who was blinded in one eye by an arrow as a child), and about what it takes for the heart to be “stretched wide with awe.”

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

At the New England Aquarium, Montgomery gets to know one of Earth’s most alien creatures — the subject of her exquisite book The Soul of an Octopus. She writes:

Reading an octopus’s intentions is not like reading, for instance, a dog’s. I could read [my dog] Sally’s feelings in a glance, even if the only part of her I could see was her tail, or one ear. But Sally was family, and in more than one sense. Dogs, like all placental mammals, share 90 percent of our genetic material. Dogs evolved with humans. Octavia and I were separated by half a billion years of evolution. We were as different as land from sea. Was it even possible for a human to understand the emotions of a creature as different from us as an octopus?

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

As Octavia slowly allows this improbable and almost miraculous cross-species creaturely connection, Montgomery reflects on the insight attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus — “The universe is alive, and has fire in it, and is full of gods.” — and writes:

Being friends with an octopus — whatever that friendship meant to her — has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.

Continue reading here.

A BURST OF LIGHT

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.

That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:

I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.

“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:

Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.

By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:

I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.

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CALL THEM BY THEIR TRUE NAMES

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might: “I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit writes in the preface:

One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.

That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:

To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.

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HIKING WITH NIETZSCHE

Chance and choice converge to make us who we are, and although we may mistake chance for choice, our choices are the cobblestones, hard and uneven, that pave our destiny. They are ultimately all we can answer for and point to in the architecture of our character. Joan Didion captured this with searing lucidity in defining character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and locating in that willingness the root of self-respect.

A century before Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) composed the score for harmonizing our choices and our contentment with the life they garner us. Nietzsche, who greatly admired Emerson’s ethos of nonconformity and self-reliant individualism, wrote fervently, almost frenetically, about how to find yourself and what it means to be a free spirit. He saw the process of becoming oneself as governed by the willingness to own one’s choices and their consequences — a difficult willingness, yet one that promises the antidote to existential hopelessness, complacency, and anguish.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The legacy of that deceptively simple yet profound proposition is what philosopher John J. Kaag explores in Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (public library) — part masterwork of poetic scholarship, part contemplative memoir concerned with the most fundamental question of human life: What gives our existence meaning?

The answer, Kaag suggests in drawing on Nietzsche’s most timeless ideas, challenges our ordinary understanding of selfhood and its cascading implications for happiness, fulfillment, and the building blocks of existential contentment. He writes:

The self is not a hermetically sealed, unitary actor (Nietzsche knew this well), but its flourishing depends on two things: first, that it can choose its own way to the greatest extent possible, and then, when it fails, that it can embrace the fate that befalls it.

At the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of eternal return — the ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity. Nietzsche illustrates the concept with a simple, stirring thought experiment in his final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…”

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HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “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.”

Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.

And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.

The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] 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.”

More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.

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

This renaissance of psychedelics, with its broad implications for understanding consciousness and the connection between brain and mind, treating mental illness, and recalibrating our relationship with the finitude of our existence, is what Michael Pollan explores in the revelatory How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (public library). With an eye to this renaissance and the scientists using brain-imaging technology to investigate how psychedelics may illuminate consciousness, Pollan writes:

One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.

Pollan examines the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. He approaches his subject as a science writer and a skeptic endowed with equal parts rigorous critical thinking and openminded curiosity. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s elegant braiding of the numinous and the scientific, he echoes Carl Sagan’s views on the mystery of reality and examines his own lens:

My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.

Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?

The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.

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ALMOST EVERYTHING: NOTES ON HOPE

We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.

That is what Anne Lamott, one of the rare sages of our time, reminds us with equal parts humility, humor, and largehearted wisdom in Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library).

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes in the prelude:

In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.

She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:

Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.

So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?

We just do.

To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:

There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:

We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.

Continue reading here, then here.

LITTLE PANIC

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in the early 1950s, nearly a quarter century before Thomas Nagel’s landmark essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” unlatched the study of other consciousnesses and seeded the disorienting awareness that other beings — “beings who walk other spheres,” to borrow Whitman’s wonderful term — experience this world we share in ways thoroughly alien to our own.

Today, we know that we need not step across the boundary of species to encounter such alien-seeming ways of inhabiting the world. There are innumerable ways of being human — we each experience life and reality in radically different ways merely by our way of seeing, but these differences are accentuated to an extreme when mental illness alters the elemental interiority of a consciousness. In these extreme cases, it can become impossible for even the most empathic imagination to grasp — not only cerebrally but with an embodied understanding — the slippery reality of an anguished consciousness so different from one’s own. Conversely, it can become impossible for those who share that anguish to articulate it, effecting an overwhelming sense of alienation and the false conviction that one is alone in one’s suffering. To convey that reality to those unbedeviled by such mental anguish, and to wrap language around its ineffable interiority for others who suffer silently from the same, is therefore a creative feat and existential service of the highest caliber.

That is what author, Happy Ending Music & Reading Series host, and my dear friend Amanda Stern accomplishes in Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (public library) — part-memoir and part-portrait of a cruelly egalitarian affliction that cuts across all borders of age, gender, race, and class, clutching one’s entire reality and sense of self in a stranglehold that squeezes life out. What emerges is a sort of literary laboratory of consciousness, anatomizing an all-consuming yet elusive feeling-pattern to explore what it takes to break the tyranny of worry and what it means to feel at home in oneself.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Part of the splendor of the book is the way Stern unspools the thread of being to the very beginning, all the way to the small child predating conscious memory. In consonance with Maurice Sendak, who so passionately believed that a centerpiece of healthy adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” the child-Amanda emerges from the pages alive and real to articulate in that simple, profound way only children have what the yet-undiagnosed acute anxiety disorder actually feels like from the inside:

Whenever I am afraid, worry sounds itself as sixty, seventy, radio channels playing at the same time inside my head. Refrains loop around and around my brain like fast jabber and I cannot get any of it to stop. I know there is something wrong with me, but no one knows how to fix me. Not anyone outside my body, and definitely not me. Eddie [Stern’s older brother] says a body is blood and bones and skin, and when everything falls off you’re a skeleton, but I am air pressure and tingly dots; energy and everything. I am air and nothing.

[…]

My breath flips on its side, horizontal and too wide to go through my lungs.

The grave paradox of mental illness and mental health is that, despite what we now know about how profoundly our emotions affect our physical wellbeing, these terms sever the head from the body — the physical body and the emotional body. A century after William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” Stern offers a powerful corrective for our ongoing cultural Cartesianism. Her vivid prose, pulsating with a life in language, invites the reader into the interiority of a deeply embodied mind that experiences and comprehends the world somatically. “I was born with a basketball net slung over my top ribs, where the world dunks its balls of dread,” she writes as she channels her young self’s budding awareness that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with her:

I am a growing constellation of errors. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, only that something is, and it must be too shameful to divulge, or so rare that even the doctors are stumped.

At the end of the book, Stern considers the centrality of anxiety in her own blink of existence and telescopes to a larger truth about this widespread yet largely invisible affliction that seems a fundamental feature of being human:

When did it start? It started before I was born. It started before my mother was born. It started when friction created the world. When does anything start? It doesn’t, it just grows, sometimes to unmanageable heights, and then, when you’re at the very edge, it becomes clear: something must be done.

Left untreated, anxiety disorders, like fingernails, grow with a person. The longer they go untended, the more mangled and painful they become. Often, they spiral, straight out of control, splitting and splintering into other disorders, like depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia. A merry-go-round of features we rise and fall upon. Separation anxiety handicaps its captors, preventing them from leaving bad relationships, moving far from home, going on trips, to parties, applying for jobs, having children, getting married, seeing friends, or falling asleep. Some people are so crippled by their anxiety they have panic attacks in anticipation of having a panic attack.

I’ve had panic attacks in nearly every part of New York City, even on Staten Island. I’ve had them in taxis, on subways, public bathrooms, banks, street corners, in Washington Square Park, on multiple piers, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, the East Village, the Upper East Side, Central Park, Lincoln Center, the dressing room at Urban Outfitters, Mamoun’s Falafel, the Bobst library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the main library branch, the Brooklyn Library, the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market, laundromats, book kiosks, in the entrance of FAO Schwartz, at the post office, the steps of the Met, on stoops, at the Brooklyn Flea, in bars, at friends’ houses, on stage, in the shower, in queen-sized beds, double beds, twin beds, in my crib.

I’ve grown so expert at hiding them, most people would never even know that I’m suffering. How, after all, do you explain that a restaurant’s decision to dim their lights swelled your throat shut, and that’s why you must leave immediately, not just the restaurant, but the neighborhood? If you cannot point to something, then it is invisible. Like a cult leader, anxiety traps you and convinces you that you’re the only one it sees.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Nikki Giovanni’s remark to James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” Stern adds:

For better or worse, we can only teach others what we understand… Each person begins, after all, as a story other people tell. And when we fall outside the confines of our common standards, we will assume our deficits define us.

[…]

My fear and my conviction were the same: that I was the flaw in the universe; the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world. This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.

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THE STRANGE ORDER OF THINGS

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, breakthroughs in neurology, psychobiology, and neuroscience have contributed leaps of layered (though still incomplete) understanding of the relationship between the physical body and our emotional experience. That tessellated relationship is what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (public library) — a title inspired by the disorienting fact that several billion years ago, single-cell organisms began exhibiting behaviors strikingly analogous to certain human social behaviors and 100 million years ago insects developed interactions, instruments, and cooperative strategies that we might call cultural. That such sociocultural behaviors long predate the development of the human brain casts new light on the ancient mind-body problem and offers a radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures.

Two decades after his landmark exploration of how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience, Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis — the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect — why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Feelings, Damasio argues, are the unheralded germinators of human culture:

Human beings have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science.

[…]

Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them and stay on to check the results… Cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.

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THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES

While computing pioneer Alan Turing was breaking Nazi communication in England, eleven thousand women, unbeknownst to their contemporaries and to most of us who constitute their posterity, were breaking enemy code in America — unsung heroines who helped defeat the Nazis and win WWII.

Among them was American cryptography pioneer Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980). The subject of Jason Fagone’s excellent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (public library), Friedman triumphed over at least three Enigma machines and cracked dozens of different radio circuits to decipher more than four thousand Nazi messages that saved innumerable lives, only to have J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI take credit for her invisible, instrumental work.

Elizebeth Friedman in her twenties.

Fagone writes:

The modern-day universe of codes and ciphers began in a cottage on the prairie, with a pair of young lovers smiling at each other across a table and a rich man urging them to be spectacular.

The two young lovers were Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, and the rich man, the eccentric textile tycoon George Fabyan.

The youngest of nine children raised in a modest Quaker home, Elizebeth was born in an era when fewer than four percent of American women graduated from college. Four years after earning her degree in Greek and English literature, she still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” The following year, 1916, she began her improbable career at Riverbank Laboratories — Fabyan’s Wonderland-like estate, where the billionaire had hired Elizebeth to work on the cipher at the heart of a literary conspiracy theory claiming that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. At Riverbank, she met William, a young geneticist living in a windmill — one of the many fanciful fixtures of Riverbank — and studying seeds in order to infuse crops with optimal properties as a kind of proto genetic engineering. Over long walks, animated by parallel intellectual voraciousness and shared skepticism of the Bacon cipher conspiracy, the two fell in love.

William and Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

William and Elizebeth were married at Riverbank, where they had begun collaborating on cryptographic work. The papers on the subject they wrote together — though always published under William’s name alone — soon spread their reputation beyond Riverbank. Cryptography was new then, new and thrilling and full of unmined possibility for government intelligence, and so the U.S. Navy eventually recruited the Friedmans. Fagone writes:

The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins on the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.

The room is dark but her pencil is sharp. An envelope of puzzles arrives from Washington, sent by men who have the largest of responsibilities and the tiniest of clues. With William she examines the puzzles. He is game, he looks at her with eyes like little bonfires, he is in love with her. She is not in love yet but she would not be ashamed to fall in love with such a bright and kind person. She stares at the odd blocks of text and starts to flip and stack and rearrange them on a scratch pad, a kindling of letters, a friction of alphabets hot to the touch, and then a flame catches and then catches again, until she understands that she can ignite whenever she wants, that a power is there for the taking, for her and for anyone, and nothing will ever be the same. The ribs of a pattern shine through. Something rises at the nib of her pencil and her heart whomps away. The skeletons of words leap out and make her jump.

Continue reading here.

THE MAKER OF PATTERNS

At twenty-two, physicist Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) ascended to a position Newton had held a quarter millennium earlier at Trinity College, where Dyson lived in a room just below Ludwig Wittgenstein’s. Nearly a century later, Dyson remains one of the preeminent scientific minds of our time and a rare witness of a great many cultural milestones, triumphs, and tragedies that have shaped modern life as we know it — landmark discoveries like cosmic microwave background radiation and the double helix structure of DNA, which have profoundly changed our understanding of the universe; the invention of the atomic bomb and the scarring brutality of a World War; the rise of the Internet. He has seen the stars of countless political regimes, scientific theories, and ideologies rise and fall. In Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library), Dyson unleashes his warm wisdom and unboastful wit on subjects as varied as politics, the enchantment of science, the vacuity of celebrity, the value of the immigrant perspective, his vibrant friendship with Richard Feynman, and the complexities of being human. He recounts “a flash of illumination” on the Greyhound bus that revealed to him the nature of creativity and composes a singularly delightful account of meeting the great, troubled logician Kurt Gödel at a farewell party for T.S. Eliot at the Princeton home of Robert Oppenheimer. What emerges is not only the fascinating memoir of an uncommon genius, composed of Dyson’s letters to his loved ones, but an invaluable time-capsule of collective memory.

Sample it here and here.

THE MOTH SNOWSTORM

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote in reflecting on our spiritual bond with nature shortly before she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.

McCarthy writes:

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

[…]

There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.

“Roots” by Maria Popova

In a sentiment that calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” McCarthy weighs the particular necessity and particular precariousness of joy in our cynicism-crippled world:

Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.

A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:

They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

Continue reading here.

*ALSO: A VELOCITY OF BEING

Having devoted eight years of my life to it, and having a heart swelling with gratitude to the legion of writers and artists who contributed original letters and illustrations for this monumental labor of love, I must proudly include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault for a letter by Jacqueline Novogratz

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik
Art by Vladimir Radunsky for a letter by Ann Patchett

Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion, for all of whom their letter is their last published work.)

Art by Marianne Dubuc for a letter by Elizabeth Gilbert
Art by Christoph Niemann for a letter by William Powers
Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte
Art by Brian Rea for a letter by Chris Anderson
Art by Oliver Jeffers for a letter by Holland Taylor
Art by Julie Paschkis for a letter by Sarah Lewis
Art by Maira Kalman for a letter by Paul Holdengräber
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman

Read more about the project here.

BP

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.”

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the same era in her exquisite meditation on the magic of real human communication. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens when words are stripped of their humanity, fed into unfeeling machines, and used as currencies of information that no longer illuminates?

Half a century before the golden age of algorithms and two decades before the birth of the Internet, the mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) tried to protect us from that then-hypothetical scenario in his immensely insightful and prescient 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — a book Wiener described as concerned with “the limits of communication within and among individuals,” which went on to influence generations of thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs as wide-ranging as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.

Norbert Wiener

Wiener had coined the word cybernetics two years earlier, drawing on the Greek word for “steersman” — kubernētēs, from which the word “governor” is also derived — to describe “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” pioneering a new way of thinking about causal chains and how the feedback loop taking place within a system changes the system itself. (Today’s social media ecosystem is a superficial but highly illustrative example of this.)

In a complement to Hannah Arendt’s contemporaneous insight into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, Wiener explains why, under this model of information systems, communication and control are inexorably linked:

Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A pillar of Wiener’s insight is the second law of thermodynamics and its central premise that entropy — the growing tendency toward disorder, chaos, and unpredictability — increases over time in any closed system. But even if we were to consider the universe itself a closed system — an assumption neglecting the possibility that our universe may be one of many universes — neither individual human beings nor the societies they form can be thought of as closed systems. Rather, they are pockets of attempted order and decreasing entropy amid the vast expanse of cosmic chaos — attempts encoded in our systems of organizing and communicating information. Wiener examines the parallel between organisms and machines in this regard — a radical notion in his day and plainly obvious, if still poorly understood, in ours:

If we wish to use the word “life” to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do so. However, we shall then include many astronomical phenomena which have only the shadiest resemblance to life as we ordinarily know it. It is in my opinion, therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets such as “life,” “soul,” “vitalism,” and the like, and say merely in connection with machines that there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.

When I compare the living organism with such a machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we ordinarily know it are the same as those of life-imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes, which perhaps may also be exemplified in many other ways which we should naturally term neither biological nor mechanical.

Art by Ralph Steadman from an illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci

In a sentiment of astounding foresight, Wiener adds:

Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.

[…]

In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency… for entropy to increase.

In consonance with Neil Gaiman’s conception of stories as “genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance,” Wiener considers how living organisms resemble and are aided by information systems:

Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise. To describe an organism, we do not try to specify each molecule in it, and catalogue it bit by bit, but rather to answer certain questions about it which reveal its pattern: a pattern which is more significant and less probable as the organism becomes, so to speak, more fully an organism.

[…]

We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.

He adds:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives.

Wiener illustrates this idea with an example that would have pleased Emily Dickinson:

Just as entropy tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, so information tends to decrease; just as entropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order. Information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

[…]

The prevalence of cliches is no accident, but inherent in the nature of information. Property rights in information suffer from the necessary disadvantage that a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community’s previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. Schoolboys do not like Shakespeare, because he seems to them nothing but a mass of familiar quotations. It is only when the study of such an author has penetrated to a layer deeper than that which has been absorbed into the superficial clichés of the time, that we can re-establish with him an informative rapport, and give him a new and fresh literary value.

From this follows a corollary made all the clearer by the technologies and media landscapes which Wiener never lived to see and with which we must and do live:

The idea that information can be stored in a changing world without an overwhelming depreciation in its value is false.

[…]

Information is more a matter of process than of storage… Information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it… To be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that calls to mind Zadie Smith’s lucid antidote to the illusion of universal progress and offers a sobering counterpoint to today’s strain of social scientists purveying feel-good versions of “progress” via the tranquilizing half-truths of highly selective statistics willfully ignorant of the for whom question, Wiener writes:

We are immersed in a life in which the world as a whole obeys the second law of thermodynamics: confusion increases and order decreases. Yet, as we have seen, the second law of thermodynamics, while it may be a valid statement about the whole of a closed system, is definitely not valid concerning a non-isolated part of it. There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.

[…]

Thus the question of whether to interpret the second law of thermodynamics pessimistically or not depends on the importance we give to the universe at large, on the one hand, and to the islands of locally decreasing entropy which we find in it, on the other. Remember that we ourselves constitute such an island of decreasing entropy, and that we live among other such islands. The result is that the normal prospective difference between the near and the remote leads us to give far greater importance to the regions of decreasing entropy and increasing order than to the universe at large.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, found in Cosmigraphics.

Wiener considers the central flaw of the claim that the arrow of historical time is aligned with the arrow of “progress” in a universal sense:

Our worship of progress may be discussed from two points of view: a factual one and an ethical one — that is, one which furnishes standards for approval and disapproval. Factually, it asserts that the earlier advance of geographical discovery, whose inception corresponds to the beginning of modern times, is to be continued into an indefinite period of invention, of the discovery of new techniques for controlling the human environment. This, the believers in progress say, will go on and on without any visible termination in a future not too remote for human contemplation. Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.

With this, Wiener turns to the most gaping void in the narrative of progress — a recognition of the interconnectedness of existence across scales and species, which the pioneering naturalist John Muir so memorably captured a century earlier in his assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A decade before Rachel Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience, Wiener considers the larger planetary costs of humanity’s “progress”:

What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature… We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions… May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.

[…]

The new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword… It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

Three decades later, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would articulate the flip side of the same sentiment in his beautiful meditation on the peril and possibility of progress: “We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before… Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.” Wiener’s most visionary point is that if we are to not only survive but thrive as a civilization and a species, we must encode these same values of affection and respect into our machines, our information systems, and our technologies of communication, so that “the new modalities are used for the benefit of man, for increasing his leisure and enriching his spiritual life, rather than merely for profits and the worship of the machine as a new brazen calf.”

Man as Industrial Palace (1926) by infographics pioneer Fritz Kahn

More than a century after Mary Shelley raised these enduring questions of innovation and responsibility in Frankenstein, Wiener offers a sentiment of astonishing prescience and relevance to the artificial intelligence precipice on which we now stand, in an era when algorithms are deciding for us what we read, where we go, and how much of reality we see:

The machine’s danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it.

[…]

The modern man, and especially the modern American, however much “know-how” he may have, has very little “know-what.” He will accept the superior dexterity of the machine-made decisions with out too much inquiry as to the motives and principles behind these… Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions, if it does not possess the power of learning, will be completely literalminded. Woe to us if we let it decide our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of its action, and know fully that its conduct will be carried out on principles acceptable to us! On the other hand, the machine [that] can learn and can make decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or will be acceptable to us. For the man who is not aware of this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back seated on the whirlwind.

At the heart of Wiener’s decades-old book is a point of great timelessness and great urgency, which ought to be inscribed on the mental motherboard of every coder, technologist, and entrepreneur. Eight years after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered how the questions we ask shape the answers we give and the world we build, he writes:

When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions.

Precisely because our existence is so improbable against the backdrop of a universe governed by entropy, it is imbued with a singular responsibility — a responsibility that is the source and succor of meaning in human life. In a sentiment which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would later echo, Wiener writes:

It is quite conceivable that life belongs to a limited stretch of time; that before the earliest geological ages it did not exist, and that the time may well come when the earth is again a lifeless, burnt-out, or frozen planet. To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.

In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.

Nearly a century later, The Human Use of Human Beings remains an immensely insightful and increasingly relevant read. Complement it with the great cellist Pablo Casals on making our world worthy of its children, then revisit Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and the difficult art of civilizational self-awareness.

BP

Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence

“We too are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence

I have always been fascinated by transformation — the seemingly magical process, sometimes delicate and sometimes violent, by which a something becomes a something-else. This, perhaps, is why I chose chemistry as a concentration in my science-intensive Bulgarian high school. When I came to the United States for university, I was bewildered to realize that the college-level American textbooks of my high school curriculum were not necessarily a reflection of my teachers’ academic overambition but of the fact that high-school-level chemistry textbooks were simply a rarity bordering on a nonentity in America, where chemistry was not a required subject in the high school curriculum.

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) laments this fact in his poetic foreword to Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — a beautiful and unusual book, part primer and part lyrical serenade, by the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, intended to ignite in young people a zest for the enchantments of chemistry through the intersection of art and science. A believer in the fertile common ground between poetry and science, Hoffmann — himself a poet as well as a scientist — weaves original poems about the processes, phenomena, and history of science throughout his elegant expository prose. Accompanying his writing are intricate collage paintings by artist Vivian Torrence, who came to the project through the gates of wonderment, governed by her conviction that modern science is “a symbolic search, using the powers of logic and intellect as the driving force to find what is real.”

“Patterns” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

Although as a scientist, Sagan had always been animated by an electric love of chemistry’s charms — his explanation of how stars are born, live, die, and give us life is a classic — he must have composed his foreword from a far more personal place. At that particular point in time, the mutations of myelodysplasia — the rare form of cancer that would eventually take his life — were already coursing through his body. Chemotherapy would soon be his lifeline. In order for his body not to reject the bone marrow transfusion he received from his sister, Sagan would take seventy-two pills labeled “BIOHAZARD” in a single sitting — chemistry at its most acutely double-edged.

“A Hands-on Approach” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

In these final years of his life, Sagan brings his singular gift for science and romance to the foreword:

Except for the two simplest, hydrogen and helium, atoms are made in stars. A cascade of thermonuclear reactions builds hydrogen and helium up into ever larger and more complex atoms which are then spewed out into interstellar space as the star ages and dies. There they drift for ages, occasionally coming close enough to one another to make a bond. Then two or more atoms make a commitment to go through life together. These bonds are the business of chemistry. In an eon or two a maelstrom of self-gravitating interstellar matter gathers up solitary atoms, and those bonded with their fellows, and plunges them into a forming planetary system. Four and a half billion years ago, that is what happened in our neck of the galactic woods. Our warm and well-illuminated little world is one result. All the atoms of Earth (hydrogen and helium still excepted) derive from these distant and ancient interstellar events — the silicon in the rocks, the nitrogen in the air, the oxygen atoms in a mountain stream; the calcium in our bones, the potassium in our nerves, and the carbon and other atoms that in exquisite detail encode our genetic instructions and job orders for making a human being. We too are made of starstuff.

There is hardly an aspect of our lives that is not touched fundamentally by chemistry: electronics and computers; food and nutrition; depletion of the protective ozone layer; mining and metals; medicine and pharmaceuticals; every disease including AIDS and cancer, schizophrenia and manic-depressive syndrome; drugs, legal and illegal; toxic water; and much of what we call human nature. We are, at least in large part, the way we are because of the atoms and molecules that make us up, and how they interact. In a deep and fundamental way chemistry makes us us.

There is something of William Blake in Torrence’s stunning drawings, which bring to life Hoffmann’s narrative tracing the history of chemistry from the rudimentary ideas of the Ancient Greeks, who first theorized the atom, to the transmutations of the medieval alchemists, in whose hands science and superstition commingled, to the catalytic breakthroughs of eighteenth-century science, which inspired titans of poetry like Goethe and Coleridge, to the advent of spectroscopy in the nineteenth century, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, to the atomic age of the twentieth century, which forever changed our relationship to nature.

“Radium” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Air” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Earth” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Fire” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Water” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Natural Cycles” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Periodic Table” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Amazing Growth” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Energy and Form” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Theory and Practice” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Chemist” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Simply Burning” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Philosopher’s Stone” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Celebrating Solutions” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Phlogiston” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Air of Revolution” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Intermediary” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Chinese Elements” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Blood Counts” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Seeing to the Center of Things” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Affinities” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Possibilities and Pragmatics” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Chemical Arts” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Grail” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“On the Crystal Scale” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Steps and Processes” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Formulation” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Forces Constant” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

That treasures like Chemistry Imagined fade out of print fills me with sadness for a system that is supposed to steward books and infuse the body of culture with substantive literature, but instead prioritizes what is easily marketable over what is lastingly meaningful. Complement this particular forgotten treasure, which is well worth a trip to the library or the second-hand bookstore, with Edward Livingston Youman’s splendid Victorian diagrams of how chemistry works, the story of how Mendeleev discovered his periodic table in a dream, and Berenice Abbott’s arresting black-and-white photographs of scientific processes and phenomena, then revisit Sagan on the power of books in protecting democracy and his timeless, increasingly timely wisdom on moving beyond “us” vs. “them” in bridging the divides of culture.

BP

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