“In the vast abyss before time, self is not, and soul commingles with mist, and rock, and light.”
By Maria Popova
“Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time,” the German psychologist Marc Wittman wrote in his insightful investigation of the psychology of time. “Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in the opening lines of her stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking — a question that cuts to the heart of our uneasy embodied temporality. How do creatures with lifespans that rarely stretch past a century fathom cosmic scales stretching billions of years, back to the dawn of everything, when time and matter were undivided as the raw material of the universe? How does the very notion of a self, around which we orient our entire existence, hold up against such sweeps at all?
Perhaps the interplay between deep time and self is more fathomable to those perched on the overlook of life, who have lived long enough to view being and nonbeing with equal immediacy.
Amanda immortalized this sweet and rather profound moment in a short video, shared here with the kind permission of everyone involved:
HOW IT SEEMS TO ME by 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.
A voracious reader and lifelong lover of poetry, Helen arrived in America in 1946 not speaking a word of English, then went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor of literature. She recently shared with me a kindred verse by her favorite American poet, Walt Whitman — a man who contemplated the paradox of the self throughout his lush body of work — which she long ago adopted as her personal motto:
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
In striking consonance with the nonduality at the heart of Le Guin’s poem, the line that prefaces this passage in Whitman’s Song of Myself is “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul.”
Celestial splendor from a forgotten woman who broke the bounds of her time.
By Maria Popova
Born in Germany in an era when no woman could obtain a formal education in science anywhere in the world, Maria Clara Eimmart (May 27, 1676–October 29, 1707) predated Caroline Herschel — the world’s first professional woman astronomer — by a century. She went on to become an artist, engraver, and astronomer who produced some of the most striking astronomical art since the invention of the telescope, in a time when humanity had no idea that the universe contained galaxies other than our own.
Like Margaret Fuller, Eimmart benefitted from the love and intellectual generosity of a father who equipped her with a rigorous foundation of French, Latin, mathematics, and art. A successful engraver, draughtsman, and painter with a passion for astronomy, he spent most of his earnings on astronomical instruments and eventually built a small observatory on the city walls of Nuremberg, where he served as director of the Academy of Art. The young Maria Clara began apprenticing with her father both as an artist and an astronomer, assisting in his observations and creating pictorial depictions of his data.
Between her late teens and her mid-twenties — around the time her compatriot Maria Sibylla Merian was revolutionizing entomology with her own work as a self-taught artist and naturalist — Eimmart created a series of exquisite, detailed illustrations of celestial objects. Among them are the phases of Venus, Galileo’s observations of which furnished the first nail in the coffin of the geocentric model of the universe less than a century earlier.
In her thirtieth year — an old maid by the era’s standards — she married one of his father’s pupils, a budding physicist who would eventually come to direct the observatory. A year later, at only thirty-one, Eimmart died in childbirth — a common tragedy at the time — leaving behind some stunning astronomical engravings of the Moon, the planets of the Solar System, comets, and the atmospheric optical phenomena paraselene and parhelion, Latin for “beside the Moon” and “beside the Sun,” commonly known as moon dog and sun dog.
I have made some of Eimmart’s etchings, which are in the public domain, available as art prints, with all proceeds benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works:
“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings… Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.”
Since the invention of the printing press, books have fed the human animal’s irrepressible hunger for truth and meaning, and some of the most celebrated exemplars of our species have extolled reading as a pillar of our very humanity. Among them is Rebecca Solnit — one of the most lyrical and insightful writers of our time.
In her beautiful memoiristic essay about how books saved her life, Solnit observed that “the object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” In childhood, when life itself is pure potential, a book becomes potential squared. Solnit speaks to this exquisitely in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.
Nearly every book has the same architecture — cover, spine, pages — but you open them onto worlds and gifts far beyond what paper and ink are, and on the inside they are every shape and power. Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings. Some are horses that run away with you. Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends. In some books you meet one remarkable person; in others a whole group or even a culture. Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying. Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles. Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning. Some are handheld lights you can shine on almost anything.
The books of my childhood were bricks, not for throwing but for building. I piled the books around me for protection and withdrew inside their battlements, building a tower in which I escaped my unhappy circumstances. There I lived for many years, in love with books, taking refuge in books, learning from books a strange data-rich out-of-date version of what it means to be human. Books gave me refuge. Or I built refuge out of them, out of these books that were both bricks and magical spells, protective spells I spun around myself. They can be doorways and ships and fortresses for anyone who loves them.
And I grew up to write books, as I’d hoped, so I know that each of them is a gift a writer made for strangers, a gift I’ve given a few times and received so many times, every day since I was six.
“The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.”
By Maria Popova
“Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul,”Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in offering his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life in the preface to Leaves of Grass. When Whitman first published his masterpiece in 1855, it was met with indifference punctuated by bursts of harsh criticism. It is difficult to imagine just how insulting to the young poet’s soul such reception must have been, or what it took for him to dismiss it and carry on writing. What buoyed his spirit through the tidal wave of negativity was an extraordinary letter of appreciation from Ralph Waldo Emerson — the era’s most respected literary tastemaker and Whitman’s greatest hero, whose 1844 essay The Poet had inspired Leaves of Grass. The young poet wore Emerson’s praise of “incomparable things said incomparably well” like an armor, almost literally — he carried the letter folded in his shirt-pocket over his heart, regularly reading it to friends and lovers.
It is certainly easier, though never easy, to dismiss what insults one’s soul when it comes from critics who haven’t earned one’s confidence — “Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect,” Jeanette Winterson offered in her ten wise rules of writing. But to dismiss criticism that insults the soul from someone we respect — or, harder still, love — requires superhuman strength of spirit. How do we hold on to the integrity and solidity of our conviction and vision, be it creative or existential, when it is being challenged and censured by a person we regard with high intellectual esteem and tenderness of heart?
Whitman modeled this exquisitely in an encounter with Emerson himself.
On a crisp February afternoon in 1860, five years after the publication of Leaves of Grass, the two men took a two-hour walk along Boston Common. They had by then befriended one another and formed a courteous, frank relationship embodying Emerson’s ideal of friendship: “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere.” That winter day, Whitman found Emerson to be “in his prime, keen, physically and morally magnetic, arm’d at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual.” When the criticism came, Whitman knew it sprang from that selfsame source — a quality of character he deeply respected, even revered. And yet, rather than coming undone by self-doubt, he was able to stay rooted in his own values and vision.
During those two hours he was the talker and I the listener. It was an argumentstatement, reconnoitring, review, attack, and pressing home, (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry,) of all that could be said against that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems, “Children of Adam.” More precious than gold to me that dissertation — it afforded me, ever after, this strange and paradoxical lesson; each point of E.’s statement was unanswerable, no judge’s charge ever more complete or convincing, I could never hear the points better put — and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way. “What have you to say then to such things?” said E., pausing in conclusion. “Only that while I can’t answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it,” was my candid response. Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House. And thenceforward I never waver’d or was touch’d with qualms, (as I confess I had been two or three times before).
In many ways was Whitman, quite unconsciously to himself, the man Emerson invoked and prayed for,– the absolutely self-reliant man; the man who should find his own day and land sufficient; who had no desire to be Greek, or Italian, or French, or English, but only himself; who should not whine, or apologize, or go abroad; who should not duck, or deprecate, or borrow; and who could see through the many disguises and debasements of our times the lineaments of the same gods that so ravished the bards of old.
To be sure, Whitman did not dismiss criticism wholesale — rather, he separated the wheat from the chaff through the sieve of confidence and surefooted creative vision. But criticism, he believed, could be far more valuable than praise. In Leaves of Grass, he wrote under the heading “STRONGER LESSONS”:
Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you?
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
The kind of criticism he readily dismissed was that of the professional critics and opinionators — those aimed at tearing down rather than improving a writer’s art, for their judgments are based on the standards of their time and therefore tend to censure any vigorous break with convention. Such critics are apt to pronounce any work of true originality bad, and then to embody W.H. Auden’s incisive observation that “one cannot review a bad book without showing off.”
Burroughs noted this in his praiseful biography of Whitman, composed at a time when the poet was still more rejected than celebrated by his era:
There are no more precious and tonic pages in history than the records of men who have faced unpopularity, odium, hatred, ridicule, detraction, in obedience to an inward voice, and never lost courage or good-nature.
Every man is a partaker in the triumph of him who is always true to himself and makes no compromises with customs, schools, or opinions.
Later in life, Whitman himself would reflect:
Has it never occurr’d to any one how the last deciding tests applicable to a book are entirely outside of technical and grammatical ones, and that any truly first-class production has little or nothing to do with the rules and calibres of ordinary critics?… I have fancied the ocean and the daylight, the mountain and the forest, putting their spirit in a judgment on our books. I have fancied some disembodied human soul giving its verdict.
The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.
Whitman’s poetry, founded upon the unshakable foundation of his creative and spiritual vision, eventually catapulted him to the top of the English-language literary pantheon. Leaves of Grass endures as one of the most beloved poetic works of all time, having influenced generations of writers and buoyed ordinary livers of life through the worst existential upheavals — such is the power of poetic truth channeled with unwavering stability of confidence and vision.