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Figuring

A book.

Figuring

I have composed a book. It only took twelve years of Brain Pickings and the most beautiful, difficult, disorienting experience of my personal life.

Figuring explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

Long ago, a kindly interviewer asked me why I routinely declined offers for the types of easy, marketable books I am frequently approached about doing. I told him (please suspend judgment: I was in my twenties) that I had no interest in putting into the world a book that has the shelf life of a banana. I hope Figuring has the shelf life of a shelf.

Here is the prelude — chapter 0 of 29:

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet’s letters in my friend Wendy’s backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision — that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution — pulls me toward a miraculous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no — it remains suspended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider’s web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.

Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider — and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry — intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth — not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of “biography” but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams. Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love? Two Nobel Prizes don’t seem to recompense the melancholy radiating from every photograph of the woman in the black laboratory dress. Is success a guarantee of fulfillment, or merely a promise as precarious as a marital vow? How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections — between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture, between faint figures who pass each other in the nocturne before the torchlight of a revolution lights the new day, with little more than a half-nod of kinship and a match to change hands.

Figuring arrives on February 5, 2019. You can pre-order it from Powell’s, Amazon, and other booksellers.

Cover design by the brilliant Peter Mendelsund.

BP

How to Be a Good Creature: Naturalist Sy Montgomery on What 13 Animals Taught Her About Otherness, Love, and the Heart of Our Humanity

“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.”

How to Be a Good Creature: Naturalist Sy Montgomery on What 13 Animals Taught Her About Otherness, Love, and the Heart of Our Humanity

“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.

Although Montgomery’s lifelong love of animals began with her childhood Scottish terrier, Molly, it took an uncommon turn in her mid-twenties, when she quit her job and moved halfway around the world to live in a tent in the Australian Outback. There, she had her first encounter with an animal so arresting as to be almost alien:

They were emus. Nearly six feet tall, typically seventy-five pounds, these flightless birds stand beside the kangaroo on Australia’s coat of arms as a symbol of this otherworldly continent at the bottom of the globe. Emus seem part bird and part mammal, with a little dinosaur thrown in. Shaggy, twin-shafted brown feathers hang from the rounded torso like hair. A long black neck periscopes up from the body, ending in a gooselike beak. The wings are mere stumps, and stick out from the body like comical afterthoughts. But on their strong, backwards-bending legs, emus can run forty miles an hour — and sever fencing wire, or break a neck, with a single kick.

At the sight of them, a shock leapt from the top of my head down my spine. I’d never been so close to this large a wild animal before — much less while alone, on a foreign continent. I was not so much afraid as I was dazzled. I froze, caught by their grace and power and strangeness, as they lifted their long, scaly legs and folded their huge dinosaurian toes, then set them down again. Balletically dipping their necks into an S-shape as they picked at the grass, they walked past me, and then over the ridge. Finally their haystack-like bodies blended into the brown, rounded forms of the wintering bushes, and were gone.

After they left, I felt a shift in my psyche. But I had no idea that I had just caught the first glimpse of a life farther off the beaten path than I had ever imagined. I could not have known it then, but these strange giant birds would grant me the destiny Molly had inspired, and they would repay me a millionfold for my first act of true bravery: leaving all that I loved behind.

This psychic shift effected a larger, deeper kind of bravery — that of looking at another creature, almost incomprehensibly different from us, and seeing it, without fear or bias or projection, for what it is: a glory of evolution, made singular and beautiful and lovable by the selfsame forces that made us.

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

This generous and largehearted way of seeing would come to mark Montgomery’s life, modeling for the rest of us how to regard otherness — even the starkest kind — in a way that elevates both us and it. She writes:

Only during my lifetime had scientists begun to acknowledge that chimpanzees, humankind’s closest relatives, are conscious beings. But what about creatures so different from us that you’d have to go to outer space, or into science fiction, to find anything so alien? What might I discover about the interior lives of these animals if I were to use, as a tool of inquiry, not only my intellect, but also my heart?

[…]

It’s true that it’s easy to project one’s own feelings onto another. We do this with our fellow humans all the time… A far worse mistake than misreading an animal’s emotions is to assume the animal hasn’t any emotions at all.

Montgomery brings these questions to New England Aquarium, where she 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.

Perhaps holiness is nothing other than the capacity for finding loveliness in all things — something Montgomery learns in the heart of the South American jungle, in a surprising encounter with Earth’s largest tarantula.

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

Weighing half a pound, with a head the size of an apricot and legs that can cover your face, this “Goliath birdeater” named Clarabelle offers an unexpected lesson in tenderness — or, rather, in the openness of heart necessary for perceiving and receiving otherness. Montgomery recounts the revelatory experience:

She extended first one black hairy leg, then another, and another after another, until she was standing on my hand. The hooked tarsi at the tips of her feet felt vaguely prickly on my skin, like those of the Japanese beetles I have enjoyed holding since I was little. She stood for a moment while I admired her. She was a jet-haired beauty who looked like she had just had a fancy pedicure, the ends of her feet tipped in a bright, girly pink. For this reason, her species is known as the pinktoe tarantula. They’re exceptionally docile and seldom bite. Even their hairs are not usually irritating.

She began to walk. Slowly at first, stepping forward with her front legs, she crossed my right palm into my waiting left, just as my first dime-store turtle, Ms. Yellow Eyes, would do when I was a child. The tarantula probably weighed about as much as my turtle had.

And then something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal. Of course she was both. “Animals” include not only mammals but also birds and reptiles, amphibians and insects, fish and spiders, and many more. But perhaps because the tarantula was furry, like a chipmunk, and big enough to handle, now I saw her and her spider kin in a new light. She was a unique individual, and in my hand, she was in my care. A wave of tenderness swept over me as I watched her walk, softly, slowly, and deliberately, across my skin.

[…]

The world, I realized, brimmed even fuller with life than I had suspected, rich with the souls of tiny creatures who may love their lives as much as we love ours.

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

Complement How to Be a Good Creature with Helen MacDonald on what a hawk taught her about love and loss and Pattyann Rogers’s splendid ode to tiny creatures, then revisit Rachel Carson’s lyrical and revolutionary 1937 masterpiece, which invited humans for the first time to explore this shared planet from the perspective of nonhuman creatures.

BP

Truth, Justice, and Public Good: Simone Weil on Political Manipulation, the Dangers of “For” and “Against,” and How to Save Thinking from Opinion

“True attention is a state so difficult for any human creature, so violent, that any emotional disturbance can derail it. Therefore, one must always endeavour strenuously to protect one’s inner faculty of judgment against the turmoil of personal hopes and fears.”

Truth, Justice, and Public Good: Simone Weil on Political Manipulation, the Dangers of “For” and “Against,” and How to Save Thinking from Opinion

At the age of nineteen, Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. In her short life, Weil went on to become one of the most penetrating and far-seeing minds of her era. Albert Camus lauded her as “the only great spirit of our times.” The Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz considered her France’s “rare gift to the contemporary world.” She was an idealist who lived out her ideals. Born into a family of Jewish intellectuals, the 24-year-old Weil took a year off teaching to labor incognito in a car factory — despite a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches — in order to better understand the struggles of the working poor. At twenty-seven, she enlisted as a soldier in the anarchist brigade during the Spanish Civil War. At only thirty-four, she died of starvation in an English sanatorium, where she was being treated for tuberculosis, having refused to receive more food than what her compatriots were rationed in Nazi-occupied France. Along the way, she wrote with uncommon insight and rhetorical rigor about such elemental questions as the essence of attention, the meaning of rights, how to make use of our suffering, and what it means to be a complete human being.

That Weil should languish so underappreciated and obscure today is a tragic function of the dual forces of collective amnesia and the systemic erasure of women’s ideas from the historical record. And yet her ideas, which influenced such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Michel Foucault, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West, resonate with intense relevance today.

Simone Weil

In the final months of her life, as she watched the Nazis devastate humanity and fragment even the rational and the righteous into factions of increasingly divisive opinions, Weil composed a short, searing treatise titled On the Abolition of All Political Parties (public library). It was never published in her lifetime. Nearly a century later, it speaks with astonishing and terrifying precision to the underlying forces ripping our world asunder.

Weil begins by posing the foundational question of whether the apparent evils of political divisiveness can be compensated for by the alleged good of adopting the views of any given party. She writes:

First, we must ascertain what is the criterion of goodness.

It can only be truth and justice; and, then, the public interest.

Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means towards goodness, and their effectiveness is uncertain. For instance, if, instead of Hitler, it had been the Weimar Republic that decided, through a most rigorous democratic and legal process, to put the Jews in concentration camps, and cruelly torture them to death, such measures would not have been one atom more legitimate than the present Nazi policies (and such a possibility is by no means far-fetched). Only what is just can be legitimate. In no circumstances can crime and mendacity ever be legitimate.

With these three elemental criteria of truth, justice, and public interest in mind, Weil frames the core characteristics of all political parties:

  1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
  2. A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
  3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.

Nearly a decade before Hannah Arendt composed her masterwork on the origins of totalitarianism, Weil draws the inevitable, devastating conclusion:

Because of these three characteristics, every party is totalitarian — potentially, and by aspiration. If one party is not actually totalitarian, it is simply because those parties that surround it are no less so. These three characteristics are factual truths — evident to anyone who has ever had anything to do with the every-day activities of political parties.

As to the third: it is a particular instance of the phenomenon which always occurs whenever thinking individuals are dominated by a collective structure — a reversal of the relation between ends and means.

Everywhere, without exception, all the things that are generally considered ends are in fact, by nature, by essence, and in a most obvious way, mere means. One could cite countless examples of this from every area of life: money, power, the state, national pride, economic production, universities, etc., etc.

Goodness alone is an end.

More than a century after Emerson admonished that “masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence,” Weil adds:

Collective thinking… is an animal form of thinking. Its dim perception of goodness merely enables it to mistake this or that means for an absolute good.

The same applies to political parties. In principle, a party is an instrument to serve a certain conception of the public interest. This is true even for parties which represent the interests of one particular social group, for there is always a certain conception of the public interest according to which the public interest and these particular interests should coincide. Yet this conception is extremely vague. This is true without exception and quite uniformly.

Illustration of the Trojan horse from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

She examines how the second and third defining features of political parties — the determination to influence people’s minds and the ultimate goal of infinite growth — conspire to effect the total manipulation of truth and the corruption of justice:

Once the growth of the party becomes a criterion of goodness, it follows inevitably that the party will exert a collective pressure upon people’s minds. This pressure is very real; it is openly displayed; it is professed and proclaimed. It should horrify us, but we are already too much accustomed to it.

Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade… All political parties make propaganda.

She frames the grim effect on the individual:

A man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes mendacity at the very centre of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness.

With an eye to the three types of lies by which this manipulation occurs — “lying to the party, lying to the public, lying to oneself” — Weil examines the nature and paradoxes of truth:

Truth is all the thoughts that surge in the mind of a thinking creature whose unique, total, exclusive desire is for the truth.

Mendacity, error (the two words are synonymous), are the thoughts of those who do not desire truth, or those who desire truth plus something else. For instance, they desire truth, but they also desire conformity with such or such received ideas.

Yet how can we desire truth if we have no prior knowledge of it? This is the mystery of all mysteries. Words that express a perfection which no mind can conceive of — God, truth, justice — silently evoked with desire, but without any preconception, have the power to lift up the soul and flood it with light.

It is when we desire truth with an empty soul and without attempting to guess its content that we receive the light. Therein resides the entire mechanism of attention.

Perhaps due to her beautifully phrased belief that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Weil suggests that protecting our attention from manipulation is our greatest and most generous contribution to public life and public good — something which human nature, so hopelessly governed by hope and fear, makes immensely challenging to achieve and therefore all the more triumphant when achieved:

True attention is a state so difficult for any human creature, so violent, that any emotional disturbance can derail it. Therefore, one must always endeavour strenuously to protect one’s inner faculty of judgment against the turmoil of personal hopes and fears.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King by James Thurber

She considers the particular and supreme peril of what philosopher Martha Nussbaum would term, nearly a century later, our political emotions — the unthinking, affect-driven impulse toward belief and action, which politicians so deftly manipulate by playing on our hopes and fears. Weil terms this “collective passion” and writes:

When a country is in the grip of a collective passion, it becomes unanimous in crime. If it becomes prey to two, or four, or five, or ten collective passions, it is divided among several criminal gangs. Divergent passions do not neutralise one another… they clash with infernal noise, and amid such din the fragile voices of justice and truth are drowned.

[…]

Collective passion is the only source of energy at the disposal of parties with which to make propaganda and to exert pressure upon the soul of every member.

One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.

Intoxicating drugs are prohibited. Some people are nevertheless addicted to them. But there would be many more addicts if the state were to organise the sale of opium and cocaine in all tobacconists, accompanied by advertising posters to encourage consumption.

The most toxic effect of collective passion, Weil argues, is that it narrows the locus of attention to particular points of heightened affect — isolated ideas we feel, or are made to feel, strongly for or against — to the exclusion of all attendant ideas that come bundled in that particular party ideology. People are impelled to join a party or a cause because it speaks to a few things they feel strongly about, but they rarely examine closely all the other ideas the party espouses — including many with which, upon reflection and examination, they might wholly disagree. (We have seen this, for instance, with the tidal shift in support by women who initially voted for Donald Trump, having been drawn to some of his economic campaign promises, either unwitting of or turning a willfully blind eye to his reckless misogyny until its undeniable evils came to eclipse any alleged economic goods promised them.)

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

Weil admonishes that while this manipulative fragmentation of thought to the detriment of truth, justice, and public interest originates in our politics, it has permeated nearly every domain of human life:

People have progressively developed the habit of thinking, in all domains, only in terms of being “in favour of” or “against” any opinion, and afterwards they seek arguments to support one of these two options… There are broad-minded people willing to acknowledge the value of opinions with which they disagree. They have completely lost the concept of true and false.

Others, having taken a position in favour of a certain opinion, refuse to examine any dissenting view. This is a transposition of the totalitarian spirit.

When Einstein visited France, all the people who more or less belonged to the intellectual circles, including other scientists, divided themselves into two camps: for Einstein or against him. Any new scientific idea finds in the scientific world supporters and enemies — both sides inflamed to a deplorable degree with the partisan spirit. The intellectual world is permanently full of trends and factions, in various stages of crystallisation.

In art and literature, this phenomenon is even more prevalent. Cubism and Surrealism were each a sort of party. Some people were Gidian and some Maurrassian. To achieve celebrity, it is useful to be surrounded by a gang of admirers, all possessed by the partisan spirit.

However feasible Weil’s central insistence on the abolition of all political parties may be in reality, her deeper point — the importance of refusing to adopt divisive black-and-white opinions among and within us — may be the single most significant, most countercultural act of courage and resistance each of us can perform today. She concludes:

Nearly everywhere — often even when dealing with purely technical problems — instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking. This leprosy is killing us.

Complement On the Abolition of All Political Parties with Hannah Arendt on lying in politics, Bertrand Russell on our only effective self-defense against propaganda, Walt Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, and Rebecca Solnit on the culture-shifting power of calling things by their true names, then revisit Weil on the purest, most fertile form of thought and the key to discipline.

BP

Meeting Virginia Woolf

“She just walked across, very shyly, and stood there looking absolutely beautiful. She was much more beautiful than any of the photographs show.”

Meeting Virginia Woolf

It is a rare gift to meet, much less befriend, one of your heroes — a gift that fell upon the American poet, novelist, and diarist extraordinaire May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) in her mid-twenties, just as she was starting out as a writer, when she met Virginia Woolf (January 15, 1882–March 28, 1941).

On a visit to England shortly after her literary debut, the young Sarton decided to leave a copy of her first poetry collection at Woolf’s doorstep, along with some flowers. To her surprise, the kindly maid opened the door and invited her in. Unprepared for the fortuitous opportunity to meet her idol, Sarton mumbled a polite declination, handed the maid the book, and walked away.

Knowing how desperately Sarton wanted to meet Woolf, the prominent writer Elizabeth Bowen took it upon herself to stage a more planned introduction. She decided to invite both Woolf and the young poet to dinner at her country house in Ireland — an epicenter of the era’s creative community, where she hosted such titans of literature as Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch.

Virginia Woolf | May Sarton

In The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — the wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us great writers on how to handle criticism and James Baldwin’s advice on writing — Sarton recounts the moment Woolf entered, a strange and stunning vision:

She walked in, in a “robe de style,” a lovely, rather eighteenth-century-looking, long dress with a wide collar, and she came into the room like a dazzled deer and walked right across — this was a beautiful house on Rogent’s Park — to the long windows and stood there looking out. My memory is that she was not even introduced at that point, that she just walked across, very shyly, and stood there looking absolutely beautiful. She was much more beautiful than any of the photographs show. And then she discovered that I was the person who had left the poems.

Sarton remembers how brilliantly canny and gracious Woolf later was in her response, aware that the young writer’s fragile confidence might perch too precariously on her approval or disapproval:

She answered my gift of that book with a lovely note, which is now in the Berg collection, just saying: “Thank you so much, and the flowers came just as someone had given me a vase, and were perfect, and I shall look forward to reading the poems.” In other words, never put yourself in a position of having to judge. So he never said a word about the poems. But she was delighted to find out that I was the person who had left them.

Illustration by Nina Cosford from Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat

At Bowen’s dinner, Sarton found herself in conversation with Woolf while “the gentlemen were having their brandy and cigars in the other room.” She recounts:

We talked about hairdressers. It was like something in The Waves! We all talked like characters in a Virginia Woolf novel. She had a great sense of humor. Very malicious. She liked to tease people, in a charming way, but she was a great tease.

But she put me at ease and I saw her quite often after that. Every time I was in England I would have tea with her, which was a two-hour talk. She would absolutely ply me with questions. That was the novelist. I always felt the novelist at work. Where did I buy my clothes? Whom was I seeing? Whom was I in love with? Everything. So it was enrapturing to a young woman to be that interesting to Virginia Woolf. But I think it was her way of living, in a sense. Vicariously. Through people.

Contemplating the strange allure of this strange genius who so enchanted from afar but so struggled with intimacy, Sarton corrects the media-manipulated image of Woolf’s mental illness:

She was never warm. That’s true. There was no warmth. It was partly physical, I think. She was a physically unwarm person. I can’t imagine kissing her, for instance, I mean on the cheek. But she was delightful, and zany, full of humor and laughter. Never did you feel a person on the brink of madness. That has distorted the image, because she was so in control.

Complement with Sarton’s stunning ode to solitude and Elizabeth Bishop’s memoir of Marianne Moore — the most loving remembrance of a role model and mentor ever composed — then revisit Woolf herself on what it takes to be an artist, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, why the most creative mind is the androgynous mind, and what makes love last.

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Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated