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Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World

“Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe.”

Subjectifying the Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin on Science and Poetry as Complementary Modes of Comprehending and Tending to the Natural World

“What men are poets,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman asked in what may be the world’s most poetic footnote, “who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” Two centuries before him, the poet William Wordsworth had insisted that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.”

I too have long cherished this unheralded common ground between poetry and science as complementary worldviews of contemplation and observation — a cherishment of which The Universe in Verse was born — and have encountered no more beautiful an articulation of it than the one Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) offered in the preface to her final poetry collection, Late in the Day (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Marine biologist Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the modern environmental movement and pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic writing about science, once asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” More than half a century after Carson, Le Guin considers how poetry and science both humble us to that elemental aspect of our humanity and train us to be better stewards of the natural world to which we belong:

To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it.

Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animals with animals. Darwin first gave that knowledge a scientific basis. And now, both poets and scientists are extending the rational aspect of our sense of relationship to creatures without nervous systems and to non-living beings — our fellowship as creatures with other creatures, things with other things.

Decades after the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd contemplated the “intricate interplay” of the natural world in the living mountain, Le Guin adds:

Relationship among all things appears to be complex and reciprocal — always at least two-way, back-and-forth. It seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way.

In this view, we humans appear as particularly lively, intense, aware nodes of relation in an infinite network of connections, simple or complicated, direct or hidden, strong or delicate, temporary or very long-lasting. A web of connections, infinite but locally fragile, with and among everything — all beings — including what we generally class as things, objects.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

In consonance with the recently uncovered astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, Le Guin adds:

Descartes and the behaviorists willfully saw dogs as machines, without feeling. Is seeing plants as without feeling a similar arrogance? One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as “natural resources,” is to class them as fellow beings — kinfolk.

In a sentiment that calls to mind quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr’s arresting meditation on subjective vs. objective reality, Le Guin reflects on the larger point:

I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.

PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
Art by Lia Halloran from Your Body is a Space That Sees

Le Guin considers the shared impulse beneath poetry and science, flowing across the valve between self and world from opposite directions:

Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river is, that is, to speak humanly for it, in both senses of the word “for.” A poem can do so by relating the quality of an individual human relationship to a thing, a rock or river or tree, or simply by describing the thing as truthfully as possible.

Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.

Each, Le Guin argues, is a mode of tending to the world — the outer world, the inner world — and, as such, trains us to be better participants in and protectors of the vibrant, vigorous interconnectedness of which we are but a tiny part:

By replacing unfounded, willful opinion, science can increase moral sensitivity; by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty.


The seventeenth-century Christian mystic Henry Vaughan wrote:

     So hills and valleys into singing break,
     And though poor stones have neither speech nor tongue,
     While active winds and streams both run and speak,
     Yet stones are deep in admiration.

By admiration, Vaughan meant reverence for God’s sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. By admiration, I understand reverence for the infinite connectedness, the naturally sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.

Complement Late in the Day with an embodiment of that admiring delight in some beautiful poems celebrating science, then revisit Le Guin on growing older, the power of language to transform and redeem, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her classic unsexing of gender.


An Axiom of Feeling: Werner Herzog on the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth

“The soul of the listener or the spectator… actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity: that is, it completes an independent act of creation.”

In his arresting meditation on how we use language to reveal and conceal reality, Nietzsche defined truth as “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.” Truth, of course, is not reality but a subset of reality, alongside the catalogue of fact and the question of meaning, inside which human consciousness dwells. “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”

How the creative impulse from which art arises unlatches that other reality is what cinematic philosopher Werner Herzog explores in an essay titled “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth.” Originally delivered as an extemporaneous speech following a Milan screening of Herzog’s film Lessons of Darkness and later translated by Moira Weigel, it touches on a number of questions that have occupied Herzog for as long as he has been making art — questions he explores from other angles throughout Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library).

Werner Herzog (Photograph: Lena Herzog)

Herzog writes in the speech-turned-essay:

Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

Such truth, Herzog suggests, coalesces out of moments so saturated with reality that they become surreal. Reflecting on the disorientation-spurred rancor with which his film was initially met, he writes:

After the first war in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, the media — and here I mean television in particular — was in no position to show what was, beyond being a war crime, an event of cosmic dimensions, a crime against creation itself. There is not a single frame in Lessons of Darkness in which you can recognize our planet; for this reason the film is labeled “science fiction,” as if it could only have been shot in a distant galaxy, hostile to life.

Facing what he terms the “orgy of hate,” Herzog reminded audiences that he had done nothing different from Dante and Goya, those “guardian angels who familiarize us with the Absolute and the Sublime.” And yet our grasp of the Absolute is perennially slippery, our familiarity with it a seductive illusion — Carl Sagan knew this when he asserted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” With an eye to the greatest creative challenge in mathematics, Herzog writes:

The Absolute poses a never-ending quandary for philosophy, religion, and mathematics. Mathematics will probably come closest to getting it when someone finally proves Riemann’s hypothesis. That question concerns the distribution of prime numbers; unanswered since the nineteenth century, it reaches into the depths of mathematical thinking. A prize of a million dollars has been set aside for whoever solves it, and a mathematical institute in Boston has allotted a thousand years for someone to come up with a proof. The money is waiting for you, as is your immortality. For two and a half thousand years, ever since Euclid, this question has preoccupied mathematicians; if it turned out Riemann and his brilliant hypothesis were not right, it would send unimaginable shockwaves through the disciplines of mathematics and natural science. I can only very vaguely begin to fathom the Absolute; I am in no position to define the concept.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics

This ungraspable nature of the Absolute places it on the same plane as the Sublime — for the Sublime, as physicist Lisa Randall has written, also “proffers scales and poses questions that just might lie beyond our intellectual reach.” Occupying an entirely different stratum of reality is what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth” — the kind of truth marine biologist Rachel Carson celebrated in her transcendent encounter with midsummer fireflies, which illuminated for her the type of truth haloed with “an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Herzog writes:

We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And: how important, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.

No masterpiece of Herzog’s better sparks that ecstatic flash than his film Fitzcarraldo — the story of an elaborate endeavor to stage an opera in the rainforest. Reflecting on his creative vision for the film and its broader conceptual commentary on the nature of truth, Herzog echoes Whitman’s conviction that music is the deepest and most direct expression of nature’s reality, and writes:

One maxim was crucial for me: an entire world must undergo a transformation into music, must become music; only then would we have produced opera. What’s beautiful about opera is that reality doesn’t play any role in it at all; and that what takes place in opera is the overcoming of nature. When one looks at the libretti from operas (and here Verdi’s Force of Destiny is a good example), one sees very quickly that the story itself is so implausible, so removed from anything that we might actually experience that the mathematical laws of probability are suspended. What happens in the plot is impossible, but the power of music enables the spectator to experience it as true.

Still from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Margaret Fuller’s beautiful assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Herzog adds:

It’s the same thing with the emotional world [Gefühlswelt] of opera. The feelings are so abstracted; they cannot really be subordinated to everyday human nature any longer, because they have been concentrated and elevated to the most extreme degree and appear in their purest form; and despite all that we perceive them, in opera, as natural. Feelings in opera are, ultimately, like axioms in mathematics, which cannot be concentrated and cannot be explained any further. The axioms of feeling in the opera lead us, however, in the most secret ways, on a direct path to the sublime.

Through the gateway of opera, Herzog enters the larger world of the Sublime as both subset and superset of reality:

Our entire sense of reality has been called into question… Sometimes facts so exceed our expectations — have such an unusual, bizarre power — that they seem unbelievable.

But in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth — a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft… However, we also gain our ability to have ecstatic experiences of truth through the Sublime, through which we are able to elevate ourselves over nature.

With an eye to the Ancient Greek philosophers and dramatists, who used language as a vessel of ecstatic truth, Herzog returns to the function of the creative act as communion with the Sublime. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s notion that the reader is the writer’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” he writes:

Thinking through language, the Greeks meant … to define truth as an act of disclosure — a gesture related to the cinema, where an object is set into the light and then a latent, not yet visible image is conjured onto celluloid, where it first must be developed, then disclosed.

The soul of the listener or the spectator completes this act itself; the soul actualizes truth through the experience of sublimity: that is, it completes an independent act of creation.

Complement with the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, then revisit Herzog on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living doing what you love.


Carl Sagan on Mystery, Why Common Sense Blinds Us to the Universe, and How to Live with the Unknown

“We are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects, and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.”

Carl Sagan on Mystery, Why Common Sense Blinds Us to the Universe, and How to Live with the Unknown

In our recent On Being conversation, NASA astrophysicist and exoplanet researcher Natalie Batalha said something that stopped me up short: as sentient beings endowed with awareness, we are “the universe itself becoming aware.” Echoing poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Dr. Batalha added: “It took 13.7 billion years for the atoms to come together to create the portal to the universe which is my physical self. So in that statement is this idea, or the fluidity of time and space. And I kind of see it all at once. And I don’t know what ‘me’ is. I just feel part of everything. And I feel such deep gratitude for being able to take this conscious look at the universe — at myself as being part of the universe.”

The sentiment reminded me of a beautiful interview Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) gave shortly after the premiere of his epoch-making documentary Cosmos, later included in Conversations with Carl Sagan (public library).

In late August of 1980 — two years after he conducted Susan Sontag’s most dimensional interview and nine years before his magnificent conversation with Leonard Bernstein — interlocutor extraordinaire Jonathan Cott visited Sagan’s home in Los Angeles to interview him for Rolling Stone. In the soaring the conversation that followed, Sagan stepped into his native nexus of the scientific and the poetic to contemplate our understanding of the universe and of ourselves, the nature of reality and of human knowledge, and how to live with the unknown.

Carl Sagan

Sagan tells Cott:

It’s a critical moment in the history of the world… We are the representatives of the cosmos; we are an example of what hydrogen atoms can do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution. And we resonate to these questions. We start with the origin of every human being, and then the origin of our community, our nation, the human species, who our ancestors were and then the riddle of the origin of life. And the questions: where did the Earth and Solar System come from? Where did the galaxies come from?

Every one of those questions is deep and significant. They are the subject of folklore, myth, superstition, and religion in every human culture. But for the first time we are on the verge of answering many of them. I don’t mean to suggest that we have the final answers; we are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects, and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.

Earthrise (December 24, 1968)
Earthrise (December 24, 1968)

To be sure, understanding the whole of the universe seems like too grandiose an aspiration when we are continually struggling to understand the tiny subset of the universe that is ourselves. Three summers before this interview, Sagan had spearheaded The Golden Record — a poetic attempt at such self-comprehension, mirroring humanity back to itself. Now, with an eye to another landmark triumph of self-reflection made possible by scientific progress — the iconic Earthrise photograph taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 in 1968 — Sagan considers the immense and paradoxical gift of cosmic perspective:

You saw [Earth] for the first time as a tiny blue ball floating in space. You realized that there were other, similar worlds far away, of different size, different color and constitution. You got the idea that our planet was just one in a multitude. I think there are two apparently contradictory and still very powerful benefits of that cosmic perspective — the sense of our planet as one in a vast number and the sense of our planet as a place whose destiny depends upon us.

In this awareness resides a humbling and disquieting reminder of our creaturely limitations. We navigate the world by our common-sense perception, but that perception has blinded us to reality again and again. We have mistaken our sensorial intuitions for facts of the universe — for millennia, we held wrong beliefs about Earth’s shape, motion, and position, because it feels flat and static beneath our feet, and central to the order of the cosmos. We have mistrusted processes and phenomena beyond the boundaries of what we can touch and feel with our limited senses — from evolution, which unfolds on scales of time too vast to be visible within a human lifetime, to quantum mechanics, which operates on subatomic scales imperceptible and almost inconceivable to the human observer. Long before Sagan equipped us with an antidote to the “common pitfalls of common sense” in his timeless Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, he tells Cott:

Common sense works fine for the universe we’re used to, for time scales of decades, for a space between a tenth of a millimeter and a few thousand kilometers, and for speeds much less than the speed of light. Once we leave those domains of human experience, there’s no reason to expect the laws of nature to continue to obey our expectations, since our expectations are dependent on a limited set of experiences.


We have to be very careful not to impose our hopes and desires on the cosmos, but instead, in the scientific tradition and with the most open mind possible, see what the cosmos is saying to us.

Sagan points to one particularly blatant obfuscation of reality driven by our self-centered hopes, desires, and delusions — astrology:

[Astrology is] like racism or sexism: you have twelve little pigeonholes, and as soon as you type someone as a member of that particular group, as long as someone is an Aquarius, Virgo or Scorpio, you know his characteristics. It saves you the effort of getting to know him individually.

Sagan ends by considering the nature of human knowledge itself. Drawing on its past, he projects its future:

Human knowledge is a set of successive approximations… There are all sorts of things that we’ve gotten wrong, and all sorts of mind-boggling things that we can’t even glimpse that will be the established fact in a century or two.


There are two extremes to worry about. One is the extreme in which everything is known and there’s nothing left to do. The other is where everything is so complicated you can never begin to do anything. We are lucky to live in a universe were there are laws of nature and things to discover, but they’re not impossibly difficult, so we can understand them to some extent. But they’re also difficult enough so that we’re nowhere near understanding them all. There are exhilarating discoveries yet to be made. It’s the best possible world.

Complement with Diane Ackerman — a favorite poet of Sagan’s, who was her doctoral advisor — on our longing to know the universe beyond ourselves and Primo Levi on the spiritual value of space exploration, then revisit Sagan on the value of uncertainty, the enchantment of chemistry, and the most important perspective in the human world.


Meryl Streep Reads “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

A paean and requiem for new parenthood — the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.

Meryl Streep Reads “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

In contemplating the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, the psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt wrote of “an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.”

A decade earlier, another trailblazing artist contemplated the shock and splendor of new parenthood in her own art. In February of 1961, shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Frieda, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) penned one of her most unusual poems. “Morning Song,” later included in the posthumously published 1965 classic Ariel (public library), is both paean and requiem for new motherhood — the love, the strangeness, the surreal and magnetic disorientation of it.

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind celebration, Meryl Streep brings Plath’s masterpiece to life with uncommon sensitivity to the innumerable nuances it holds:


Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sylvia Plath with her children, Frieda and Nicholas. Photograph by Siv Arb, from One Life: Sylvia Plath

Complement with Plath on what makes us who we are, the little-known children’s book she wrote for her own kids, her recently revealed visual art, and her own haunting reading of her poem “Spinster,” then revisit other great readings of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

Should you find yourself in New York City, The Academy of American Poets’ Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — takes place every April at Lincoln Center and is consistently magnificent, featuring readings of beloved poems by inspiring cultural figures who love them, ranging from artists to astrophysicists.


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