Ten days after giving birth to baby Mary, Wollstonecraft died at only thirty eight, leaving behind the foundation for the next two centuries of humanity’s model of gender equality, and a half-orphaned baby daughter who would come to know her mother through her writing.
In the final years of her life, Wollstonecraft had begun working on Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman (free ebook | public library) — a philosophical novel intended as a sequel to Vindication and laced with strong autobiographical strands, exploring subjects like slavery, class, marriage, motherhood, female desire, dignity, and the wellspring of agency. Unlike the astonishing rapidity with which Wollstonecraft the political philosopher had composed her humanist treatises, Wollstonecraft the literary artist struggled to complete the novel, doing more research for it than for any of her nonfiction. Godwin would later recall that “she was sensible how arduous a task it is to produce a truly excellent novel; and she roused her faculties to grapple with it.”
Before she could finish the manuscript, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth — a devastatingly common killer of women for the vast majority of human history. Godwin published the novel a year later, as part of a collection of Wollstonecraft’s posthumous works. Their daughter, who learned to read partly by tracing the letters on Wollstonecraft’s gravestone, would spend the rest of her life trying to get to know her mother through her work, of which Maria was in many ways the most personal.
One particular passage from the seventh chapter, chillingly prescient given Wollstonecraft’s fate, would endure for Mary as the sage and empowering life-advice her mother never lived to give her:
Death may snatch me from you, before you can weigh my advice, or enter into my reasoning: I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. — Gain experience — ah! gain it — while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a direct path. What is wisdom too often, but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart.
“For almost all oral cultures… the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.”
My dear friend Emily Levine, who awakened my love of poetry long ago, entered the final stretch of her life with an uncommonly beautiful orientation toward death. Beneath the inescapable sorrow of impending non-being was a buoyancy of being springing from her Augustinian excitement to return her stardust to the universe that made it — to belong once again with all the matter that ever was, with every other creature who ever lived and died, with raven and river and rock. She wanted to go into the earth not in a casket and all its attendant human pomp but in a mushroom burial suit that would slowly reweave “her” atoms into the great web of life.
Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” — whether human or otherwise — is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.
Each indigenous culture elaborates this recognition of metamorphosis in its own fashion, taking its clues from the particular terrain in which it is situated. Often the invisible atmosphere that animates the visible world — the subtle presence that circulates both within us and between all things — retains within itself the spirit or breath of the dead person until the time when that breath will enter and animate another visible body — a bird, or a deer, or a field of wild grain. Some cultures may burn, or “cremate,” the body in order to more completely return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and that which lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. Still other cultures may dismember the body, leaving certain parts in precise locations where they will likely be found by condors, or where they will be consumed by mountain lions or by wolves, thus hastening the re-incarnation of that person into a particular animal realm within the landscape. Such examples illustrate simply that death, in tribal cultures, initiates a metamorphosis wherein the person’s presence does not “vanish” from the sensible world (where would it go?) but rather remains as an animating force within the vastness of the landscape, whether subtly, in the wind, or more visibly, in animal form, or even as the eruptive, ever to be appeased, wrath of the volcano.
“Ancestor worship,” in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.
This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter — whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds — are never absolutely alien to ourselves. Despite the obvious differences in shape, and ability, and style of being, they remain at least distantly familiar, even familial. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship or consanguinity that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.
“What an artist has to offer is obvious to just about anyone else but the artist him- or herself.”
By Maria Popova
“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.
All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.
Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.
It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.
At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.
As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.
We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.
Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:
My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.
But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:
She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.
His childhood brought other lessons from everyday life that would later ferment into the essence of his artistic ethos. Peppering the politeness-culture of the South were some bigots of especially deplorable caliber, whom Folds could barely stomach encountering. But those encounters became testing ground for the greatest mark of the artist — empathy. (Lest we forget, the word “empathy” only entered the modern lexicon a century ago, to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art.) A generation after Carl Sagan considered what it takes to move beyond us vs. them and bridge conviction with compassion, Folds writes:
By dignifying even the most despicable character as a human being, by offering them what empathy we can manage, we also hold them accountable for their choices. You can’t really convincingly condemn a monster for being a monster. He’s just being the best monster he can be. Sure, it’s easier to make a caricature of someone you don’t want to relate to, but the more lines you can step over, the closer you can get to a subject, the better off you’ll be — and the more complex and effective your songwriting will be. From the filthy rich to the filthy minded, I learned to meet people one at a time.
Folds reflects on this lesson, which later shaped his songwriting:
Stand in as many pairs of shoes as you can manage, even ones you consider reprehensible or repulsive — even if it’s just for a moment. If you’re going to be a tourist, be a respectful one. Observe, report, imagine, invent, have fun with, but never write “down” to a character or their point of view, because everyone is the most important person in the world — at least to that one person… Position yourself upon a bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge, so that your writing comes from your own unique perspective. Know where you stand and what your flaws are. Know thyself. Then you can spin all kinds of shit and all the tall tales you like. It’s art.
Finally, empathy and perspective are everything, and neither should be taken for granted. After all, there’s always someone out there who thinks you’re the monster. Remember that the ground beneath your feet can always shift and that it should always be questioned.
This question of how to anchor oneself firmly to the “bedrock of honesty and self-knowledge” is fundamental to the quest for finding one’s creative purpose and direction, or what Folds calls “artistic voice.” He writes:
By artistic voice, I’m referring to one’s artistic thumbprint — the idiosyncratic stuff that makes an artist unique. It’s not a precise science, and finding it is always a painful process. I think it has to be about subtraction. It’s not a matter of cooking up a persona or style so much as it is stripping away what’s covering up the essence, what was already there.
Sometimes it’s just growing out of the imitation phase. Most artists have a period where they sound like their favorite musician, and once they’ve learned from that they can shed that effort. Sometimes the subtraction is about casting off a misconception about how music is actually performed, or how art is made. No matter what your particular subtraction is, the artistic voice you will discover will ideally be something you haven’t seen or heard before.
That impossible search for the voice is, in the end, about being yourself. It’s self-honesty. And in those moments that the artistic voice shows its face, it’s hard to imagine what was so difficult about finding it. But it is difficult getting there. Added to the challenge of looking for something for which you have no prior example, once you find it, you’re the only one who will never truly see what’s special about it. What an artist has to offer is obvious to just about anyone else but the artist him- or herself. It’s not terribly profound or abstract to say that the way we hear our speaking voice, reverberating in our own skull, is not the way we sound to others. We never get a chance to meet ourselves the way others have. It’s the same with the artistic voice. It’s something you feel in the dark.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs is a delightful read in its entirety, drawing on elements of Folds’s life — the unbidden generosity of a piano elder who spotted rare talent in a teenage rascal, the innumerable stupidies of young love, the perspective-calibrating birth of his children, near-death experiences involving an airplane, a mugging, and a dental catastrophe — to glean rich, unpontifically offered lessons on the life of art and the art of life. (The audiobook is especially delightful, narrated by Folds himself, adorned with some perfectly placed sound effects and music samples, and featuring a charming surprise cameo by Amanda Palmer.)
A scrumptious quest “to satisfy that invincible tendency of our minds, which urges us on to understand the reason of things.”
By Maria Popova
A century before the trailblazing photographer Berenice Abbott created her arresting visualizations of scientific processes and phenomena, the French mathematician, science writer, and liberal journalist Amédée Guillemin (July 5, 1826–January 2, 1893) enlisted gifted artists in illustrating his wildly popular science books. In consonance with the pioneering 19th-century information designer Emma Willard’s conviction that knowledge is most readily received when “addressed to the eye,” Guillemin understood that the fundamental laws of nature appear too remote and slippery to the human mind. To make them comprehensible, he had to make their elegant abstract mathematics tangible and captivating for the eye.
He had to make physics beautiful.
Although Guillemin published prolifically on many distinct scientific subjects — the Sun and the Moon, volcanoes and earthquakes, railways and the telephone, the nature of sound and light — his magnum opus was the comprehensive 1868 physics textbook Les phénomènes de la physique, which became the backbone of his five-volume 1882 popular encyclopedia Le monde physique, or The Physical World.
Featuring 31 colored lithographs, 80 black-and-white plates, and 2,012 illustrated diagrams, the encyclopedia owes much of its success to this beguiling visual presentation of the processes and phenomena Guillemin elucidates: gravity, sound, light, heat, magnetism, electricity, meteors.
The most arresting illustrations, many of them preserved by the Wellcome Collection, were done by the Parisian intaglio printer and engraver René Henri Digeon, based on sketches by the physicist Jean Thiébault Silbermann, who made the first measurements in thermochemistry.
Reminiscent of Goethe’s graphically daring diagrams of color perception, the psychedelic images depict the spectral distribution of color and the behavior of light as it passes through various materials, ranging from a bird’s feather to a tourmaline-coated crystal.
Said to have inspired Jules Verne, Les phénomènes de la physique enchanted masses of lay readers and modeled for generations of scientists an engaging new way of presenting their work. On the borderline between these two worlds stood the scientifically voracious but formally untrained Winifred Lockyear, wife of Norman Lockyear — the world’s first professor of astrophysics, discoverer of helium, and founder of the journal Nature. In the final years of her life, Lockyear set about translating Guillemin’s masterwork. It was published in 1877 under the title The Forces of Nature: a Popular Introduction to the Study of Physical Phenomena (public domain) — her legacy to the English-speaking world.
Lockyear took especial care to preserve Guillemin’s spellbinding prose. True to the expository sensibility of his century and to the great literary tradition of his country, he approached his science books with a philosopher-poet’s sensitivity to the underlying human hungers driving our search for knowledge. He writes in the preface:
From time immemorial the mind of man has felt a strong desire to fathom the laws which govern the various phenomena of Nature, and to understand her in her most secret work in short, to make itself master of her forces, in order to render them as useful to material as to intellectual and moral life; such is the noble undertaking to which the greatest minds have devoted themselves. For too long did man wander in this eager and often dangerous pursuit of truth: beginning with fanciful interpretations in his infancy, he by degrees substituted hypothesis for fable; and then, at length, understanding the true method, that of experimental observation, he has been able, after innumerable efforts, to give in imperishable formulae, the most general idea of the principal phenomena of the physical world.
In order thus to place itself in communion with Nature, our intelligence draws from two springs, both bright and pure, and equally fruitful — Art and Science: but it is by different, we may say even by opposite, methods that these springs at which man may satisfy his thirst for the ideals, which constitute his nobleness and greatness, the love of the beautiful, truth and justice, have been reached. The artist abstains from dulling the brilliancy of his impressions by a cold analysis; the man of science, on the contrary, in presence of Nature, endeavours only to strip off the magnificent and poetical surroundings, to dissect it, so to speak, in order to dive into all the hidden secrets ; but his enjoyment is not less than that of the artist, when he has succeeded in reconstructing, in its intelligible whole, this world of phenomena of which his power of abstraction has enabled him to investigate the laws.
We must not seek then in the study of physical phenomena, from a purely scientific point of view, the fascination of poetical or picturesque description; on the other hand, such a study is eminently fit to satisfy that invincible tendency of our minds, which urges us on to understand the reason of things — that fatality which dominates us, but which it is possible for us to make use of to the free and legitimate satisfaction of our faculties.