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The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.”

The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

I wrote Figuring (public library) to explore the interplay between chance and choice, the human search for meaning in an unfeeling universe governed by equal parts precision and randomness, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves, and our restless impulse to uncover the deepest truths of nature, even at the price of our convenient existential delusions of self-importance. (More about the book here.) These are vast, thickly interwoven themes, difficult to distill in a single sentiment, so I chose two dramatically different yet complementary epigraphs to open the book — one drawn from the trailblazing 18th-century philosopher and woman of letters Germaine de Staël’s treatise on the happiness of individuals and societies, and the other from one of our civilization’s most lucid and luminous poets laureate of the human spirit: W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973).

The Auden stanza comes from his stunning poem “The More Loving One,” originally published in his 1960 book Homage to Clio (public library) — a collection of shorter poems about history, a concept Auden defines in his own epigraph for the book:

Between those happenings that prefigure it
And those that happen in its anamnesis
Occurs the Event, but that no human wit
Can recognize until all happening ceases.

History, in other words, is not the objective chronicle of events but the subjective recognition of happenings sighted in the rearview mirror of being. (This is a question I explore throughout Figuring, in the prelude to which I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.) Auden saw history — this selective set of remembrances constructed by human intention and choice — as both counterpart and antipode to nature, in which events unfold free of intent, governed by chance and the impartial physical laws of the universe. Curiously, “The More Loving One” appears among Auden’s poems about history, but it deals with nature and the disorienting necessity of learning to love a universe insentient to our hopes and fears, unconcerned with our individual fates — perhaps the least requited love there is, as well as the largest. It is an elegy, in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for our ambivalent relationship with this elemental truth and an homage to the supreme triumph of the human heart — the willingness to love that which does not and cannot love us back.

In this recording from the Academy of American Poets’ sixteenth annual Poetry & the Creative Mind, astrophysicist and author Janna Levin reads Auden’s sublime poem, with a lovely prefatory reflection on the bittersweet seductions and consolations of our unrequited love for the universe.

by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Complement with Levin’s beautiful readings of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ode to time, then revisit Auden on writing, true and false enchantment, and the political power of art. For a different side to the poetics of asymmetrical yet profoundly beautiful love, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, excerpted from Figuring.


The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

“The new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.”

The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

Art is both foreground and background to all social change, the fulcrum by which we raise our personal and political standards, the wheel that propels every revolution — in thought, in feeling, in the constellation of customs, beliefs, principles, power structures, and sensibilities we call culture. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech. It is hardly surprising, then, that at times of particular cultural tumult and social upheaval, the most visionary artists — the seers who imagine and insist upon alternative ways of viewing and navigating the cultural landscape — are met with tremendous tides of criticism and condemnation from the status quo. Albert Camus knew this when he observed in the thick of the Cold War that “to create today is to create dangerously.” And yet, again and again, artists embrace the danger and go on making art — this is the way the world changes, perhaps the only way it does.

The centrality of art in culture and the unstoppable momentum of true creative visionaries are what the great naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — Walt Whitman’s foremost biographer and spirited champion — explores in one of the myriad lyrical, sublimely insightful passages from his 1896 more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook).

John Burroughs

Art, Burroughs argues, is not an isolated region of culture but is culture; not an island, but the water that washes all shores. (Half a century later, the visionary marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing, would assert the same of science — “The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience.” Soon, her lyrical science writing would catalyze the environmental movement.)

Burroughs writes:

I shall deny at the outset that there are any bounds of art, or that art is in any sense an “enclosure,” — a province fenced off and set apart from the rest, — any more than religion is an enclosure, though so many people would like to make it so. Art is commensurate with the human spirit. I should even deny that there are any principles of art in the sense that there are principles of mechanics or of mathematics. Art has but one principle, one aim, — to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism.

“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman would assert in the following century. As in science, so in art — Burroughs argues that any celebrated aesthetic or creative convention is bound to be challenged, and it is in its sublimation and transcendence that the next true art is to be found. A great artist does not cater to taste but creates taste, and must therefore be endowed with what Goethe called “the courage to despair,” for this act of creation is invariably met with violent opposition. Wordsworth knew this when he asserted that “to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.”

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an era long before every woman ceased to be a “man,” Burroughs writes of the truly visionary “man”:

Name any principle, so called, and some day a genius shall be born who will produce his effects in defiance of it, or by appearing to reverse it. Such a man as [William] Turner seemed, at first sight, to set at defiance all correct notions of art. The same with Wagner in music, the same with Whitman in poetry. The new man is impossible till he appears, and, when he appears, in proportion to his originality and power does it take the world a longer or shorter time to adjust its critical standards to him. But it is sure to do so at last. There is nothing final in art: its principles follow and do not lead the creator; they are deductions from his work, not its inspiration. We demand of the new man, of the overthrower of our idols, but one thing, — has he authentic inspiration and power? If he has not, his pretensions are soon exploded. If he has, we cannot put him down, any more than we can put down a law of nature, and we very soon find some principle of art that fits his case. Is there no room for the new man? But the new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.

Whitman: A Study is a splendid read in its entirety. Complement it with Iris Murdoch on why revolutionary art is essential for democracy, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s fantastic forgotten conversation about beauty, morality, and the political power of art, and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Whitman — whose art was at first decried and derided by his contemporaries, before rendering him America’s greatest poet — on confidence through criticism and the “meaning” of art.


Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

How a public library and a messy second-hand bookshop helped a small girl with no money and big dreams change the face of science.

Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

“Books feed and cure and chortle and collide,” Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her 1969 ode to why we read. For Kafka, a book was “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”; for Galileo, nothing less than a source of superhuman powers. “Without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his visionary 1930 meditation on “the magic of the book” and why we will always remain under its generous spell, no matter how the technologies of reading may change.

We read to remember. We read to forget. We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves. “I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life,” Mary Oliver wrote in looking back on how books saved her. Most of all, we read to become selves. The wondrous gift of reading is that books can become both the life-raft to keep us from drowning and the very water that sculpts the riverbed of our lives, bending it this direction or that, traversing great distances and tessellated territories of being, chiseling through even the hardest rock.

That life-steering power of books is what pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall articulates with great simplicity and sweetness 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 how books form and transform us by 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.

Original art by Christian Robinson for Jane Goodall’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Half a century after Simone de Beauvoir reflected on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Goodall tells young readers about her formative childhood experience, as much a product of her time and place as of her singular predilections:

Dear Children,

I want to share something with you — and that is how much I loved books when I was your age. Of course, back then there was no Internet, no television — we learned everything from printed books. We didn’t have much money when I was a child and I couldn’t afford new books, so most of what I read came from our library. But I also used to spend hours in a very small second hand book shop. The owner was an old man who never had time to arrange his books properly. They were piled everywhere and I would sit there, surrounded by all that information about everything imaginable. I would save up any money I got for my birthday or doing odd jobs so that I could buy one of those books. Of course, you can look up everything on the Internet now. But there is something very special about a book — the feel of it in your hands and the way it looks on the table by your bed, or nestled in with others in the bookcase.

I loved to read in bed, and after I had to put the lights out I would read under the bedclothes with a torch, always hoping my mother would not come in and find out! I used to read curled up in front of the fire on a cold winter evening. And in the summer I would take my special books up my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places and I imagined I was there. I especially loved reading about Doctor Doolittle and how he learned to talk to animals. And I read about Tarzan of the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.

I was ten years old when I decided I would go to Africa when I grew up to live with animals and write books about them. And that is what I did, eventually. I lived with chimpanzees in Africa and I am still writing books about them and other animals. In fact, I love writing books as much as reading them — I hope you will enjoy reading some of the ones that I have written for you.

Jane Goodall

Pair this taste of A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the public library system, with Patrick McDonnell’s lovely picture-book about how Jane Goodall turned her childhood dream into reality, then revisit two other moving letters from A Velocity of Being — Rebecca Solnit on how books solace and empower us and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a particular book saved particular lives.

Some of the original art from the book is available as prints, with all proceeds also benefiting the public library system. Find more about the project, and peek inside its lushly illustrated pages, here.

UPDATE: All copies of the book have fled to eager hands — it is currently sold out everywhere online, but the next batch is on the way. Meanwhile, some independent bookstores still have copies of the first edition, so go roam your neighborhood and make some new friends.


French Philosopher Maurice Blanchot on Writing, the Dual Power of Language to Reveal and Conceal, and What It Really Means to See

“To see is certainly always to see at a distance, but by allowing distance to give back what it removes from us… To see is to experience the continuous and to celebrate the sun, that is, beyond the sun: the One.”

French Philosopher Maurice Blanchot on Writing, the Dual Power of Language to Reveal and Conceal, and What It Really Means to See

“The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid meditation on the magic of real human communication. But this transformation has a dual power of helping us see the world more clearly and creating the illusion of seeing when we are in fact misperceiving, as Nietzsche well knew in contemplating how we use language to both conceal and reveal reality: “Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” he asked. Still, language is the mightiest tool we have for wresting meaning from reality. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

That implicit duality of our linguistic conscience and the delicate, beautiful, dangerous relationship between storytelling and seeing is what the reclusive French writer, philosopher, and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot (September 22, 1907–February 20, 2003), whose ideas influenced such titanic thinkers as Foucault, Derrida, and Sontag, examined in his 1969 book The Infinite Conversation (public library), translated into English by Susan Hanson.

Maurice Blanchot, identity document, 1927.

Blanchot considers what writing is and is not:

— To write is not to give speech to be seen. The game of common etymology makes of writing a cutting movement, a tear, a crisis.
— This is simply a reminder that the proper tool for writing was also proper for incising: the stylet.
— Yes, but this incisive reminder still evokes a cutting operation, if not a butchery: a kind of violence — the word flesh if found in the family, just as graphy is a scratch. Higher and further back, to write is to curve meet. Writing is the curve that the turn of seeking has already evoked for us and that we find in the bending of reflection.

Three decades after Virginia Woolf proclaimed in the only surviving recording of her voice that “words belong to each other,” Blanchot weighs the duality of language as a medium capable of both connection and separation:

— In each word, all words.
— Yet, speaking, like writing, engages us in a separating movement, an oscillating and vacillating departure.

Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words

In a sentiment of both complement and counterpoint to Le Guin’s incisive observation that “if you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful,” Blanchot writes:

— Seeing is also a movement.
— Seeing presupposes only a measure and a measurable separation: to see is certainly always to see at a distance, but by allowing distance to give back what it removes from us. Sight is invisibly active in a pause wherein everything holds itself back. We see only what first escapes us by virtue of an initial privation, not seeing things that are too present, and not seeing them if our presence to things is pressing.

In a caveat reminiscent of founding father Benjamin Rush’s insightful metaphor for our blindness to the truly visionary — Rush likened visionary people to “objects placed too near the eye,” whose genius is not properly apprehended by the age in which they live and is only appreciated with the distance of generations — Blanchot adds:

— But we do not see what is too distant, what escapes us through the separation of distance.
— There is a privation, an absence, precisely through which contact is achieved. Here the interval does not impede; on the contrary, it allows a direct relation. Every relation of light is an immediate relation.
— To see is thus to apprehend immediately from a distance.
— …immediately from a distance and through distance.

Two of the self-taught 17th-century artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart’s stunning astronomical drawings.

A century after the great naturalist John Muir insisted that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Blanchot concludes:

To see is to make use of separation, not as mediating, but as a means of immediation, as immediating. In this sense too, to see is to experience the continuous and to celebrate the sun, that is, beyond the sun: the One.

And yet, Blanchot reminds us, we never see everything — but perhaps that is a freedom rather than a limitation. He writes:

This is sight’s wisdom, though we never see only one thing, even two or several, but a whole: every view is a general view. It is still true that sight holds us within the limits of a horizon. Perception is a wisdom rooted in the ground and standing fixed in the direction of the opening; it is of the land, in the proper sense of the term: planted in the earth and forming a link between the immobile boundary and the apparently boundless horizon — a firm pact from which comes peace. For sight, speech is war and madness. The terrifying word passes over every limit and even the limitlessness of the whole: it seizes the thing from a direction from which it is not taken, not seen, and will never be seen; it transgresses laws, breaks away from orientation, it disorients.

— There is facility in this liberty. Language acts as though we were able to see the thing from all sides.

Couple this finite fragment of The Infinite Conversation with Le Guin on the power of language to transform and redeem, then revisit philosopher Martin Buber on what a tree can teach us about seeing the world clearly, Thoreau on being unblinded by our preconceptions, Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on apprehending reality as it really is.


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