Hermann Hesse believed that if we could learn to listen to the trees, we would achieve profound perspective on our human lives by grasping the deepest meaning of aliveness. He used listening in the metaphorical sense. But the great existential gift of trees — to us in the metaphors they furnish, and to themselves in the materiality of survival — might indeed be a kind of musicality, accounting for their virtuosity at resilience: beyond “the blind optimism” of a tree’s poetic enchantment lies a supersense for listening to the world and responding with inspired ingenuity, encoded with singular wisdom on how to live and how to die.
So suggests arborist William Bryant Logan in his contribution to Old Growth — a wondrous anthology of essays and poems about trees, culled from the decades-deep archive of Orion Magazine, with contributions as varied as Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Pollan, and a foreword by the poetic bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer.
In an essay titled “The Things Trees Know,” Bryant writes:
To study how trees grow is to admire not only their persistence but also their imagination. Live wood just won’t quit. Every time you knock it down, it comes back again, but when a plant sprouts back, it is not a random shot, like some finger simply raised to make a point. Rather, the growing tip of any stem — what botanists call the meristem — answers with an inborn, complex pattern, like a musical tune.
He draws out the musical analogy, reflecting on Charlie Parker’s famous advice to young musicians on the steps to becoming a true jazz artist: learn the instrument, learn the tunes, and only then soar with the skilled freedom of improvisation that makes jazz. Pointing to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” as a perfect embodiment of that three-step triumph, Bryant writes:
It begins with a perfectly clean statement of the tune, beautiful in itself for the richness of its tone, notes that are almost solid, so you could build a house out of them. Within three minutes, the tune has modulated into completely unexpected shapes, sizes, rising and falling glissades, stops and starts, pianissimos to fortes, but it never loses the thread of that original tune. Every tree is a jazz player, in just this way, although where a long Coltrane piece might last a quarter hour, a tree’s performance may go on for half a millennium or more.
Understanding a particular tree, Bryant argues, is a matter of discerning “its notes, its scales, its sharps, its flats, and its time signatures.” In the 1970s, the botanists Francis Hallé, Roelof Oldeman, and P. B. Tomlinson identified six sets of choices, which serve as the chords that every tree combines to compose its particular tune: to branch (most trees) or not to branch (palms); if branching, to branch only at the base of the stem or all along it; to grow new branches only upward (staghorn sumac), only outward (pagoda dogwood), or in some combination of the two; to grow each branch in a continuous upward or downward direction determined at its outset, or to change direction as it grows; to flower at the tips of branches (staghorn sumac) or along their sides (maple); to grow the trunk and branches continuously without rest or to have a dormant season.
Out of these six choices, each plant plays its tune, the phrase that has characterized its kind for millions of years. No matter where its seed sprouts, each will try to play its melody.
The tree does this by a process of deft improvisation attuned to the myriad chance-conditions and events of its environment, changing the scale of its melody as needed. (This reminds me of Coltrane’s own observation that jazz musicians are born with a certain feeling “that just comes out no matter what conditions exist.”) Botanists call the tree’s responsive improvisation reiteration. Bryant writes:
It is jazz: take the tune, stretch it, cut it into pieces, put them back together, transpose it up or down, flatten it out, or shoot it at the sky. Each tree gets its chops, gets its charts, and then throws them away. It knows the chart by heart, and so can repeat it with a thousand variations for hundreds of years, as it grows to its full stature, lives among its peers, and grows back down to the ground. Positive and negative morphogenesis, they dubbed the cycle: growing up and growing down.
As soon as the tune is played, the initial reiteration is the first major branch. As a leafy tree grows, it will generate what arborists call scaffold branches. These are the few — maybe five to eight — very large stems upon which the tree will hang most of its crown — that is, most of its smaller branches and their millions of leaves… The skill of the tree as an organism is like Coltrane in his vamping: it brings the variations back to the persisting theme.
In his classic love letter to trees, penned long before the science of reiteration was understood, Hesse observed that trees “struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws” — that is, to play their tune. But as much as they might be, in Hesse’s words, “the most penetrating preachers” in the art of living, they have at least as much to teach us about the art of dying. Beyond the already disorienting science of why a tree, like a human being, is partly dead throughout life, trees are living testaments to Richard Dawkins’s wonderful perspective on the luckiness of dying, virtuosos at the art of letting life go with the same purposeful poise with which it is lived.
Citing a common saying about oaks — “Three hundred years growing, three hundred years living, three hundred years dying.” — Bryant considers the third stage of a tree’s life, known as negative morphogenesis, or “growing down”:
Growing down is not just decay. It is as active and improvisational as was the building up. Roots are damaged or die. Branches are lost to storms. Hollows open up on the trunk and are colonized by fungi like the wonderful and aptly named dryad’s saddle. The tree’s solid circulation system resolves itself back into discrete pathways, some living and some dead. It becomes obvious that scaffold branches were once separate trees, as they become so again, some maintaining their root systems and others losing them. Now the tips of the higher branches begin to die back. Instead of growing new reiteration branchlets on their undersides, as they did in their youth, they now sprout perfect little trees of their species on the tops of the branches, between the trunk and the dead tips. It is a complete restatement of the thematic tune, happening dozens of times among the still-living branches.
What unfolds in this dying stage is a process known as Phoenix regeneration:
Little by little, a tree loses its crown, first small branches, then larger ones. Roots decay. The circulation system that carries water aloft to the leaves starts to break down. When no leaves emerge on a branch, it can no longer feed itself. It dies and falls to the ground, but the tree does not give up. When a giant that was once ninety feet tall has shrunk to a height of twenty feet, little images of itself may sprout from the lower trunk or even from the root flare, wherever a living connection between root and branch survives… It is not impossible that one or the other of those last sprouts — if only they can generate their own stable root systems — may grow once again to ninety feet tall… Potentially, every tree is immortal.
Recounting his encounter with a colossal long-fallen Osage orange tree, from the dead trunk of which two miraculous former branches had risen vertically as new trunks lush with life, Bryant returns to his musical improvisation analogy:
It is as though a person rested her arm on the dirt, spread out her palm, and two perfect new arms emerged from her lifeline, complete with all the muscles and tendons and circulation, the hands, palms, fingers, and fingernails. Or perhaps more accurate, as though a person lay down at night and had two new people overnight sprout from his torso, complete from toenails to cowlicks. I think John Coltrane would have loved phoenix regeneration. It is like those moments in “My Favorite Things” where the whole piece seems about to jump off the top end of the soprano sax register, but suddenly the tune takes up again.
While Walt Whitman was singing the body electric across the Atlantic and contemplating the power of music through the lens of Beethoven’s genius, Kierkegaard placed at the center of a long essay on “the musical erotic” his ecstatic love of Mozart, from which emerges a larger centrifugal meditation on the power of music, the nature of genius, and what makes a timeless work of art in any field.
I am convinced that if Mozart ever became wholly comprehensible to me, he would for the first time become wholly incomprehensible to me.
Noting that his analysis of the power of music and the criteria for artistic greatness is “written only for those in love,” he proclaims with the unselfconscious exultation of the besotted:
I am like a young girl in love with Mozart and must have him placed highest whatever the cost… and I shall beg Mozart to forgive me because his music did not inspire me to great deeds but made a fool of me — I, who through him lost the last grain of reason I possessed, and now spend most of my time in quiet sadness humming what I do not understand, haunting like a ghost what I cannot enter into… To take him away, to efface his name, would be to overturn the only pillar that hitherto has prevented everything collapsing for me into a boundless chaos, into a fearful nothingness.
I like to imagine that Kierkegaard knew of Beethoven’s only surviving love letter, to his “immortal beloved,” and it was with this knowledge, with the subtlety of the allusion, that he places Mozart above all geniuses, even Beethoven. Switching voices and audiences, Kierkegaard reaches across mortality and possibility to address his master-muse directly:
Immortal Mozart! You, to whom I owe everything, to whom I owe the loss of my reason, the wonder that overwhelmed my soul, the fear that gripped my inmost being; you, who are the reason I did not go through life without there being something that could make me tremble; you, whom I thank for the fact that I shall not have died without having loved…
There is one work alone of his which makes him a classic composer and absolutely immortal. That work is Don Giovanni. Whatever else he has produced may cause pleasure and delight, arouse our admiration, enrich the soul, satisfy the ear, gladden the heart; but it does him and his immortality no service to lump everything together and make everything equally great. Don Giovanni is his acceptance piece. With Don Giovanni he enters that eternity which lies not outside time but within it, which no curtain conceals from human eyes, into which the immortals are admitted not once and for all but are constantly discovered as one generation passes and turns its gaze towards them, is happy in its contemplation of them, goes to the grave, and the next generation passes in its turn and is transfigured in its contemplation.
This latter criterion for immortality, for artistic greatness, is also what makes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman’s Don Giovanni — one of those rare bridges between the ephemeral and the eternal, swelling the river of time with absolute aliveness for every human consciousness that steps onto it.
From the moment my soul was first overwhelmed in wonder at Mozart’s music, and bowed down to it in humble admiration, it has often been my cherished and rewarding pastime to reflect upon how that happy Greek view that calls the world a cosmos, because it manifests itself as an orderly whole, a tasteful and transparent adornment of the spirit that works upon and in it — upon how that happy view repeats itself in a higher order of things, in the world of ideals, how it may be a ruling wisdom there too, mainly to be admired for joining together those things that belong with one another.
With this, he turns to the essence of genius, squarely confronting the common hubris — a form of human self-consolation — that genius is merely a matter of chance-conferred opportunity, and that if the same chance befell any one of us, we too would rise to the level of genius. He dismantles the elemental arrogance at the heart of this mindset:
It thinks it an accident that the lovers get each other, an accident that they love each other; there were a hundred other girls he could have been just as happy with, whom he could have loved just as deeply. It thinks many a poet has existed who would have been just as immortal as Homer had that marvellous material not been seized on by him, many a composer just as immortal as Mozart had only the opportunity offered. Now this wisdom contains much solace and comfort for all mediocre minds since it lets them and like-minded spirits fancy that the reason they are not as celebrated as the celebrities is some confusion of fate, a mistake on the part of the world. This produces a most convenient optimism. But to every high-minded soul, to every optimate who does not feel bound to save himself in such a pitiable manner as by losing himself in contemplation of the great, it is of course repugnant, while his soul delights and it is his holy joy to see united those things that belong together. This is what fortune is, not in the fortuitous sense, and so it presupposes two factors whereas the fortuitous consists in the inarticulate interjections of fate. This is what historical fortune consists in: the divine conjuncture of historical forces, the heyday of historical time. The fortuitous has just one factor: the accident that the most remarkable epic theme imaginable fell to Homer’s lot in the shape of the history of the Trojan wars. In good fortune there are two: that the most remarkable epic material came to the lot of Homer. The accent lies here on Homer as much as on the material. In this lies the profound harmony that resounds in every work of art we call classic. And so too with Mozart: it is a piece of good fortune that what in a deeper sense is perhaps the only true musical subject was granted — to Mozart.
The pillar of that “profound harmony,” Kierkegaard argues, is a certain natural discernment which only the artist of true genius possesses — an ability to intuitively match one’s gift, one’s innermost longing, with the medium and vessel of its outward expression in the world:
The poet wants his material; but wanting is no art, as one says, quite rightly and with much truth in the case of a host of impotent poetic wants. To want rightly, on the other hand, is a great art, or rather, it is a gift. It is what is inexplicable and mysterious about genius, just like the divining rod, to which it never occurs to want except in the presence of what it wants.
The most abstract idea conceivable is the spirit of sensuality. But in what medium can it be represented? Only in music. It cannot be represented in sculpture, for in itself it is a kind of quality of inwardness. It cannot be painted, for it cannot be grasped in fixed contours; it is an energy, a storm, impatience, passion, and so on, in all their lyrical quality, existing not in a single moment but in a succession of moments, for if it existed in a single moment it could be portrayed or painted. Its existing in a succession of moments indicates its epic character, yet in a stricter sense it is not an epic, for it has not reached the level of words; it moves constantly in an immediacy. Nor can it be represented, therefore, in poetry. The only medium that can represent it is music. For music has an element of time in it yet it does not lapse in time except in an unimportant sense. What it cannot express is the historical in time.
But while both language and music address the ear, which Kierkegaard considers “the most spiritually determined of the senses,” it is precisely along this temporal frontier that the two diverge and music emerges as the atemporal conscience par excellence:
Goethe’s Faust is a genuine classic, the idea is an historical one, and so every significant historical age will have its Faust. Faust has language as its medium, and the fact that language is a far more concrete medium is another reason why several works of the same kind can be imagined. Don Giovanni, on the other hand, is and will remain the only one of its kind, just as the classic sculptures of Greece. But since the idea in Don Giovanni is far more abstract even than that underlying sculpture, one sees easily why we have just one work in music but several in sculpture. One can indeed imagine many more musical classics, yet there still remains just one work of which it can be said that its idea is absolutely musical, so that the music does not enter as an accompaniment but, in bringing the idea to light, reveals its own innermost being. Therefore Mozart with his Don Giovanni stands highest among the immortals.
Noting that language is “the proper medium for the idea” yet in it “the sensual is, as medium, reduced to the level of mere instrument and constantly negated,” he concludes:
Music is, then, the medium for that species of the immediate which, qualified spiritually, is specified as lying outside spirit. Naturally, music can express much else, but this is its absolute object.
We are not “patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance” but “specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.”
By Maria Popova
“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in 1902, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
A year earlier, the Canadian psychiatrist and adventurer Maurice Bucke (March 18, 1837–February 19, 1902) published a stunning personal account and psychological study of a dazzling form of consciousness that lies just on the other side of that filmiest of screens, accessible to all. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (public library) went on to influence generations of thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, and Steve Jobs.
By his own account, Bucke was “born of good middle class English stock,” but grew up almost entirely without education, working tirelessly on his parents’ farm in the backwoods of Canada — tending cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, working in the hay field, driving oxen and horses, and running various errands from the earliest age. He learned to read when he was still a small child and soon began devouring novels and poetry. He remembers that, like Emily Dickinson, he “never, even as a child, accepted the doctrines of the Christian church” — a disposition utterly countercultural in that era of extreme religiosity.
Although his mother died when he was very young and his father shortly thereafter, Bucke recalls being often overcome by “a sort of ecstasy of curiosity and hope.” (What a lovely phrase.) At sixteen, he left the farm “to live or die as might happen,” trekking from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Ohio to San Francisco, working on farms and railroads and steamboats, narrowly escaping death by illness, starvation, and battle on several occasions. In his twentieth year, he heard of the first major discovery of silver ore in America and joined a mining party, of which he was the only survivor, and barely: On his way to California, while crossing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, he suffered frostbite so severe that one foot and a few toes on the remaining foot had to be amputated.
When he finally made it to the Pacific Coast, Bucke used a moderate inheritance from his mother to give himself a proper college education. He devoured ideas from books as wide-ranging as On the Origin of Species and Shelley’s poems. After graduating, he taught himself French so that he could read Auguste Comte and German so that he could read Goethe. At thirty, he discovered and became instantly besotted with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he felt contained vaster truth and richer meaning than any book he had previously encountered. It was Whitman who catalyzed Bucke’s transcendent experience.
More than a century before Michael Pollan insisted in his masterly inquiry into the science of psychedelics that “the Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Bucke suggests that it might be just a poem away. Writing in the third person, as was customary for “the writer” in the nineteenth century, he recounts his transformative illumination:
It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.
Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship. (“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” Patti Smith would write a century later.) In that instant, as “the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,” he experienced something he could never forget, which he called “cosmic consciousness” — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.
Bucke identifies three layers of consciousness, each built upon the lower: Simple Consciousness — a basic awareness, which most non-human animals also possess; Self-Consciousness, which render one aware not only of trees, rivers, and one’s own body, but also of oneself as “a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe,” capable of treating one’s own thoughts and feelings as objects of consciousness itself; and Cosmic Consciousness, which Bucke defines as an awareness of “the life and order of the universe.” In a passage of striking consonance with William James’s framework of transcendent experiences, he writes:
Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence — would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking and more important both to the individual and to the race than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.
In language that closely parallels the way people describe the effects of psychedelics, Bucke limns the nature and sequence of this revelatory experience:
Like a flash there is presented to [the person’s] consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise — is in very truth a living presence. He sees that instead of men being, as it were, patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance, they are in reality specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.
The person who passes through this experience will learn in the few minutes, or even moments, of its continuance more than in months or years of study, and he will learn much that no study ever taught or can teach. Especially does he obtain such a conception of THE WHOLE, or at least of an immense WHOLE, as dwarfs all conception, imagination or speculation, springing from and belonging to ordinary self consciousness, such a conception as makes the old attempts to mentally grasp the universe and its meaning petty and even ridiculous.
A year before William James published his classic treatise on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences, Bucke — whom James references — outlines the characteristics of cosmic consciousness, at the heart of which he places the Eastern concept of “Brahmic Splendor,” also reflected in Dante’s transhumanized state in Paradisio.
A sudden appearance, often accompanied by immersion in a cloud of haze or fire. “The instantaneousness of the illumination,” Bucke writes, “is one of its most striking features. It can be compared with nothing so well as with a dazzling flash of lightning in a dark night, bringing the landscape which had been hidden into clear view.” (A century later, physicist Freeman Dyson would describe one of his most significant scientific breakthroughs as “a flash of illumination.”)
An ecstatic surge of emotion — “joy, assurance, triumph, ‘salvation'” — transcending “the pleasures and pains, loves and hates, joys and sorrows,peace and war, life and death, of self conscious man.”
An intellectual illumination, arising from the emotional ecstasy, difficult to put into words. (William James also lists ineffability as the foremost feature of transcendent experiences.)
Dissolution of the fear of death.
Dissolution of the sense of sin or wrongness.
A sense of immortality accompanying the moral elevation. “This is not an intellectual conviction, such as comes with the solution of a problem, nor is it an experience such as learning something unknown before,” Bucke writes. “It is far more simple and elementary.”
Of central importance in this experience of illumination, he argues, are the character — “intellectual, moral and physical” — and age of the person undergoing it. The illumination is truer and richer, Bucke suggest, when experienced at a later age:
Should we hear of a case of cosmic consciousness occurring at twenty, for instance, we should at first doubt the truth of the account, and if forced to believe it we should expect the man (if he lived) to prove himself, in some way, a veritable spiritual giant.
Drawing on the memoirs, biographies, and letters of historical figures, he goes on to compose a kind of ledger of such spiritual giants who have reported experiences indicative of cosmic consciousness, noting next to each person the age at which they underwent the illumination. Among them he lists:
Francis Bacon (30)
William Blake (31)
Blaise Pascal (31)
Honoré de Balzac (32)
Walt Whitman (34)
Gautama Buddha (35)
Edward Carpenter (37)
Baruch Spinoza (45)
Bucke sees the attainment of cosmic consciousness as a vital step in the spiritual and moral evolution of our species, but he takes care to emphasize that it “must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal — as anything more or less than a natural growth.” With electric exuberance, he channels his optimism, both prescient and bittersweet in the hindsight of history:
The immediate future of our race… is indescribably hopeful. There are at the present moment impending over us three revolutions, the least of which would dwarf the ordinary historic upheaval called by that name into absolute insignificance. They are: (1) The material,economic and social revolution which will depend upon and result from the establishment of aerial navigation. (2) The economic and social revolution which will abolish individual ownership and rid the earth at once of two immense evils — riches and poverty. And (3) The psychical revolution of which there is here question.
Either of the first two would (and will) radically change the conditions of, and greatly uplift, human life; but the third will do more for humanity than both of the former, were their importance multiplied by hundreds or even thousands.
The three operating (as they will) together will literally create a new heaven and a new earth. Old things will be done away and all will become new.
The net result, Bucke envisions, will be nothing less than a revolution of the human soul. While human beings will remain resolutely spiritual, this revolution would be predicated on the dissolution of organized religion:
Religion will… not depend on tradition. It will not be believed and disbelieved. It will not be a part of life,belonging to certain hours, times, occasions. It will not be in sacred books nor in the mouths of priests. It will not dwell in churches and meetings and forms and days. Its life will not be in prayers,hymns nor discourses. It will not depend on special revelations, on the words of gods who came down to teach, nor on any bible or bibles. It will have no mission to save men from their sins or to secure them entrance to heaven. It will not teach a future immortality nor future glories, for immortality and all glory will exist in the here and now. The evidence of immortality will live in every heart as sight in every eye.
The anatomy of feeling, the science of psychedelics, Ursula K. Le Guin’s final poetry collection, arresting essays by Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, and Audre Lorde, a physicist’s lyrical meditation on science and spirituality, and more.
By Maria Popova
I treat my annual best-of reading lists as Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which frame aspirational priorities for the new year, they present a record of the reading that merited priority over the year past. In consequence, they are invariably subjective and incomplete — a shelf’s worth of books that I, one person, read and enjoyed in the time given, with the sensibility I have. Since this year I finished writing one book and putting together another, my reading time for new releases has been especially limited, which means these annual selections are especially subjective — no doubt I missed a great many worthy and wonderful books. But of those I did read, here — in excerpts from the pieces I originally wrote about them earlier in the year — are the ones I loved with all my heart and mind:
SO FAR SO GOOD
In November of 2014, the wise and wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) — one of the great losses of 2018 — accepted the National Book Award with a stunning speech that quickly became our era’s supreme manifesto for protecting the art of the written word from the assault of the market. In consonance with her conviction, Le Guin sent the manuscript of her final poetry collection to an independent nonprofit poetry publisher, Copper Canyon Press, who turned directly to her readers to bring it to life. And oh how alive So Far So Good (public library) is — a sort of existential atlas, traversing bordering territories of mediations, incantations, and divinations on subjects like time, impermanence, and the splendors of uncertainty. Undergirding the verses is Le Guin’s largehearted generosity of spirit — toward the reader, toward nature and reality, toward the intertwined natures of life and art.
In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.
In one of the most arresting essays, titled “On Optimism and Despair,” Smith takes on an eternal question that has bared its sharpest edges in our cultural moment — the question John Steinbeck tussled with when he wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”
Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being, as I wrote in Figuring, not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.
Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.
Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:
My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.
Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:
We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.
He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.
This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.
It is, of course, an abiding question, as old as consciousness — we are material creatures that live in a material universe, yet we are capable of experiences that transcend what we can atomize into physical facts: love, joy, the full-being gladness of a Beethoven symphony on a midsummer’s night.
The Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr articulated the basic paradox of living with and within such a duality: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”
Nearly a century after Bohr, the physicist and writer Alan Lightman takes us further, beyond these limiting dichotomies, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — a lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Through the lens of his personal experience as a working scientist and a human being with uncommon receptivity to the poetic dimensions of life, Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and the luminous.
Lightman, who has previously written beautifully about his transcendent experience facing a young osprey, relays a parallel experience he had one summer night on an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife have been going for a quarter century. On this small, remote speck of land, severed from the mainland without ferries or bridges, each of the six families has had to learn to cross the ocean by small boat — a task particularly challenging at night. Lightman recounts the unbidden revelation of one such nocturnal crossing:
No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.
Lightman — the first professor at MIT to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities — syncopates this numinous experience with the reality of his lifelong devotion to science:
I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I’d read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.
Yet after my experience in that boat many years later… I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes — ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.
Against our human finitude, temporality, and imperfection, these “Absolutes” offer infinity, eternity, perfection. Lightman defines them as concepts and beliefs that “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives” — notions like constancy, immortality, permanence, the soul, “God”; notions unprovable by the scientific method. Conversely, however, notions that belong to this realm of Absolutes fall apart when they make claims in the realm of science — claims disproven by the facts of the material world. With an eye to how the discoveries of modern science — from heliocentricity to evolution to the chemical composition of the universe — have challenged many of these Absolutes, Lightman writes:
Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.
From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.
On the one hand, such an onslaught of discovery presents a cause for celebration… Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief lifespans, stuck on our one planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature? On the other hand, we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still. If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.
“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.”
At the New England Aquarium, Montgomery 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?
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.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.
That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).
Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:
I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.
“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:
Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.
By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:
I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.
“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might: “I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”
A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.
Solnit writes in the preface:
One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.
When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.
That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:
To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.
Chance and choice converge to make us who we are, and although we may mistake chance for choice, our choices are the cobblestones, hard and uneven, that pave our destiny. They are ultimately all we can answer for and point to in the architecture of our character. Joan Didion captured this with searing lucidity in defining character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and locating in that willingness the root of self-respect.
A century before Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) composed the score for harmonizing our choices and our contentment with the life they garner us. Nietzsche, who greatly admired Emerson’s ethos of nonconformity and self-reliant individualism, wrote fervently, almost frenetically, about how to find yourself and what it means to be a free spirit. He saw the process of becoming oneself as governed by the willingness to own one’s choices and their consequences — a difficult willingness, yet one that promises the antidote to existential hopelessness, complacency, and anguish.
The legacy of that deceptively simple yet profound proposition is what philosopher John J. Kaag explores in Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (public library) — part masterwork of poetic scholarship, part contemplative memoir concerned with the most fundamental question of human life: What gives our existence meaning?
The answer, Kaag suggests in drawing on Nietzsche’s most timeless ideas, challenges our ordinary understanding of selfhood and its cascading implications for happiness, fulfillment, and the building blocks of existential contentment. He writes:
The self is not a hermetically sealed, unitary actor (Nietzsche knew this well), but its flourishing depends on two things: first, that it can choose its own way to the greatest extent possible, and then, when it fails, that it can embrace the fate that befalls it.
At the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of eternal return — the ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity. Nietzsche illustrates the concept with a simple, stirring thought experiment in his final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…”
“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.
And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.
The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”
More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.
One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.
Pollan examines the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. He approaches his subject as a science writer and a skeptic endowed with equal parts rigorous critical thinking and openminded curiosity. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s elegant braiding of the numinous and the scientific, he echoes Carl Sagan’s views on the mystery of reality and examines his own lens:
My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.
Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?
The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.
We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.
In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.
She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:
Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.
So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?
We just do.
To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.
And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:
There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.
In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:
We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.
“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in the early 1950s, nearly a quarter century before Thomas Nagel’s landmark essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” unlatched the study of other consciousnesses and seeded the disorienting awareness that other beings — “beings who walk other spheres,” to borrow Whitman’s wonderful term — experience this world we share in ways thoroughly alien to our own.
Today, we know that we need not step across the boundary of species to encounter such alien-seeming ways of inhabiting the world. There are innumerable ways of being human — we each experience life and reality in radically different ways merely by our way of seeing, but these differences are accentuated to an extreme when mental illness alters the elemental interiority of a consciousness. In these extreme cases, it can become impossible for even the most empathic imagination to grasp — not only cerebrally but with an embodied understanding — the slippery reality of an anguished consciousness so different from one’s own. Conversely, it can become impossible for those who share that anguish to articulate it, effecting an overwhelming sense of alienation and the false conviction that one is alone in one’s suffering. To convey that reality to those unbedeviled by such mental anguish, and to wrap language around its ineffable interiority for others who suffer silently from the same, is therefore a creative feat and existential service of the highest caliber.
That is what author, Happy Ending Music & Reading Series host, and my dear friend Amanda Stern accomplishes in Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (public library) — part-memoir and part-portrait of a cruelly egalitarian affliction that cuts across all borders of age, gender, race, and class, clutching one’s entire reality and sense of self in a stranglehold that squeezes life out. What emerges is a sort of literary laboratory of consciousness, anatomizing an all-consuming yet elusive feeling-pattern to explore what it takes to break the tyranny of worry and what it means to feel at home in oneself.
Part of the splendor of the book is the way Stern unspools the thread of being to the very beginning, all the way to the small child predating conscious memory. In consonance with Maurice Sendak, who so passionately believed that a centerpiece of healthy adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” the child-Amanda emerges from the pages alive and real to articulate in that simple, profound way only children have what the yet-undiagnosed acute anxiety disorder actually feels like from the inside:
Whenever I am afraid, worry sounds itself as sixty, seventy, radio channels playing at the same time inside my head. Refrains loop around and around my brain like fast jabber and I cannot get any of it to stop. I know there is something wrong with me, but no one knows how to fix me. Not anyone outside my body, and definitely not me. Eddie [Stern’s older brother] says a body is blood and bones and skin, and when everything falls off you’re a skeleton, but I am air pressure and tingly dots; energy and everything. I am air and nothing.
My breath flips on its side, horizontal and too wide to go through my lungs.
The grave paradox of mental illness and mental health is that, despite what we now know about how profoundly our emotions affect our physical wellbeing, these terms sever the head from the body — the physical body and the emotional body. A century after William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” Stern offers a powerful corrective for our ongoing cultural Cartesianism. Her vivid prose, pulsating with a life in language, invites the reader into the interiority of a deeply embodied mind that experiences and comprehends the world somatically. “I was born with a basketball net slung over my top ribs, where the world dunks its balls of dread,” she writes as she channels her young self’s budding awareness that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with her:
I am a growing constellation of errors. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, only that something is, and it must be too shameful to divulge, or so rare that even the doctors are stumped.
At the end of the book, Stern considers the centrality of anxiety in her own blink of existence and telescopes to a larger truth about this widespread yet largely invisible affliction that seems a fundamental feature of being human:
When did it start? It started before I was born. It started before my mother was born. It started when friction created the world. When does anything start? It doesn’t, it just grows, sometimes to unmanageable heights, and then, when you’re at the very edge, it becomes clear: something must be done.
Left untreated, anxiety disorders, like fingernails, grow with a person. The longer they go untended, the more mangled and painful they become. Often, they spiral, straight out of control, splitting and splintering into other disorders, like depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia. A merry-go-round of features we rise and fall upon. Separation anxiety handicaps its captors, preventing them from leaving bad relationships, moving far from home, going on trips, to parties, applying for jobs, having children, getting married, seeing friends, or falling asleep. Some people are so crippled by their anxiety they have panic attacks in anticipation of having a panic attack.
I’ve had panic attacks in nearly every part of New York City, even on Staten Island. I’ve had them in taxis, on subways, public bathrooms, banks, street corners, in Washington Square Park, on multiple piers, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, the East Village, the Upper East Side, Central Park, Lincoln Center, the dressing room at Urban Outfitters, Mamoun’s Falafel, the Bobst library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the main library branch, the Brooklyn Library, the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market, laundromats, book kiosks, in the entrance of FAO Schwartz, at the post office, the steps of the Met, on stoops, at the Brooklyn Flea, in bars, at friends’ houses, on stage, in the shower, in queen-sized beds, double beds, twin beds, in my crib.
I’ve grown so expert at hiding them, most people would never even know that I’m suffering. How, after all, do you explain that a restaurant’s decision to dim their lights swelled your throat shut, and that’s why you must leave immediately, not just the restaurant, but the neighborhood? If you cannot point to something, then it is invisible. Like a cult leader, anxiety traps you and convinces you that you’re the only one it sees.
For better or worse, we can only teach others what we understand… Each person begins, after all, as a story other people tell. And when we fall outside the confines of our common standards, we will assume our deficits define us.
My fear and my conviction were the same: that I was the flaw in the universe; the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world. This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.
“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, breakthroughs in neurology, psychobiology, and neuroscience have contributed leaps of layered (though still incomplete) understanding of the relationship between the physical body and our emotional experience. That tessellated relationship is what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (public library) — a title inspired by the disorienting fact that several billion years ago, single-cell organisms began exhibiting behaviors strikingly analogous to certain human social behaviors and 100 million years ago insects developed interactions, instruments, and cooperative strategies that we might call cultural. That such sociocultural behaviors long predate the development of the human brain casts new light on the ancient mind-body problem and offers a radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures.
Two decades after his landmark exploration of how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience, Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis — the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect — why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.
Feelings, Damasio argues, are the unheralded germinators of human culture:
Human beings have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science.
Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them and stay on to check the results… Cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.
The modern-day universe of codes and ciphers began in a cottage on the prairie, with a pair of young lovers smiling at each other across a table and a rich man urging them to be spectacular.
The two young lovers were Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, and the rich man, the eccentric textile tycoon George Fabyan.
The youngest of nine children raised in a modest Quaker home, Elizebeth was born in an era when fewer than four percent of American women graduated from college. Four years after earning her degree in Greek and English literature, she still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” The following year, 1916, she began her improbable career at Riverbank Laboratories — Fabyan’s Wonderland-like estate, where the billionaire had hired Elizebeth to work on the cipher at the heart of a literary conspiracy theory claiming that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. At Riverbank, she met William, a young geneticist living in a windmill — one of the many fanciful fixtures of Riverbank — and studying seeds in order to infuse crops with optimal properties as a kind of proto genetic engineering. Over long walks, animated by parallel intellectual voraciousness and shared skepticism of the Bacon cipher conspiracy, the two fell in love.
William and Elizebeth were married at Riverbank, where they had begun collaborating on cryptographic work. The papers on the subject they wrote together — though always published under William’s name alone — soon spread their reputation beyond Riverbank. Cryptography was new then, new and thrilling and full of unmined possibility for government intelligence, and so the U.S. Navy eventually recruited the Friedmans. Fagone writes:
The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins on the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.
The room is dark but her pencil is sharp. An envelope of puzzles arrives from Washington, sent by men who have the largest of responsibilities and the tiniest of clues. With William she examines the puzzles. He is game, he looks at her with eyes like little bonfires, he is in love with her. She is not in love yet but she would not be ashamed to fall in love with such a bright and kind person. She stares at the odd blocks of text and starts to flip and stack and rearrange them on a scratch pad, a kindling of letters, a friction of alphabets hot to the touch, and then a flame catches and then catches again, until she understands that she can ignite whenever she wants, that a power is there for the taking, for her and for anyone, and nothing will ever be the same. The ribs of a pattern shine through. Something rises at the nib of her pencil and her heart whomps away. The skeletons of words leap out and make her jump.
At twenty-two, physicist Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) ascended to a position Newton had held a quarter millennium earlier at Trinity College, where Dyson lived in a room just below Ludwig Wittgenstein’s. Nearly a century later, Dyson remains one of the preeminent scientific minds of our time and a rare witness of a great many cultural milestones, triumphs, and tragedies that have shaped modern life as we know it — landmark discoveries like cosmic microwave background radiation and the double helix structure of DNA, which have profoundly changed our understanding of the universe; the invention of the atomic bomb and the scarring brutality of a World War; the rise of the Internet. He has seen the stars of countless political regimes, scientific theories, and ideologies rise and fall. In Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library), Dyson unleashes his warm wisdom and unboastful wit on subjects as varied as politics, the enchantment of science, the vacuity of celebrity, the value of the immigrant perspective, his vibrant friendship with Richard Feynman, and the complexities of being human. He recounts “a flash of illumination” on the Greyhound bus that revealed to him the nature of creativity and composes a singularly delightful account of meeting the great, troubled logician Kurt Gödel at a farewell party for T.S. Eliot at the Princeton home of Robert Oppenheimer. What emerges is not only the fascinating memoir of an uncommon genius, composed of Dyson’s letters to his loved ones, but an invaluable time-capsule of collective memory.
The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.
The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.
There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.
Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.
A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:
They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.
Having devoted eight years of my life to it, and having a heart swelling with gratitude to the legion of writers and artists who contributed original letters and illustrations for this monumental labor of love, I must proudly include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.
Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.
Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion, for all of whom their letter is their last published work.)