Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 30

I Am Not I: Philosopher Jacob Needleman on How We Become Who We Are and the Path to Self-Liberation

“There is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.”

I Am Not I: Philosopher Jacob Needleman on How We Become Who We Are and the Path to Self-Liberation

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” So proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his youth. “I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath marveled in her own diary a century after Tolstoy as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. Indeed, these three smug lines slice through the core of our experience as human beings, and yet when we begin to dismantle them, we begin to lose sight of that core, of the essence of life. What, then, are we made of? What, then, makes us?

In I Am Not I (public library), philosopher Jacob Needleman picks up where Tolstoy and Plath left off, and enlists more of humanity’s most wakeful minds — from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to William James to D.T. Suzuki — in finding embrocation for, if not an answer to, these most restless-making questions of existence. Out of the inquiry itself arises an immensely hope-giving offering — a sort of secular sacrament illuminating what lies at the heart of the most profound experiences we’re capable of having: joy, love, hope, wonder, astonishment, transcendence.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Needleman writes:

Among the great questions of the human heart, none is more central than the question, “Who am I?” And among the great answers of the human spirit, none is more central than the experience of “I Am.” In fact, in the course of an intensely lived human life — a normal human life filled with the search for Truth — this question and this answer eventually run parallel to each other, coming closer and closer together until the question becomes the answer and the answer becomes the question.

Needleman first confronted this question when he was eleven years old, thanks to a neighborhood boy named Elias Barkhordian, who became his dearest childhood friend and most indefatigable comrade in intellectual inquiry. The two would sit together after school for hours on end, discussing astronomy and spirituality with equal rigor of openhearted curiosity. But it was Elias’s untimely death, as much as his short life, that catapulted Needleman’s existential puzzlements into new heights of understanding. More than half a century later, he writes:

Elias died from leukemia, at that time incurable, just before his fourteenth birthday. In the months that followed the onset of his illness, I would meet with him in the quiet music room at the back of his house, facing a large, carefully tended, sunshine-filled garden. As his illness progressed and he grew weaker, my feeling about his mind deepened. He spoke openly about what awaited him and regretted only that he would not live long enough to understand everything that he wished to understand about the universe. But somehow, doubtless because of the more frequent appearance in us of shared conscious presence, his death eventually, in the years that followed, brought me more hope than grief, the hope that arises from the “sound” of a truly sacred consciousness calling to us from within ourselves.

I see now that it is the intimation of this quality of hope that I have all along been trying to bring both to myself and to my students and readers in the face of the illusory hopes and inevitable pessimism so characteristic of our era.

To explore these questions, Needleman structures the book in the classic style of a Socratic dialogue, but modernizes and enlivens the form with the imaginative twist of staging a conversation between his childhood self, Jerry, and his present 80-year-old self, Jacob. I am reminded here of Joan Didion’s memorable quip that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” — advice often difficult to implement as we wince at the petulance, foolishness, and hubris of our former selves, yet something Needleman accomplishes with tremendous grace, warmth, and generosity of spirit toward the imperfect, impatient boy he once was.

Jacob Needleman (Photograph: David Ulrich)
Jacob Needleman (Photograph: David Ulrich)

In one of these exchanges, Jacob articulates to Jerry the central premise of the book itself:

The struggle to exist, to not disappear in this moment, is the advancing root of the struggle to exist throughout the whole passage of time. We need to help each other in this struggle. You by asking, I by struggling to respond. This is the law of love, which rules the universe.

In another, reminiscent of Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for embracing contradiction, Jacob exhorts Jerry:

Stay with the contradiction. If you stay, you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.

The willingness to sit with contradiction, Needleman argues, is the beginning of true self-knowledge and of the deepest kind of truthfulness. Echoing André Gide’s assertion that sincerity is the most difficult feat of all, Jacob tells Jerry:

This is the beginning of sincerity.

Because you are struggling, your question begins to deepen… What you will discover, always for the first time, always new, in the fleeting moment of wonder — before that moment is captured by the ambitions of personality. You, I, in that moment, will discover the need to serve the energy, uniquely human and also sacred, that starts as the pure awareness of one’s own existence. And even as this idea — this beginning idea — of what is human, even as this idea of what is man, begins to appear — even in that fleeting moment of the pure awareness of my existence given now by a great idea — in that moment in front of a living idea, an awakening idea, a glimpse appears of the uniquely human yearning to serve; the need appears, the need to obey that energy, the need to attend to it, to be nourished by it, to receive the help that comes then and only then, when you are objectively obliged to give, to serve, to manifest that energy in action and understanding. It is only that energy of conscious existence that gives you, a human being, real strength. The energy that is the total awareness of one’s own existence is — or can become, can be — the strongest energy in human life.

In another exchange, Jacob steers Jerry toward the idea that acknowledging the illusoriness of free will liberates us rather than taking away our freedom. Pointing out how impossible it is to understand freedom without understanding the influences acting upon us, the laws of the universe, and the nature of reality, he considers the source of real freedom:

Ask yourself what is your understanding of the influences acting upon us — of the universal laws in nature? What are your thoughts about that? And the teachings of religion — the idea of faith, obedience to the higher, responsibility for others and oneself, the deceptions and revelations of sleep and dreaming, the very idea of man’s place in the living, breathing, sentient cosmos, our place on our planet, the demand for morality, the nature of animal instinct and intuition within us and around us, the function and the meaning of pain and pleasure, the idea and the experience of consciousness and conscience, the subtle nourishment in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the genuine and the fabricated needs and desires of the body, the powerful influences of symbols, the cosmic and intimate force of sex, the inevitability of death, the illusion and the reality of time.


Working like this, and maintaining the fundamental attitude of sincerity about yourself and your discoveries, you will become disillusioned not only with your certainties, but with the structure of your mind itself. You will realize that what you need is not new beliefs, new information, new theories, but an entirely new mind.

Such dissolution of certainty, Needleman argues, is the gateway to real freedom:

Real ideas open the mind to the heart, to the heart of the mind, to another level of reality within ourselves… This is the taste, the beginning, of inner freedom. Only fools imagine that freedom means getting what one happens to desire. Real freedom begins with obedience to a higher influence — a higher, finer energy within oneself.


What is higher in yourself? That way of thinking about the question is the beginning of the answer — because it involves a real idea which has been handed down to humanity over thousands of years… At such a point you yourself will find the answer — not as a thought, but as an experience.

You will for a moment become the answer! You will not only have a taste of real freedom; you will for a moment be freedom.

How to cultivate such a capacity for self-erasure in the service of self-transcendence and self-liberation is what Needleman goes on to explore in the remainder of the thoroughly elevating and illuminating I Am Not I. Complement it with Aldous Huxley on the divine within, astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity in literature and life, then revisit Plato and the perplexity of free will.

Thanks, Dani


The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: Food-Related Memories, Meditations, and Favorite Recipes by Beloved Creators

Neil Gaiman’s unblinking omelette, Joyce Carol Oates’s thin-sliced defiance of grief, Marina Abramovic’s meteoric antidote to doubt, and other existential edibles.

The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: Food-Related Memories, Meditations, and Favorite Recipes by Beloved Creators

“Art is a form of nourishment,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. But the inverse is equally true — food is a form of art, and it is artists who have always savored this two-way delight most ardently. In the past century alone, we’ve witnessed ample cross-pollination of culinary culture and the arts: the cuisine of Futurism, Salvador Dalí’s erotic cookbook, great poets’ favorite recipes, the found meals of the Lost Generation, Liberace’s cookbook, a sampling of modern art desserts, and the meals of famous fiction.

Now comes The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes, envisioned and edited by artist and writer Natalie Eve Garrett, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter, and inspired by a the classic 1961 edition.

Among the seventy-six contributions from painters, poets, novelists, and other contemporary artists are food-related vignettes, meditations, micro-memoirs, and favorite recipes by Neil Gaiman, Ed Ruscha, Joyce Carol Oates, Nikki Giovanni, Roz Chast, Elizabeth Alexander, Paul Muldoon, Sanford Biggers, Anthony Doerr, Sharon Olds, and Marina Abramović.

The project does for food what artist Emily Spivack’s wonderful Worn Stories did for clothing — something seemingly mundane becomes a springboard for imaginative leaps into the depths of the human experience. Perhaps because food is so inseparable from our creaturely existence, undergirding these culinary curations are reflections — sometimes rapturous, sometimes poignant, often redemptive, always deeply humane — on life’s most inescapable commonalities: love, grief, growing up, the messy, unhandsome, absolutely beautiful journey of becoming who we are.

Recalling her first encounter with the vintage cookbook that inspired the project, Garrett writes in the introduction:

The more I read, the more the connection between art, writing, and cooking made sense: Ideally all three are about something new. They all require some measure of vision, revision, faith, and magic, not to mention a high tolerance for disaster. All three also engage the senses, surprise and sustain us, and can be evocative. And, at their best, they can even be transformative.

Master-enchanter Neil Gaiman contributes a recipe based on a passage from his beloved book Coraline:


Her other mother smiled gently. With one hand she cracked the eggs into a bowl; with the other she whisked them and whirled them. Then she dropped a pat of butter into a frying pan, where it hissed and fizzled and spun as she sliced thin slices of cheese. She poured the melted butter and the cheese into the egg-mixture, and whisked it some more.

“Now, I think you’re being silly, dear,” said the other mother. “I love you. I will always love you. Nobody sensible believes in ghosts anyway — that’s because they’re all such liars. Smell the lovely breakfast I’m making for you.” She poured the yellow mixture into the pan. “Cheese omelette. Your favorite.”

Coraline’s mouth watered. “You like games,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

The other mother’s black eyes flashed. “Everybody likes games,” was all she said.

“Yes,” said Coraline. She climbed down from the counter and sat at the table.

The bacon was sizzling and spitting under the grill. It smelled wonderful.

“Wouldn’t you be happier if you won me, fair and square?” asked Coraline.

“Possibly,” said the other mother. She had a show of unconcernedness, but her fingers twitched and drummed and she licked her lips with her scarlet tongue. “What exactly are you offering?”

“Me,” said Coraline, and she gripped her knees under the table, to stop them from shaking. “If I lose I’ll stay here with you forever and I’ll let you love me. I’ll be a most dutiful daughter. I’ll eat your food and play Happy Families. And I’ll let you sew your buttons into my eyes.”

Her other mother stared at her, black buttons unblinking. “That sounds very fine,” she said. “And if you do not lose?”

“Then you let me go. You let everyone go—my real father and mother, the dead children, everyone you’ve trapped here.”

The other mother took the bacon from under the grill and put it on a plate. Then she slipped the cheese omelette from the pan onto the plate, flipping it as she did so, letting it fold itself into a perfect omelette shape.

She placed the breakfast plate in front of Coraline, along with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a mug of frothy hot chocolate.

“Yes,” she said. “I think I like this game.”

Gaiman steps out of his fictional universe and onto the kitchen floor, where he offers a real recipe for Coraline’s omelette:


2 eggs
1 tablespoon milk
a pinch of salt

Beat together eggs, milk, and a pinch of salt.

Melt a large pat of butter in the frying pan, coat the pan with it, then pour it into the egg mixture and beat it in.

Pour the mixture into the pan.

Sprinkle grated cheese onto the omelette.

Push the eggs away from the edges of the pan, letting anything liquid cook. Don’t let the bottom of it brown. Fold it in the pan or do the elegant thing where you slip it half onto the plate then let the top half come down on the bottom half. Garnish with fresh parsley or don’t, depending on the finickiness of whoever you are feeding and whether or not they are scared of parsley.

In an even further extreme of the levity-gravity spectrum, Joyce Carol Oates captures the mundane finality we only recognize in hindsight, that most gutting aspect of grief:


Something simple like scrambled eggs with onions and smoked salmon and a particular sort of sourdough bread, and he might’ve had a glass of wine, possibly two glasses of wine, and there’d certainly have been a salad, mostly red-leaf lettuce, though with some of those little red cherry tomatoes he grew in his garden; and thin-sliced cucumbers, and thin-sliced red peppers; for it’s a household custom to make a simple meal when you’ve been traveling, and to put a small vase of flowers on your desk for you to discover when you return. And it comes as a slow revelation to you — (you who are dazed with travel, both at the time and now years later recalling that time as across an abyss of such depth and vertigo you dare not glance into it) — that yes, this is the last meal he will prepare for the two of you, the last meal he will prepare on such an occasion, or on any occasion, on this wintry evening in February 2008, as it is the last time you will set the table for two and light the dining room candles in the glass-walled house; and so you are thinking that possibly you can’t prepare the simple meal that had been one of your customs, for it’s too soon, and you aren’t ready, you aren’t strong enough; a recipe

Scrambled Eggs, Onions & Smoked Salmon

4 eggs, scrambled
chopped onion
minimal butter
small pieces smoked salmon

In frying pan melt butter and cook onions.

Add pieces of salmon.

Stir in scrambled eggs.

With an eye to a different sort of grief, civilizational rather than persona, the Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon offers a caricature of our undignified, self-defeating flight from and fight with nature — a satirical lament for our Monsantocene:


Take one pork cutlet,
preferably from a pig that’s been growth hormone-addled
and shows evidence of low-dose antibiotics
that’s sometimes swept under the rug.
Brush with a corn derivative
and place on grill.
Add two ammonia treated defatted beef patties
but only if they carry a USDA stamp.
On no account overcook
lest you accidentally kill
any of the superbugs
or other strains of bacteria about to enter your system.
It’s best if they’re resistant to drugs.

Take one Arctic apple
designed by the irresistible
Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. of Canada
to itself “resist” browning when sliced.
Cut in half
and place on grill.
Set aside your suspicion that genetic
modification is now endemic
and season with verbiage that comes by hook or by crook
from Capitol Hill.
Turn the cutlet twice,
then drizzle with honey and low pesticide residue nutmeg.
For nutmeg you may substitute low pesticide residue allspice.

Via-à-vis the honey,
the ideal would be to harvest it from a collapsing colony
of neonicotinoid-
compromised bees
that had built some semblance of a hive
in your grill.
IN a pan sweat a small onion but don’t
for a moment succumb to pathogen-paranoia.
Garnish with watercress almost entirely rife with liver fluke,
raised as it was a hydroponic rill
that’s the runoff from a piggery.
As to whether the Arctic apple is “truly non-browning,”
you’ll have to wait and see.

The poet Elizabeth Alexander offers a counterpoint to this tenuous question of authenticity as she reflects on the cultural and culinary heritage of her late husband, whom she eulogized so beautifully in her memoir of love and loss.


With an eye to the idea that altering the “authentic” can be a sanctifying act of the imagination, rather than the hubristic desecration Muldoon paints, Alexander writes:

When Ficre Ghebreyesus and I met in New Haven in the late spring of 1996, the first thing he wanted to do was show me his art. He was living at the time at 218 State Street, the New Haven Cash Register Company building, in an unfinished lot where he slept and painted when he was not cooking his Eritrean fantasia food in the kitchen of Caffé Adulis, the restaurant he owned and ran with his brothers Giddeon and Sahle. The restaurant was named in homage to Adulis, an ancient port city on the Red Sea that is now an archeological excavation site, one of Africa’s great “lost cities.” Pliny the Elder was the first writer to mention Adulis, which he called “city of free men.”


There were paintings everywhere, mostly large dark canvases lit with brilliant corners of insistent life. The paintings gave a sense of his beloved homeland in wartime — the Eritrean War of Independence began shortly before he was born — infused with the light of determined humanity that would not be deferred or extinguished.


Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably. When Solomon Kebede Ghebreyesus, our first son, was born in April of 1998, we moved to 45 Livingston Street in New Haven. Ficre continued to invent and cook at Adulis. The great food writer and old-school newspaperman R.W. Apple visited the restaurant and after tasting Ficre’s creations asked, in his article in The New York Times, “A Culinary Journey out of Africa and into New Haven”:

“Is all of this authentic?”…

“Tricky word, authentic,” [Ficre] replied. “Tricky idea. Food ideas move around the world very quickly today, and if you went to Eritrea, you’d find American touches here and there. There are thousands of Eritreans living in the United States, and when they go home, they take new food ideas with them. For us, that’s no more foreign than pasta once was.”

Adulis was a gathering place where people ate food they’d never imagined and learned about the culture and history of a country that most of them had never heard of. Ficre created legendary dishes such as shrimp barka that existed nowhere in Eritrea but rather in his own inventive imagination. Women called for it from St. Raphael’s and Yale-New Haven Hospitals after they’d delivered their babies; people said they literally dreamed of it, a fairy food that tasted like nothing else.

Here is how you make it.


4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium red onions, thinly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
5 very ripe and juicy tomatoes, chopped coarsely
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup finely chopped fresh basic (1 bunch)
15 pitted dates (½ cup), cut crosswise in thirds
3 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
½ cup half-and-half
1 pound medium shrimp (16-20), shelled and deveined
? cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 ½ cups cooked basmati rice

In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, and sauté until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and continue sautéing, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, for 2 minutes longer. Stir in the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes.

Add basil, dates, and coconut, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes. Add the half-and-half, cover, and cook for 3 minutes.

Add shrimp to sauce. Cook covered, until shrimp turn pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in cheese and then the rice, and serve immediately.

Artist Marina Abramović cooks up a conceptual menu partway between Yoko Ono’s action-poems and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It:



In time of doubt
keep a small meteorite
in your mouth

to be consumed on a solar eclipse

take 13 leaves of uncut
green cabbage with
13,000 grams of jealousy
steam for a long time in a
deep iron pot
until all the water
eat just before attack

essence drink

mix fresh breast milk
fresh sperm milk
drink on earthquake nights

fire food

on top of a volcano
open your mouth
wait until your tongue
becomes flame
close your mouth
take a deep breath

Complement the thoroughly delectable Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook with its vintage counterpart and the fantastic, forgotten MoMA Artists’ Cookbook, then revisit Joan Didion’s favorite recipes and these real recipes from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake.

Illustrations and excerpts courtesy of powerHouse Books


The Trans-Sensory Transcendence of Music: Helen Keller’s Electrifying Letter About “Hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

“I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still.”

The Trans-Sensory Transcendence of Music: Helen Keller’s Electrifying Letter About “Hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

“Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation,” Oliver Sacks wrote in his contribution to great writers’ reflections on the power of music. And yet one inescapable biological mediation stands between music and the heart: the ear.

Paradoxically, one of the most beautiful testaments to the power of music comes from an unlikely listener: the exceptional Helen Keller (June 27, 1880–June 1, 1968). Without hearing or sight since early childhood, she not only learned to read and speak, thanks to her teacher Annie Sullivan, but grew up to be a spirited humanist, unflinching political and human rights activist, and immensely articulate writer.


The evening of February 1st, 1924 — decades before she had a similarly profound first encounter with dance — 44-year-old Keller had a transcendent experience. With her hand pressed against the radio receiver in her living room, she “heard” a live Carnegie Hall broadcast of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, also known as Ode to Joy — one of humanity’s most beloved pieces of music, which Beethoven, by then deaf himself, had composed exactly 100 years earlier.

The following day, Keller wrote an electrifying letter of gratitude to the New York Symphony Orchestra, articulating the trans-sensory transcendence of her experience and of music itself. Her missive appears in the altogether elevating Letters of Note Volume 2: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the second anthology based on Shaun Usher’s lovingly curated site of the same name.


Keller writes:

Dear Friends:

I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” I do not mean to say that I “heard” the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voice leaped up trilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth — an ocean of heavenly vibration — and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.

Of course, this was not “hearing” but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sensed, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand — swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.

As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marvelled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others — and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.

Let me thank you warmly for all the delight which your beautiful music has brought to my household and to me. I want also to thank Station WEAF for the joy they are broadcasting in the world.

With kindest regards and best wishes, I am,

Sincerely yours,



Couple with Schopenhauer on the singular power of music and Anthony Burgess on the magical childhood moment when he fell in love with music, then revisit Keller’s increasingly timely manifesto for living with lucid optimism.


View Full Site

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