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Adrienne Rich on What a Rare Blue Bird Taught Her About the Confluence of Art, Science, and Politics in Human Life

In praise of the moments when “a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.”

Adrienne Rich on What a Rare Blue Bird Taught Her About the Confluence of Art, Science, and Politics in Human Life

A great many brilliant creators can point to a single formative experience — an epiphany-like encounter with truth, a momentary glimpse of beauty in its highest form — that furnished a certain understanding of the world, steering them toward their chosen field of endeavor. For Patti Smith, it was a swan at the lake; for Pablo Neruda, a hand through the fence, for Virginia Woolf, a flower mound; for Anne Truitt, a Picasso painting; for Albert Einstein, his first compass; for James Baldwin, a reflection in a puddle.

Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a brilliant poet and a woman of formidable political conviction — relays one such revelatory experience in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (public library), an altogether spectacular collection of her letters, diary entries, dreams, and critical reflections on literature.

Rich recounts coming home from an errand to discover a pair of enormous beating wings lifting off from her deck — not a giant gull, as she reflexively surmised, nor even a raven, but a majestic Great Blue Heron. She writes:

I had never seen one from below or from so near: usually from a car window on a road above a small bay or inlet. I had not seen one many times at all. I was not sure. Poised there on the peak of the roof, it looked immense, fastidious, apparently calm. It turned a little; seemed to gaze as far into the blue air as the curve of the earth would allow; took a slow, ritualistic, provocative step or two. I could see the two wirelike plumes streaming from the back of its head.

I walked quietly into the garden toward the fence between the two houses, speaking to it in a low voice. I told it that I thanked it for having come; that I wanted it to be safe. I moved backward again a little to look at it better. Suddenly it was in air, had flapped out of sight.

Great Blue Heron (New York Public Library public domain archive)
Great Blue Heron (New York Public Library public domain archive)

This dreamlike encounter sent her on a spiraling inquiry into the cultural climate surrounding the magnificent bird — not just how a century of rapid so-called progress has impacted its ecology, but “what has been happening in our social fabric, our emotional and sensual life, during that century.” Pulling a guide to Pacific Coast wildlife from her bookcase, Rich found herself mesmerized by the names we’ve given species by some seemingly arbitrary agreement — names like Dire Whelk, Dusky Tegula, By-the-Wind Sailor, Crumb-of-Bread Sponge, and Ghost Shrimp.

In a complement to the notion that naming confers dignity upon existence, Rich considers the general use of language in human life and its particular application in giving names:

I began to think about the names, beginning with the sound and image delivered in the name “Great Blue Heron,” as tokens of a time when naming was poetry, when connections between things and living beings, or living things and human beings, were instinctively apprehended. By “a time” I don’t mean any one historical or linguistic moment or period. I mean all the times when people have summoned language into the activity of plotting connections between, and marking distinctions among, the elements presented to our senses.

With an eye to the parallels between science, poetry, and politics, Rich reflects on how names can both dignify and objectify, grant power and take it away:

This impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root. Poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science. We might hope to find the three activities — poetry, science, politics — triangulated, with extraordinary electrical exchanges moving from each to each and through our lives. Instead, over centuries, they have become separated — poetry from politics, poetic naming from scientific naming, an ostensibly “neutral” science from political questions, “rational” science from lyrical poetry…

The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol. Wandered inadvertently or purposefully inland, maybe drought-driven, to a backyard habitat, it is a bird, Ardea herodias, whose form, dimensions, and habits have been described by ornithologists, yet whose intangible ways of being and knowing remain beyond my — or anyone’s — reach. If I spoke to it, it was because I needed to acknowledge in words the rarity and signifying power of its appearance, not because I thought it had come to me. The tall, foot-poised creature had a life, a place of its own in the manifold, fragile system that is this coastline; a place of its own in the universe. Its place, and mine, I believe, are equal and interdependent. Neither of us — woman or bird — is a symbol, despite efforts to make us that.

With her characteristic mastery of nuance, Rich reframes her encounter. The Great Blue Heron is not a symbol and it isn’t an epiphany, either — it isn’t a means to her own artistic ends, nor a gift from the universe intended to serve her personal enlightenment. It is, rather, an agent in that attentive aliveness which makes poetry, makes art, makes life worth living. With her gift for strumming multiple cultural strings in one melodic stroke, Rich writes:

A Mohawk Indian friend says she began writing “after a motor trip through the Mohawk Valley, when a Bald Eagle flew in front of her car, sat in a tree, and instructed her to write.” Very little in my own heritage has suggested to me that a wild living creature might come to bring me a direct personal message. And I know too that a complex humor underlies my friend’s statement (I do not mean it is a joke). I am suspicious — first of all, in myself — of adopted mysticisms, of glib spirituality, above all of white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases to vampirize American Indian, or African, or Asian, or other “exotic” ways of understanding. I made no claim upon the heron as my personal instructor. But our trajectories crossed at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see. And poetry, too, begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.

What Is Found There is a magnificent, sublimely layered read in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on how silence fertilizes the imagination, what “truth” really means, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, and her terrific tribute to Marie Curie.


The Savage and the Scholar: Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska on the Role of the Artist in Humanizing Our History

“The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity.”

The Savage and the Scholar: Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska on the Role of the Artist in Humanizing Our History

Henry David Thoreau considered the poet — a term he used broadly, not unlike we use the term artist today — humanity’s mystic laureate; the supreme teller of truth, champion of beauty, and sensemaker of reality. “The poet,” he wrote in contemplating the difference between an artist, an artisan, and a genius, “will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position.” But what position, exactly, does the poet — does the artist — hold today in the collective remembering we call culture?

That’s what the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explores in one of the many marvelous pieces in her Nonrequired Reading (public library) — the prose collection of Szymborska’s responses to and riffs on books she devoured during one voracious period of reading in the 1970s, which also gave us her meditations on what books do for the human spirit and how the prospect of cosmic solitude can enlarge our humanity.


In a magnificently centrifugal riff on a book about the history of the Near East in antiquity, Szymborska considers the singular inner life of the poet — and perhaps she, like Thoreau, intends for this to extrapolate to the artist in the largest sense — as the necessary bridge between our most refined artistic achievements and our most primitive nature:

The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity. Scientific explanations of the world don’t make much of an impression on him. He is an animist and a fetishist, who believes in the secret powers sleeping in all things, and who is convinced that he may stir these forces with the help of a few well-chosen words. The poet may even have seven cum laude degrees — but at the moment when he sits down to write a poem, his rationalist school uniform begins to pinch beneath the arms. He wriggles and wheezes, undoes first one button, then another, and finally leaps out of his clothing completely, to stand exposed before all as a savage with a ring through his nose. Yes, yes, a savage, since what else can you call a person who talks in verse to the dead and the unborn, to trees, to birds, and even to lamps and table legs, except perhaps an idiot?

She contrasts the role of the poet with that of the scholar in the craftsmanship of common experience we call history:

Let us return to the subject of history after this protracted introduction. The poet is compromised by his backwardness in this area as well. The past for him remains a history of wars and concrete individuals. Whereas for today’s historians, especially those preoccupied with constructing grand syntheses, wars and individuals are a secondary concern at best. For these historians, the prime historical movers are the means of production, the conditions of property-ownership, and the climate. Sporadic events don’t play a major role in the historical process. You may either bypass them completely or present them in such a way that they don’t distract the reader from more important matters. Phrases specially furbished for such purposes assist him here: “the achievement of supremacy,” “the loss of domination,” “the suppression of separatist tendencies,” “the sudden hampering of development,” and so on. Blood doesn’t drip from such words, the sparks of fires don’t scatter from them. It’s no longer a treacherous assault, ambush, slaughter, rape, and repression. It’s simply that country X “found itself within the range of foreign invaders” or, better, “of newcomers” or, better yet, “within range of the culture of Y.” The language of historians strives for abstraction and has largely achieved it.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen for a vintage adaptation of The Iliad and the Odyssey for young readers

Unlike the scholar, who is occupied with extracting from history the maximum amount of information, the poet is concerned not with the historical but with the eternal; not with information but with wisdom. (Lest we forget, the pursuit of wisdom in our age of information is all the more urgent today.) Szymborska captures this perfectly:

The historian calmly leafs through Gilgamesh, that most ancient epic of humankind, and immediately latches on to what he needs, i.e., “one of the earliest testaments to the formation of the state leadership’s social base.” The poet isn’t equipped to relish the epic for such reasons. Gilgamesh might just as well not exist for him if it holds only such information. But it does exist, because its titular hero mourns the death of his friend. One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being. For the poet this fact is of such momentous weight that it can’t be overlooked in even the most succinct historical synthesis. As I say, the poet can’t keep up, he lags behind. In his defense I can only say that someone’s got to straggle in the rear. If only to pick up what’s been trampled and lost in the triumphal procession of objective laws.

Complement the wholly terrific Nonrequired Reading with Amanda Palmer’s beautiful readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait,” then revisit James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society.


The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

“The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”

The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

A pioneer of what he called “radical-humanistic psychoanalysis,” the great German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was one of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century and a fountain of salve for the most abiding struggles of being human.

In the mid-1970s, twenty years after his influential treatise on the art of loving and four decades after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead turned to him for difficult advice, Fromm became interested in the most basic, most challenging art of human life — the art of being. At the height of a new era that had begun prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Fromm penned a short, potent book titled To Have or To Be? — an inquiry into how the great promise of progress, seeded by the Industrial Revolution, failed us in our most elemental search for meaning and well-being. But the question proved far too complex to tackle in a single volume, so Fromm left out a significant portion of his manuscript.

Those pages, in many ways even richer and more insightful than the original book, were later published as The Art of Being (public library) — a sort of field guide, all the timelier today, to how we can shift from the having mode of existence, which is systematically syphoning our happiness, to a being mode.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

Fromm frames the inquiry:

The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.

But any effort to outline the steps of this breakthrough, Fromm cautions, must begin with the foundational question of what the goal of living is — that is, what we consider the meaning of life to be, beyond its biological purpose. He writes:

It seems that nature — or if you will, the process of evolution — has endowed every living being with the wish to live, and whatever he believes to be his reasons are only secondary thoughts by which he rationalizes this biologically given impulse.


That we want to live, that we like to live, are facts that require no explanation. But if we ask how we want to live — what we seek from life, what makes life meaningful for us — then indeed we deal with questions (and they are more or less identical) to which people will give many different answers. Some will say they want love, others will choose power, others security, others sensuous pleasure and comfort, others fame; but most would probably agree in the statement that what they want is happiness. This is also what most philosophers and theologians have declared to be the aim of human striving. However, if happiness covers such different, and mostly mutually exclusive, contents as the ones just mentioned, it becomes an abstraction and thus rather useless. What matters is to examine what the term “happiness” means…

Art from Kenny’s Window, Maurice Sendak’s forgotten philosophical children’s book

Most definitions of happiness, Fromm observes, converge at some version of having our needs met and our wishes fulfilled — but this raises the question of what it is we actually want. (As Milan Kundera memorably wrote, “we can never know what to want.”) It’s essentially a question about human nature — or, rather, about the interplay of nature and nurture mediated by norms. Adding to the vocabulary of gardening as a metaphor for understanding happiness and making sense of mastery, Fromm illustrates his point:

This is indeed well understood by any gardener. The aim of the life of a rosebush is to be all that is inherent as potentiality in the rosebush: that its leaves are well developed and that its flower is the most perfect rose that can grow out of this seed. The gardener knows, then, in order to reach this aim he must follow certain norms that have been empirically found. The rosebush needs a specific kind of soil, of moisture, of temperature, of sun and shade. It is up to the gardener to provide these things if he wants to have beautiful roses. But even without his help the rosebush tries to provide itself with the optimum of needs. It can do nothing about moisture and soil, but it can do something about sun and temperature by growing “crooked,” in the direction of the sun, provided there is such an opportunity. Why would not the same hold true for the human species?

Even if we had no theoretical knowledge about the reasons for the norms that are conducive to man’s optimal growth and functioning, experience tells us just as much as it tells the gardener. Therein lies the reason that all great teachers of man have arrived at essentially the same norms for living, the essence of these norms being that the overcoming of greed, illusions, and hate, and the attainment of love and compassion, are the conditions for attaining optimal being. Drawing conclusions from empirical evidence, even if we cannot explain the evidence theoretically, is a perfectly sound and by no means “unscientific” method, although the scientists’ ideal will remain, to discover the laws behind the empirical evidence.

He distills the basic principle of life’s ultimate aim:

The goal of living [is] to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conducive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

But one of the essential ingredients of well-being, Fromm notes, has been gruesomely warped by capitalist industrial society — the idea of freedom and its attainment by the individual:

Liberation has been exclusively applied to liberation from outside forces; by the middle class from feudalism, by the working class from capitalism, by the peoples in Africa and Asia from imperialism.

Such external liberation, Fromm argues, is essentially political liberation — an inherently limiting pseudo-liberation, which can obscure the emergence of various forms of imprisonment and entrapment within the political system. He writes:

This is the case in Western democracy, where political liberation hides the fact of dependency in many disguises… Man can be a slave even without being put in chains… The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free. He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?

Any attempt to overcome the possibly fatal crisis of the industrialized part of the world, and perhaps of the human race, must begin with the understanding of the nature of both outer and inner chains; it must be based on the liberation of man in the classic, humanist sense as well as in the modern, political and social sense… The only realistic aim is total liberation, a goal that may well be called radical (or revolutionary) humanism.

The two most pernicious chains keeping us from liberation, Fromm observes, are our culture’s property-driven materialism and our individual intrinsic tendencies toward narcissism. He writes:

If “well-being” — [defined as] functioning well as a person, not as an instrument — is the supreme goal of one’s efforts, two specific ways stand out that lead to the attainment of this goal: Breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

He offers the crispest definition of narcissism I’ve encountered (something that took Kafka a 47-page letter to articulate):

Narcissism is an orientation in which all one’s interest and passion are directed to one’s own person: one’s body, mind, feelings, interests… For the narcissistic person, only he and what concerns him are fully real; what is outside, what concerns others, is real only in a superficial sense of perception; that is to say, it is real for one’s senses and for one’s intellect. But it is not real in a deeper sense, for our feeling or understanding. He is, in fact, aware only of what is outside, inasmuch as it affects him. Hence, he has no love, no compassion, no rational, objective judgment. The narcissistic person has built an invisible wall around himself. He is everything, the world is nothing. Or rather: He is the world.

But because narcissism can come in many guises, Fromm cautions, it can be particularly challenging to detect in oneself in order to then eradicate — and yet without doing so, “the further way to self-completion is blocked.”

A parallel peril to well-being comes from the egotism and selfishness seeded by our ownership-driven society, a culture that prioritizes having over being by making property its primary mode of existence. Fromm writes:

A person living in this mode is not necessarily very narcissistic. He may have broken through the shell of his narcissism, have an adequate appreciation of reality outside himself, not necessarily be “in love with himself”; he knows who he is and who the others are, and can well distinguish between subjective experience and reality. Nevertheless, he wants everything for himself; has no pleasure in giving, in sharing, in solidarity, in cooperation, in love. He is a closed fortress, suspicious of others, eager to take and most reluctant to give.

Growth, he argues, requires a dual breakthrough — of narcissism and of property-driven existence. Although the first steps toward this breaking from bondage are bound to be anxiety-producing, this initial discomfort is but a paltry price for the larger rewards of well-being awaiting us on the other side of the trying transformation:

If a person has the will and the determination to loosen the bars of his prison of narcissism and selfishness, when he has the courage to tolerate the intermittent anxiety, he experiences the first glimpses of joy and strength that he sometimes attains. And only then a decisive new factor enters into the dynamics of the process. This new experience becomes the decisive motivation for going ahead and following the path he has charted… [An] experience of well-being — fleeting and small as it may be — … becomes the most powerful motivation for further progress…

Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed. At a certain point the energy and direction of inner forces have changed to the point where an individual’s sense of identity has changed, too. In the property mode of existence the motto is: “I am what I have.” After the breakthrough it is “I am what I do” (in the sense of unalienated activity); or simply, “I am what I am.”

In the remainder of The Art of Being, Fromm explores the subtleties and practicalities of enacting this transformation. Complement it with legendary social scientist John W. Gardner, a contemporary of Fromm’s, on the art of self-renewal, then revisit Fromm’s abiding wisdom on what is keeping us from mastering the art of love.


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