By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven. While she was dying, his unscrupulous father was having an open affair with the children’s nanny, whom he went on to marry. Three more children came. Then, just before William’s twentieth birthday, his toddler half-brother disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night. His body was found in the vault of the outhouse, savaged by multiple stab wounds. His nursemaid — with whom William’s father was already having an affair — was at first arrest, then released; suspicion was diverted toward William’s sixteen-year-old sister Constance. She was detained, but released on account of favorable public opinion. A Scotland Yard detective became obsessed with the case and prosecuted her for murder five years later, eventually extracting a confession and making national headlines with true crime sensationalism. Caroline was sentenced to twenty years in prison. But many — including Charles Dickens — mistrusted the confession, having suspected the volatile, perfidious father all along. He was never brought under investigation.
William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.
Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels.
At twenty-five, he won a grant from the Royal Society to lead a dredging survey off the coast of Portugal, trading in the lifeless stillness of museum specimens for the coruscating aliveness of the marine world. Upon his return, he could only continue working with living species. Over the next decade, he took a series of job as various aquariums, but his imagination continued reaching for the unglassed sea.
As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined.
Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors. (This, after all, was the gloaming hour of that golden age when scientists were also trained as artists, which enabled them to advance their own discoveries in sometimes epoch-making ways.)
A lovely antidote to “the rude, irrelevant question of our age,” the hollow assumption that “the event of two bodies meshing together establishes the degree of love.”
By Maria Popova
Among the handful of things I have learned about life with the calm, quiet clarity of elemental knowing is one that bears repeating: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos — but it is also a limiting one: In naming things, we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the richness of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them. Emily Dickinson knew this intimately — the extraordinary lifelong love she shared with Susan prompted her, after decades, to exult in verse: “Title divine — is mine! The Wife — without the Sign!”
Such loves — oceanic loves, vast and deep and wholly unfathomable to any shoreline observer — are luminous private miracles undimmed by the tattling irrelevance of the public. Among those loves was that between the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) and the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896).
Clara and Johannes first crossed orbits in 1853, when her beloved husband — the celebrated composer Robert Schumann — encountered in the twenty-year-old Brahms a talent so uncommon and promising that he immediately set about bringing the music world’s awed attention to it, writing impassioned letters to all the leading journals and auguring the young musician’s future fame.
Brahms was intensely grateful for the famed composer’s faith. But before the mentorship could fully blossom, Schumann’s already precarious mental health plummeted. Only four months after meeting Brahms, he attempted suicide by leaping into the Rhine from a bridge. He was rescued, but never recovered — he spent the remaining two years of his life in a private psychiatric institution, savaged by hallucinations and psychoses. Clara was left to raise their seven children alone. In an era when only the rarest women had artistic careers, or any careers at all, she leaned on her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to feed her children and secure them an education.
It was in that period of disorientation and bereavement that Clara came to correspond with Johannes directly — at first perhaps as an extension of her husband, who had seen much of himself in his young protégé, then as something… else, something sweeping and unclassifiable, beyond the reach of our bystander imaginations — a something that, over the lifetime of tender letters that followed, became an everything. “I would gladly write to you only by means of music,” Johannes would soon be telling Clara, “but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.” Even music — their common language, the language capable of expressing breadths and vicissitudes of emotion no words can express — was too small to hold the universe between them.
That private vastness is what Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) captures with stunning elegance and generosity in her poem “Romantics,” found in her altogether indispensable collected poems, Alive Together (public library).
Johannes Brahms and
The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.
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.
“In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.”
By Maria Popova
In the final years of his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks reflected on the physiological and psychological healing power of nature, observing that in forty years of medical practice, he had found only two types of non-pharmaceutical therapy helpful to his patients: music and gardens. It was in a garden, too, that Virginia Woolf, bedeviled by lifelong mental illness, found the consciousness-electrifying epiphany that enabled her to make some of humanity’s most transcendent art despite her private suffering.
When my dear friend Natascha McElhone (who narrated Figuring) was asked to choose a piece of literature with which to narrate a tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for an episode of Wander — a lovely series by filmmaker Beau Kerouac, benefiting Britain’s Mental Health Foundation and helping quarantined people virtually visit some of the world’s most beloved parks and cultural institutions, accompanied by some of the world’s most beloved literary and artistic voices — Natascha chose a wondrous 100-year-old love letter to trees by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962), which she had saved from Brain Pickings nearly a decade ago. Originally published in Hesse’s 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library), it comes newly alive in this transportive, transcendent journey through the screen and past it, into a lush wonderland of nature’s aliveness, with two uncommonly beautiful voices as the sherpas.
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts… Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.