In praise of the “loving sympathy” that makes life worthy of living.
By Maria Popova
“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in contemplating human nature, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” A generation later, W.H. Auden echoed this sentiment in his insistence that the only worthwhile criticism is celebration — a conviction which I myself have held and placed at the center of my life for as long as I can remember.
Long before Auden and Russell, another titan of thought in language articulated this ethos with unsurpassed poetic precision.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) offers a lovely counterpoint to the impulse toward criticism with an edge of cynicism that has only swelled in the centuries since:
I am more and more convinced that whenever one has to vent an opinion on the actions or on the writings of others, unless this be done from a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work, the result is hardly worth gathering up. Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see is in fact the only reality, and, from such reality, reality as a natural product follows. All else is vanity.
It is no small challenge to preserve and transmit original sentiment across centuries and cultures, surmounting the barriers of time and translation. Goethe’s words, popularized by John Burroughs’s 1896 classic, Whitman: A Study (public library), originally appeared in an 1887 issue of MacMillan’s Magazine. The article claimed that Goethe was “in his old age” at the time of his reflection on this central truth of creative work, but this was untrue. I was able to trace the origin of his words to a variation — likely due to translation — penned in his prime, indicating that this faith in the sympathetic and the celebratory as the only real comment upon art and life was a longtime animating ethos for the polymathic poet. In a letter to Friedrich Schiller from the spring of 1796, translated by George H. Calvert and published in 1845, forty-six-year-old Goethe writes:
In treating of writings as of actions, unless one speaks with a loving sympathy, a certain partial enthusiasm, the result is so defective as to have very little value. Pleasure, delight, sympathy in things, is all that is real, and that reproduces reality: all else is empty and in vain.
This awareness, so unnerving against the backdrop of our irrepressible yearning for constancy and permanence, was first unlatched when the ancients began suspecting that the Earth, rather than being the static center of the heavens it was long thought to be, is in motion, right beneath our feet. But it took millennia for the most disorienting evidence of inconstancy to dawn — the discovery that the universe itself is in flux, constantly expanding, growing thinner and thinner as stars grow farther and farther apart. In 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble built on the work of other scientists and formalized this in what is now known as Hubble’s Law — the first observational evidence for the ongoing expansion of the universe, which in turn furnished foundational evidence for the Big Bang model: If the universe is constantly expanding, to trace it backward along the arrow of time is to imagine it smaller and smaller, all the way down to the seeming nothingness that banged into the somethingness within which everything exists.
At the mathematical center of Hubble’s Law were the calculations of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (July 4, 1868–December 12, 1921) — one of the unheralded women astronomers, known as “the Harvard Computers,” who shaped our understanding of the universe long before they could vote. Leavitt’s particular work at the Harvard College Observatory was deemed so valuable that she was paid 20% more than the standard salary of the other computers: 25 cents per hour.
At the inaugural edition of The Universe in Verse, artist Ann Hamilton brought Leavitt’s legacy to life in her lovely reading of the “The Habits of Light” from Aperture (public library) — a collection of poems by Anna Leahy, celebrating science and many of its unsung heroines. In her wonderful prefatory meditation, Hamilton builds on her animating ethos of not-knowing as a creative act to consider the common impulse driving poetry and science, and the vital role of embracing the unknown as we regard the universe within and without — please enjoy:
THE HABITS OF LIGHT by Anna Leahy
After Henrietta Leavitt, astronomer
The difference between luminosity and brightness
is the difference between being
and being perceived, between the energy emitted
and the apparent magnitude. O, to be
significant! To have some scope and scale!
Size and heat. Why not make that obvious,
ostensible, stretch it out for all the world to see?
Distance makes a world of difference.
The universe is made of distance and of dust.
More dust than star out there,
more crimson than cobalt from here, looking,
our eyes telling the truth slant
through the almost-nothing
of the universe’s finely grained mattering.
“How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?”
By Maria Popova
“Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order,” the great Czech dissident turned president Václav Havel observed in reflecting on the interconnectedness of our fates in a globalized yet divided world. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted a quarter century earlier. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Every once in a while, we stumble into situations that jolt us into a sudden and palpable awareness of that inescapable interconnectedness, even across the greatest gulfs of difference. That is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) experienced in the spring of 1984, when she was diagnosed with liver cancer, but declined medical treatment and instead chose to undertake her teaching trip to Europe as previously planned. In West Germany, she found herself challenged to revise her existing framework of identity and belonging, emerging with a novel understanding of kinship and difference. Lorde recorded her awakening experience in a series of diary entries found in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library) — the stunning volume that gave us Lorde, shortly after her cancer diagnosis, on turning fear into fire.
Upon arrival in Berlin, Lorde was struck by a reality she hadn’t even conceived of: black German women. As she reconfigures her existing frame of reference for kinship and difference to factor in the fact of their existence, she writes in her diary:
Who are they, the German women of the Diaspora? Where do our paths intersect as women of Color — beyond the details of our particular oppressions, although certainly not outside the reference of those details? And where do our paths diverge? Most important, what can we learn from our connected differences that will be useful to us both, Afro-German and Afro-American?
Afro-German. The women say they’ve never heard that term used before.
When Lorde asks one of her students about her experience of selfhood growing up, the young woman tells her that the nicest thing she had ever been called was “war baby.” Lorde notes the absurdity — black women have lived in Germany since long before WWII, and several of her students can trace their Afro-German heritage to half a century before the war. Recounting her conversation with the young woman in her class, Lorde writes:
“I’ve never thought of Afro-German as a positive concept before,” she said, speaking out of the pain of having to live a difference that has no name; speaking out of the growing power self-scrutiny has forged from that difference.
I am excited by these women, by their blossoming sense of identity as they’re beginning to say in one way or another, “Let us be ourselves now as we define us. We are not a figment of your imagination or an exotic answer to your desires. We are not some button on the pocket of your longing.” I can see these women as a growing force for international change, in concert with other Afro-Europeans, Afro-Asians, Afro-Americans.
Reflecting on this powerful revelation of the path to kinship across difference, Lorde adds:
We are the hyphenated people of the Diaspora whose self-defined identities are no longer shameful secrets in the countries of our origin, but rather declarations of strength and solidarity. We are an increasingly united front from which the world has not yet heard.
At the heart of Lorde’s arresting encounter with the Afro-German women and her subsequent recalibration of her own conception of what it means to be black is the recognition that every plight for equality is governed by the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy — any fragmentation within the movement is a diffusion of energy that only weakens it, relinquishing the lost energy to the oppressor’s gain. Upon returning from the first international Feminist Bookfair in London, shaken by the overtone of racism that “coated and distorted much of what was good, creative, and visionary about such a fair,” Lorde writes:
The white women organizers’ defensiveness to any question of where the Black women were is rooted in that tiresome white guilt that serves neither us nor them. It reminded me of those old tacky battles of the seventies in the States: a Black woman would suggest that if white women wished to be truly feminist, they would have to examine and alter some of their actions vis-à-vis women of Color. And this discussion would immediately be perceived as an attack upon their very essence. So wasteful and destructive… We should be able to learn from our errors… But we don’t get there from here by ignoring the mud in between those two positions.
Feminism must be on the cutting edge of real social change if it is to survive as a movement in any particular country. Whatever the core problems are for the people of that country must also be the core problems addressed by women, for we do not exist in a vacuum. We are anchored in our own place and time, looking out and beyond to the future we are creating, and we are part of communities that interact. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous. While we fortify ourselves with visions of the future, we must arm ourselves with accurate perceptions of the barriers between us and that future.
Lorde continues to process these complex and intertwined questions during the remainder of her European travels. With an eye to the dark side of identity politics, she writes after returning to New York:
I am thinking about issues of color as color, Black as a chromatic fact, gradations and all… I see certain pitfalls in defining Black as a political position. It takes the cultural identity of a widespread but definite group and makes it a generic identity for many culturally diverse peoples, all on the basis of a shared oppression. This runs the risk of providing a convenient blanket of apparent similarity under which our actual and unaccepted differences can be distorted or misused. This blanket would diminish our chances of forming genuine working coalitions built upon the recognition and creative use of acknowledged difference, rather than upon the shaky foundations of a false sense of similarity.
A solid foundation, Lorde comes to recognize in the unfolding months, requires not a false sense of similarity but a true sense of kinship across difference. A year after her return from Europe, she writes in her diary:
How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?
All of our children are prey. How do we raise them not to prey upon themselves and each other? And this is why we cannot be silent, because our silences will come to testify against us out of the mouths of our children.
A bold and jubilant defense of the heart’s indomitable truth.
By Maria Popova
To love every fiber of another’s being with every fiber of your own is a rare, beautiful, and thoroughly disorienting experience — one which the term in love feels too small to hold. Its fact becomes a gravitational center of your emotional universe so powerful that the curvature of language and reality bends beyond recognition, radiating Nietzsche’s lamentation that language is not the adequate expression of all realities. The consummate reality of such a love is the native poetry of existence, known not in language but by heart.
The uncontainable, unclassifiable beauty of such love is what French writer Thomas Scotto explores with great tenderness in Jerome by Heart (public library), translated by Claudia Bedrick and Karin Snelson, and illustrated by the ever-wonderful Olivier Tallec — the story of a little boy named Raphael and his boundless adoration for another little boy, Jerome, which unfolds in Scotto’s lovely words like a poem, like a song.
It doesn’t bother me at all.
Raphael loves Jerome.
I can say it.
Jerome and Raphael share a love pure and infinite. It flows between them at its most buoyant and expansive, which means its most unselfconscious. But the grownups around them, caught in the tyranny of labels and classifications too small, are made uneasy by its largeness — a tragic testament to Bob Dylan’s observation that “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”
Eventually, Raphael begins to feel the weight of their unease at so boundless a bond. He sorrows in his dad’s lament that Jerome isn’t strong because he doesn’t play soccer and in his mom’s impression of Jerome as merely “polite,” in her blindness to “how warm his smile is” and to the “secret hideout” Raphael has in it.
Against the smallness of his parents’ perception, Raphael takes solace in the largeness that fills his own heart.
I’ve made up my mind.
From now on, every day is for Jerome.
Mornings are happy from the start!
By lunch, we’ve laughed so hard our stomachs hurt.
And by dinner, I’ve stocked up on enough of Jerome to last me the whole night.
When someone has come to fill your heart and your world so completely, it is hard — impossible, even — not to wish to talk about them all the time, to everyone. But at the breakfast table, when Raphael begins to share the lovely dream he had about Jerome the night before, his parents meet his words with punitive unloveliness with an edge of shame.
Dad stares at his shoelaces, like he doesn’t hear a word I’m saying.
Mom digs through my backpack and sighs,
“Eat your cereal, Raphael.”
It’s not like Jerome is a bad word.
I swallow my smile
and go to my room
to calm down.
In his room, Raphael ransacks his toys to find the perfect present for Jerome — that universal and irrepressible impulse to shower the beloved with gifts, to concretize in atoms some expression, however inadequate in its materiality, of the intangible vastness contained in the heart.
I circle around and around my bed.
Around and around my table.
Around and around my questions.
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