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Against Common Sense: Vladimir Nabokov on the Wellspring of Wonder and Why the Belief in Goodness Is a Moral Obligation

“This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

Against Common Sense: Vladimir Nabokov on the Wellspring of Wonder and Why the Belief in Goodness Is a Moral Obligation

“Once we leave those domains of human experience, there’s no reason to expect the laws of nature to continue to obey our expectations, since our expectations are dependent on a limited set of experiences,” Carl Sagan observed in considering how common sense blinds us to the reality of the universe. Perhaps worse yet — worse than the wrong beliefs we held for millennia about our planet’s shape, motion, and position in the cosmos, just because it feels flat and steady beneath our feet and is the center of everything we know — common sense often blinds us to the reality of our own interior world. It impoverishes our experience of the uncommonest, most delicate, most beautiful aspects of being and leads us, as I wrote in the prelude to Figuring, to mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves.

How to lift the blinders of common sense that unfit us for seeing wonder is what Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) explores with uncommon wisdom, wit, and splendor of sentiment in a lecture he delivered at Wellesley College in 1941, titled “The Art of Literature and Commonsense” and later included in the superb posthumous 1980 volume Lectures on Literature (public library).

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov writes:

In the fall of 1811 Noah Webster, working steadily through the C’s, defined commonsense as “good sound ordinary sense . . . free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety… horse sense.” This is rather a flattering view of the creature, for the biography of commonsense makes nasty reading. Commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth; commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof; commonsense has prompted ugly but strong nations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chance that it would have been ridiculous not to exploit. Commonsense is fundamentally immoral, for the natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved since the immemorial dimness of time. Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and so everything is comfortably cheapened by its touch. Commonsense is square whereas all the most essential visions and values of life are beautifully round, as round as the universe or the eyes of a child at its first circus show.

This “sense made common” is, of course, the seedbed of so many of our social and civilizational biases — from the dogmatic geocentrism that nearly cost Galileo his life to the mindless majority rule against which James Baldwin so fervently admonished. It is the seedbed, therefore, of conformity and thus the enemy of a society’s progress, which presupposes that we rise above the common lot of beliefs and mores to imagine the uncommon, the alternative — an act so countercultural that, throughout history, those who have dared undertake it have been punished or ostracized. Kierkegaard knew this when he contemplated why we conform and asserted that “truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.” Ben Shahn knew it when he observed in his fantastic Norton lectures at Harvard that “without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.”

With an eye to the innumerable offenses against sanity and justice perpetrated by an unquestioning adherence to so-called common sense, Nabokov adds:

It is instructive to think that there is not a single person in this room, or for that matter in any room in the world, who, at some nicely chosen point in historical space-time would not be put to death there and then, here and now, by a commonsensical majority in righteous rage. The color of one’s creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sure to meet somewhere in time or space with a fatal objection from a mob that hates that particular tone. And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to the stake. Stranger always rhymes with danger. The meek prophet, the enchanter in his cave, the indignant artist, the nonconforming little schoolboy, all share in the same sacred danger. And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak appeared in the family. Anybody whose mind is proud enough not to breed true, secretly carries a bomb at the back of his brain; and so I suggest, just for the fun of the thing, taking that private bomb and carefully dropping it upon the model city of commonsense. In the brilliant light of the ensuing explosion many curious things will appear; our rarer senses will supplant for a brief spell the dominant vulgarian that squeezes Sinbad’s neck in the catch-as-catch-can match between the adopted self and the inner one. I am triumphantly mixing metaphors because that is exactly what they are intended for when they follow the course of their secret connections — which from a writer’s point of view is the first positive result of the defeat of commonsense.

But there is a second, deeper consequence of defeating common sense. A century after Walt Whitman extolled optimism as our mightiest resistance against the corruptions of society, Nabokov frames optimism not as a luxury of privilege but as an imperative of survival. He writes:

The second result is that the irrational belief in the goodness of man… becomes something much more than the wobbly basis of idealistic philosophies. It becomes a solid and iridescent truth. This means that goodness becomes a central and tangible part of one’s world, which world at first sight seems hard to identify with the modern one of newspaper editors and other bright pessimists, who will tell you that it is, mildly speaking, illogical to applaud the supremacy of good at a time when something called the police state, or communism, is trying to turn the globe into five million square miles of terror, stupidity, and barbed wire. And they may add that it is one thing to beam at one’s private universe in the snuggest nook of an unshelled and well-fed country and quite another to try and keep sane among crashing buildings in the roaring and whining night. But within the emphatically and unshakably illogical world which I am advertising as a home for the spirit, war gods are unreal not because they are conveniently remote in physical space from the reality of a reading lamp and the solidity of a fountain pen, but because I cannot imagine (and that is saying a good deal) such circumstances as might impinge upon the lovely and lovable world which quietly persists, whereas I can very well imagine that my fellow dreamers, thousands of whom roam the earth, keep to these same irrational and divine standards during the darkest and most dazzling hours of physical danger, pain, dust, death.

Vladimir Nabokov as a child (Nabokov Museum)

Nabokov locates the antipode of common sense in “the supremacy of the detail over the general, of the part that is more alive than the whole, of the little thing which a man observes and greets with a friendly nod of the spirit while the crowd around him is being driven by some common impulse to some common goal.” Speaking at the peak of WWII, as John Steinbeck is writing on the other side of the continent that “all the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” Nabokov offers:

I take my hat off to the hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor’s child; but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite toy. I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.

In the remainder of this piece from his altogether magnificent Lectures on Literature, Nabokov goes on to explore how the rejection of common sense factors into the creative process and the two types of inspiration. For more of his abiding insight into art and life, see Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, what makes a good reader, and the six short stories everyone ought to read, then revisit his exquisite love letters to Véra.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

“All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Suffering and Getting to the Other Side of Pain

Simone Weil considered it the highest existential discipline to “make use of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us.” George Bernard Shaw saw suffering as our supreme conduit to empathy. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality,” Seneca observed before offering his millennia-old, timeless antidote to anxiety. And yet we do suffer and the pain incurred, whatever the suffering is grounded in, is real. How we orient ourselves to our suffering — or to the suffering, as Buddhist might correct the ego-illusion and reaffirm our shared reality — may be the single most significant predictor of our happiness, wellbeing, and capacity for joy. “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life, “and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

That indelible relationship between suffering and life is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — the superb 1974 novel, part science fiction and part philosophy, that gave us Le Guin’s insight into time, loyalty, and the root of human responsibility.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

The novel’s protagonist — the idealistic prodigy physicist Shevek, visiting a beautiful earth-like world from a society inhabiting the world’s barren moon, where a colony had seceded long ago, disenchanted with the profiteering and “propertarian” values of an increasingly materialistic and selfish human society — channels Le Guin’s philosophical insight into the paradoxes of existence and the pitfalls of human society:

Suffering is a misunderstanding.

[…]

It exists… It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years… And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain… If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could… get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality — the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness — that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.

Defining freedom as “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it,” Le Guin pits her idealistic protagonist against an imperfect society, which he addresses in a public speech at the climax of the novel — a speech he delivers before an enormous crowd of his fellow antiauthoritarian socialists, who have taken to the streets in furious desperation in the face of growing privation and inequity on the beautiful but corrupt Earth-like world:

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In the privacy of his mind, spawned of Le Guin’s own mind, Shevek reflects on the central paradox of suffering:

If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home… Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal… It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell… The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

The Dispossessed is a thoroughly magnificent read, exploring themes of staggeringly timely resonance to our socially confused and politically troubled world. Complement this particular fragment with the brilliant and underappreciated Rebecca West on survival and the redemption of suffering, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.

BP

Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence… William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein… He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation.”

Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) wrote in his most beautiful letter — a soaring defense of the imagination. A genius both tragic and transcendent, Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human condition in a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LP singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

But no artist in our time, and possibly none in all of time, has been a more spirited exponent of Blake’s enduring genius than Patti Smith.

Smith discovered Blake as a girl, after her mother purchased for her at a church bazaar a handsome 1927 edition of his Songs of Innocence, faithful to the 1789 original, which Blake printed and illuminated himself. Mesmerized by the exquisite marriage of text and image, the young Patti spent hours deciphering Blake’s calligraphy and absorbing every detail of his rich, sensitive illustrations. She returned to him again and again throughout her life, holding him up as consolation for the strife of struggling artists and eventually honoring him in a song. When her dear friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg fell mortally ill, she fetched a volume of Blake bound in blood-red leather from his library — a copy in which, she recalls, “each poem was deeply annotated in Allen’s hand, just as Blake had annotated Milton” — and read it by his dying bedside.

In 2007, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Smith edited a selection of his verses simply titled Poems (public library) — “a bit of Blake, designed as a bedside companion or to accompany a walk in the countryside, to sit beneath a shady tree and discover a portal into his visionary and musical experience.” She channels her reverence for the eternal artist into the uncommonly poetic prose of her introduction:

The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence. A newborn cries as the cord is severed, seeming to extinguish memory of the miraculous. Thus we are condemned to stagger rootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos.

William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein. The celestial source stayed bright within him, the casts of heaven moving freely in his sightline. He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation; offering songs of social injustice, the sexual potency of nature, and the blessedness of the lamb. The multiple aspects of woven love.

His angels entreat, drawing him through the natural aspects of their kingdom into the womb of prophecy. He dips his ladle into the spring of inspiration, the flux of creation.

[…]

He is a messenger and a god himself. Deliverer, receptacle and fount.

Smith ends her introduction with a splendid invitation, or perhaps an incantation:

William Blake felt that all men possessed visionary power… He did not jealously guard his vision; he shared it through his work and called upon us to animate the creative spirit within us.

[…]

To take on Blake is not to be alone.
Walk with him. William Blake writes “all is holy.”
That includes the book you are holding and the hand that holds it.

The plate Blake himself drew, lettered, and printed in the original edition of Songs of Innocence

In this recording from a 2011 benefit concert for the Wadsworth Atheneum accompanying the opening of her exhibition at the museum, Smith tells the story of the notebook in which Blake wrote some of his most beautiful poetry — a little black sketchbook that belonged to his brother Robert, whose death devastated William — and she sings his iconic poem “The Tyger,” as it appeared in Blake’s original manuscript from the small notebook held at the British Library:

Complement with Smith on the two kinds of masterpieces and the crucial difference between writing poetry and songwriting, then revisit Esperanza Spalding’s performance of Blake’s existential poem “The Fly” and the brilliant, underappreciated Alfred Kazin on Blake and the tragic genius of outsiderdom.

BP

George Sand’s Only Children’s Book: A Touching Parable of Choosing Kindness and Generosity Over Cynicism and Greed, with Stunning Illustrations by Russian Artist Gennady Spirin

“It is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.”

George Sand’s Only Children’s Book: A Touching Parable of Choosing Kindness and Generosity Over Cynicism and Greed, with Stunning Illustrations by Russian Artist Gennady Spirin

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. Sometimes, evil comes in one of its deceptively benignant guises — everyday smallnesses of spirit like cynicism and the particularly virulent strain of unkindness disguised as cleverizing, which the golden age of social media has so readily and recklessly fomented.

In youth, when our solidity of soul is most precarious, when we most hunger for peer approval and are most susceptible to cultural reinforcement, we are most vulnerable to the easy payoff of being cynical or clever over the deep, often difficult rewards of being kind.

The great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand (July 1, 1804–June 8, 1876), set out to model a prescient antidote to a culture that rewards cynicism and selfishness over kindness and largeness of heart in her only children’s book, originally composed in 1851 but published in English for the first time in 1988, with stunning illustrations by the then-Soviet artist Gennady Spirin.

George Sand by Gennady Spirin

The author of some eighty novels and numerous plays, stories, and essays animated by her love of nature and her devotion to social change, Sand supported herself and her children by her pen in an era when women were rarely financially independent by their own work and hardly any were professional writers. During the 1848 uprising in France, she started her own liberal newspaper. She attracted great controversy with her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights, her habit of wearing men’s clothing and smoking large cigars, and her passionate convention-defying relationships with both men and women, most famously with the composer Frédéric Chopin. Dostoyevsky revered her as “one of the most clairvoyant foreseers” and one of his greatest influences. Margaret Fuller — who catalyzed American feminism and who appears as a central figure in Figuring — greatly admired Sand’s writing and the way she lived her values, and when they finally met in Paris, Fuller found in her “goodness, nobleness, and power that pervaded the whole — the truly human heart and nature that shone in the eyes.”

Sand’s forgotten children’s novel, The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee (public library), joins the canon of little-known and lovely children’s books by celebrated authors of literature for grownups, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree, and James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man.

We meet Gentle Jack — the youngest of seven children, born to unkind, unscrupulous, and greedy parents who have managed to convert all the other children to their cynical worldview, except him. Instead, Gentle Jack has become the laughingstock of the family — his parents scorn him as too stupid, for he wouldn’t follow in their wicked ways, and his siblings tease and bully him, taking his boundless kindness for weakness.

Gentle Jack bears the abuse stoically. But he wishes from the bottom of his large, aching heart that his parents would love him as much as he loves them. Often, he takes his great sadness into the forest to find refuge by his favorite tree — an old, hollow oak hidden away by rocks and brambles.

One day, after particularly brutal abuse at home, Gentle Jack lies weeping beneath his oak when something stings his arm. Sand writes:

He looked up and saw a huge bumblebee, which sat there without moving and stared at him in a most insolent fashion.

Jack took hold of the bee by its wings and gently placed it on the palm of his hand.

“Why did you hurt me, when I have done nothing to hurt you?” he asked. “Go on, fly away and be happy.”

After releasing the bee, Jack tends to his sting with some forest herbs and dozes off, only to awaken and discover in astonishment “a tall, fat gentleman dressed in black from head to toe, standing in front of him.”

The gentleman stared at Jack with enormous round eyes and said in a loud booming voice, “You have done me a service I shall never forget. Come, child, ask for whatever you most desire.”

When Gentle Jack responds that there is nothing he longs for more than for his parents to love him, the mysterious man replies that it is “a very difficult wish to grant” but that he would do his best. He declares that Gentle Jack is kind, but he must become clever in order for his parents to love him, and he will make him clever. The boy responds true to his nature:

“Oh, Sir!” exclaimed Jack. “If, in order to become clever, I must also become wicked, then please don’t make me clever. I would rather remain stupid and continue to be kind.”

“And what do you expect to achieve by being kind in a world full of wicked people?” asked the gentleman.

“Alas, Sir, I don’t know how to answer your question,” said Jack, who was becoming more and more frightened. “I’m not clever enough for that. But I have never done anyone any harm. Please don’t make me want to, or give me the means of doing so.”

After proclaiming him a fool, the fat man sweeps his great black velvet cloak and disappears into the forest, promising to make the boy clever the next time they meet. Still jolted by the encounter, Gentle Jack reluctantly heads home, dreading another beating for being out so long. Upon his return, his mother scolds him, then tells him that he is the luckiest boy in the world, for a nobleman by the name of Lord Bumblebee had just stopped by the house. After eating an enormous jar of honey, for which he had paid handsomely, he had asked after the family’s youngest child. Upon hearing Gentle Jack’s name, he had exclaimed that this was the very child he had been looking for and that he would make his fortune. Then he had vanished without another word.

Gentle Jack’s mother, greedy for the nobleman’s riches, promptly shoves her son out the door, instructing him to find Lord Bumblebee’s castle.

And so the two meet again. This time, in addition to all his riches, Lord Bumblebee offers to make him clever by teaching him the “sciences” of magic and witchcraft if he would be his son. But Gentle Jack remains true to his nature:

“You are most kind, Sir,” said Jack, “but I have parents already, and although they have other children they love more than me, they might need me some day and it would be wrong of me to leave them.”

When Gentle Jack returns home, convinced that his loving loyalty would make his parents love him in turn, his mother roughly jilts his embrace, asking instead what bounty he has brought back from the nobleman’s castle. Upon discovering that not only has Gentle Jack brought nothing back, but he had refused to become “the heir of a man who was richer than the king himself,” his parents begin to beat him, then dress him in rags and send him back to the nobleman.

Woven of equal measures sweetness and severity, the story builds into an ever-accelerating test of character.

When Jack turns fifteen and Lord Bumblebee comes to terms with the disappointment that he would not have children from his own marriage, he offers once again to adopt the boy, but at a Faustian cost — Jack would inherit all the Lord’s riches, but he would have to fight endless, ruthless battles to keep them.

The evil nobleman sets out to instill in the boy his own cynical and selfish credo. After showing him the merciless combat and cunning by which those in power maintain their position, he tells him:

In this world, you must rob or be robbed, murder or be murdered, be a tyrant or a slave. It is up to you to choose: Do you wish to conserve wealth like the bees, amass it like the ants, or steal it like the hornets? The surest way, I believe, is to let others do the work and then take from them. Take, take, my boy, by force or by cunning; it’s the only way to achieve happiness.

If Jack were to choose to be a bumblebee like him, he too would be inducted into the order of magicians like Lord Bumblebee, but he would have to swear a terrible oath: “to abandon compassion and that virtue which men call honesty.” Incredulous of the proposition, the gentle boy inquires whether all magicians must take this oath.

“There are those,” replied Lord Bumblebee, “who swear to exactly the opposite and who make it their business to serve, protect, and love all living creatures. But they are just fools.”

“Well, Lord Bumblebee,” replied Jack, “you haven’t succeeded in making me clever, because I prefer those spirits to yours, and I have no desire whatsoever to learn how to plunder and to kill. I thank you for your good intentions, but I request your permission to return home to my parents.”

“Fool,” replied Lord Bumblebee. “Your parents are hornets who have forgotten their origins.”

“Well, then,” replied Jack, “I will go into the wilderness and join the good spirits.”

Enraged by the boy’s unrelenting goodness, Lord Bumblebee declares that he would not let him — he would sting him to death. At this utterance, he transforms into a hideous insect and begins chasing Gentle Jack through the forest. The terrified boy, leaping headlong into a brook for cover, begins calling on the “good spirits” for help.

Suddenly, a great blue dragonfly appears and, flying in front of him, beckons the boy to follow her. The skies open into a heavy downpour, impeding Lord Bumblebee’s pursuit.

But this is not salvation. Part II of the story, titled “How Gentle Jack Reached the Enchanted Island at Last and Why He Could Not Stay There,” presents the ultimate test of character.

Gentle Jack finds himself in a heavenly, sweet-scented fairyland — an idyllic world where “there were children, as sweet as cherubs, who chased each other and turned somersaults, and lovely maidens who sat plaiting flowers into each other’s hair,” a place where “young folk made music and danced while old folk sat and watched.”

He discovers that the blue dragonfly had been his fairy godmother in disguise — the queen of the good spirits. She had happened to be passing through the land of his birth — “a land like any other, a mixture of goodness and evil, of good and bad people” — at the very moment he was born and she had blessed him at birth with gentleness, honesty, and kindness.

Long ago, she tells him, Lord Bumblebee had ruled and ravaged Gentle Jack’s homeland by corrupting its inhabitants with greed. In punishment for his evil deeds, the godmother-queen had turned him into a common bumblebee, “condemned to crawling, hiding himself away, and buzzing around an old oak tree in the forest which he had originally planted with his own hands when he was master and tyrant of the country” — a punishment that could only be lifted by Gentle Jack’s hand, on the day he says to the bumblebee, “Fly away and be happy.” Only then would Lord Bumblebee regain his human incarnation, and only if he promised to make Jack very happy.

Jack also learns that one day on the enchanted island is equivalent to a hundred years in his homeland, and in the day since his arrival, Lord Bumblebee had once again corrupted his compatriots, turning them into thieves and hoarders — affirmation for the real-world sentiment John Steinbeck would articulate from the peak of World War II two centuries later: “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.” The queen tells her godson:

The spirit of greed and theft has stifled the spirit of kindness and generosity in every heart and has driven into oblivion the great knowledge which you alone, of all who were born on this unhappy earth, now possess.

Upon hearing this, Gentle Jack realizes that he is not stupid after all and that his loving kindness is the only cure for the small-spirited suffering of his people. (“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy — who also admired and was influenced by Sand — would write to Gandhi half a century later.) But when the queen tells him that he must not worry about it any longer, for on the enchanted island he is immortal, impervious to sorrow, and protected from all evil, Gentle Jack can’t find contentment in this privileged comfort. He throws his arms around his godmother and speaks from his large heart:

Smile on me, dear godmother, so that I may not die of grief when I leave you — because leave you I must. No matter that I have neither parents nor friends left in my homeland, I feel that I am the child of that country and must serve it. Since I am the possessor of the most beautiful secret in the world, I must share it with those poor people who hate each other and who are to be pitied. No matter, also, that I’m as happy as the good spirits, thanks to your kindness. I am, nonetheless, a mere mortal, and I want to share my knowledge with other mortals. You have taught me how to love. Well, I feel that I love those evil, mad people who will probably hate me, and I ask you to lead me back among them.

With a kiss, the queen tells Jack that while her heart is breaking to see him go, she loves him all the more for having understood his duty:

The knowledge I have given you has borne fruit in your soul. I will give you neither a lucky charm, nor a magic wand to protect you against the wiles of the evil bumblebees, because it is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.

Instead, she allows him to pick as many flowers from her meadow as he wishes — magical flowers that make every person who inhales their scent gentler, kinder, and more beneficent, flowers he could hand out in his country to aid him in what the queen knows will be “a terrible and dangerous struggle” against evil.

And so, stepping onto a rose petal boat, Gentle Jack returns to his land as a prophet of love, goodness, generosity, and beauty. When he is assaulted by angry, avaricious mobs, he waves his fragrant flowers at them until the entire population is “miraculously calmed.”

Lord Bumblebee eventually gets wind of Gentle Jack’s miracles and sends an ambassador to invite him to his court. Despite his new friends’ admonitions that the tyrant could be up to no good, Gentle Jack accepts the invitation, eager to convert even the evilest man in the land.

There is no sugary happy ending to the story, no lulling assurance that good always prevails over evil. Perhaps because Sand’s own country was still haunted by the grim specter of the French Revolution, she composes a sad, beautiful, cautionary ending — a realist’s reminder that good only prevails when we put all of our might and our ethic of love and our unflinching commitment to kindness behind it, for, as Zadie Smith would write nearly two centuries later in her spectacular meditation on optimism and despair, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee is out of print but well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Voltaire’s trailblazing sci-fi philosophical meditation on the human condition, adapted in a lovely illustrated vintage children’s book, then revisit other works by great writers scrumptiously illustrated by great artists: Tolstoy illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Mark Twain illustrated by Norman Rockwell, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti, George Orwell’s Animal Farm illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dalí, and Goethe’s Faust illustrated by Harry Clarke.

BP

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