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Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

“I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. The illusion of permanent progress inflicts a particularly damning strain of despair as we witness the disillusioning undoing of triumphs of democracy and justice generations in the making — despair preventable only by taking a wider view of history in order to remember that democracy advances in fits and starts, in leaps and backward steps, but advances nonetheless, on timelines exceeding any individual lifetime. Amid our current atmosphere of presentism bias and extreme narrowing of perspective, it is not merely difficult but downright countercultural to resist the ahistorical panic by taking such a telescopic view — lucid optimism that may be our most unassailable form of resistance to the corruptions and malfunctions of democracy.

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) insisted on again and again in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us his wisdom on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art enhances life, and what makes life worth living.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Shortly before his sixtieth birthday and a decade after issuing his immensely prescient admonition that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Whitman writs under the heading “DEMOCRACY IN THE NEW WORLD”:

I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.

Having lived and saved lives through the Civil War, having seen the swell of “vast crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserably-waged populations,” having witnessed the corrosion of idealism and the collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency, Whitman still faces a dispiriting landscape with a defiant and irrepressible optimism — our mightiest and most countercultural act of courage, then and now and always:

Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.

Zooming out of the narrow focus of his cultural moment — as we would be well advised to do with ours — Whitman takes a telescopic perspective of time, progress, and social change, and considers what it really takes to win the future:

The advent of America, the history of the past century, has been the first general aperture and opening-up to the average human commonalty, on the broadest scale, of the eligibilities to wealth and worldly success and eminence, and has been fully taken advantage of; and the example has spread hence, in ripples, to all nations. To these eligibilities — to this limitless aperture, the race has tended, en-masse, roaring and rushing and crude, and fiercely, turbidly hastening — and we have seen the first stages, and are now in the midst of the result of it all, so far. But there will certainly ensue other stages, and entirely different ones. In nothing is there more evolution than the American mind. Soon, it will be fully realized that ostensible wealth and money-making, show, luxury, &c., imperatively necessitate something beyond — namely, the sane, eternal moral and spiritual-esthetic attributes, elements… Soon, it will be understood clearly, that the State cannot flourish, (nay, cannot exist,) without those elements. They will gradually enter into the chyle of sociology and literature. They will finally make the blood and brawn of the best American individualities of both sexes.

Three years later, and ten presidencies before a ruthless government began assaulting and exploiting nature as a resource for commercial and political gain, Whitman revisits the subject under the heading “NATURE AND DEMOCRACY—MORTALITY”:

American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.

Specimen Days remains one of the most timelessly insightful books I have ever encountered. Complement this particular portion with Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy, Rebecca Solnit on lucid optimism in dark times, and Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s animated tribute to Leonard Cohen’s anthem to democracy, then revisit Whitman on the essence of happiness and his advice on the building blocks of character.

BP

An Animated Field Guide to Black Holes and the Key Conundrum of Time

A dive into some of the most thrilling unsolved questions of science.

An Animated Field Guide to Black Holes and the Key Conundrum of Time

In July 1967, just after her twenty-fourth birthday, the Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell noticed a strange signal in the data streaming in from the radio telescope she was monitoring. She had discovered a pulsar — an epoch-making breakthrough that earned the Nobel Prize, though Bell was denied recognition for the discovery she herself had made.

Pulsars furnished watershed evidence that neutron stars — the collapsed cores left behind by the final explosion of dying stars, first theorized more than three decades earlier — were real. From this followed the even more thrilling indication that black holes — which even Einstein had regarded as an enticing but purely mathematical and possibly unprovable theoretical construct — might also be real. The term black hole itself was coined that year by the influential physicist John Archibald Wheeler as a shorthand for the unhandsome standard phrasing: “completely collapsed gravitational object.” It was a defining moment in our understanding of the universe, laying the foundation for the most important discovery in modern astrophysics — the detection of gravitational waves half a century later.

In this lovely animation by science communication powerhouse Massive, University of Arizona astrophysicist Feryal Özel and Yale theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan delve into the deepest mysteries of black holes and what they may tell us about the nature of time and the universe. The short film is a companion to the fifteenth installment in the Scientific Controversies series hosted by astrophysicist Janna Levin — Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works, my collaborator in The Universe in Verse, and author of the magnificent Black Hole Blues (public library).

For more fascinating science from Massive, see their animated series celebrating the scientific prescience of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

BP

Philosopher Martin Buber on Love and What It Means to Live in the Present

“We live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe.”

Philosopher Martin Buber on Love and What It Means to Live in the Present

“Love is the quality of attention we pay to things,” poet J.D. McClatchy wrote seven decades after the brilliant and underappreciated philosopher Simone Weil observed that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

The type of attention that makes for generous and unselfish love is what the Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) examined in I and Thou (public library) — the 1923 existentialist masterpiece in which Buber laid out his visionary relation modality that makes us real to one another.

Martin Buber

Echoing Tolstoy’s insistence that “love is a present activity only [and] the man who does not manifest love in the present has not love,” Buber extends his distinction between the objectifying It and the subjectifying Thou into the most intimate domain of relation, and writes:

The present, and by that is meant not the point which indicates from time to time in our thought merely the conclusion of “finished” time, the mere appearance of a termination which is fixed and held, but the real, filled present, exists only in so far as actual presentness, meeting, and relation exist. The present arises only in virtue of the fact that the Thou becomes present.

[…]

True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.

Love, Buber argues, is something larger than affect — not a static feeling, but a dynamic state of being lived in the present. In a counterpoint to the Proustian model of love, he writes:

Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it… Feelings are “entertained”: love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells in his love.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In consonance with psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt’s definition of love as “the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery,” Buber writes:

Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love; even though he ascribes to it the feelings he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses… Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. In this lies the likeness — impossible in any feeling whatsoever — of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man, whose life is rounded in that of a loved being, to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point — to love all men.

Half a century after naturalist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Buber adds:

We live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe.

I and Thou, which explores what it means to expand the boundaries of the self and grant others the dignity and sanctity of Thou, is a superb read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Adrienne Rich on how honorable relationships refine our truths, Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, and a lovely illustrated meditation on the many meanings and manifestations of love.

BP

William Blake Illustrates Pioneering Feminist and Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s Children’s Book of Moral Education

“Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason.”

William Blake Illustrates Pioneering Feminist and Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s Children’s Book of Moral Education

Four years before she ignited the dawn of feminism with her epoch-making 1792 book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the pioneering British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) set out to change the fabric of society at the loom: She decided to write a children’s book of allegorical stories inviting young readers to contemplate questions of moral philosophy. At the heart of her vision was an insistence on the value of girls’ education as a counterpoint and challenge to Rousseau’s seminal 1762 book Émile, or Treatise on Education, which focused on the education of boys and reflected the era’s dominant ethos that women are to be educated only in order to make desirable wives and good conversation companions for their husbands.

The result was Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (public library | free ebook), composed when Wollstonecraft was twenty-nine — six years before the birth of her own first child, Fanny, and nine years before that of her second, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.

“Every Prospect Smiled” (William Blake Archive)

Two centuries before beloved Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White declaimed that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” and that they are instead to be written up to, for they are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Wollstonecraft wrote with the conviction that children ought not be shielded from life’s most demanding and difficult questions — mortality, kindness and cruelty, the meaning of mercy, the eternal interplay of good and evil. She outlined her aim and her means in the preface:

Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason… Reason, with difficulty, conquers settled habits, even when it is arrived at some degree of maturity: why then do we suffer children to be bound with fetters, which their half-formed faculties cannot break.

In writing the following work, I aim at perspicuity and simplicity of style; and try to avoid those unmeaning compliments, which slip from the tongue, but have not the least connexion with the affections that should warm the heart, and animate the conduct. By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition… The way to render instruction most useful cannot always be adopted; knowledge should be gradually imparted, and flow more from example than teaching: example directly addresses the senses, the first inlets to the heart; and the improvement of those instruments of the understanding is the object education should have constantly in view, and over which we have most power.

Three years after the publication of the book, just as Wollstonecraft was finalizing Vindication, her publisher began preparing a second edition of Original Stories from Real Life and commissioned William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) to illustrate it. Only a year earlier, Blake had finished printing and illuminating the first few copies of his now-legendary Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Two songs in it — “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” — were inspired by Wollstonecraft’s translation of C.G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for which Blake had done several engravings.

William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft

Blake reworked his preliminary drawings for Original Stories, ten of which survive, into the etchings that appear on the six illustrated plates in the book.

“Look What a Fine Morning It Is” for Plate 1 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 1: “Look What a Fine Morning It Is” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“A Starving Woman with Two Children” (William Blake Archive)
“She Turned Her Eyes to Her Cruel Master” (William Blake Archive)
“How Delighted the Old Bird Will Be” (William Blake Archive)
“God Sent for Him” (William Blake Archive)
“The Dog Strove to Attract His Attention” for Plate 2 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 2: “The Dog Strove to Attract His Attention” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“Indeed We Are Very Happy” for Plate 3 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 3: “Indeed We Are Very Happy” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“The Ruined House: ‘Be Calm, My Child'” for Plate 4 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 4: “The Ruined House: ‘Be Calm, My Child'” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
Plate 5: “Trying to Trace the Sound I Discovered” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“Economy and Self-Denial Are Necessary” for Plate 6 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 6: “Economy and Self-Denial Are Necessary” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Six years later, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world. Influenced by her work and moved by the tragedy of her personal story, Blake commemorated her in an engraving:

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)”

Complement with Esperanza Spalding’s stunning soul-jazz performance of Blake’s poem “The Fly,” his illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and his most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — then revisit Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Mary Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection.

BP

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