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Being Against Becoming: Susan Sontag on Our Ambivalent Historical Conscience

“We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”

“Time and reason are functions of each other,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her philosophical novel exploring why honoring the continuity of past and future is the wellspring of moral action. The human animal is indeed a temporal creature, our experience of time at the center of our psychology. Locating ourselves is therefore largely a matter of locating ourselves in the stream of time — diurnal, civilizational, and cosmic. It is hard enough to grapple with the micro end of the spectrum — to acknowledge, with Annie Dillard, that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” — and nearly impossible to fathom the macro, the incomprehensible scales of spacetime. And yet most of our suffering seems to reside in the middle of the spectrum — in our understanding of and orientation toward the selective collective memory we call history. In Figuring, I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. Whose judgment? one inevitably asks, and how much room for choice in a universe governed by chance — by randomness and chaos? What, then, do we make of history, and what does it make of us?

That is what Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) explores in a 1967 essay about the work of the Romanian philosopher and essayist Emil Cioran, found in Styles of Radical Will (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Sontag on art as a form of spirituality and the paradoxical role of silence in creative culture.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag writes:

We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future. But even the most relevant events carry within them the form of their obsolescence. Thus, a single work is eventually a contribution to a body of work; the details of a life form part of a life history; an individual life history appears unintelligible apart from social, economic, and cultural history; and the life of a society is the sum of “preceding conditions.” Meaning drowns in a stream of becoming: the senseless and overdocumented rhythm of advent and supersession. The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his possibilities.

Half a century before Rebecca Solnit — a Sontag of our own time — insisted that we must know our history in order to rewrite its broken stories, that “you need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent,” Sontag frames the presentism bias with which we live:

The best of the intellectual and creative speculation carried on in the West over the past hundred and fifty years seems incontestably the most energetic, dense, subtle, sheerly interesting, and true in the entire lifetime of man. And yet the equally incontestable result of all this genius is our sense of standing in the ruins of thought and on the verge of the ruins of history and of man himself. (Cogito ergo boom.) More and more, the shrewdest thinkers and artists are precocious archaeologists of these ruins-in-the-making, indignant or stoical diagnosticians of defeat, enigmatic choreographers of the complex spiritual movements useful for individual survival in an era of permanent apocalypse. The time of new collective visions may well be over: by now both the brightest and the gloomiest, the most foolish and the wisest, have been set down. But the need for individual spiritual counsel has never seemed more acute.

Arguing that the rise of this historical consciousness was expedited by the collapse of “the venerable enterprise of philosophical system-building,” Sontag writes:

At the point that history usurped nature as the decisive framework for human experience, man began to think historically about his experience, and the traditional ahistorical categories of philosophy became hollowed out… The leading words of philosophy came to seem excessively overdetermined. Or, what amounts to the same thing, they seem undernourished, emptied of meaning.

Susan Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton

It strikes me that, today, we see ourselves just as falsely separate from history as we feel ourselves falsely separate from nature. We have artificially islanded ourselves both in the river of time and in the river of being, perhaps because we would rather have illusory stability than bob about helplessly with the unbearable ambiguity and uncertainty that froth the rapids of existence.

Sontag intuits as much in quoting Cioran — a writer she celebrates as both powerful and delicate, one for whom “nuance, irony, and refinement are the essence of his thinking” — and his condemnation of our grasping for such illusory certitudes. Cioran eviscerates history as “man’s aggression against himself” in one essay and writes in another:

Men’s minds need a simple truth, an answer which delivers them from their questions, a gospel, a tomb. The moments of refinement conceal a death-principle: nothing is more fragile than subtlety.

After noting Cioran’s debt to Nietzsche — particularly the German philosopher’s skepticism of historical (which is to say human-made) truth and his notion of the eternal return — Sontag points to the trailblazing composer John Cage, patron saint of silence as an aesthetic response, as “the only figure in the world of Anglo-American letters embarked on a theoretical enterprise comparable in intellectual power and scope to Cioran’s.” Having opened her essay with an epigraph by Cage — “Every now and then it is possible           to have absolutely nothing; the possibility of nothing.” — Sontag concludes:

Perhaps, for a unified transvaluation, one must look to those thinkers like Cage who — whether from spiritual strength or from spiritual insensitivity is a secondary issue — are able to jettison far more of the inherited anguish and complexity of this civilization. Cioran’s fierce, tensely argued speculations sum up brilliantly the decaying urgencies of Western thought, but offer us no relief from them beyond the considerable satisfactions of the understanding. Relief, of course, is scarcely Cioran’s intention. His aim is diagnosis. For relief, it may be that one must abandon the pride of knowing and feeling so much — a local pride that has cost everyone hideously by now.

Novalis wrote that “philosophy is properly home-sickness; the wish to be everywhere at home.” If the human mind can be everywhere at home, it must in the end give up its local “European” pride and something else — that will seem strangely unfeeling and intellectually simplistic — must be allowed in. “All that is necessary,” says Cage with his own devastating irony, “is an empty space of time and letting it act in its magnetic way.”

Couple with Cage himself on human nature, then revisit Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, how photography helps us navigate complexity, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.

BP

Favorite Books of 2018

The anatomy of feeling, the science of psychedelics, Ursula K. Le Guin’s final poetry collection, arresting essays by Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, and Audre Lorde, a physicist’s lyrical meditation on science and spirituality, and more.

I treat my annual best-of reading lists as Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which frame aspirational priorities for the new year, they present a record of the reading that merited priority over the year past. In consequence, they are invariably subjective and incomplete — a shelf’s worth of books that I, one person, read and enjoyed in the time given, with the sensibility I have. Since this year I finished writing one book and putting together another, my reading time for new releases has been especially limited, which means these annual selections are especially subjective — no doubt I missed a great many worthy and wonderful books. But of those I did read, here — in excerpts from the pieces I originally wrote about them earlier in the year — are the ones I loved with all my heart and mind:

SO FAR SO GOOD

In November of 2014, the wise and wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) — one of the great losses of 2018 — accepted the National Book Award with a stunning speech that quickly became our era’s supreme manifesto for protecting the art of the written word from the assault of the market. In consonance with her conviction, Le Guin sent the manuscript of her final poetry collection to an independent nonprofit poetry publisher, Copper Canyon Press, who turned directly to her readers to bring it to life. And oh how alive So Far So Good (public library) is — a sort of existential atlas, traversing bordering territories of mediations, incantations, and divinations on subjects like time, impermanence, and the splendors of uncertainty. Undergirding the verses is Le Guin’s largehearted generosity of spirit — toward the reader, toward nature and reality, toward the intertwined natures of life and art.

One of the loveliest poems in the book serenades a theme recurring throughout Le Guin’s body of work as her central poetic preoccupation and an animating force of her philosophical fiction: time.

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME
Ursula K. Le Guin

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

FEEL FREE

In the superb essay collection Feel Free (public library), Zadie Smith applies her symphonic mind to subjects as varied as music, what writers can learn from dancers, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media.

In one of the most arresting essays, titled “On Optimism and Despair,” Smith takes on an eternal question that has bared its sharpest edges in our cultural moment — the question John Steinbeck tussled with when he wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII: “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.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being, as I wrote in Figuring, not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.

Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:

My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.

[…]

He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.

This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.

Continue reading here.

SEARCHING FOR STARS ON AN ISLAND IN MAINE

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she contemplated science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth. A century later, Carl Sagan tussled with the same question shortly before his death: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

It is, of course, an abiding question, as old as consciousness — we are material creatures that live in a material universe, yet we are capable of experiences that transcend what we can atomize into physical facts: love, joy, the full-being gladness of a Beethoven symphony on a midsummer’s night.

The Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr articulated the basic paradox of living with and within such a duality: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Nearly a century after Bohr, the physicist and writer Alan Lightman takes us further, beyond these limiting dichotomies, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — a lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Through the lens of his personal experience as a working scientist and a human being with uncommon receptivity to the poetic dimensions of life, Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and the luminous.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

Lightman, who has previously written beautifully about his transcendent experience facing a young osprey, relays a parallel experience he had one summer night on an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife have been going for a quarter century. On this small, remote speck of land, severed from the mainland without ferries or bridges, each of the six families has had to learn to cross the ocean by small boat — a task particularly challenging at night. Lightman recounts the unbidden revelation of one such nocturnal crossing:

No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical drawings.

Lightman — the first professor at MIT to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities — syncopates this numinous experience with the reality of his lifelong devotion to science:

I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I’d read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.

Yet after my experience in that boat many years later… I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes — ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.

Against our human finitude, temporality, and imperfection, these “Absolutes” offer infinity, eternity, perfection. Lightman defines them as concepts and beliefs that “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives” — notions like constancy, immortality, permanence, the soul, “God”; notions unprovable by the scientific method. Conversely, however, notions that belong to this realm of Absolutes fall apart when they make claims in the realm of science — claims disproven by the facts of the material world. With an eye to how the discoveries of modern science — from heliocentricity to evolution to the chemical composition of the universe — have challenged many of these Absolutes, Lightman writes:

Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.

Generations after Henry Miller insisted that “it is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Lightman adds:

From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.

[…]

On the one hand, such an onslaught of discovery presents a cause for celebration… Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief lifespans, stuck on our one planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature? On the other hand, we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still. If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.

Continue reading here.

HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE

“To be a good human being,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control” — to have, that is, a willingness to regard with an openhearted curiosity what is other than ourselves and therefore strange, discomfiting, difficult to fathom and relate to, difficult at first to love, for we cannot love what we do not understand. Out of such regard arises the awareness at the heart of Lucille Clifton’s lovely poem “cutting greens” — a recognition of “the bond of live things everywhere,” among which we are only a small part of a vast and miraculous world, and from which we can learn a great deal about being better versions of ourselves.

That is what naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, one of the most poetic science writers of our time, explores in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (public library), illustrated by artist Rebecca Green — an autobiographical adventure into the wilderness of our common humanity, where the world of science and the legacy of Aesop converge into an existential expedition to uncover the elemental truth that “knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

Looking back on her unusual and passionate life of swimming with electric eels, digging for mistletoe seeds in emu droppings, and communing with giant octopuses, Montgomery reflects on what she learned about leadership from an emu, about ferocity and forgiveness from an ermine, about living with a sense of wholeness despite imperfection from a one-eyed dog named Thurber (after the great New Yorker cartoonist and essayist James Thurber, who was blinded in one eye by an arrow as a child), and about what it takes for the heart to be “stretched wide with awe.”

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

At the New England Aquarium, Montgomery gets to know one of Earth’s most alien creatures — the subject of her exquisite book The Soul of an Octopus. She writes:

Reading an octopus’s intentions is not like reading, for instance, a dog’s. I could read [my dog] Sally’s feelings in a glance, even if the only part of her I could see was her tail, or one ear. But Sally was family, and in more than one sense. Dogs, like all placental mammals, share 90 percent of our genetic material. Dogs evolved with humans. Octavia and I were separated by half a billion years of evolution. We were as different as land from sea. Was it even possible for a human to understand the emotions of a creature as different from us as an octopus?

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

As Octavia slowly allows this improbable and almost miraculous cross-species creaturely connection, Montgomery reflects on the insight attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus — “The universe is alive, and has fire in it, and is full of gods.” — and writes:

Being friends with an octopus — whatever that friendship meant to her — has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.

Continue reading here.

A BURST OF LIGHT

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.

That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:

I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.

“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:

Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.

By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:

I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.

Continue reading here.

CALL THEM BY THEIR TRUE NAMES

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might: “I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit writes in the preface:

One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.

That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:

To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.

Continue reading here.

HIKING WITH NIETZSCHE

Chance and choice converge to make us who we are, and although we may mistake chance for choice, our choices are the cobblestones, hard and uneven, that pave our destiny. They are ultimately all we can answer for and point to in the architecture of our character. Joan Didion captured this with searing lucidity in defining character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and locating in that willingness the root of self-respect.

A century before Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) composed the score for harmonizing our choices and our contentment with the life they garner us. Nietzsche, who greatly admired Emerson’s ethos of nonconformity and self-reliant individualism, wrote fervently, almost frenetically, about how to find yourself and what it means to be a free spirit. He saw the process of becoming oneself as governed by the willingness to own one’s choices and their consequences — a difficult willingness, yet one that promises the antidote to existential hopelessness, complacency, and anguish.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The legacy of that deceptively simple yet profound proposition is what philosopher John J. Kaag explores in Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (public library) — part masterwork of poetic scholarship, part contemplative memoir concerned with the most fundamental question of human life: What gives our existence meaning?

The answer, Kaag suggests in drawing on Nietzsche’s most timeless ideas, challenges our ordinary understanding of selfhood and its cascading implications for happiness, fulfillment, and the building blocks of existential contentment. He writes:

The self is not a hermetically sealed, unitary actor (Nietzsche knew this well), but its flourishing depends on two things: first, that it can choose its own way to the greatest extent possible, and then, when it fails, that it can embrace the fate that befalls it.

At the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of eternal return — the ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity. Nietzsche illustrates the concept with a simple, stirring thought experiment in his final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…”

Continue reading here.

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.

And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.

The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

This renaissance of psychedelics, with its broad implications for understanding consciousness and the connection between brain and mind, treating mental illness, and recalibrating our relationship with the finitude of our existence, is what Michael Pollan explores in the revelatory How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (public library). With an eye to this renaissance and the scientists using brain-imaging technology to investigate how psychedelics may illuminate consciousness, Pollan writes:

One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.

Pollan examines the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. He approaches his subject as a science writer and a skeptic endowed with equal parts rigorous critical thinking and openminded curiosity. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s elegant braiding of the numinous and the scientific, he echoes Carl Sagan’s views on the mystery of reality and examines his own lens:

My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.

Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?

The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.

Continue reading here.

ALMOST EVERYTHING: NOTES ON HOPE

We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.

That is what Anne Lamott, one of the rare sages of our time, reminds us with equal parts humility, humor, and largehearted wisdom in Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library).

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes in the prelude:

In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.

She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:

Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.

So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?

We just do.

To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:

There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:

We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.

Continue reading here, then here.

LITTLE PANIC

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in the early 1950s, nearly a quarter century before Thomas Nagel’s landmark essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” unlatched the study of other consciousnesses and seeded the disorienting awareness that other beings — “beings who walk other spheres,” to borrow Whitman’s wonderful term — experience this world we share in ways thoroughly alien to our own.

Today, we know that we need not step across the boundary of species to encounter such alien-seeming ways of inhabiting the world. There are innumerable ways of being human — we each experience life and reality in radically different ways merely by our way of seeing, but these differences are accentuated to an extreme when mental illness alters the elemental interiority of a consciousness. In these extreme cases, it can become impossible for even the most empathic imagination to grasp — not only cerebrally but with an embodied understanding — the slippery reality of an anguished consciousness so different from one’s own. Conversely, it can become impossible for those who share that anguish to articulate it, effecting an overwhelming sense of alienation and the false conviction that one is alone in one’s suffering. To convey that reality to those unbedeviled by such mental anguish, and to wrap language around its ineffable interiority for others who suffer silently from the same, is therefore a creative feat and existential service of the highest caliber.

That is what author, Happy Ending Music & Reading Series host, and my dear friend Amanda Stern accomplishes in Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (public library) — part-memoir and part-portrait of a cruelly egalitarian affliction that cuts across all borders of age, gender, race, and class, clutching one’s entire reality and sense of self in a stranglehold that squeezes life out. What emerges is a sort of literary laboratory of consciousness, anatomizing an all-consuming yet elusive feeling-pattern to explore what it takes to break the tyranny of worry and what it means to feel at home in oneself.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Part of the splendor of the book is the way Stern unspools the thread of being to the very beginning, all the way to the small child predating conscious memory. In consonance with Maurice Sendak, who so passionately believed that a centerpiece of healthy adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” the child-Amanda emerges from the pages alive and real to articulate in that simple, profound way only children have what the yet-undiagnosed acute anxiety disorder actually feels like from the inside:

Whenever I am afraid, worry sounds itself as sixty, seventy, radio channels playing at the same time inside my head. Refrains loop around and around my brain like fast jabber and I cannot get any of it to stop. I know there is something wrong with me, but no one knows how to fix me. Not anyone outside my body, and definitely not me. Eddie [Stern’s older brother] says a body is blood and bones and skin, and when everything falls off you’re a skeleton, but I am air pressure and tingly dots; energy and everything. I am air and nothing.

[…]

My breath flips on its side, horizontal and too wide to go through my lungs.

The grave paradox of mental illness and mental health is that, despite what we now know about how profoundly our emotions affect our physical wellbeing, these terms sever the head from the body — the physical body and the emotional body. A century after William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” Stern offers a powerful corrective for our ongoing cultural Cartesianism. Her vivid prose, pulsating with a life in language, invites the reader into the interiority of a deeply embodied mind that experiences and comprehends the world somatically. “I was born with a basketball net slung over my top ribs, where the world dunks its balls of dread,” she writes as she channels her young self’s budding awareness that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with her:

I am a growing constellation of errors. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, only that something is, and it must be too shameful to divulge, or so rare that even the doctors are stumped.

At the end of the book, Stern considers the centrality of anxiety in her own blink of existence and telescopes to a larger truth about this widespread yet largely invisible affliction that seems a fundamental feature of being human:

When did it start? It started before I was born. It started before my mother was born. It started when friction created the world. When does anything start? It doesn’t, it just grows, sometimes to unmanageable heights, and then, when you’re at the very edge, it becomes clear: something must be done.

Left untreated, anxiety disorders, like fingernails, grow with a person. The longer they go untended, the more mangled and painful they become. Often, they spiral, straight out of control, splitting and splintering into other disorders, like depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia. A merry-go-round of features we rise and fall upon. Separation anxiety handicaps its captors, preventing them from leaving bad relationships, moving far from home, going on trips, to parties, applying for jobs, having children, getting married, seeing friends, or falling asleep. Some people are so crippled by their anxiety they have panic attacks in anticipation of having a panic attack.

I’ve had panic attacks in nearly every part of New York City, even on Staten Island. I’ve had them in taxis, on subways, public bathrooms, banks, street corners, in Washington Square Park, on multiple piers, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, the East Village, the Upper East Side, Central Park, Lincoln Center, the dressing room at Urban Outfitters, Mamoun’s Falafel, the Bobst library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the main library branch, the Brooklyn Library, the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market, laundromats, book kiosks, in the entrance of FAO Schwartz, at the post office, the steps of the Met, on stoops, at the Brooklyn Flea, in bars, at friends’ houses, on stage, in the shower, in queen-sized beds, double beds, twin beds, in my crib.

I’ve grown so expert at hiding them, most people would never even know that I’m suffering. How, after all, do you explain that a restaurant’s decision to dim their lights swelled your throat shut, and that’s why you must leave immediately, not just the restaurant, but the neighborhood? If you cannot point to something, then it is invisible. Like a cult leader, anxiety traps you and convinces you that you’re the only one it sees.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Nikki Giovanni’s remark to James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” Stern adds:

For better or worse, we can only teach others what we understand… Each person begins, after all, as a story other people tell. And when we fall outside the confines of our common standards, we will assume our deficits define us.

[…]

My fear and my conviction were the same: that I was the flaw in the universe; the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world. This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.

Continue reading here.

THE STRANGE ORDER OF THINGS

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, breakthroughs in neurology, psychobiology, and neuroscience have contributed leaps of layered (though still incomplete) understanding of the relationship between the physical body and our emotional experience. That tessellated relationship is what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (public library) — a title inspired by the disorienting fact that several billion years ago, single-cell organisms began exhibiting behaviors strikingly analogous to certain human social behaviors and 100 million years ago insects developed interactions, instruments, and cooperative strategies that we might call cultural. That such sociocultural behaviors long predate the development of the human brain casts new light on the ancient mind-body problem and offers a radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures.

Two decades after his landmark exploration of how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience, Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis — the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect — why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Feelings, Damasio argues, are the unheralded germinators of human culture:

Human beings have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science.

[…]

Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them and stay on to check the results… Cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.

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THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES

While computing pioneer Alan Turing was breaking Nazi communication in England, eleven thousand women, unbeknownst to their contemporaries and to most of us who constitute their posterity, were breaking enemy code in America — unsung heroines who helped defeat the Nazis and win WWII.

Among them was American cryptography pioneer Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980). The subject of Jason Fagone’s excellent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (public library), Friedman triumphed over at least three Enigma machines and cracked dozens of different radio circuits to decipher more than four thousand Nazi messages that saved innumerable lives, only to have J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI take credit for her invisible, instrumental work.

Elizebeth Friedman in her twenties.

Fagone writes:

The modern-day universe of codes and ciphers began in a cottage on the prairie, with a pair of young lovers smiling at each other across a table and a rich man urging them to be spectacular.

The two young lovers were Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, and the rich man, the eccentric textile tycoon George Fabyan.

The youngest of nine children raised in a modest Quaker home, Elizebeth was born in an era when fewer than four percent of American women graduated from college. Four years after earning her degree in Greek and English literature, she still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” The following year, 1916, she began her improbable career at Riverbank Laboratories — Fabyan’s Wonderland-like estate, where the billionaire had hired Elizebeth to work on the cipher at the heart of a literary conspiracy theory claiming that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. At Riverbank, she met William, a young geneticist living in a windmill — one of the many fanciful fixtures of Riverbank — and studying seeds in order to infuse crops with optimal properties as a kind of proto genetic engineering. Over long walks, animated by parallel intellectual voraciousness and shared skepticism of the Bacon cipher conspiracy, the two fell in love.

William and Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

William and Elizebeth were married at Riverbank, where they had begun collaborating on cryptographic work. The papers on the subject they wrote together — though always published under William’s name alone — soon spread their reputation beyond Riverbank. Cryptography was new then, new and thrilling and full of unmined possibility for government intelligence, and so the U.S. Navy eventually recruited the Friedmans. Fagone writes:

The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins on the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.

The room is dark but her pencil is sharp. An envelope of puzzles arrives from Washington, sent by men who have the largest of responsibilities and the tiniest of clues. With William she examines the puzzles. He is game, he looks at her with eyes like little bonfires, he is in love with her. She is not in love yet but she would not be ashamed to fall in love with such a bright and kind person. She stares at the odd blocks of text and starts to flip and stack and rearrange them on a scratch pad, a kindling of letters, a friction of alphabets hot to the touch, and then a flame catches and then catches again, until she understands that she can ignite whenever she wants, that a power is there for the taking, for her and for anyone, and nothing will ever be the same. The ribs of a pattern shine through. Something rises at the nib of her pencil and her heart whomps away. The skeletons of words leap out and make her jump.

Continue reading here.

THE MAKER OF PATTERNS

At twenty-two, physicist Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) ascended to a position Newton had held a quarter millennium earlier at Trinity College, where Dyson lived in a room just below Ludwig Wittgenstein’s. Nearly a century later, Dyson remains one of the preeminent scientific minds of our time and a rare witness of a great many cultural milestones, triumphs, and tragedies that have shaped modern life as we know it — landmark discoveries like cosmic microwave background radiation and the double helix structure of DNA, which have profoundly changed our understanding of the universe; the invention of the atomic bomb and the scarring brutality of a World War; the rise of the Internet. He has seen the stars of countless political regimes, scientific theories, and ideologies rise and fall. In Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library), Dyson unleashes his warm wisdom and unboastful wit on subjects as varied as politics, the enchantment of science, the vacuity of celebrity, the value of the immigrant perspective, his vibrant friendship with Richard Feynman, and the complexities of being human. He recounts “a flash of illumination” on the Greyhound bus that revealed to him the nature of creativity and composes a singularly delightful account of meeting the great, troubled logician Kurt Gödel at a farewell party for T.S. Eliot at the Princeton home of Robert Oppenheimer. What emerges is not only the fascinating memoir of an uncommon genius, composed of Dyson’s letters to his loved ones, but an invaluable time-capsule of collective memory.

Sample it here and here.

THE MOTH SNOWSTORM

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote in reflecting on our spiritual bond with nature shortly before she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.

McCarthy writes:

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

[…]

There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.

“Roots” by Maria Popova

In a sentiment that calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” McCarthy weighs the particular necessity and particular precariousness of joy in our cynicism-crippled world:

Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.

A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:

They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

Continue reading here.

*ALSO: A VELOCITY OF BEING

Having devoted eight years of my life to it, and having a heart swelling with gratitude to the legion of writers and artists who contributed original letters and illustrations for this monumental labor of love, I must proudly include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault for a letter by Jacqueline Novogratz

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik
Art by Vladimir Radunsky for a letter by Ann Patchett

Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion, for all of whom their letter is their last published work.)

Art by Marianne Dubuc for a letter by Elizabeth Gilbert
Art by Christoph Niemann for a letter by William Powers
Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte
Art by Brian Rea for a letter by Chris Anderson
Art by Oliver Jeffers for a letter by Holland Taylor
Art by Julie Paschkis for a letter by Sarah Lewis
Art by Maira Kalman for a letter by Paul Holdengräber
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman

Read more about the project here.

BP

Hermann Hesse on Hope, the Difficult Art of Taking Responsibility, and the Wisdom of the Inner Voice

“If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God… he does not come to us from books, he lives within us… This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing.”

Hermann Hesse on Hope, the Difficult Art of Taking Responsibility, and the Wisdom of the Inner Voice

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her timeless essay on self-respect. And yet this willingness does not come naturally to the human animal. We glance left and right, we peer above and below, placing the responsibility for our suffering everywhere but at the center of our own being. We treat the unhandsome consequences of our actions as something that happens to us, at us, by some wretched external causality. In the process, the tick of our self-righteousness grows fatter and fatter on bloodthirsty blame.

The great German poet, novelist, and painter Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) offered an antidote to this all too human tendency in one of his least known pieces of writing, composed as the world was coming back to consciousness after the First World War.

The war had violently ejected Hesse from the exultations of his youth. But he never lost his idealism — he became an impassioned advocate for pacifism and its wellspring in the mindfulness of individuals. Over the next three decades, through the aftermath of one devastating war and the harrowing actuality of another, Hesse composed a series of remarkable, clear-minded, largehearted essays, letters, and pamphlets condemning his compatriots for the unthinking herd mentality that had allowed Hitler’s rise to power and inviting what he saw as the only salvation for them: a new ethos of responsibility, beginning at the personal level upon which the political rests. He was especially invested in invigorating the young — the next generations who had inherited a burden not their own and upon whose shoulders the task of redemption fell with spirit-crushing weight.

Hermann Hesse

These pieces were eventually collected in 1946 — the year Hesse received the Nobel Prize — and later published as If the War Goes On… (public library). Among them is the stirring “Letter to a Young German,” written to a dispirited youth in 1919 — a decade before the publication of Rilke’s almost spiritual classic Letters to a Young Poet, and brimming with kindred consolation for the transcendent traumas of living. This was a momentous year for Hesse. Having recently lost his marriage to the fallout of his wife’s acute mental illness, he had just left Berlin to settle alone in a small farmhouse in Switzerland. WWI had just ended, having begun as “the war to end all wars,” instead netting millions of deaths and laying the gruesome groundwork for future genocides. That year, Hesse signed Romain Rolland’s Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — the extraordinary manifesto for critical thinking and pacifism, co-signed by such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, and Upton Sinclair.

Hesse addresses his despairing young correspondent while himself perched on this precipice between optimism and despair. Three years before Bertrand Russell made his timeless case for what he termed “the will to doubt,” Hesse writes:

You write me that you are in despair and do not know what to believe, what to hope. You do not know whether or not there is a God. You do not know whether or not life has any meaning, whether or not love of country has a meaning, whether, in the wretched condition of the world, it is better to strive for spiritual goods or merely to fill your belly.

I believe your state of mind and soul to be the right one. Not to know whether there is a God, not to know whether there is good and evil, is far better than to know for sure.

More than half a century before Jacob Bronowski admonished against the dark side of certainty, Hesse offers a sobering antidote to the destructive self-righteousness our certitudes delude us into:

Five years ago, if you remember, I should say you were pretty well convinced there was a God, and above all you had no doubt as to what was good and what was evil. Naturally you did what you thought was good and marched off to war. For five years now, the best years of your youth, you have kept on doing “good”: you have fired a gun, gone over the top, lounged about in barracks and mud holes, buried comrades or bandaged their wounds. And little by little you began to doubt the good, to suspect that the good and glorious occupation you were engaged in was fundamentally evil, or at the very least stupid and absurd.

And so it was. Evidently the good you were so sure of at the time was not the right good, the good that is indestructible and timeless; and evidently the God you knew in those days was not the right God… Hundreds of thousands of bloody battle sacrifices were offered up to him, and in his honor hundreds of thousands of bellies were slit open, hundreds of thousands of lungs torn to pieces; he was more bloodthirsty and brutal than any idol…

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

With an eye to the tragic human tendency toward perpetrating wrong under the trance of self-righteousness — a tendency as devastating in the personal realm as it is in the political — he holds up a discomfiting mirror to the self-righteous:

Has anyone stopped to consider, and to wonder at the fact, that in those four years of war our theologians buried their own religion, their own Christianity? Committed to the service of love, they preached hatred; committed to the service of mankind, they mistook for mankind the authorities who paid them.

Decades before James Baldwin observed that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within” and a century before Anne Lamott admonished against how self-righteousness syphons self-respect, Hesse contemplates “the disastrous art of putting the blame on others when we are in trouble” and exhorts for personal responsibility over self-righteous blamefulness:

We are all of us equally guilty and innocent of the fact that our faith was so weak and our officially patented God so ruthless, that we were so incapable of distinguishing war and peace, good and evil. You and I, the Kaiser and the priest, all played a part; we have no call to accuse one another.

[…]

It is childish and stupid to ask whether this one or that one is guilty. I propose that for one short hour we ask ourselves instead: “What about myself? What has been my share of the guilt? When have I been too loudmouthed, too arrogant, too credulous, too boastful? What is there in me that may have helped… all the illusions that have so suddenly collapsed?”

Echoing Emerson’s foundational ideas about nonconformity and self-reliance“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” the Sage of Concord, whom Hesse read and greatly admired, had written in the previous century — Hesse offers his young correspondent the only real and reliable source of comfort:

If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God, a new and better faith, you will surely realize, in your present loneliness and despair, that this time you must not look to external, official sources, to Bibles, pulpits, or thrones, for enlightenment. Nor to me. You can find it only in yourself. And there it is, there dwells the God who is higher and more selfless… The sages of all time have proclaimed him, but he does not come to us from books, he lives within us, and all our knowledge of him is worthless unless he opens our inner eye. This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing… Search where you may, no prophet or teacher can relieve you of the need to look within… Don’t confine yourself… to any other prophet or guide. Our mission is not to instruct you, to make things easier for you, to show you the way. Our mission is solely to remind you that there is a God and only one God; he dwells in your hearts, and it is there that you must seek him out and speak with him.

To hear and heed that inner voice — the sound-minded, pure-hearted critical thinking unmuffled by the shriek of self-righteousness, unlulled by herd mentality, unsullied by external manipulation or internal self-delusion — is perhaps the most consistent challenge we face throughout our lives, playing out in myriad forms across every realm of existence.

Complement with E.B. White’s lovely letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity and Seamus Heaney’s splendid advice to the young, then revisit Hesse on why we read and always will, the three types of readers, savoring the little joys of life, and what trees teach us about belonging and life.

BP

Perspective in the Age of Opinion: Timely Wisdom from a Century Ago

“A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.”

Perspective in the Age of Opinion: Timely Wisdom from a Century Ago

I have worried, and continue to worry, that we have relinquished the reflective telescopic perspective for the reactionary microscopic perspective. When we surrender the grandest, often unanswerable questions to the false certitudes of the smallest, we lose something essential of our humanity. When we aim the spears of those certitudes at one another, more interested in being right than in understanding, we lose something essential. How did we get to a place where to have an opinion is more culturally rewarded than to have a question? Hannah Arendt admonished against this dehumanizing loss decades ago in her trailblazing Gifford lecture on the life of the mind: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

How to guard against the decivilizing tyranny of unthinking opinion over perspectival thought is what the English poet, essayist, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, and art critic G. K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) — an imperfect man, to be sure, but also a brilliant one belonging to that rare species of truth-seers — addressed in the opening chapter of his 1905 essay collection Heretics (free ebook | public library).

G.K. Chesterton

Writing decades before philosopher Simone Weil contemplated the dangers of our self-righteous for and against, Chesterton — who feasted on paradox and employed a style of rhetoric he called “uncommon sense,” subverting popular arguments to reveal their deficiencies — writes:

In former days… the man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right… The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right.

[…]

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter.

Chesterton laments that in the exponential narrowing of focus toward more and more hard-held opinions about smaller and smaller dimensions of life, we have increasingly lost perspective — that telescopic perspective — of the largest, most enduring, most important questions of existence. He writes:

Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations… A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything.

Chesterton — who vehemently and publicly opposed eugenics when Britain was passing the Mental Deficiency Act and considering sterilizing the mentally ill — admonishes against the perils of surrendering the grand perspective. Noting that “the human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions,” he considers the two great and opposite evils of bigotry and fanaticism — “bigotry which is a too great vagueness and fanaticism which is a too great concentration” — and asserts that the only thing worse than both, “more firm than a bigot and more terrible than a fanatic,” is “a man with a definite opinion.” What we lose by electing opinion over perspective, he argues, is cosmic truth:

When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating.

[…]

But there are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.

Art by Ben Newman from A Graphic Cosmogony

In a sentiment of chilling relevance more than a century later, he adds:

This repudiation of big words and big visions has brought forth a race of small men in politics… Our modern politicians claim the colossal license of Caesar and the Superman, claim that they are too practical to be pure and too patriotic to be moral.

This tyranny of definite opinions about the smallest questions, at the expense of broad perspective on the largest, effects a kind of worship of blind practicality over philosophy — the field most directly tasked with the seeing of truth. Chesterton writes:

It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality… Nothing in this universe is so unwise as that kind of worship of worldly wisdom. A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.

Six decades later, John F. Kennedy would hold up art as the social corrective for politics. But art can only be a corrective, Chesterton argues, if it manages not to succumb to the same opinion-constricted narrowing of view that paralyzes and corrupts politics:

A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.

In a sobering allegory, he illustrates this deeply damaging loss of perspective at the altar of opinion and petty practicality:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good — ” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Complement this particular portion of Heretics, much of which has stood the test of time and opinion in the century-some since, with René Descartes on opinion vs. reason and the key to a wakeful mind, John Dewey on the art of critical reflection in the age of instant opinions, and Susan Sontag on the danger of opinions and the conscience of words.

BP

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