Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 40

An Unassailable Serenity: Edith Wharton on Being at Home in Our Aloneness

“I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity.”

An Unassailable Serenity: Edith Wharton on Being at Home in Our Aloneness

The poet Elizabeth Bishop believed that everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life. “Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with himself,” the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky counseled the young, “because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”

But solitude is a state rather than an emotion, and this state contains within itself a vast spectrum of feelings. In one extreme is the vitalizing aloneness that Keats saw as the wellspring of creativity. In the other, the soul-deadening paralysis of loneliness.


Beloved writer Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862–August 11, 1937) captures the bone-deep isolation of the latter in an exquisite extended simile in her 1893 short story “The Fullness of Life”:

I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.

But such is the actual fullness of life: Only by becoming intimately acquainted with the entire spectrum of solitude can we learn to interpolate between the two extremes and to transmute one into the other.

Wharton herself knew this — years after writing the short story, she extolled the importance of befriending aloneness not in fiction but in facing the fact of her dear friend Mary Berenson’s suicidal depression. In a letter to Berenson found in Edith Wharton (public library), the excellent biography by Hermione Lee, Wharton considers solitude not as a maddening lonesomeness but as an anchor of sanity:

I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity — to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.

For more on how to attain that “unassailable serenity,” see this excellent contemporary meditation on how to be alone, then revisit poet Wendell Berry on how solitude amplifies one’s inner voice.


The Creative Sympathies of Art and Science: Alan Lightman on What the Exhilarating Mystery of Creative Breakthrough Feels Like

An exquisite account of those moments that feel “like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone.”

The Creative Sympathies of Art and Science: Alan Lightman on What the Exhilarating Mystery of Creative Breakthrough Feels Like

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote, “the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Hardly any contemporary writer has done more to illuminate that cradle than Alan Lightman. A physicist and a novelist, and MIT’s first professor with dual appointments in science and the humanities, he is one of those rare intellectual amphibians who inhabit the worlds of art and science with equal grace. In his incomparable writing, Lightman continually uncovers what he calls the “creative sympathies” between these two worlds — sympathies nowhere more similar than in the singular scintillation of creative breakthrough common to both realms, which he articulates beautifully in the opening essay from his altogether magnificent 2005 collection A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (public library).


Reflecting on his first love affair with original research as a 22-year-old graduate student at Caltech, Lightman recounts a trying project aimed at procuring “a giant umbrella theory of gravity” by writing down countless equations. However much he toiled, the calculations just didn’t add up. For months, his pencil trembled with the sense that something was off, but the source of the error evaded him.

And then, much like the periodic table arranged itself in Mendeleev’s unconscious mind during a dream, the breakthrough arrived in accordance with Lewis Carroll’s remedy for creative block. Lightman describes that miraculous moment:

One morning, I remember that it was a Sunday morning, I woke up about five a.m. and couldn’t sleep. I felt terribly excited. Something strange was happening in my mind. I was thinking about my research problem, and I was seeing deeply into it. I was seeing it in ways I never had before. The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. And I had absolutely no sense of my self. It was an experience completely without ego, without any thought about consequences or approval or fame. Furthermore, I had no sense of my body. I didn’t know who I was or where I was. I was simply spirit, in a state of pure exhilaration.

One of William Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Psychologists have termed this state “flow.” But although the resulting breakthrough is the fruit of the lengthy labor preceding it — one ripened by what T.S. Eliot called the “incubation” at the root of creativity — when it arrives, it feels like an unmerited grace. Lightman captures this intoxicating feeling:

The best analogy I’ve been able to find for that intense feeling of the creative moment is sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind. Normally, the hull stays down in the water, with the frictional drag greatly limiting the speed of the boat. But in high wind, every once in a while the hull lifts out of the water, and the drag goes instantly to near zero. It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing.

That Sunday morning, he woke up planing:

Although I had no sense of my ego, I did have a feeling of rightness. I had a strong sensation of seeing deeply into the problem and understanding it and knowing that I was right — a certain kind of inevitability. With these sensations surging through me, I tiptoed out of my bedroom, almost reverently, afraid to disturb whatever strange magic was going on in my head, and I went to the kitchen. There, I sat down at my ramshackle kitchen table. I got out the pages of my calculations, by now curling and stained. A tiny bit of daylight was starting to seep through the window.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hemingway’s admonition to work alone, Agnes Martin’s assertion that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” and Keats’s exaltation of solitude as the seedbed of the imagination, Lightman adds:

Although I was oblivious to myself, my body, and everything around me, the fact is I was completely alone. I don’t think any other person in the world would have been able to help me at that moment. And I didn’t want any help. I had all of these sensations and revelations going on in my head, and being alone with all that was an essential part of it.

Art by Lorenzo Mattotti for Lou Reed’s adaptation of Poe’s The Raven

At that solitary kitchen table, Lightman finally solved his problem and proved that that the conjecture at the heart of his theory was true. He would go on to have similar revelations over the years, not only in other scientific projects but also in his work as a novelist. He writes of this supreme testament to the common creative force animating art and science:

As a novelist, I’ve experienced the same sensation. When I suddenly understand a character I’ve been struggling with, or find a lovely way of describing a scene, I am lifted out of the water, and I plane. I’ve read the accounts of other writers, musicians, and actors, and I think that the sensation and process are almost identical in all creative activities. The pattern seems universal: The study and hard work. The prepared mind. The being stuck. The sudden shift. The letting go of control. The letting go of self.

This act of letting go, Lightman suggests, is a surrender to the mystery of life. With an eye to Einstein’s famous proclamation, he considers the meaning of the mysterious:

I believe that [Einstein] meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened… I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery.

Lightman’s A Sense of the Mysterious remains one of the finest, most poetic science books ever written. Complement this particular fragment with Hannah Arendt on the life-expanding value of unanswerable questions and Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Lightman on science and spirituality and why we long for immortality in an impermanent universe.


What Depression Is Really Like

“The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain.”

What Depression Is Really Like

In a piercing letter to his brother, Vincent van Gogh captured the mental anguish of depression in a devastatingly perfect visceral metaphor: “One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.” Anyone who has suffered from this debilitating disease knows that the water in that well is qualitatively, biochemically different from the water in the puddle of mere sadness. And yet, even as scientists are exploring the evolutionary origins of depression and the role REM sleep may play in it, understanding and articulating the experience of the disease remains a point of continual frustration for those afflicted and a point of continual perplexity for those fortunate never to have plummeted to the bottom of the well.

No one has captured this perennial plague of the human spirit with greater vividness and acuity than William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) in Darkness Visible (public library) — his trenchant 1990 memoir of depression.


Styron, who first descended into clinical depression at the age of sixty and describes himself as “one who has suffered from the malady in extremis yet returned to tell the tale,” considers the cultural baggage of this “veritable howling tempest in the brain,” propelled by “the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behavior and genetics”:

When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word “depression.” Depression, most people know, used to be termed “melancholia,” a word which appears in English as early as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. “Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness. It may be that the scientist generally held responsible for its currency in modern times, a Johns Hopkins Medical School faculty member justly venerated — the Swiss-born psychiatrist Adolf Meyer — had a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore was unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering “depression” as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease. Nonetheless, for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.

One of the most striking paradoxes of the disease is that despite its devastating prevalence — depression is the most common form of disability in the world today — its symptoms are so imperceptible from the outside that it is extremely difficult to tell who is suffering and who is not. And yet what goes on inside is acute and unmistakable. Styron captures it with penetrating precision:

The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

From visual educators at TED Ed — who have previously explored the history of melancholy — comes this animated primer on what depression really is and how to best be there for those afflicted:

For an elevating counterpoint, see Tchaikovsky — a lifelong sufferer of the disease — on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul.


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated