A timeless ode to the human spirit and the courage of “making poems in the lap of death.”
By Maria Popova
“Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying,” Vassar Miller asserted. “It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.”
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Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both
parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard
Humanity i love you because
when you’re hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you’re flush pride keeps
you from the pawn shop and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house
Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity
i hate you
This beautiful reading was Amanda’s remote and time-shifted contribution to Verses for Hope — a pop-up poetry reading I organized in collaboration with the Academy of American Poets, born out of a restless desire to offer solace after the dispiriting events of late and to create a space for celebration amid suffering.
“Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.”
By Maria Popova
Each epoch creates a handful of grab-bag terms, phrased in its distinctive vocabulary, to hold its central anxieties. But although the concretization of those anxieties into specific catchphrases might differ from era to era, the undergirding psychology springs from the same elemental, perennial source — the fear of having our safety, security, and basic human freedoms violated.
Today, one of the issues that most foment and torment our collective conscience is contained within the phrase “gun control,” which is of course a grab-bag term for a complex ecosystem of issues including violence, freedom, safety, justice, commerce, morality, and human rights. Half a century ago, in the zenith of the Cold War, its counterpart was the phrase “nuclear disarmament.” The focal point of one individuals — their rights, their responsibilities, their vulnerabilities — and of the other, nations. But the most lucid arguments about the underlying issues apply with striking similarity to both.
Among those is a spectacular essay by E.B. White (July 11, 1899–October 1, 1985) titled “Unity,” penned in the spring of 1960 and later included in Essays of E.B. White (public library) — the same timelessly rewarding volume the foreword to which gave us White’s meta-wisdom on the art of the essay.
Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening. What is this good thing? I think it is the evolution of community, community slowly and surely invested with the robes of government by the consent of the governed.
Traditional approaches to peace, White notes, have sought to address symptoms rather than causes — an argument that applies equally to the failures of gun control today. He writes:
We cannot conceivably achieve a peaceful life merely by relaxing the tensions of sovereign nations; there is an unending supply of them. We may gain a breather by relaxing a tension here and there, but I think it a fallacy that a mere easement, or diplomacy triumphant, can ever be the whole base for peace. You could relax every last tension tonight and wake tomorrow morning with all the makings of war, all the familiar promise of trouble.
The very notion of “disarmament,” White cautions, is emblematic of this futile effort to control outcomes while turning a blind eye to causes:
Unfortunately, disarmament doesn’t have much to do with peace… Keeping itself strong is always a nation’s first concern whenever arms are up for discussion, and disarmament is simply one of the devices by which a nation tries to increase its strength relative to the strength of others. On this naked earth, a nation that approaches disarmament as though it were a humanitarian ideal is either suffering from delusions or planning a deception.
Disarmament talks divert our gaze from the root of the matter, which is not the control of weapons, or weapons themselves, but the creation of machinery for the solution of the problems that give rise to the use of weapons.
Disarmament, I think, is a mirage. I don’t mean it is indistinct or delusive, I mean it isn’t there. Every ship, every plane could be scrapped, every stockpile destroyed, every soldier mustered out, and if the original reasons for holding arms were still present, the world would not have been disarmed. Arms would simply be in a momentary state of suspension, preparatory to new and greater arms. The eyes of all of us are fixed on a shape we seem to see up ahead—a vision of a world relaxed, orderly, secure, friendly. Disarmament looks good because it sounds good, but unhappily one does not get rid of disorder by getting rid of munitions, and disarmament is not solid land containing a harbor, it is an illusion caused by political phenomena, just as a mirage is an illusion caused by atmospheric phenomena, a land mass that doesn’t exist.
In a sentiment that resounds with astonishing pertinence to our present predicament, he adds:
Weapons are worrisome and expensive; they make everyone edgy. But weapons are not and never have been the cause of the trouble.
Noting, with his characteristic genius for metaphor, that arms are “among the most intimate of a nation’s garments … which a nation instinctively conceals from view,” White considers the question of transparency and why mere policing is not the path to amplify trust:
National life is secret life. It is always been secret, and I think it is necessarily secret. To live openly, one must first have a framework of open living — a political framework very different from anything that now exists on the international level. A disarmament arrangement backed by controls and inspection is not such a framework, it is simply a veiled invitation to more and greater secrecy.
An adequate approach to the issue, he argues, must reconcile the liberty of a particular nation with the common good of the world — an argument whose analogue is the growing urgency of reconciling the personal freedom of the individual with the good of the society she inhabits. For an elegant articulation of the paradox, White points to an op-ed by the great Spanish diplomat, writer, and pacifist Salvador de Madariaga, which had appeared in the New York Times Magazine several months earlier:
Señor de Madaringa ended his article with an observation that should inform and enliven every free nation.
“The trouble today,” he wrote, “is that the Communist world understands unity but not liberty, while the free world understands liberty but not unity. Eventual victory may be won by the first of the two sides to achieve the synthesis of both liberty and unity.”
Justice will find a home where there is a synthesis of liberty and unity in a framework of government. And when justice appears on any scene, on any level of society, men’s problems enjoy a sort of automatic solution, because they enjoy the means of solution. Unity is no mirage. It is the distant shore. I believe we should at least head for that good shore, though most of us will not reach it in this life.
“If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.”
By Maria Popova
“Nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp?” philosopher Martin Heidegger asked in his electrifying love letters to Hannah Arendt. “Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.” Still, nearly every anguishing aspect of love arises from the inescapable tension between this longing for transformative awakening and the sleepwalking selfhood of our habitual patterns. True as it may be that frustration is a prerequisite for satisfaction in romance, how are we to reconcile the sundering frustration of these polar pulls?
The multiple sharp-edged facets of this question are what Alain de Botton explores in The Course of Love (public library) — a meditation on the beautiful, tragic tendernesses and fragilities of the human heart, at once unnerving and assuring in its psychological insightfulness. At its heart is a lamentation of — or, perhaps, an admonition against — how the classic Romantic model has sold us on a number of self-defeating beliefs about the most essential and nuanced experiences of human life: love, infatuation, marriage, sex, children, infidelity, trust.
A sequel of sorts to his 1993 novel On Love, the book is bold bending of form that fuses fiction and De Botton’s supreme forte, the essay — twined with the narrative thread of the romance between the two protagonists are astute observations at the meeting point of psychology and philosophy, spinning out from the particular problems of the couple to unravel broader insight into the universal complexities of the human heart.
In fact, as the book progresses, one gets the distinct and surprisingly pleasurable sense that De Botton has sculpted the love story around the robust armature of these philosophical meditations; that the essay is the raison d’être for the fiction.
In one of these contemplative interstitials, De Botton examines the paradoxical psychology of one of the most common and most puzzling phenomena between lovers: sulking. He writes:
At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add: it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.
Sulking, De Botton suggests, stems from a form of magical thinking — the belief, endearing in its origin but deleterious in its effect, that an impossibility is possible:
Sulking pays homage to a beautiful, dangerous ideal that can be traced back to our earliest childhoods: the promise of wordless understanding. In the womb, we never had to explain. Our every requirement was catered to. The right sort of comfort simply happened. Some of this idyll continued in our first years. We didn’t have to make our every requirement known: large, kind people guessed for us. They saw past our tears, our inarticulacy, our confusions: they found the explanations for discomforts which we lacked the ability to verbalize.
That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood.
But rather than bemoaning the sulk as a fatal flaw of a relationship, De Botton wrests from it evidence of the most hopeful and generous capacity of the human heart:
We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: “Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.”
We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with — and forgive — the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.
Half a century after Iris Murdoch consoled a heartbroken friend by reminding her that “love is better than no love, though it can hurt so much,” De Botton revisits another facet of the same bewildering dynamic in a section on the interplay between trust and blame:
The most superficially irrational, immature, lamentable, but nonetheless common of all the presumptions of love is that the person to whom we have pledged ourselves is not just the center of our emotional existence but is also, as a result — and yet in a very strange, objectively insane and profoundly unjust way — responsible for everything that happens to us, for good or ill. Therein lies the peculiar and sick privilege of love.
Toward the end of the book, De Botton follows this paradoxical privilege to its equally paradoxical conclusion:
Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.
For more of his largehearted wisdom on love and our human vulnerabilities, see his magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:
My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways — and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.
Subscribe to Design Mattershere for more invigorating conversations with artists, writers, designers, and other creative thinkers.
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