Brain Pickings

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Whom We Love and Who We Are: José Ortega y Gasset on Love, Attention, and the Invisible Architecture of Our Being

“Love is an impulse which springs from the most profound depths of our beings, and upon reaching the visible surface of life carries with it an alluvium of shells and seaweed from the inner abyss.”

Whom We Love and Who We Are: José Ortega y Gasset on Love, Attention, and the Invisible Architecture of Our Being

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” the great French philosopher Simone Weil wrote shortly before her untimely death. An epoch after her, Mary Oliver eulogized the love of her life with the observation that “attention without feeling… is only a report.” Looking back on centuries of love poems by people of genius who dared to love beyond the cultural narrows of their time, the poet J.D. McClatchy observed that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”

Because our attention shapes our entire experience of the world — this, after all, is the foundation of all Eastern traditions of mindfulness, which train the attention in order to anneal our quality of presence — the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are.

Because there is hardly a condition of consciousness that focuses the attention more sharply and totally upon its object than love, what and whom we love is the ultimate revelation of what and who we are.

That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a series of essays originally written for the Madrid newspaper El Sol and posthumously published in English as On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — a singular culmination of Ortega’s philosophic investigation of Western culture’s blind spots, biases, and touching self-delusions about love, that is, about who and what we are.

Illustration from the vintage Danish handbook An ABZ of Love

Defining love as “that sense of spiritual perception with which one seems to touch someone else’s soul, to feel its contours, the harshness or gentleness of its character,” Ortega notes that love reveals “the most intimate and mysterious preferences which form our individual character.” He writes:

There are situations, moments in life, in which, unawares, the human being confesses great portions of his ultimate personality, of his true nature. One of these situations is love. In their choice* of lovers [human beings] reveal their essential nature. The type of human being which we prefer reveals the contours of our heart. Love is an impulse which springs from the most profound depths of our beings, and upon reaching the visible surface of life carries with it an alluvium of shells and seaweed from the inner abyss. A skilled naturalist, by filing these materials, can reconstruct the oceanic depths from which they have been uprooted.

Defining attention as “the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion,” Ortega places it at the center of the experience of love:

“Falling in love” is a phenomenon of attention.


Our spiritual and mental life is merely that which takes place in the zone of maximum illumination. The rest — the zone of conscious inattention and, beyond that, the subconscious — is only potential life, a preparation, an arsenal or reserve. The attentive consciousness can be regarded as the very space of our personalities. We can just as well say that that thing dislodges a certain space in our personalities.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. Available as a print and as stationery cards.

Half a century after William James — one of Ortega’s greatest influences and philosophical progenitors — laid the groundwork of modern psychology with his statement “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” Ortega adds:

Nothing characterizes us as much as our field of attention… This formula might be accepted: tell me where your attention lies and I will tell you who you are.


“Falling in love,” initially, is no more than this: attention abnormally fastened upon another person. If the latter knows how to utilize his privileged situation and ingeniously nourishes that attention, the rest follows with irremissible mechanism.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a print.

Paradoxically, the cultural narrative handed down to us by the Romantics postulates that love broadens and consecrates our awareness of life: Suddenly, everything is illuminated; suddenly, everything sings. Anyone who has ridden the intoxicating elation of early love has felt this, and yet Ortega intimates that this is an illusion of consciousness, masking the actual phenomenon at work, which is rather the opposite — everything is tinted with aspects of the beloved, blurring and tuning out the details that give the world its actuality. Ortega writes:

The person in love has the impression that the life of his consciousness is very rich. His reduced world is more concentrated. All of his psychic forces converge to act upon one single point, and this gives a false aspect of superlative intensity to his existence.

At the same time, that exclusiveness of attention endows the favored object with portentous qualities… By overwhelming an object with attention and concentrating on it, the consciousness endows it with an incomparable force of reality. It exists for us at every moment; it is ever present, there alongside us, more real than anything else. The remainder of the world must be sought out, by laboriously deflecting our attention from the beloved… The world does not exist for the lover. His beloved has dislodged and replaced it… Without a paralysis of consciousness and a reduction of our habitual world, we could never fall in love.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les phénomènes de la physique. (Available as a print.)

Long before cognitive scientists came to study what “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” attention is as it frames our experience of reality by deliberate exclusion, Ortega writes:

Attention is the supreme instrument of personality; it is the apparatus which regulates our mental lives. When paralyzed, it does not leave us any freedom of movement. In order to save ourselves, we would have to reopen the field of our consciousness, and to achieve that it would be necessary to introduce other objects into its focus to rupture the beloved’s exclusiveness. If in the paroxysm of falling in love we could suddenly see the beloved in the normal perspective of our attention, her magic power would be destroyed. In order, however, to gain this perspective we would have to focus our attention upon other things, that is, we would have to emerge from our own consciousness, which is totally absorbed by the object that we love.

Nothing illustrates this contracting of the lens more clearly than the discomposing experience of emerging from the somnambulant state of in-loveness — an experience familiar to anyone who has ever surfaced from an infatuation or has deepened an infatuation into a calm and steady love. Ortega writes:

When we emerge from a period of falling in love we feel an impression similar to awakening and emerging from a narrow passage crammed with dreams. Then we realize that normal perspective is broader and airier, and we become aware of all the hermeticism and rarefaction from which our impassioned minds suffered. For a time we experience the moments of vacillation, weakness, and melancholy of convalescence.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

But despite its potential pitfalls, love remains at once the most interior and the most influential experience of our personhood. In a sentiment evocative of that exquisite line from The Little Prince“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Ortega considers how love, so invisible yet so essential a feature of our humanity, polishes the lens of our entire worldview:

The things which are important lie behind the things that are apparent.


Probably, there is only one other theme more inward than love: that which may be called “metaphysical sentiment,” or the essential, ultimate, and basic impression which we have of the universe. This acts as a foundation and support for our other activities, whatever they may be. No one lives without it, although its degree of clarity varies from person to person. It encompasses our primary, decisive attitude toward all of reality, the pleasure which the world and life hold for us. Our other feelings, thoughts, and desires are activated by this primary attitude and are sustained and colored by it. Of necessity, the complexion of our love affairs is one of the most telling symptoms of this primogenital sensation. By observing our neighbor in love we are able to deduce his vision or goal in life. And this is the most interesting thing to ascertain: not anecdotes about his existence, but the card upon which he stakes his life.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

And yet our culture has a peculiar willful blindness to how love shapes life and the particular expression of aliveness that is our creative work — a peculiar denial of the elemental fact that because we love with everything we are, our loves imprint everything we make. (I wrote Figuring in large part as an antidote to this dangerous delusion, exploring how the loves at the center of great lives shaped the way in which those persons of genius in turn shaped our understanding of the world with their scientific and artistic work.) Ortega shares in this distaste for the cultural diminishment of love as a driving force of creative work. Observing that many persons of extraordinary creative power have tended to take their loves “more seriously than their work” — the very work for which they are celebrated as geniuses, and a choice for which they have suffered derision by their contemporaries and by posterity — he admonishes against this common cultural judgment:

It is curious that only those incapable of producing great work believe that the contrary is the proper conduct: to take science, art, or politics seriously and disdain love affairs as mere frivolities.

Crochet mural by street artist NaomiRAG, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

A century and a half after astronomer Maria Mitchell — a key figure in Figuring — observed that “whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” Ortega laments:

We do not take into sufficient consideration the enormous influence which our loves exercise upon our lives.

But while love reveals who we are, it also shapes who we are, sculpting our character and tinting our personality. The century of psychology developed since Ortega’s epoch has illuminated just how much “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Ortega intuits this transformative power of love and, in consonance with Kurt Vonnegut’s theory that you can be in love up to three times in life, he writes:

A personality experiences in the course of its life two or three great transformations, which are like different stages of the same moral trajectory… Our innermost being seems, in each of these two or three phases, to rotate a few degrees upon its axis, to shift toward another quadrant of the universe and to orient itself toward new constellations.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Complement these fragments from Ortega’s intensely insightful On Love with Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths, James Baldwin on love and the illusion of choice, and Esther Perel on our greatest misconception about love, then revisit what remains my favorite meditation on the subject from centuries of literature and philosophy: Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.


Darling Baby: Artist Maira Kalman’s Painted Serenade to Attention, Aliveness, and the Vibrancy of Seeing the World with Newborn Eyes

“You will look at everything. And everything is really quite beautiful. Quite.”

Darling Baby: Artist Maira Kalman’s Painted Serenade to Attention, Aliveness, and the Vibrancy of Seeing the World with Newborn Eyes

“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be in his wonderful letter of life-advice, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.” Few things beckon our attention and awaken us to life more compellingly than color. “Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color,” Ellen Meloy wrote in her exquisite meditation on the chemistry, culture, and the conscience of color. And why else live if not to pay attention to the changing light?

In Darling Baby (public library), artist Maira Kalman, a poet of chromatic tenderness, composes an uncommon ode to aliveness, to the vibrant beauty of life, life that is very new and life that is very old.

As she teaches the baby to look at this color, this shape, this quality of light, we see the grownup relearn to see with those baby-eyes that are awake to the luminous everythingness of everything, undulled by the accumulation of filters we call growing up. What emerges is a celebration of attention as affirmation of aliveness, a vibrant testament to Simone Weil’s exquisite observation that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Page after painted page, a generous presence unfolds — presence with the new life of this small helpless observer of the world, presence with the ancient life of sky and sea.

There are people dancing and geese swimming in formation and “a thousand tiny silver fish” jumping over the water in an arc and a lightning-sliced night and a full Moon reflected in the gentle blue ripples and “a tree filled with yellow sparkly stars.”

Perfectly, it all takes place on the edge of the ocean — that singular place of existential reckoning, the perfect stage for Kalman’s classic dual serenade to life and death, to the mortal as the precious crucible of wonder.

One day, a summer party celebrates the baby’s birth “and everyone’s birthday with cheery cherry pie,” which a man takes home in his hat. “Everyone is born. That is true.” Another day, the grownup protagonist stumbles upon the still cool body of a “a big mossy-green turtle,” washed up from the ocean of life — a subtle, poignant intimation that everybody dies, too.

She tells the baby:

The water carried the turtle out to sea to be buried in the vast ocean. I think that is a good thing. At any rate, it is a thing.
I am telling you this because I know you will understand.

Throughout the story, there are echoes of Kalman’s love of dogs, echoes of her love of walking, echoes of her love of dance and her lovely American Utopia collaboration with David Byrne.

And all throughout, that wondrous overtone of Kalman’s irrepressible love of life.

Complement Darling Baby with an Italian illustrated ode to the science and strange splendors of pregnancy, then revisit Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman; book photographs by Maria Popova


Sylvia Plath and the Loneliness of Love

“Life is loneliness… Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul, in its appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering.”

Western psychologists have rightly observed that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Zen Buddhists have rightly observed that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” That lacuna between whom and how, between the objects of our love and its observance, is powerful space for transformation. For those of us who have not come into the world under the most optimal of circumstances and have not been formed by the most nurturing of forces, relationships are especially fertile ground for growing the twin roots of the stable soul: love and trust.

Yet always, always, there is an undertone of loneliness in even the most symphonic love — not the gladsome “neighboring solitudes” Rilke placed at the center of healthy companionship, but the hollowing loneliness of unbelonging, of never feeling fully and completely seen, which another great poet placed at the center of her poetry and her private anguish before she perished by that loneliness.

Sylvia Plath by Rollie McKenna (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) was still a teenager when she began facing the deepest existential questions, untangling them with uncommon lucidity on the pages of her diary, which now survive as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the dazzling and at times discomposing posthumous echo of personhood that gave us the young Plath on finding nonreligious divinity in nature, the ecsatsy of curiosity, and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness.

In an entry from the winter of her freshman year at Smith College, upon returning to her dorm room after a four-day blur with her family for Thanksgiving, she writes:

Now I know what loneliness is, I think. Momentary loneliness, anyway. It comes from a vague core of the self — like a disease of the blood, dispersed throughout the body so that one cannot locate the matrix, the spot of contagion.


This loneliness will blur and diminish, no doubt, when tomorrow I plunge again into classes, into the necessity of studying for exams. But now, that false purpose is lifted and I am spinning in a temporary vacuum… The routine is momentarily suspended and I am lost. There is no living being on earth at this moment except myself. I could walk down the halls, and empty rooms would yawn mockingly at me from every side.

Peering beyond the immediate situation, beyond this particular moment in life, she casts a darkly prognostic eye toward the rosary of moments stringing her uncertain future — a future that would soon include a passionate but damaging love, a future cut short by her lonely pain — and adds:

God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in it’s appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering.

Self-Portrait, late 1940s or early 1950s — one of Sylvia Plath’s little-known paintings. (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

It was Plath’s tragedy that after chance had dealt her neurochemistry and nurture far from optimal, and that the delicious illusion of choice had led her to a complicated love that deepened her art and deepened the pain from which it sprang. But her concrete tragedy — which is a common tragedy: so often our unhealed wounds lead us to people whose claws fit those wounds and deepen them — is contoured by the luminous negative space of the opposite possibility: Some loves can unseal, irradiate, and heal those small dark old places in us where joy has been compacted into a hard dense loneliness. This possibility is folded into a glorious, maddening Möbius strip of trust: The very relationships in which we can begin to grow those twin roots of the soul require a level of trust to begin the terrifying process of being known — a process Adrienne Rich placed at the heart of every relationship in which two people have together earned the right to use the word “love,” a truly honorable relationship shaped by “a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”


Sarah Mapps Douglass’s Flowers: The First Surviving Art Signed by an African-American Woman

A rose is a rose is a revolution.

In his thrice-revised and expanded autobiographies, Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Bailey, recounts changing his surname multiple times to cover his fugitive trail. When the time came to settle on a permanent name, he invited the man in whose home was taking refuge — a free black man devoted to helping fugitive slaves — to choose for him, as a token of gratitude. His host suggested Douglas — the self-possessed Highlander hero of one of the era’s greatest literary blockbusters, Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. In his retelling, Frederick Douglass brushes past the additional s, with the vague intimation that he added it for distinction.

But there is another probable possibility for the peculiar spelling. Here was an orphan with no sense of roots, an aching ambivalence about his parentage, and a longing for communal belonging. And here was the grown man of genius retelling his own story of becoming, aware — like all persons of genius — that a larger mythos of colossal cultural significance hangs upon their private myth. 

Forget me not by Sarah Mapps Douglass

Since the dawn of the abolition movement, women had played an active and ardent role in fundraising, organizing, and public advocacy — women who risked ostracism, or worse, for exercising the agency of stepping outside the narrow confines of the domestic sphere allotted them and into the cosmos of political activism. One of the movement’s leading women was the young Philadelphian Sarah Mapps Douglass (September 9, 1806–September 8, 1882), who at only twenty-five had organized a major fundraising campaign for the primary journalistic instrument of abolition — William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, on the pages of which Frederick Douglass found and trained his own literary voice.

The daughter of two active abolitionists, Sarah was born into one of America’s most prominent black families and raised in the Quaker tradition — her grandfather, Cyrus, had been a slave to a local Quaker baker who liberated him and taught him the baking trade; Cyrus soon opened his own successful bakery, which allowed him to fund and operate a school for black children from his home, later becoming a founding member of the pioneering Free African Society seventy-five years before Abraham Lincoln staked his credo and his life on the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Rose painting and poem by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Sarah was nursed on a love of literature and a love of nature, immersed in art and music, and lavished with painting lessons in a bubble of her privilege — provisional and relative, as all privilege is. Growing up amid the intellectual ferment of abolition, she grasped the terrors of slavery only abstractly, as an idea and not a felt reality, not fully imagining how other children who looked like her lived very different lives, how people who looked like her parents died gruesome deaths. Then, as a young woman, she performed one of those rare, triumphal acts that signify true maturity and grandeur of spirit: changing one’s mind as it expands to take in a broader perspective and publicly acknowledging one’s previously limited views.

Unsigned rose and scroll, likely by Sarah Mapps Douglass, from Amy Matilda Cassey’s friendship album. (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)

In 1832, Sarah Mapps Douglass recounted her awakening to the urgency of abolition in a rousing speech at a gathering of the Female Literary Society of Philadelphia, of which she was a leader — the first specialty library for African-American women, literate and illiterate, free and enslaved, devoted to “the cultivation of intellectual powers” as the highest tribute to the sanctity of human nature. She told the women gathered before her:

An English writer has said, ‘We must feel deeply before we can act rightly; from that absorbing, heart-rendering compassion for ourselves springs a deeper sympathy for others, and from a sense of our weakness and our own upbraidings arises a disposition to be indulgent, to forbear, to forgive.’ This is my experience. One short year ago, how different were my feelings on the subject of slavery! It is true, the wail of the captive sometimes came to my ear in the midst of my happiness, and caused my heart to bleed for his wrongs; but, alas! the impression was as evanescent as the early cloud and morning dew. I had formed a little world of my own, and cared not to move beyond its precincts. But how was the scene changed when I beheld the oppressor lurking on the border of my own peaceful home! I saw his iron hand stretched forth to seize me as his prey, and the cause of the slave became my own.

The following year, in a friendship album compiled by her Philadelphian friend and fellow activist Amy Matilda Cassey, Sarah Mapps Douglass fused her twin loves of literature and nature with her artistic acumen in a series of consummate flowers she painted alongside selections from poems she transcribed in her lovely longhand.

Flowers by Sarah Mapps Douglass, with transcribed anonymous poem. (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)

No marvel woman should love flowers, they bear
So much of the fanciful similitude
To her own history; like herself repaying
With such sweet interest all the cherishing
That calls their beauty or their sweetness forth;
And like her too — dying beneath neglect.

Cassey would maintain and expand the album, now found in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia, for two decades, drawing contributions — poetry, prose, paintings, sketches — by some of the era’s most prominent abolitionists, including Garrison, Lucy Stone, and Frederick Douglass himself. The flowers Sarah Mapps Douglass painted in it are considered the first surviving artworks signed by an African-American woman.

A token of love, from me, to thee by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

To a similar album complied by one of her pupils, Mary Anne Dickerson, Sarah Mapps Douglass contributed a single, splendid painting of fuchsia — Fuchsia triphylla, so named in the last years of the 17th century by a French monk and botanist, after a German botanist and herbalist born in the first year of the 16th century — an uncommonly beautiful and fragrant flowering plant uprooted from its native habitat in Central and South America, so that an uncommonly gifted young woman of uprooted roots could tend to it and paint it in her native antebellum Philadelphia — a tender reminder that by whatever ugly and unchosen forces we might come into this world, into the dispensation of chance contouring our lives, there is always the choice to consecrate those lives and this world with the willful brush of beauty.

Fuchsia by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Complement with Frederick Douglass on how photography, improbably invented seven years after Sarah painted her flowers, helped the cause of social justice by bridging the real and the ideal, then revisit these stunning 18th-century natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct animals by another trailblazing Sarah of an earlier era and this pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants a young Scottish mother illustrated another generation earlier to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison.


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