A masterwork of immense originality and haunting splendor.
By Maria Popova
“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice. “They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.”
These words open Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works by German-born English composer Max Richter — a masterwork of immense originality and haunting splendor. Richter accomplishes the seemingly impossible — almost without words, he brings to life the mindscape and creative legacy of one of the greatest artists in the English language, who was herself an ardent lover of music.
“There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexorable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like outsiders, naively flustered by our own bygone days.”
By Maria Popova
You find yourself in a city you hadn’t visited in years, walking along a street you had once strolled down with your fingers interlacing a long-ago lover’s, someone you then cherished as the most extraordinary person in the world, who is now married in Jersey with two chubby bulldogs. You find yourself shocked by how an experience of such vivid verisimilitude can be fossilized into a mere memory buried in the strata of what feels like a wholly different person, living a wholly different life — it was you who then lived it, and you who now remembers it, and yet the two yous have almost nothing in common. They inhabit different geographical and social loci, lead different lives, love different loves, dream different dreams. Hardly a habit unites them. Even most of the cells in the body striding down that street are different.
What, then, makes you you? And what is inside that cocoon of certitudes we call a self?
The young Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) set out to explore this abiding question in one of his earliest prose pieces, the 1922 essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” found in his splendid posthumously collection Selected Non-Fictions (public library).
Shortly after his family returned to their native Buenos Aires after a decade in Europe and more than a year before he published his first collection of poems, the 22-year-old Borges begins by setting his unambiguous, unambivalent intention:
I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century, sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.
Exactly three decades before he faced his multitudes in the fantastic Borges and I, he writes:
There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an indifference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?
I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.
It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.
There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inaccessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose ruling you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving them selves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.
In a passage of inimitable Borgesian splendor, he adds:
I do not deny this consciousness of being, nor the immediate security of here I am that it breathes into us. What I do deny is that all our other convictions must be adjusted to the customary antithesis between the self and the non-self, and that this antithesis is constant. The sensation of cold, of spacious and pleasurable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing and rigorous self.
There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexorable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like outsiders, naively flustered by our own bygone days. There is no community of intention in them, nor are they propelled by the same breeze.
Borges draws on two of his great influences in fortifying his point — Walt Whitman, “the first Atlas who attempted to make this obstinacy a reality and take the world upon his shoulders,” and who had himself contemplated the perplexity of personal identity seven decades earlier, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose words Borges cites directly:
An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I throughout all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is, all who during that time said I, were in fact I.
Reality has no need of other realities to bolster it. There are no divinities hidden in the trees, nor any elusive thing-in-itself behind appearances, nor a mythological self that orders our actions. Life is truthful appearance.
Citing a famous Buddhist precept of non-self — “those things of which I can perceive the beginnings and the end are not my self” — Borges illustrates its veracity with the palpable realness of its living manifestations:
I, for example, am not the visual reality that my eyes encompass, for if I were, darkness would kill me and nothing would remain in me to desire the spectacle of the world, or even to forget it. Nor am I the audible world that I hear, for in that case silence would erase me and I would pass from sound to sound without memory of the previous one. Subsequent identical lines of argument can be directed toward the senses of smell, taste, and touch, proving not only that I am not the world of appearances — a thing generally known and undisputed — but that the apperceptions that indicate that world are not my self either. That is, I am not my own activity of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Nor am I my body, which is a phenomenon among others. Up to this point the argument is banal; its distinction lies in its application to spiritual matters. Are desire, thought, happiness, and distress my true self? The answer, in accordance with the precept, is clearly in the negative, since those conditions expire without annulling me with them. Consciousness — the final hideout where we might track down the self — also proves unqualified. Once the emotions, the extraneous perceptions, and even ever-shifting thought are dismissed, consciousness is a barren thing, without any appearance reflected in it to make it exist.
The self [is] a mere logical imperative, without qualities of its own or distinctions from individual to individual.
“I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”
By Maria Popova
“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in his sublime 1962 meditation on the artist’s struggle, just as John F. Kennedy was preparing to address poetry, power, and the artist’s role in society in what would become one of the most poetic and powerful speeches ever delivered.
Two years earlier, the great poet Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) was asked to contribute a statement on the power and responsibility of poetry for The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 — an influential anthology by Donald Allen, which shone the beam of mainstream attention upon such beloved writers as Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, and Levertov herself. Of the fifteen poets who contributed statements on poetics for the volume — including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Levertov was the only woman.
Her piece, posthumously cited and discussed in Dana Greene’s excellent biography, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life (public library), is part personal credo, part cultural manifesto, sophisticated yet precise, speaking at once to poetry, to all art, and to society itself.
Two years before James Baldwin asserted that poets are “the only people who know the truth about us,” Levertov writes:
I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays.
But they are also makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are “members one of another.”
I believe every space and every comma is a living part of the poem and has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life.
I believe content determines form, and yet that content is discovered only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery. The revelation of form itself can be a deep joy; yet I think form as means should never obtrude, whether from intention or carelessness, between the reader and the essential force of the poem, it must be so focused with that force.
In a passage of timeless sagacity, and one which transcends poetry to apply to art in the largest possible sense and its function in human life, Levertov speaks to the particularly challenging though not uncommon predicament of making art in violent and disorienting times. Echoing William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech assertion that it is the poet’s and the artist’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” she writes:
I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry. Horrors are taken for granted. Disorder is ordinary. People in general take more and more “in their stride” — the hides grow thicker. I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.
“Diversity fills the city with cartographic potential… New York belongs to everyone, and maps prove it.”
By Maria Popova
“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in her imaginative remapping of New York’s untold stories, “containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.” But as fascinating as it is to imagine the world’s greatest metropolis remapped according to its unheralded dimensions, New York’s multitude of parallel realities is itself bountiful fodder for the artistic imagination and has inspired centuries of fanciful cartographic interpretations.
Exploring this lacuna between physical reality and the interpretive imagination is a very different kind of atlas — You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City (public library), envisioned and edited by Katharine Harmon. This localized follow-up to Harmon’s wonderful 2004 atlas of “personal geographies and other maps of the imagination” presents two hundred wildly diverse maps of the city, alongside original essays exploring the most iconic of them. There are historical treasures like the first geological maps of Manhattan, masterworks of art like Paula Scher’s obsessively detailed typographic maps, and conceptually daring pieces like artist Liz Scranton’s honeycomb shaped after the landforms of the NYC subway map. What emerges is a layered inquiry into the relationship between self and space, the plurality of perspectives aimed at the same place, and the myriad ways in which we orient ourselves to the landscape against which we live out our lives.
Harmon writes in the introduction:
What is it about the city that invites mapping? First, perhaps, is a need to find one’s place here. An endlessly morphing population of contemporary lives humming along, side by side and mutually oblivious, feeds a need to locate oneself. Another New Yorker writer, A.J. Liebling, wrote in 1938 of the city’s multiplicity of lives: “the worlds of weight lifters, yodelers, tugboat captains, and sideshow barkers, of the book ditchers, sparring partners, song pluggers, sporting girls and religious painters, of the dealers in rhesus monkeys and the bishops of churches.” Diversity fills the city with cartographic potential. Density, ethnicity, race, heritage, languages, income differentials, locals versus commuters versus tourists — all can be, and have been, mapped. New York belongs to everyone, and maps prove it.
With an eye to the two hundred dazzling cartographic curiosities included in the book, culled from an initial database of one thousand maps she had compiled, Harmon writes:
New York has no shortage of inventive thinkers who make excellent cartographers. Each act of creative cartography reflects both the state of mind of the mapper and the state of the city. And each contributes another page to a giant, ever-accumulating atlas of New York — an atlas as big as the city’s self-regard. Perhaps, in the end, what makes the city the most mapped metropolis in the world is that it offers complete cartographic liberty.
I contributed one of the essays for the book, “A Panorama of Power,” exploring the monumental Panorama of the City of New York currently housed at the Queens Museum. This is what I write:
“A poem,” E.B. White wrote in his 1949 masterpiece Here Is New York, “compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” Nothing compresses the city in order to heighten its meaning more palpably than the Panorama of the City of New York — an astonishing feat of architecture, urban planning, and craftsmanship, strangely poetic in its deliberate contrast of scale and significance. To look at it is to see, perhaps for the first time, the city’s elegant enormity.
Constructed by a team of more than one hundred architectural model builders from Raymond Lester & Associates over the course of three years, this elaborate and elegant microcosm reduces every hundred feet of cityscape to one inch of Formica panels and Urethane foam. This conceptual compression cost $672,662.69 to construct in 1964 — the equivalent of approximately five million dollars today. But what makes the Panorama most striking is its affront to our sense of scale — at 9,335 square feet, it is both a miniature and an expanse, containing every street, every park, and every single one of the 895,000 buildings constructed prior to 1992, when Raymond Lester & Associates updated the model.
The Panorama, which now resides at the Queens Museum, was created for the 1964 World’s Fair as a celebration of master-builder Robert Moses and his indelible imprint on the cityscape. A brilliant architect and a fierce politician who publicly defied politicians—including, in one famous incident, President Roosevelt himself—Moses envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, 678 baseball diamonds, and numerous major roads and bridges. He was a man animated by “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in The Power Broker — his Pulitzer-winning 1,200-page biography of Moses.
But Moses, like the city itself, was also a man of duality. Although he began his career as an earnest idealist and an irrepressibly optimistic reformer, the power machine hardened him into a man of “iron will and determination,” in Caro’s words. Intent on bending the world’s greatest city to his will, he imprinted Gotham with his fiery fusion of idealism and egotism. That his legacy should be celebrated by a miniature model of the city, Moses’s favorite toy, is only fitting.
Perhaps most emblematic of all is how the Panorama was pitched at the 1964 World’s Fair, where it became a favorite attraction — as an indoor helicopter tour of the city, promising to provide a “god’s-eye view” of the urban ecosystem. In a sense, visitors were invited to try on the view of Moses — a self-anointed god who had drawn the master-map not only of the city’s infrastructure but also of its very character and destiny; the craftsman of the grand stage onto which, in the immortal words of White, “enormous and violent and wonderful events … are taking place every minute.”
In another essay from the book, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff considers Saul Steinberg’s most famous cover, both timeless and rendered timely by the recent shock of sobering political perspectives:
I saw the New Yorker cover when it came out in 1976, and it wasn’t long before the magazine, in response to popular demand, made it into a poster. And not long after that you could find it on the walls of apartments and college dorms. Soon it was pretty much everywhere, even if only as a local imitation — who knows, maybe even out there on the far right horizon of the drawing, in Russia, perhaps there’s a yellowing poster of “The View of the World from Novosibirsk.”
The vast popularity of “View of the World” was that it appeared eminently “gettable,” especially when the image was topped by the New Yorker logo. With that affixed to the image, to put it in New Yorkeese, “what’s not to get?” It seemed to be an unambiguous visualization of that old quote, “If you’re leaving New York, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Yes, it was gettable, and more than that, easily adaptable and therefore adoptable, which is why so many other cities knocked off the cover, to proclaim, however dubiously, under their own local rubric, that they were the epicenter of existence. As a born-and-bred New Yawker, my own take was similar, with the very implausibility implicit in the derivative covers’ claims, actually making my own native chauvinism seem reasonable in comparison. I mean Novosibirsk may be a nice little city, but gimme a break.