We die. All of us — atoms to atoms, stardust to stardust, the mountain to the sea — you and I. The dual awareness of our improbable life and our inevitable death is what allows us to animate the interlude with love and beauty, with poems and fairy tales and poems, with general relativity and Nina Simone. It is what puts into perspective just how fleeting and vacant and self-embittering all of our angers and blames and resentments are in the end — what beckons us, instead, to “leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.”
That is what the late, great Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — one of the most original, deepest-seeing poets of our time — explores with great subtlety and profundity disguised as levity in the poem “Immortality” from her final poetry collection, the Pulitzer-winning masterpiece Alive Together (public library).
IMMORTALITY by Lisel Mueller
In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the world.
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.
As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.
(Two centuries earlier, William Blake explored the same eternal subject though the same creature in his short existentialist poem “The Fly.”)
In the front matter of this altogether miraculous book, where an epigraph would ordinarily appear, Mueller offers a short poem that becomes a kind of chorus line for the entire collection, but emerges as an especially harmonizing counterpart to “Immortality” in particular:
IN PASSING by Lisel Mueller
How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness
and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:
as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
“From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used creativity and imagination to shape words and images and structures and sounds to express our longings and frustrations, our confusions and revelations, our failures and triumphs.”
By Maria Popova
“Praised be the fathomless universe, for life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,” Walt Whitman wrote as he stood discomposed and delirious before a universe filled with “forms, qualities, lives, humanity, language, thoughts, the ones known, and the ones unknown, the ones on the stars, the stars themselves, some shaped, others unshaped.” And yet the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability. Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapses, coruscating with the ultimate question: What is all this?
That is what physicist and mathematician Brian Greene explores with great elegance of thought and poetic sensibility in Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (public library). Nearly two centuries after the word scientistwas coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville when her unexampled book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences brought together the separate disciplinary streams of scientific inquiry into a single river of knowledge, Greene draws on his own field, various other sciences, and no small measure of philosophy and literature to examine what we know about the nature of reality, what we suspect about the nature of knowledge, and how these converge to shine a sidewise gleam on our own nature. With resolute scientific rigor and uncommon sensitivity to the poetic syncopations of physical reality, he takes on the questions that bellow through the bone cave atop our shoulders, the cave against whose walls Plato flickered his timeless thought experiment probing the most abiding puzzle: How are we ever sure of reality? — a question that turns the mind into a Rube Goldberg machine of other questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? How did life emerge? What is consciousness?
Although science is Greene’s raw material in this fathoming — its histories, its theories, its triumphs, its blind spots — he emerges, as one inevitably does in contemplating these colossal questions, a testament to Einstein’s conviction that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.”
Looking back on how he first grew enchanted with what he calls “the romance of mathematics” and its seductive promise to unveil the timeless laws of nature, Greene writes:
Creativity constrained by logic and a set of axioms dictates how ideas can be manipulated and combined to reveal unshakable truths.
The appeal of a law of nature might be its timeless quality. But what drives us to seek the timeless, to search for qualities that may last forever? Perhaps it all comes from our singular awareness that we are anything but timeless, that our lives are anything but forever.
We emerge from laws that, as far as we can tell, are timeless, and yet we exist for the briefest moment of time. We are guided by laws that operate without concern for destination, and yet we constantly ask ourselves where we are headed. We are shaped by laws that seem not to require an underlying rationale, and yet we persistently seek meaning and purpose.
Somewhere along the way of our seeking, at one life-point or another, against one wall or another, we all arrive at what David Foster Wallace, vanquisher of euphemism, called “the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” Insisting that from that recognition arises our shimmering capacity for creativity, for beauty, for meaning-making, Greene endeavors to explore “the breathtaking ways in which restless and inventive minds have illuminated and responded to the fundamental transience of everything” — minds ranging from Shakespeare to Wallace, from Sappho to Einstein.
A century after Rachel Carson observed (in a trailblazing essay that pioneered the very genre of poetic science writing in which Greene himself dwells) that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” he writes:
In the fullness of time all that lives will die. For more than three billion years, as species simple and complex found their place in earth’s hierarchy, the scythe of death has cast a persistent shadow over the flowering of life. Diversity spread as life crawled from the oceans, strode on land, and took flight in the skies. But wait long enough and the ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision. The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of any given life is a foregone conclusion.
Despite how we may distract ourselves from that omnipresent conclusion, we live terrified of our own erasure, but that very terror impels us to more-than-exist — to live, to love, to compose poems and symphonies and equations. With an eye to “the inner life that comes hand in hand with our refined cognitive capacities,” Greene writes:
The mental faculties that allow us to shape and mold and innovate are the very ones that dispel the myopia that would otherwise keep us narrowly focused on the present. The ability to manipulate the environment thoughtfully provides the capacity to shift our vantage point, to hover above the timeline and contemplate what was and imagine what will be. However much we’d prefer it otherwise, to achieve “I think, therefore I am” is to run headlong into the rejoinder “I am, therefore I will die.”
Perhaps our creative forays, from the stags at Lascaux to the equations of general relativity, emerge from the brain’s naturally selected but overly active ability to detect and coherently organize patterns. Perhaps these and related pursuits are exquisite but adaptively superfluous by-products of a sufficiently large brain released from full-time focus on securing shelter and sustenance… What lies beyond question is that we imagine and we create and we experience works, from the Pyramids to the Ninth Symphony to quantum mechanics, that are monuments to human ingenuity whose durability, if not whose content, point toward permanence.
One aspect of Greene’s argument, however, deserves more nuanced consideration: Historically, every time we humans have assumed that a certain feature or faculty is ours alone in the whole of “Creation” — sentience, tools, language, consciousness — we have been wrong. Greene makes the baseline assumption that we alone are aware of our own finitude. “It is only you and I and the rest of our lot,” he asserts, “that can reflect on the distant past, imagine the future, and grasp the darkness that awaits.” But what of elephants and their capacity for grief, deep and documented? What is grief if not a savaging consciousness of the fact that death severs the arrow of time, that what once was — living, beloved — will never again be, while we are left islanded in the present, shipwrecked by an absence?
Still, unblunted by this marginal error of exclusivity is Greene’s astute insight into the elemental equivalence: we are doomed to decay, and so we cope by creating. He highlights two factors that jointly gave rise to the self-awareness seeding our terror and to our wondrous reach for transcendence: entropy and evolution. Across three hundred pages, he fans out the fabric of our present understanding, deftly untangling then interweaving the science of everything from black holes to quanta to DNA, tracing how matter made mind made imagination, probing the pull of eternity and storytelling and the sublime, and arriving at a final chapter lyrically titled “The Nobility of Being,” in which he contemplates how these processes and phenomena, described and discovered by minds honed by millennia of evolution, converge to illuminate our search for meaning:
Most of us deal quietly with the need to lift ourselves beyond the everyday. Most of us allow civilization to shield us from the realization that we are part of a world that, when we’re gone, will hum along, barely missing a beat. We focus our energy on what we can control. We build community. We participate. We care. We laugh. We cherish. We comfort. We grieve. We love. We celebrate. We consecrate. We regret. We thrill to achievement, sometimes our own, sometimes of those we respect or idolize.
Through it all, we grow accustomed to looking out to the world to find something to excite or soothe, to hold our attention or whisk us to someplace new. Yet the scientific journey we’ve taken suggests strongly that the universe does not exist to provide an arena for life and mind to flourish. Life and mind are simply a couple of things that happen to happen. Until they don’t. I used to imagine that by studying the universe, by peeling it apart figuratively and literally, we would answer enough of the how questions to catch a glimpse of the answers to the whys. But the more we learn, the more that stance seems to face in the wrong direction.
Looking for the universe to hug us, its transient conscious squatters, is understandable, but that’s just not what the universe does.
Even so, to see our moment in context is to realize that our existence is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.
We exist because our specific particulate arrangements won the battle against an astounding assortment of other arrangements all vying to be realized. By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.
In the final pages, Greene both affirms and refutes Borges’s refutation of time, guiding us, perishable miracles that we are, to the wellspring of meaning in an impartial universe and ending the book with the word — a curious word, improbable for a physicist — on which Whitman perched his entire cosmogony:
Whereas most life, miraculous in its own right, is tethered to the immediate, we can step outside of time. We can think about the past, we can imagine the future. We can take in the universe, we can process it, we can explore it with mind and body, with reason and emotion. From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used creativity and imagination to shape words and images and structures and sounds to express our longings and frustrations, our confusions and revelations, our failures and triumphs. We have used ingenuity and perseverance to touch the very limits of outer and inner space, determining fundamental laws that govern how stars shine and light travels, how time elapses and space expands — laws that allow us to peer back to the briefest moment after the universe began and then shift our gaze and contemplate its end.
As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery. Instead, certain special collections of particles can think and feel and reflect, and within these subjective worlds they can create purpose. And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward. That is the noble direction to look. It is a direction that forgoes ready-made answers and turns to the highly personal journey of constructing our own meaning. It is a direction that leads to the very heart of creative expression and the source of our most resonant narratives. Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul.
Until the End of Time, a splendid and invigorating read in its entirety, left me with the evolutionary miracle of Shelley on my mind — a fragment from the last poetic work he published before he met his own untimely finitude in the entropic spectacle of a sudden storm on the Italian gulf, long before humanity had fathomed entropy and evolution:
Talk no more
Of thee and me, the future and the past…
Earth and ocean,
Space, and the isles of life or light that gem
The sapphire floods of interstellar air,
This firmament pavilioned upon chaos…
Of suns and worlds, and men and beasts, and flowers
With all the violent and tempestuous workings
By which they have been, are, or cease to be,
Is but a vision: all that it inherits
Are motes of a sick eye, bubbles and dreams;
Thought is its cradle and its grave, nor less
The future and the past are idle shadows
Of thought’s eternal flight — they have no being.
Nought is but that it feels itself to be.
“True adulthood,” Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings in her 2004 Wellesley College commencement address, “is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.” Four years later, in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had, Maya Angelou wrote: “I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.”
Perhaps the most difficult beauty and the hardest-won glory of true adulthood is the refusal, vehement and countercultural and proud, to relinquish our inner magnolias as we grow older, declining to sacrifice them at the altar-register of a culture that continually robs us of our self-worth and tries to sell it back to us at the price of the latest product.
I suspect it is simply a feature of being an adult, what I will call being grown, or a grown person, to have endured some variety of thorough emotional turmoil, to have made your way to the brink, and, if you’re lucky, to have stepped back from it — if not permanently, then for some time, or time to time. Then it is, too, a kind of grownness by which I see three squares of light on my wall, the shadow of a tree trembling in two of them, and hear the train going by and feel no panic or despair, feel no sense of condemnation or doom or horrible alignment, but simply observe the signs — light and song — for what they are — light and song. And, knowing what I have felt before, and might feel again, feel a sense of relief, which is cousin to, or rather, water to, delight.
“Those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.”
By Maria Popova
“Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” a trio of psychologists wrote in their wonderful inquiry into limbic revision and how love rewires the brain. But whom we love equally depends on who we are and who we want to become. Love, like time, is as much a function of us as we are a function of it.
An especially striking illustration of this equivalence, both for its intensity and its unexpectedness, comes from the adolescent love letters the future Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) to his teacher, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, collected and translated by Amy Richlin two millennia later in Marcus Aurelius in Love (public library) — a most improbable addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.
Fatherless since childhood, Marcus Aurelius was raised by his wealthy single mother, Domitia Lucilla. In 139, she hired Fronto — an African immigrant to Rome who described himself as “a Libyan of the Libyan nomads,” by then one of the era’s preeminent orators — to teach her eighteen-year-old son the art of rhetoric in preparation for his political career.
Across caste and rank, across twenty-some years of age difference, the two Marcuses fell in love.
For six years, until Marcus Aurelius’s socially necessitated marriage, they lived in close proximity and exchanged letters of devotion and tenderness, laced with intellectual admiration and erotic longing. Although their love was edged with danger under Roman law, it was not its same-sex nature that imperiled them — a grown man charged with seducing an adolescent male could be charged with adultery, the penalty for which was exile or death. But the seduction, if the term applies to their case at all, flowed the other way: Marcus Aurelius inundated Fronto with ardor that at first received only a timorous echo.
In the preface to the collection, Richlin draws on the early Stoic philosophers’ forgotten axioms of sexuality to provide the deeper cultural context beneath the shallow reach of Roman law:
Zeno (335–263 BCE) and his successor, Chrysippus (280–207 BCE), argued that sex between human beings who have learned the proper principles of respect and true friendship is a good thing, and that the ideal society would be one in which sex was enjoyed freely, without propertarian bonds of marriage. In particular, the young person just turning toward philosophy, the prokopton, should be trained by his mentor first through a sexual relationship, which should grow into an understanding of philosophy.
And so it did for Marcus Aurelius and his mentor-turned-paramour.
It was through the portal of intellectual reverence that the young man marched his heart into love. By the end of 139, he had already become besotted with Fronto. After receiving one of his tutor’s essays, he exults:
Should I not burn with love of you when you’ve written this to me? What should I do? I can’t stop.
Soon, the young man began addressing his beloved as “my Fronto,” unselfconsciously calling him “my number one delight,” “my dearest and most loving,” “my biggest thing under heaven,” “breath of my life.” Fronto, at first, met this ardor with considerable reserve — self-restraint, perhaps — but it was an ambivalent reserve. Aware that Marcus was being courted by another man — not uncommon practice in their time and place — and that this suitor already considered him his “He-Sweetheart,” Fronto writes:
You seem likely, dear Boy, to want to understand… why, pray, I who am not in love strive so eagerly to gain the same Things that Lovers do. So will I tell you first how that may be. By Zeus, that Fellow who is so very a Suitor was not born with a sharper Pair of Eyes than I who am no Lover, yet I in fact am sensible of your Beauty no less than the rest; I might say, more acutely so than your Suitor.
Me you approach not at your Peril, nor at the Cost of any Harm will you keep Company with me; nay, ’twill do you every Good. Indeed, Beauties are help’d and benefitted more by those who love them not, as green Shoots are help’d by the Waters. For Springs and Rivers love not green Shoots, yet in their going near and their flowing past do they make them to flower and to bloom.
Go ahead, as much as you like, threaten me, accuse me… with whole clumps of arguments, but you will never put off your Suitor — I mean me. Nor will I proclaim it any less that I love Fronto, or will I be less in love, because you’ve proven, and with such strange and strong and elegant expressions, that those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.
Marcus accelerates the propulsion of his undeterred ardor:
God, no, I am dying so for love of you, and I’m not scared off by this doctrine of yours, and if you’re going to be more ripe and ready for others who don’t love you, I will still love you as long as I live and breathe.
Socrates didn’t burn more with desire for Phaedrus than I’ve burned during these days — did I say days? I mean months — for the sight of you. Your letter fixed it so a person wouldn’t have to be Dion to love you so much — if he isn’t immediately seized with love of you.
And then, in a touchingly innocent closing line, he adds:
My lady mother says hello.
On Fronto’s birthday, Marcus writes:
Because I love you next to my own self, I want to make a wish for myself on this day.
In an imaginative romp through the intellectual and spiritual epicenters of the ancient world, he gathers a posy of blandishments and beneficences for his beloved:
I go down to Athens, and on bended knee I beseech and beg Minerva that whatever I may ever learn about letters should above all journey from Fronto’s mouth to my heart.’ Now I return to Rome, and I call on the gods of roads and voyages with wishes that every trip I take may be with you beside me, and that I may not be worn out so frequently by such ferocious longing. In the end I ask all the guardian gods of all the nations, and Jupiter himself, who thunders over the Capitol Hill, to grant us that I should celebrate this day, on which you were born for me, along with you, and a happy, strong you.
Fronto did not remain unresponsive. “With good reason I’ve devoted myself to you,” he eventually writes, “considering your love for me, which I feel so lucky to have.” Whatever the nature and magnitude of his own feelings may have been, he makes no pretense of denying that he loves being so loved:
Good-bye, Caesar, and love me the most, as you do. I truly love to pieces every little letter of every word you.
Plucked from antiquity when the manuscript was discovered in 1815, and reanimated by Richlin’s painstaking scholarship despite missing pages, illegible handwriting, and untranslatable sentiments, the forty-six letters collected in Marcus Aurelius in Love radiate a testament to an elemental fact I have observed elsewhere: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.