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The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

“There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.”

The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

Since long before Dr. King proclaimed “I have seen the mountaintop!” mountains — like rivers — have been among our richest nature-drawn metaphors for making sense of our human lives and values. When the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan was asked in a television interview who the most important person she ever met was, she answered without hesitation: “A mountain.” She meant a non-metaphorical mountain — Mount Tamalpais — out of which she carved her exquisite philosophical-poetic meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

But no one has explored the existential through the metaphor of the alpine more elegantly than the French surrealist poet, philosopher, and novelist René Daumal (March 16, 1908–May 21, 1944) in his allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (public library), posthumously published and translated into English by Carol Cosman — a novel quite possibly inspired by and almost certainly subtitled as a wink to Edwin Abbott Abbott’s iconic 1884 allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, yet a novel entirely and uncommonly original.

René Daumal

Daumal — who taught himself Sanskrit, translated some of the great Buddhist texts into French, and saturated his writing with philosophical reflections drawn from the liminal space between the scientific and the spiritual, between physical fact and poetic truth — begins by defining his “analogical alpinism”:

Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence.

Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.

Upon this conceptual foundation Daumal builds his alpine allegory of life. In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of ‘condescension’ / Means we all sink.” — he writes:

You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again…

So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully.

There is something profound that the alpine shares with the telescopic: the gift of perspective — a gift that, once granted, cannot easily be revoked; once we have seen, once we have known, we cannot easily unsee and unknow, and so we cannot easily lose our position in space and sense. Daumal writes:

There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Echoing his equally brilliant, equally underappreciated compatriot and contemporary Simone Weil’s notion of the highest mountain-view of the mind, Daumal adds:

Keep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look at your feet. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you have arrived just because you see the peak. Watch your feet, be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.

In what may be the most elegant articulation of the essence of responsibility, applicable to everything from our smallest personal acts to our grandest generational choices that shape posterity’s social and ecological inheritance, Daumal writes:

When you take off on your own, leave some trace of your passage that will guide your return: one rock set on top of another, some grass pierced by a stick. But if you come to a place you cannot cross or that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead the people following you into trouble. So go back the way you came and destroy any traces you have left. This is addressed to anyone who wants to leave traces of his passage in this world. And even without wanting to, we always leave traces. Answer to your fellow men for the traces you leave behind.

“Tectonic Time” by Maria Popova

In an admonition against the twin hazards of hubris and self-pity, he adds:

Never stop on a crumbling slope. Even if you believe your feet are firmly planted, while you take a breath and looking at the sky the earth is gradually piling up under your feet, the gravel is slipping imperceptibly, and suddenly you are launched like a ship.

[…]

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory.

Couple Daumal’s strange and wondrous Mount Analogue with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Field Guide to Getting Lost, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, writing at the same time as Daumal, on the life of the living mountain and Vita Sackville-West’s early love letters to Virginia Woolf about mountain-climbing and the meaning of life.

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Artist Maira Kalman Illustrates the Extraordinary Love Story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

“This is a love story. You know. How two people, joined together, become themselves.”

Artist Maira Kalman Illustrates the Extraordinary Love Story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

It is not often that one encounters a great love letter to a great love, composed by someone outside the private world of that love, serenading it across the spacetime of epochs and experiences. In my many years of dwelling in the lives and loves and letters of beloved artists, scientists, and writers, I have encountered none more splendid than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated (public library) by Maira Kalman — an artist who uses her paintbrush the way Stein used her pen, as the instrument of an imagination tilted pleasantly askance from the plane of common thought.

Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, when she was fifty-nine and Alice fifty-six. She had written it at an astonishing pace the previous autumn. Like Alice disguised her memoir of their love as a cookbook, Gertrude disguised hers as an “autobiography” of the beloved under the lover’s byline. It wasn’t, of course, Alice’s autobiography, or even her biography — rather, it was the biography of their love, of early-twentieth-century Paris, of the community of visionary artists and writers who orbited the couple and who came to be known as the Lost Generation — a term Gertrude Stein coined — as they found themselves, in every sense of the term, at Alice and Gertrude’s salons.

The book begins, naturally, not at Alice’s birth but at her fateful first encounter with Gertrude and her coral brooch the day Alice, thirty-three, arrived in Paris as an American expatriate — a moment she eventually recounted in such deeply felt detail on the pages of her slender actual autobiography, animated by a bereavement that never left her in the twenty “empty” years by which she outlived the love of her life.

Kalman introduces the book with her spare and singular poetics:

Alice met Gertrude.
Gertrude met Alice.
Gertrude with her big body.
Big presence.
Alice, a little bird
with a mustache.
And that was that.
A coup de foudre
as we say.
Gertrude wrote this book of
their lives
through Alice’s eyes.
And here it is (happily)
with paintings
to illustrate how it was.

There is so much to delight in and marvel at in Kalman’s uncommon reanimation of this uncommon mausoleum of a love and an epoch. “Who did they know?” she asks, then exclaims: “EVERYBODY.” And then she draws everybody: James Joyce sitting at a table in Sylvia Beach’s Alexandrian bookstore, Hemingway with his fedora and his forthright gaze, Matisse slouched on a park bench, Cézanne, Picasso, Man Ray, all the artists who might not have been the stars they are to us, might not have found their own light, were it not for the hospitable universe of the Toklas-Stein household, for their devoted private patronage and public championship of these bold ideas and aesthetics that shook the plate tectonics of the status quo and formed the colossal landmass of modern art, of modern thought itself.

Captioning each of the paintings is a sentence or fragment from Stein’s narrative that captured Kalman’s curious imagination — sometimes a note of Stein’s subtle, fullhearted humor resonant with Kalman’s own, sometimes the shimmering surface of an amusing aside that whirlpools into the depths of loneliness and melancholy in which all pioneers swim, always an odd detail that compresses cosmoses of meaning into a miniature observation.

But of all the delights in Kalman’s tribute to the Stein classic, none is more delightful than the meta-masterpiece of her tender handwritten afterword — a love letter to Alice and Gertrude’s love. “I am loathe to leave them,” Kalman sighs on a near-blank page at the end, as blank as one feels inside upon leaving a book and the world of its making, then she writes:

This is a love story.
You know.
How two people, joined together,
become themselves.
They cannot breathe right
without each other.

With great subtlety, Kalman makes spare allusion to the ideas and ideologies animating Gertrude and Alice’s era, those ever-twining human impulses for beauty and for terror — the rise of Modernism and of Nazism; the birth of a new science with its delirious portal into the most fundamental building blocks of matter and the deepest, most beautiful realities of nature; the assembling of the building blocks of humanity’s deadliest weapon and ugliest war; and all the while, the lives being lived, the loves being loved, the meals being savored.

This most singular time —
literature, art, music, dance, architecture
EXPLODING into a new era.

The world reinvented. Modernism.
Problems. Furies. Betrayals. Alliances.

Preposterous notions. Malicious opinions.
Relentless drive. Enveloping beauty.
Many many many meals.

Nothing would have happened
without Alice. NOTHING.
It could be that Alice did write
this book. It could be.
Who holds the pen?
Who has the ideas?
What is the atmosphere of the
living room, kitchen, bedroom, salon?
What sharpness of vision. What relishing
of things big and small.
Great fame. A cozy home.
This is a singular story embedded
in a singular time.
That is enough. And more.

Complement Kalman’s impossibly wonderful The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated with Alice’s quietly stirring account of how their love began and a charming modern picture-book about their uncommon life together, then revisit Kalman’s illustrated catalog of unusual delights and her soulful love letter to dogs.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman

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Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

“To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.”

Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

In 1845, as the forgotten visionary Margaret Fuller was laying the foundation of modern feminism, advocating for black voting rights, and insisting that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” she contemplated what makes a great leader and called for “no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist,” for a person “of universal sympathies, but self-possessed,” one for whom “this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”

But how does a nation, a society, a world concerned with more than the shadowy spectacles of the present identify and elect such leaders to shape the long future?

A century and a half after Fuller, Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) — another rare visionary — offered a glimmer of guidance in her sibylline two-part series set in the 2020s: Parable of the Sower (public library) and Parable of the Talents (public library) — a set of cautionary allegories, cautionary and future-protective in their keen prescription for course-correctives, about the struggle of a twenty-first-century society, Earthseed, to survive the ecological collapse, political corruption, corporate greed, and socioeconomic inequality it has inherited from the previous generations and their heedless choices.

Octavia Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of women writers who have enchanted and transformed our world.

Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Butler straddled the timeless and the prophetic, saturating her fiction with astute philosophical and psychological insight into human nature and the superorganism of society. Also like Le Guin, Butler soared into poetry to frame and punctuate her prose. Each chapter begins with an original verse abstracting its thematic direction. She opens the eleventh chapter of the second Earthseed book with this verse:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

And yet our discernment in choosing wisely, Butler intimates in a chilling short verse from the first book, can so often be muddled by our panic, by our paralyzing fright and pugilist flight:

Drowning people
Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers.

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

With staggering prescience and perhaps with a subtle wink at James Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Butler lets us know that drowning people do not choose their leaders wisely:

When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must —
God is Change —
People tend to give in
To fear and depression,
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one,
Group against group,
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it.
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
A leader
Most will follow,
Or a tyrant
Most fear.

Again and again, Butler cautions against the blindness of choosing from a state of heightened emotion — the very blindness which political propaganda is aimed at blinkering over the eyes of the electorate with the constant stirring of our most reptilian fears:

When vision fails
Direction is lost.

When direction is lost
Purpose may be forgotten.

When purpose is forgotten
Emotion rules alone.

When emotion rules alone,
Destruction… destruction.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total solar eclipse by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In a short verse evocative of the closing lines of Jane Hirshfield’s stunning poem “The Weighing,” Butler beckons us to become Earthseed — to become “the life that perceives itself changing” — and to effect change with our conscientious choices:

There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.

A century and a half after Margaret Fuller’s admirer Walt Whitman peered at the democratic vistas of a thriving society and exhorted humanity to “always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote,” Butler leaves us with this central question of personal responsibility:

Are you Earthseed?
Do you believe?
Belief will not save you.
Only actions
Guided and shaped
By belief and knowledge
Will save you.
Belief
Initiates and guides action —
Or it does nothing.

The shortest verse in the book distills Butler’s largest message:

Kindness eases Change.

Complement with David Foster Wallace on what a “real leader” means and Hannah Arendt on loneliness as the common ground for terror and how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s magnificent ode to choosing kindness over fear and Audre Lorde’s magnificent ode to choosing creation over destruction.

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Neuroscientist David Eagleman on How the Physiology of Drug Withdrawal Explains the Psychology of Heartbreak and Loss

“The difference between predictions and outcomes is the key to understanding a strange property of learning: if you’re predicting perfectly, your brain doesn’t need to change further.”

Neuroscientist David Eagleman on How the Physiology of Drug Withdrawal Explains the Psychology of Heartbreak and Loss

“Who is good if he knows not who he is? and who knows what he is, if he forgets that things which have been made are perishable, and that it is not possible for one human being to be with another always?” So wrote Epictetus two millennia ago, offering the Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak as he contemplated love and loss long before the birth of neuroscience, before notions of hormones and neurotransmitters, before the heretical idea that out of this perishable flesh and its enskulled synaptic command center arises all of who and what we are. In the epochs since, countless poems and songs and private journal pages have likened the effects of love to those of a drug and the effects of loss, of heartbreak, of the dissolution of the illusion of always, to the maddening, debilitating effects of withdrawal.

Such metaphors, it turns out, are not mere poetic fancy but an apt reflection of an underlying neurobiological reality. So argues neuroscientist David Eagleman in a portion of Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain (public library) — an altogether fascinating tour of the astonishing plasticity and interconnectedness inside the cranial cradle of all of our experience of reality, animated by Eagleman’s erudite enthusiasm for his subject, aglow with the ecstasy of sensemaking that comes when the seemingly unconnected snaps into a consummate totality of understanding.

Glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child — one of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s stunning drawings.

Eagleman writes:

The difference between predictions and outcomes is the key to understanding a strange property of learning: if you’re predicting perfectly, your brain doesn’t need to change further… Changes in the brain happen only when there’s a difference between what was expected and what actually happens.

The brain’s constant labor at predictive modeling of the world, this ceaseless calibration of expectation to actuality, is how addiction sinks its fangs into the tissue of being:

Consumption of a drug changes the number of receptors for the drug in the brain — to such an extent that you can look at a brain after a person has died and determine his addictions by gauging his molecular changes. This is why people become desensitized (or tolerant) to a drug: the brain comes to predict the presence of the drug, and adapts its receptor expression so it can maintain a stable equilibrium when it receives the next hit. In a physical, literal way, the brain comes to expect the drug to be there: the biological details have calibrated themselves accordingly. Because the system now predicts a certain amount to be present, more is needed to achieve the original high.

Another of Cajal’s forgotten drawings — synapses carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in the brainstem.

Neurobiology and psychology converge in the common ground between drug withdrawal and heartbreak. Echoing poet Meghan O’Rourke’s observation from her stunning memoir of learning to live with loss that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Eagleman writes:

People you love become part of you — not just metaphorically, but physically. You absorb people into your internal model of the world. Your brain refashions itself around the expectation of their presence. After the breakup with a lover, the death of a friend, or the loss of a parent, the sudden absence represents a major departure from homeostasis. As Kahlil Gibran put it in The Prophet, “And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

In this way, your brain is like the negative image of everyone you’ve come in contact with. Your lovers, friends, and parents fill in their expected shapes. Just like feeling the waves after you’ve departed the boat, or craving the drug when it’s absent, so your brain calls for the people in your life to be there. When someone moves away, rejects you, or dies, your brain struggles with its thwarted expectations. Slowly, through time, it has to readjust to a world without that person.

That, of course, is the miraculous thing about the brain — that it has to, and it does; that is the thing which Abraham Lincoln captured in his soulful letter of consolation to a bereaved friend, and that is the thing which Nick Cave serenaded with such splendor of sentiment in his meditation on loss.

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