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Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli on Science, Spirit, and Our Search for Meaning

“It is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli on Science, Spirit, and Our Search for Meaning

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer,” physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Niels Bohr observed while contemplating the nature of reality five years after he received the Nobel Prize, adding: “But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Bohr, who introduced the notion of complementarity, went on to influence generations of thinkers, including a number of Nobel laureates. Among them was the Swiss-Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (April 25, 1900–December 15, 1958) — another pioneering figure of particle physics and quantum mechanics. Invested in the conquest of truth at the deepest strata of nature, Pauli took up this question of reality as a physical and metaphysical object of inquiry in a rather improbable arena: his friendship with the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose entire body of work was centered on the conviction that “man cannot stand a meaningless life.”

Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli

Pauli’s longtime correspondence and collaboration with Jung occupies a small but significant portion of Figuring (public library) — an exploration of the tessellated facets of our search for meaning, from which this essay is adapted. Their unlikely friendship, which precipitated the invention of synchronicity, bridged the world of science and the world of spirit, entwining the irrepressible human impulses for finding truth and making meaning — a kind of non-Euclidean intersection of our parallel searches for understanding the reality within and the reality without.

Long before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his exclusion principle — the tenet of quantum physics stating that multiple identical particles within a single quantum system cannot occupy the same quantum state at the same time — and around the time he theorized the neutrino, Pauli was thrust into existential tumult. His mother, to whom he was very close, died by suicide. His tempestuous marriage ended in divorce within a year — a year during which he drowned his unhappiness in alcohol. Caught in the web of drinking and despair, Pauli reached out to Jung for help.

Jung, already deeply influenced by Einstein’s ideas about space and time, was intrigued by his brilliant and troubled correspondent. What began as an intense series of dream analyses unfolded, over the course of the remaining twenty-two years of Pauli’s life, into an exploration of fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality through the dual lens of physics and psychology — a testament to Einstein’s assertion that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Each used the tools of his expertise to shift the shoreline between the known and the unknown, and together they found common ground in the analogy between the atom, with its nucleus and orbiting electrons, and the self, with its central conscious ego and its ambient unconscious.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

While there is a long and lamentable history of science — physics in particular — being hijacked for mystical and New Age ideologies, two things make Jung and Pauli’s collaboration notable. First, the analogies between physics and alchemical symbolism were drawn not only by a serious scientist, but by one who would soon receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Second, the warping of science into pseudoscience and mysticism tends to happen when scientific principles are transposed onto nonscientific domains with a false direct equivalence. Pauli, by contrast, was deliberate in staying at the level of analogy — that is, of conceptual parallels furnishing metaphors for abstract thought that can advance ideas in each of the two disciplines, but with very different concrete application.

Jung had borrowed the word “archetype” from Kepler, drawing on the astronomer’s alchemical symbolism. More than three centuries after Kepler’s alchemy, Pauli’s exclusion principle became the basic organizing principle for the periodic table. The alchemists had been right all along, in a way — they had just been working on the wrong scale: Only at the atomic level can one element become another, in radioactivity and nuclear fission. Even the atom itself had to transcend the problem of scale: The Greek philosopher Democritus theorized atoms in 400 BC, but he couldn’t prove or disprove their existence empirically — a hundred thousand times smaller than anything the naked eye could see, the atom remained invisible. It wasn’t for another twenty-three centuries that we were able to override the problem of scale by the prosthetic extension of our vision, the microscope.

What had originally attracted Pauli to the famous psychiatrist was Jung’s work on symbols and archetypes — a Keplerian obsession that in turn obsessed Pauli, who devoted various essays and lectures to how Kepler’s alchemy and archetypal ideas influenced the visionary astronomer’s science. In physics, he saw numerous analogies to alchemy: In symmetry, he found the archetypal structure of matter and in elementary particles, the substratum of reality that the alchemists had sought; in the spectrograph, which allowed scientists for the first time to study the chemical composition of stars, an analogue of the alchemist’s oven; in probability, which he defined as “the actual correspondence between the expected result… and the empirically measured frequencies,” the mathematical analogue of archetypal numerology.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

But Pauli recognized that the dawn of quantum physics, in which he himself was a leading sun, introduced a new necessity to reconcile different facets of reality. Nearly a century after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — a leading figure in Figuring — asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Pauli reflected in one of his Kepler lectures:

It would be most satisfactory of all if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality. To us [modern scientists], unlike Kepler and Fludd, the only acceptable point of view appears to be one that recognizes both sides of reality — the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical — as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.

[…]

In my own view it is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.

Illustration by Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by Lillian Lieber

Four decades before the revered physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term black hole, made his influential assertion that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Pauli wrote to Jung:

Modern [particle physics] turns the observer once again into a little lord of creation in his microcosm, with the ability (at least partially) of freedom of choice and fundamentally uncontrollable effects on that which is being observed. But if these phenomena are dependent on how (with what experimental system) they are observed, then is it not possible that they are also phenomena (extra corpus) that depend on who observes them (i.e., on the nature of the psyche of the observer)? And if natural science, in pursuit of the ideal of determinism since Newton, has finally arrived at the stage of the fundamental “perhaps” of the statistical character of natural laws… then should there not be enough room for all those oddities that ultimately rob the distinction between “physics” and “psyche” of all its meaning?

And yet Pauli was careful to recognize that “although [particle physics] allows for an acausal form of observation, it actually has no use for the concept of ‘meaning’” — that is, meaning is not a fundamental function of reality but an interpretation superimposed by the human observer.

Complement with Carl Sagan on science and spirituality and Einstein’s historic conversation with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, then revisit other excerpts from Figuring: Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.

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Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species

Potoroos, birds of paradise, variegated lizards, and other wondrous creatures brought to vibrant life by a visionary woman in the golden age of scientific exploration.

Trailblazing 18th-Century Artist Sarah Stone’s Stunning Natural History Paintings of Exotic, Endangered, and Extinct Species

A century before Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter revolutionized mycology with her groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which she was banned from presenting at London’s Linnaean Society on account of her gender, another Englishwoman of uncommon acumen overrode the limitations of her time and place to become one of the most esteemed natural history illustrators in human history with her drawings of Pacific, African, American, and Australian fauna.

Sarah Stone (1760–1844) began painting professionally at the age of seventeen. Although she learned her outstanding coloring skills from her father — a fan painter — she was largely self-taught in her draughtsmanship technique. At only twenty-one, she was invited to exhibit four of her paintings — a peacock, two other birds, and a set of seashells — at the Royal Academy, closed to women at the time. Like trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who became the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with a certificate on which the word “Fellow” was crossed out and “an Honorary Member” was inscribed above it in pencil, Stone was admitted as an “Honorary Exhibitor.” (There is something crushing about the “honor” of being temporarily exempted from millennia of baseline dishonor bestowed upon all the rest of one’s kind, all the rest of the time.)

“Blue-Bellied Parrot.” Available as a print.
“Ribbon Lizard and Broad-tailed Lizard.” Available as a print.
“Cassowary of New South Wales.” Available as a print.

Stone was still in her late teens when commissions from prominent collectors flooded in — most notably, from Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate the objects in his famed natural history and ethnography museum, the Holophusikon, including curiosities Captain Cook had brought back from his historic voyages. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales and did for the animals of Australia what Maria Merian had done for the butterflies of South America in the previous century.

“Pennantian Parrot.” Available as a print.
“Pennantian Parrot, female.” Available as a print.
“Snake No. 1.” Available as a print.
“Snake No. 2.” Available as a print.

With extraordinary draughtsmanship, she painted animals she had never seen alive, native to places she had never been herself — the invention of photography was still more than half a century away, and exotic travel was available only to the wealthy and to the men of science voyaging on expeditions. (It would be several decades until the word scientist was coined for mathematician Mary Somerville, replacing man of science.) Stone’s stunning depictions of parrots, serpents, fishes, marsupials, and other living wonders of the natural world were drawn from her science-informed imagination — sometimes from specimens brought back to England, sometimes entirely from the field notes of scientists on the exploring expeditions.

“Banksian Cockatoo.” Available as a print.
“The Crested Cockatoo.” Available as a print.
Snakes. Available as a print.
“Great Brown King’s Fisher.” Available as a print.
“Sacred King’s Fisher.” Available as a print.
“The Pungent Chatedon and Granulated Balistes.” Available as a print.

In this golden age of scientific discovery, vast audiences poured into the Leverian Museum to savor the splendors of faraway fauna, transported by Stone’s drawings. A number of them are the first studies of the respective species, granting them a singular place in the social history of natural history. Some of them depict species now entirely extinct or gravely endangered, like the potoroo — a marsupial the size of a rabbit, with the posture of a kangaroo. Others portray strange, wondrous, and wondrously named creatures like the bird of paradise, the variegated lizard, and the doubtful sparus.

“A Poto Roo.” Available as a print.
“The Variegated Lizard.” Available as a print.
“White-Jointed Spider.” Available as a print.
“Fasciated Mullet and Doubtful Sparus.” Available as a print.
Fish and sea horse. Available as a print.
“The Fabian Parrot, female.” Available as a print.

As a child, Stone had learned a kind of folk chemistry, sourcing her pigments from local plants and household materials — brickdust, flower petals, the juices of leaves. When she became a professional painter, this awareness of pigment properties enabled her to choose colors she trusted to stand the assault of time more durably — striking colors like Chinese white, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow — which in turn lent her art an uncommon vibrancy.

“The Red-Shouldered Paroquet.” Available as a print.
“Superb Warblers”
“The White Fulica.” Available as a print.
“New Holland Creeper.” Available as a print.
Snake and Muricated lizard. Available as a print.
“The Shine-formed Lizard.” Available as a print.
“A Tapoa Tafa.” [brush-tailed phascogale]
“Snake No. 5.” Available as a print.
“The White Vented Crow.”
“The White Hawke”
“Yellow-Eared Fly Catcher”
“Golden-Winged Pigeon”
“Anamolous Hornbill”
“The Wattled Bee-Eater, female”

After her marriage in 1789, Stone began signing her art “Mrs. Smith.” In the first half of the 1790s, drawings of Lever’s collection — hers, as well as other artists’ — were published in the monograph Museum Leverianum, edited by the physician and Royal Society Fellow George Shaw, who labeled and described the specimens. (Stone’s art from the volume is sometimes misattributed to Shaw, who was not an artist.)

“The Greater Paradise Bird” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Rock Manakin” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Chameleon” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.
“The Splendid Parrot” from the Leverian collection. Available as a print.

Little is known about Stone’s life. From her prolific body of work, only about 900 drawings survive, collected and contextualized in Christine Jackson’s noteworthy monograph Sarah Stone: Natural Curiosities from the New Worlds (public library).

Complement with the 17th-century astronomical art of Maria Clara Eimmart and the pioneering sea algae cyanotypes of Anna Atkins — the world’s first known woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images — then revisit these masterpieces of natural history illustration, drawn from the rare book collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

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These Truths: Jill Lepore on How the Shift from Mythology to Science Shaped the Early Dream of Democracy

“The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.”

These Truths: Jill Lepore on How the Shift from Mythology to Science Shaped the Early Dream of Democracy

“Between those happenings that prefigure it / And those that happen in its anamnesis / Occurs the Event, but that no human wit / Can recognize until all happening ceases,” W.H. Auden wrote in considering the selective set of remembrances and interpretations we call history. The trouble with the universe, of course, is that happening never ceases — at least not until the final whimper. In the meantime, we are left to fathom and figure the ongoingness of events, situating ourselves between a nebulous past and an uncertain future. “We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum,” Susan Sontag observed in the same bygone slice of ongoingness that Auden inhabited. “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”

We try to render our existence a little less precarious and a little more relevant by mooring ourselves to the truth of what happened, what matters, and why, only ever attaining a makeshift understanding of that truth. And though it may be that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — or perhaps precisely because it is so — a robust understanding of history, with its truths and its biases, is central to our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. It is also imperative for a future that mends the mistakes of the past — for, as James Baldwin so memorably observed, “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Such a transformative understanding is what historian Jill Lepore furnishes in These Truths: A History of the United States (public library) — a masterwork of poetic scholarship that stands as one of the most compelling and captivating books I have ever read.

Alice's Evidence
“‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.” Alice’s Evidence — art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

With uncommon intellectual elegance, Lepore explores the intertwined sinews of democracy’s making and unmaking: technology as a tool that encodes both the ideals and the biases of its society; the heroisms of thought and action that chipped away at the monolith of injustice upon which the nation was founded; the market manipulations and professionalized preying on the human animal’s weaknesses that gave rise to consumerism and public relations and “fake news” and the NRA. Emanating from these pages is a reminder that the history of the United States is a history of bias and brutality and hubris, but it is also a history of idealism and hard work and soaring optimism. What emerges is an invitation to regard these tessellated truths and conflicting motive forces with an equanimous understanding that can inform a juster, more beautiful, and less conflicted future.

Lepore writes in the preface:

The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. This was all true until one day, Tuesday, October 30, 1787, when readers of a newspaper called the New-York Packet found on the front page an advertisement for an almanac that came bound with tables predicting the “Rising and Setting of the Sun,” the “Judgment of the Weather,” the “Length of Days and Nights,” and, as a bonus, something entirely new: the Constitution of the United States, forty-four hundred words that attempted to chart the motions of the branches of government and the separation of their powers as if these were matters of physics, like the transit of the sun and moon and the comings and goings of the tides. It was meant to mark the start of a new era, in which the course of history might be made predictable and a government established that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice. The origins of that idea, and its fate, are the story of American history.

The Constitution entailed both toil and argument. Knee-breeched, sweat-drenched delegates to the constitutional convention had met all summer in Philadelphia in a swelter of secrecy, the windows of their debating hall nailed shut against eavesdroppers. By the middle of September, they’d drafted a proposal written on four pages of parchment. They sent that draft to printers who set the type of its soaring preamble with a giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw.

Radiating from the four pages that begin with “We the people” are eternal, elemental questions about how our noblest aspirations measure up against the limitations of human nature and its social scaffolding:

Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?

Art by Maira Kalman from And the Pursuit of Happiness

These questions could only be answered empirically, in the grand experiment of American democracy, in a laboratory operated by “the people.” A century into the experiment, with the beaker of conscientious citizenship in hand, Walt Whitman would contemplate his country’s “democratic vistas” and issue a prescient admonition: “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.” Lepore considers the foundational hedge against downfall and ruin, encoded in the country’s birth and its ancient heritage stretching back to bygone civilizations whose failed experiments fertilized the soil of the New World:

The American experiment rests on three political ideas — “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Half a century after the brilliant mathematician Lillian Lieber bridged Euclidean geometry and the American Constitution to extract a set of postulates of democracy, Lepore adds:

The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.

Art by Maira Kalman from Bold & Brave

Central to this new way of apprehending truth was a shift in the understanding of the past — a shift away from unexamined mythology and toward the reasoned probing of collective memory we call history; a shift from mysticism to critical thinking. Lepore writes:

Understanding history as a form of inquiry — not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting — was central to the nation’s founding… Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered.

[…]

This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions — the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran — are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them — with evidence.

Arising from this notion is a reminder that all cultural history is inevitably a history of science, which is the history of human thought and the mind’s insatiable hunger to know reality. “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us,” Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer — wrote a century after her country’s founding as she contemplated our abiding search for truth, “and the more we gain, the more is our desire.” In consonance with Carl Sagan’s insistence that science is a tool of democracy that “provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes,” Lepore considers the crucial role of the scientific mindset in the origins of American democracy:

Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?

The verdict hinges on complex calculus, with variables yet to be weighed and factors yet to be computed. One thing is certain — the future may be unknown, but the past is at last partly knowable, and there is a moral imperative to its knowledge that must be embraced with full responsibility if we are to meet the future with more than mere hope. Lepore writes:

The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the dead.

[…]

The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.

Lepore examines the myriad elements of this ongoing experiment in the remainder of These Truths — one of those rare books that crown the explainer-elucidator-enchanter hierarchy of nonfiction, a book revelatory and replete with insight even for those of us who are not American. Complement it with Walt Whitman — the poet laureate of democracy — on optimism as a force of resistance and Hannah Arendt on action and the pursuit of happiness.

BP

Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on Loneliness, Otherness, and the Joy of Belonging Found

“You can be far away inside, and far away outside.”

Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on Loneliness, Otherness, and the Joy of Belonging Found

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” Olivia Laing wrote in her lyrical exploration of loneliness and the search for belonging. Our need for belonging is indeed the warp thread of our humanity, and our locus of belonging — determined in part by our choices and in part by the cards chance has dealt us in what we were born as and where — is a pillar of our identity. For those who have migrated far from their homeland, and especially for those of us who have migrated alone, without the built-in social support structure of a community or a family unit, this rupture of belonging can be particularly disorienting and lonesome-making. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom — a freedom the conquest of which can be a whole life’s work.

Poet JonArno Lawson, author of the wondrous Sidewalk Flowers, and artist Nahid Kazemi take up these complex questions with great simplicity and thoughtful sensitivity in Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon (public library) — a spare, uncommonly poetic meditation on belonging and what it means to be oneself as both counterpoint and counterpart to otherness, as a thinking, feeling, wakeful atom of life amid the constellation of other atoms.

We meet a melancholy young bird, lonesome even among the other birds, lonesome while soaring above the cityscape, above houses filled with innumerable lives that feel so impossibly distant and alien.

Lawson writes:

You can be far away inside,
and far away outside.

One day, something subtle but profound shifts in the bird — the gaze of a young girl sparks a quickening of heart, a certain opening to the possibility of belonging, a new curiosity about the nature of life — about what it means to be.

We see the bird’s plumage suddenly explode with color — the radiance of awakening, evocative of poet Jane Kenyon’s piercing line: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”

Color arrives,
sometimes when
you least expect it.

The story unfolds with a poet’s precision and economy of words, punctuated by Kazemi’s sprawling, stunning watercolors. What emerges is a gentle invitation to what Bertrand Russell so beautifully termed “a largeness of contemplation.”

The bird moves through seasons of change, floats wordlessly across landscapes of possibility, alighting at last to a vastly different world — more colorful, more alive. In this foreign-looking land, which Kazemi’s palm trees and Middle Eastern architecture contrast with the deciduous crowns and Western cityscapes of the melancholy world, the bird finds a homecoming among other birds — a newfound joy in being “alone and together, over the rooftops and under the moon.”

It is impossible, perhaps even absurd, to attempt conveying the largehearted loveliness of Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon — a nearly wordless book of supreme analog splendor — in sentences and images on a digital screen. Hold it in hand and in heart, then couple it with other poetic and profound treasures from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse (and my collaborator in A Velocity of Being) Enchanted Lion Books: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish.

For a grownup counterpart, revisit Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience and Amin Maalouf on belonging and how we inhabit our identity.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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