“A collaborative condition: / Gathered, shed, spread, then / Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love…”
By Maria Popova
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated identity and the paradox of the self — that all-pervading yet ever-shifting sieve of feelings, beliefs, values, memories, and sensibilities through which we experience the world, the locus of the central mystery of being. There is no self, and yet without it there is nothing.
A century and a half after Whitman, Tracy K. Smith — another titanic poet of uncommon genius and insight into the human spirit — took up the subject in a short, stunning poem titled “The Everlasting Self,” from her altogether gorgeous book Wade in the Water (public library).
In the final days of her tenure as Poet Laureate of the United States, Smith took part in a special evening hosted by poet Paul Muldoon at Brooklyn’s visionary classical music and culture space National Sawdust in partnership with the London Review of Books. Crowning the program was a beautiful, unusual performance: Smith reading “The Everlasting Self” in a meditative loop of verse, accompanied by music ensemble and artistic collaboration movement Sō Percussion. The result is a kind of soulful meta-meditation on the haunting, looping, interminable nature of the self that animates each ephemeral constellation of atoms comprising a human being.
THE EVERLASTING SELF
Comes in from a downpour
Shaking water in every direction —
A collaborative condition:
Gathered, shed, spread, then
Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love
From a lifetime ago, and mud
A dog has tracked across the floor.
We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.
By Maria Popova
“I had seen the Universe,” the revolutionary education reformer and entrepreneur Elizabeth Peabody recalled of first meeting the adolescent Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850), who had already mastered Latin, French, Italian, Greek, and pure mathematics, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning just for mental discipline. “I am determined on distinction,” Fuller wrote to her former teacher at fifteen. By thirty, this fierce determination would establish her as the most erudite woman in America.
In Fuller’s twenty-fifth year, she met the person with whom she would form her most intense lifelong bond and who would in turn come to consider her his greatest influence: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882). “She bound in the belt of her sympathy and friendship all whom I know and love,” he would write upon her tragic and untimely death. “Her heart, which few knew, was as great as her mind, which all knew.” Occupying a significant portion of Figuring, from which this essay is adapted, Emerson and Fuller’s bond would challenge conventional relationship categories and shape the foundational philosophical, political, and aesthetic ideas and ideals of contemporary culture.
Immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of liberal New England, Fuller had long yearned to know the man revered as the country’s most daring intellect. But it was Emerson who made the first overture to the young woman whose reputation had rippled to Concord. He asked Elizabeth Peabody for a formal introduction. In early 1835, Peabody arranged for her young friend to visit Emerson in his home.
At first jarred by Fuller’s freely expressed strong opinions and lack of deference, Emerson was eventually won over — quite possibly by a poem she had recently written and published in a Boston newspaper, under the near-anonymous byline “F,” elegizing the death of Emerson’s beloved younger brother; or possibly by her countercultural proclamation that “all the marriages she knew were a mutual degradation,” which Waldo — as the Sage of Concord was known to his intimates — later reported to Peabody. He affirmed her admiration for Fuller’s intellect, writing that “she has the quickest apprehension.” Within two years, Fuller would become the first woman to attend Emerson’s all-male Transcendental Club — an occasional gathering of like-minded liberals, in which even Peabody was not included, despite the fact that she had coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England.
But Margaret and Waldo’s initial meeting of minds soon became a contact point magnetized by something beyond the intellect — something she hoped, at least for a while, would propel each toward the “fulness of being” she held up as the ultimate aim of existence, something that would prompt him to shudder in the pages of his journal: “There is no terror like that of being known.”
In 1839, having used her meager earnings as a teacher and writer to put her younger brothers through Harvard — an institution closed to women — Fuller founded a groundbreaking series of “Conversations” for women, which would seed the ideas harvested by the feminist movement of the twentieth century. Held at Elizabeth Peabody’s house in Boston on the mornings of Emerson’s successful Wednesday evening lectures, so that commuters could attend both in a single trip, these conversational salons explored subjects ranging from education to ethics, with session titles like “Influence,” “Mistakes,” “Creeds,” “The Ideal,” and “Persons Who Never Awake to Life in This World.”
After the staggering success of the first gathering, when a small group of Transcendentalists set out to do in print what Fuller was doing in conversation, Emerson proposed her for the editorship of a new periodical, promising her a share of the proceeds large enough to alleviate her ongoing financial struggles. Fuller accepted. They called this unexampled journal The Dial — the title that cofounder Bronson Alcott had given to his daily log of sayings by his two young daughters, Anna and Louisa May. Nothing like it had existed before — it was America’s first truly independent magazine, unaffiliated with any university or church, devoted not to a religious ideology or a single genre of literature, but to a kaleidoscope of intellectual and creative curiosity: philosophy, poetry, art, science, law, criticism. A century and a half before the TED conference claimed “ideas worth spreading” as a motto, Emerson envisioned The Dial as precisely that — a publication “so broad & great in its survey that it should lead the opinion of this generation on every great interest,” a sort of manual on “the whole Art of Living.” Fuller aimed even higher. On the prospectus printed on the back of the inaugural issue, published on July 4, 1840 — just after her thirtieth birthday — she vowed to aim “not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and more nobly, by letting him see how some minds are kept alive by a peculiar self-trust.”
In the course of their professional collaboration, Margaret and Waldo’s relationship swelled with complexity that strained the boundaries of friendship, of soul kinship, even of intellectual infatuation.
Waldo, sorrowing in an intellectually unriveting marriage, bonded with Margaret in a way that he would with no one else — not even his wife and children. “Most of the persons whom I see in my own house I see across a gulf,” he anguished in his own journal. “I cannot go to them nor they come to me.” He and Margaret found themselves on one side of an invisible wall, the rest of the world on the other. But neither knew what to make of this uncommon bond that didn’t conform to any existing template. The richest relationships are often those that don’t fit neatly into the preconceived slots we have made for the archetypes we imagine would populate our lives — the friend, the lover, the parent, the sibling, the mentor, the muse. We meet people who belong to no single slot, who figure into multiple categories at different times and in different magnitudes. We then must either stretch ourselves to create new slots shaped after these singular relationships, enduring the growing pains of self-expansion, or petrify.
Margaret Fuller experienced friendship and romance much as she did male and female — in a nonbinary way. A century before Virginia Woolf subverted the millennia-old cultural rhetoric of gender with her assertion that “in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” making her case for the androgynous mind as the best possible mind, “resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided,” Fuller denounced the dualism of gender and insisted that “there is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” The boundary, she argued far ahead of Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking Woman in the Nineteenth Century, is indeed porous, so that a kind of ongoing transmutation takes place: “Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid” as male and female “are perpetually passing into one another.” Fuller was highly discriminating about her intimate relationships, but once she admitted another into the innermost chambers of her being, she demanded of them nothing less than everything — having tasted Goethe’s notion of “the All,” why salivate over mere fragments of feeling?
But this boundless and all-consuming emotional intensity eventually repelled its objects — a parade of brilliant and beautiful men and women, none of whom could fully understand it, much less reciprocate it. Hers was a diamagnetic being, endowed with nonbinary magnetism yet repelling by both poles. Falling back on his trustiest faculty, Waldo tried to reason his way out of the emotional disorientation of his complex relationship with Margaret:
I would that I could, I know afar off that I cannot, give the lights and shades, the hopes and outlooks that come to me in these strange, cold-warm, attractive-repelling conversations with Margaret, whom I always admire, most revere when I nearest see, and sometimes love, — yet whom I freeze, and who freezes me to silence, when we seem to promise to come nearest.
To hold space for complexity, to resist the violence of containing and classifying what transcends familiar labels, takes patience and a certain kind of moral courage, which Waldo seemed unable — or unwilling — to conjure up. “O divine mermaid or fisher of men, to whom all gods have given the witch-hazel-wand… I am yours & yours shall be,” he told Margaret in a letter in the early autumn of 1840. But the following day, he lashed out in his journal, writing at Margaret what he wouldn’t write to her:
You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought & said?… I see no possibility of loving any thing but what now is, & is becoming; your courage, your enterprize, your budding affection, your opening thought, your prayer, I can love, — but what else?
This false notion of the body as the testing ground for intimacy has long warped our understanding of what constitutes a romantic relationship. The measure of intimacy is not the quotient of friction between skin and skin, but something else entirely — something of the love and trust, the joy and ease that flow between two people as they inhabit that private world walled off from everything and everyone else.
Perhaps Waldo did recognize that he and Margaret had an undeniable intimate partnership, and it was this very recognition that made him bristle at the sense of being coerced into coupledom. He was, after all, the poet laureate of self-reliance, who believed that for the independent man “the Universe is his bride.” And yet, although he experienced himself as an individual, he had somehow conceded to the union of marriage and wedded a human bride — one who had grown to depend on him for her emotional well-being, which Waldo now experienced as a dead weight. He called it a “Mezentian marriage” — a grim allusion to the Roman myth of the cruel King Mezentius, known for tying men face-to-face with corpses and leaving them to die. He raged in his journal:
Marriage is not ideal but empirical. It is not the plan or prospect of the soul, this fast union of one to one; the soul is alone… It is itself the universe & must realize its progress in ten thousand beloved forms & not in one.
Margaret, too, tried to figure the form of their relationship. She wrote to Waldo with unprecedented candor, accusing him of being unclear in his feelings for her and commanding him to clarify where he stood, with an awareness that she might be yearning for more from him than he could ever give her:
We are to be much to one another. How often have I left you despairing and forlorn. How often have I said, this light will never understand my fire; this clear eye will never discern the law by which I am filling my circle; this simple force will never interpret my need to manifold being.
Acknowledging the agitation that bedeviled them both as they tried to make sense of their relationship, she promised that “this darting motion, this restless flame shall yet be attempered and subdued.” She sensed between them an infinite possibility, but “the sense of the infinite exhausts and exalts; it cannot therefore possess me wholly.” The paradox, of course, is that there is always something irresistibly vitalizing about our irresolvable passions, about that which we can never fully possess nor can fully possess us — some potent antidote to the wearying monotony of our settled possessions. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson would write in one of his most famous essays, published just a few months later, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” For now, he painted the dark contours of this recognition in his journal: “Between narrow walls we walk: insanity on one side, & fat dulness on the other.” Margaret, sensing the bipolar pull of his desires, demanded that he choose a pole:
Did not you ask for a “foe” in your friend? Did not you ask for a “large and formidable nature”? But a beautiful foe, I am not yet, to you. Shall I ever be? I know not.
And yet she told Waldo that with him alone she felt “so at home” that she couldn’t imagine finding another love as quenching: “I know not how again to wander and grope, seeking my place in another Soul.”
But Emerson was not looking to be “at home” in anyone other than himself. Already feeling his independent nature stifled by his marriage, he could not — would not — let himself be trapped in a second relationship, his soul cemented and Mezented with a second weight of expectations. After nearly a month of stupefied silence, he finally responded to Margaret in a lengthy and conflicted letter:
My dear Margaret,
I have your frank & noble & affecting letter, and yet I think I could wish it unwritten. I ought never to have suffered you to lead me into any conversation or writing on our relation, a topic from which with all my persons my Genius ever sternly warns me away. I was content & happy to meet on a human footing a woman of sense & sentiment with whom one could exchange reasonable words & go away assured that wherever she went there was light & force & honour. That is to me a solid good; it gives value to thought & the day; it redeems society from that foggy & misty aspect it wears so often seen from our retirements; it is the foundation of everlasting friendship. Touch it not — speak not of it — and this most welcome natural alliance becomes from month to month, — & the slower & with the more intervals the better, — our air & diet. A robust & total understanding grows up resembling nothing so much as the relation of brothers who are intimate & perfect friends without having ever spoken of the fact. But tell me that I am cold or unkind, and in my most flowing state I become a cake of ice. I feel the crystals shoot & drops solidify. It may do for others but it is not for me to bring the relation to speech… Ask me what I think of you & me, — & I am put to confusion.
Four days earlier, he had entreated her: “Give me a look through your telescope or you one through mine; — an all explaining look.” Now he argues that they can neither be fully explained to the other, nor fully seen — they are as constitutionally different as if they “had been born & bred in different nations.” Inverting Margaret’s accusation of his withholding, he points out her own opacity:
You say you understand me wholly. You cannot communicate yourself to me. I hear the words sometimes but remain a stranger to your state of mind.
Yet we are all the time a little nearer. I honor you for a brave & beneficent woman and mark with gladness your steadfast good will to me. I see not how we can bear each other anything else than good will.
This undulating emotional confusion runs through the entire letter as Waldo struggles to reconcile his seemingly irreconcilable desires — not to lose his uncommon and electrifying bond with Margaret, but not to be trapped in bondage. He tells her that a “vast & beautiful Power” has brought them into each other’s lives and likens them to two stars shining together in a single constellation. He urges her to let things be as they have been, to savor their uncommon connection without demanding more:
Let us live as we have always done, only ever better, I hope, & richer. Speak to me of every thing but myself & I will endeavor to make an intelligible reply. Allow me to serve you & you will do me a kindness; come & see me… let me visit you and I shall be cheered as ever by the spectacle of so much genius & character as you have always the gift to draw around you.
We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.
In their early correspondence, Waldo had articulated to Margaret a sentiment about the problem of translation in poetry, which now seemed to perfectly capture the problem of translating their interior worlds to each other:
We are armed all over with these subtle antagonisms which as soon as we meet begin to play, and translate all poetry into such stale prose!… All association must be compromise.
A decade later, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would limn this central paradox of intimacy in the philosophical allegory of the porcupine dilemma: In the cold of winter, a covenant of porcupines huddle together seeking warmth. As they draw close, they begin wounding each other with their quills. Warmed but maimed, they instinctually draw apart, only to find themselves shivering and longing for the heat of other bodies again. Eventually, they discover that unwounding warmth lies in the right span of space — close enough to share in a greater collective temperature, but not so close as to inflict the pricks of proximity.
How Margaret and Waldo negotiated that elusive optimal distance, how she finally found unreserved love elsewhere when she was least expecting it, and how her rich and enduring intellectual bond with Emerson shaped both of their bodies of work and the entire history of American letters, unfolds throughout the rest of Figuring.
Many tree-rings after Blake and Whitman and Hesse, another visionary turned to trees as an instrument of civil disobedience, empowerment, and emancipation, advancing democracy, human rights, and environmental justice.
Born near a holy fig tree in the central highlands of Kenya twenty years after the country became a British colony, Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940–September 25, 2011) went on to become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her triumph of promoting “ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development” by founding the Green Belt Movement responsible for planting 30 million trees and empowering women to partake in social change — an act of courage and resistance for which she was beaten and imprisoned multiple times, but which ultimately helped defeat Kenya’s corrupt, authoritarian president and blazed a new path to ecological resilience.
Growing up in a small hut with walls made of mud and dung, Wangari watched the British colonialists grow richer and richer by cutting down trees to plant more tea. She ached to see the trees fall, but didn’t yet know that she had the agency to stand up for them and for her people.
One day, with the simplicity and sincerity of a child’s enormous question, her older brother asked the family why he was allowed to go to school and learn, but Wangari was not. And, just like that, the unquestioned cultural more that girls must remain at home until they marry and have a family of their own unraveled. Their mother made the radical decision to answer her son’s question with action and enrolled her daughter in the village primary school.
At eleven, Wangari left home to study at a boarding middle school run by Italian nuns. She graduated from high school at a time when very few African women learned to read at all. In September 1960, then-senator John F. Kennedy initiated a program that welcomed promising African students to study in the United States. Of the entire continent, only a few hundred young people earned such an invitation. Wangari Maathai was among them.
She arrived in America to discover with shock that even in a country as wealthy and emblematic of freedom, human rights were not equally apportioned. She witnessed the height of the civil rights movement just as her own country was finally winning its independence from British rule.
And yet upon returning to Kenya, she found that trees were no better off — colonialism had crumbed, but it had left in the rubble a nation so impoverished and dependent that Kenyans were forced to continue cutting down trees just as the British had, selling the lumber and using the felled land to plant tea, coffee, and tobacco for export. As marine biologist and author Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word across the Atlantic and issuing the radical insistence that the real wealth of a nation “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Wangari Maathai was realizing that her nation’s welfare depended on healing the broken relationship between a broken economy and a broken ecology. She came to see that a tree is much more than an economic resource. She came to see, in Prévot’s lovely words, that “a tree is a little bit of the future.”
Progress, however, is slow. “The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion,” Thoreau — the patron saint of trees and civil disobedience — wrote in contemplating the long cycles of social change. In 1977, three decades into her outrage, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement and set out to plant trees all over Kenya, traveling to villages and encouraging people to think about the future, whatever the privations of the present may be.
Her insistence on women’s leadership was nothing short of countercultural in a society where women were expected to demur and lower their gaze in the mere presence of a man. And yet she persisted, entrusting tree nurseries to local women and seeding in them a newfound sense of civic agency. She herself stood up to the president himself, who had initiated a massive real-estate development in the city’s precious urban forest, habitat to endangered species like the blue monkey and the river hog, and had endeavored to build a skyscraper and a statue of himself in the heart of Nairobi’s largest park.
In response to the lengthy protests she organized, for which she was imprisoned several times, the government forced Maathai out of her office, calling her “a crazy woman” in press statements and describing the Green Belt Movement as “a bunch of divorcees.” (Meanwhile in America, Rachel Carson was enduring the same sexist assaults from government and industry, who painted her as a hysterical spinster for her composed, courageous, scientifically rigorous exposé of the pesticide industry that would catalyze the environmental movement.)
But Maathai persisted, alerting leaders around the world to the ecological and human rights abuses in her country. In letters and speeches, her voice reached beyond the government-controlled echo chamber of the Kenyan press, igniting an international investigation that eventually made the president relinquish his exploitive development plans. Upon her triumph, a man from rural Kenya greeted her during one of her village visits with these words: “You are the only man left standing.”
Over and over, the president tried to fell Maathai and her movement. In a desperate bid for control, emblematic of Hannah Arendt’s insight into how tyrants use isolation and separation as a weapon of oppression, he attempted to set neighboring tribes against one another. But Maathai and the Green Belt Movement built a simple, brilliant bridge across this artificial divide — they offered saplings from tree nurseries as tokens of peace to be exchanged between tribes.
Eventually, Amnesty International and UNESCO published a report exposing the president’s corruption and human rights abuses, ending his quarter-century reign. Maathai — by that point affectionately known as Mama Miti, “the mother of trees” — was elected to the new Parliament and appointed Assistant Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife.
On October 8, 2004, midway through her sixty-fifth year, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By the end of her life, the movement she started had planted thirty million trees, reimagining the ecological and economic landscape of possibility for generations of Kenyans to come, and modeling for the rest of the world a new form of civic agency standing up for nature and humanity as an indivisible whole.
“One may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty.”
By Maria Popova
“Happy people die whole,” Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) wrote in one of his poems. “Integrity is wholeness,” he wrote in another. For Jeffers, whose verses became revered hymns of the environmental movement as Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word, this meant wholeness not only within oneself but also wholeness with the rest of the natural world, with the integrity of the universe itself — an ethos consonant with his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Jeffers coined the term inhumanism to describe the perilous counterpoint to this awareness. Humanity, he worried, had become too solipsistic, too divorced from the rest of nature, too blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” — beauty the protection of and participation in which is both our natural inheritance and our civilizational responsibility.
Although Jeffers’s ideas moved and influenced generations of readers, writers, artists, activists, and even policymakers — from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams — he never formally articulated his spiritual credo outside of verse. Never, except once.
In the autumn of 1934, Jeffers received a letter from Sister Mary James Power — a principal and teacher at a girls’ Catholic high school in Massachusetts. A lifelong lover of poetry, Power had endeavored to edit an anthology of prominent poets’ reflections on the spiritual dimensions of their art and their creative motive force. She invited Jeffers to contribute, asking about his “religious attitudes.” His response, originally published in Powers’s 1938 book Poets at Prayer and later included in The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (public library), is one of the most beautiful and succinct articulations of a holistic, humanistic moral philosophy ever committed to words — some of the wisest words to live and think and feel by.
It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending — I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)
Writing in the same era in which Carson revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our place in it with her lyrical writings about the sea, observing 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,” Jeffers adds:
The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.
But this “salvation,” Jeffers observes in a sensitive caveat, is not something that happens to us, passively — it is something that happens in us, through our active participation in life, through the choices we make during the brief interlude of our existence as animate beings in an animate universe. Wholeness itself is a participatory act — both a faculty of being and a function of becoming, to be mastered and refined in the course of living. (I too have wondered how, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we attain completeness of being.) Jeffers writes:
I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.