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Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.”

Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Half a century before Walt Whitman considered what makes life worth living when a paralytic stroke boughed him to the ground of being, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) placed that question at the beating heart of The Last Man (free ebook | public library) — the 1826 novel she wrote in the bleakest period of her life: after the deaths of three of her children, two by widespread infectious diseases that science has since contained; after the love of her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident.

From that fathomless pit of sorrow, on the pages of a novel about a pandemic that begins erasing the human species one by one until a sole survivor — Shelley’s autobiographical protagonist — remains, she raised the vital question: Why live? By her answer, she raised herself from the pit to go on living, becoming the endling of her own artistic species — Mary Shelley outlived all the Romantics, composing prose of staggering poetic beauty and singlehandedly turning her then-obscure husband into the icon he now is by her tireless lifelong devotion to the posthumous editing, publishing, and glorifying of his poetry.

Shelley had set her far-seeing Frankenstein, written a decade earlier, a century into her past; she sets The Last Man a quarter millennium into her future, in the final decade of the twenty-first century, culminating in the year 2092 — the tricentennial of her beloved’s birth.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney — an idealistic young man, more porous than most to both the deepest suffering of living and the most transcendent beauty of life — is the closest Mary Shelley, stoical and guarded, came to painting a psychological self-portrait. As the pandemic sweeps the world and vanquishes his loved ones one by one, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to seek safety “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquillity.” There, in the strange stillness, stripped of the habitual busynesses and distractions of social existence, he finds himself contemplating the essence of life:

How unwise had the wanderers been, who had deserted [the nest’s] shelter, entangled themselves in the web of society, and entered on what men of the world call “life,” — that labyrinth of evil, that scheme of mutual torture. To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days… Who that knows what “life” is, would pine for this feverish species of existence? I have lived. I have spent days and nights of festivity; I have joined in ambitious hopes…: now — shut the door on the world, and build high the wall that is to separate me from the troubled scene enacted within its precincts.

In consonance with Whitman — “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the American poet would ask across space and time, then answer: “Nature remains.” — Shelley’s protagonist finds the meaning of life not in the whirlwind of the human-made world with its simulacra of living but in the simple creaturely presence with nature’s ongoing symphony of life:

Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.

First Signal by Maria Popova

At the height of the deadly pandemic, nature seems all the more quietly determined to affirm the resilience of life — spring arrives with its irrepressible bursts of beauty, untrammeled by human suffering and a supreme salve for it. It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression, by surrendering to its sweep, that Lionel regains his faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.

A generation before the young Emily Dickinson delighted in the poetry of spring, Shelley writes:

Winter passed away; and spring, led by the months, awakened life in all nature. The forest was dressed in green; the young calves frisked on the new-sprung grass; the wind-winged shadows of light clouds sped over the green cornfields; the hermit cuckoo repeated his monotonous all-hail to the season; the nightingale, bird of love and minion of the evening star, filled the woods with song; while Venus lingered in the warm sunset, and the young green of the trees lay in gentle relief along the clear horizon.

From this open presence with the non-human world, Shelley’s protagonist extracts the essence of what it means to be human:

There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.

Mary Shelley

Complement with Rebecca Elson’s stunning poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Shelley’s contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning — a trailblazing poet who was dealt an inordinate share of suffering and who made of it inordinate beauty — on what makes life worth living, and the story of how young Isaac Newton’s plague quarantine fomented humanity’s greatest leap in science, then revisit the gorgeous advice on life Shelley’s mother, the trailblazing political philosopher and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, never lived to give her daughter, having died in giving her birth.


The Universe in Verse 2019: Full Show

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

Each spring, I join forces with my friends at Pioneer Works for an improbable idea that began in 2017 and has taken on a life of its own: The Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of the science and splendor of nature through poetry.

The third annual Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works. April 23, 2019. Photograph: Walter Wlodarczyk.

With our sleeves rolled up and sweat-soaked in preparation for the 2020 virtual edition (“trailer” here), and with the world stunned and stilled and looking to fill the blur of days under quarantine with something of substance and succor, we have released the full recording of the 2019 show, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s historic eclipse expedition to Africa, which confirmed relativity and catapulted Einstein into celebrity. “Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment — just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. An invitation to perspective in the largest sense.

The show — an evening of poems, music, and stories about eclipses, relativity, spacetime, and Einstein’s legacy, featuring readings by musicians David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Emily Wells, and Josh Groban, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, actor Natascha McElhone, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, comedian Chuck Nice, choreographer Bill T. Jones, On Being host Krista Tippett, and the inimitable Neil Gaiman reading an original poem generously composed for the occasion — was a monumental labor of love, with every single person involved donating their time and talent, and all proceeds from the tickets benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York’s first-ever public observatory, a dome of possibility for future Eddingtons and Einsteins.

Both the costly production and this recording were made possible entirely by donations. Please enjoy — and if it gives you some perspective, some relief, perhaps even some rapture, do consider supporting this labor of love with a donation to Pioneer Works to offset some of the costs, help us build that dome of possibility, and make future universes possible.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman and poem #1397 by Emily Dickinson, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Education” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  3. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, read by Amanda Palmer
  4. “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, read by Regina Spektor
  5. “A Solar Eclipse” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, read by Natascha McElhone
  6. Musical interlude: Amanda Palmer
  7. “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse” by Billy Collins, read by Chick Nice
  8. “Achieving Perspective” by Pattiann Rogers, read by David Byrne
  9. “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by me
  10. Musical interlude: Regina Spektor
  11. “Research” by Cecilia Payne, read by Natalie Batalha
  12. “Faster Than Light” by Marilyn Nelson, read by the poet herself
  13. “Explaining Relativity” by Rebecca Elson, read by Stephon Alexander
  14. “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be” by Ross Gay, read by Bill T. Jones
  15. “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” by W.H. Auden, read by Josh Groban
  16. “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, read by Krista Tippett
  17. “In Transit” by Neil Gaiman, read by Neil Gaiman
  18. “Einstein’s Daughter” by Jennifer Clement, read by Emily Wells
  19. Musical finale: Emily Wells

You can find the full recordings of previous seasons, and livestream details for the upcoming show, on this page.

ALSO: My friends at Pioneer Works have just launched their own newsletter, delving into their archives to deliver some of the world’s fiercest and most fertile minds — scientists and artists, Nobel laureates and Pulitzer-winning authors — in conversation and contemplation at the edge of our search for truth and our hunger for meaning, straight to your inbox. Be a pioneer and give it a try — I promise it will be spare and wonderful.


Philip, the Last Sweet Potato: A Non-Binary Quarantine Love Story from Beloved Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Sophie Blackall

Odd and lovely consolation for despair and aloneness springing from that place of “defiance and melancholy and ecstasy.”

Philip, the Last Sweet Potato: A Non-Binary Quarantine Love Story from Beloved Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Sophie Blackall

When the world came unworlded with a pandemic, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Sophie Blackall packed up her Brooklyn home, gathered her husband, her step-daughter, and her step-daughter’s girlfriend, and headed for Milkwood Farm — a centuries-old dairy farm she has been laboring to transform into a rural retreat for artists and writers. There, mastering the art of minimums amid still-rudimentary conditions, in between learning to build dry-stacked stone walls with her bare hands and rereading Moby-Dick, Sophie happened to buy the local store’s last sweet potato.

Being an artist and being in quarantine, she did what artists have always done — make wonder out of limitation, privation, and boredom; illuminate the universal through the tiny aperture of the deeply personal.

Sophie named the potato Philip, gave them a non-binary pronoun, sewed them a white silk scarf, and wrote them an improbable love story for the ages — in large part to hand-hold folks like her father through their struggle with “they/them. (Sophie’s own non-binary child, Olive, goes by “they.”)

The resulting short film, narrated with her largehearted erudition and Australian warmth, is part Orlando, part Monty Python, part something entirely its own — wondrously weird yet poetic, soulful, and tender, a sympathetic spell for our most elemental despairs and deepest longings cast through a root vegetable.

Complement with some surprising lessons in gender diversity and true love from the natural history of non-human species, then revisit the story of how the trailblazing 19th-century sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art and pioneered a new vocabulary of queer being in the era when Sophie’s dairy farm was built.


The Value of Being Uncomfortable: Herman Melville on Privation as a Portal to Appreciation and Aliveness

“To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

The Value of Being Uncomfortable: Herman Melville on Privation as a Portal to Appreciation and Aliveness

“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least,” Georgia O’Keeffe, impoverished and solitary in the desert, wrote in considering limitation, creativity, and setting priorities as she was about to revolutionize art while the world was crumbling into its first global war.

There are echoes of Stoicism, of Buddhism, of every monastic tradition in O’Keeffe’s core insight — that only in the absence of our habitual comforts, without all the ways in which we ordinarily cushion against the hard facts of our own nature and our mortality, do we befriend ourselves and discover what is most alive in us. The contrast, uncomfortable at first, even painful, becomes a clarifying force. Without the superfluous, the essential is revealed.

A century before O’Keeffe’s artistic heyday, Herman Melville (August 1, 1819–September 28, 1891) took up these questions of discomfort as a tool of discipline and contrast as a clarifying force in a passage from Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) — the 1851 classic he composed as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Herman Melville. (Frontispiece for the 1921 book Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic; wood engraving by L.F. Grant from a photograph.)

In the chapter titled “Nightgown,” following one of the most sensual scenes in the novel — Queequeg “affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs” over Ishmael’s as the two lay in bed, “so entirely sociable and free and easy,” before rising naked into the unheated room — Melville writes:

To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.

Queequeg’s favorite dish, cooked and photographed by artist Dinah Fried for her project Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals.

With the austerity that inspired Patti Smith’s imaginative remedy for insomnia, he adds:

For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

Complement with Rilke on how great privations bring us closer to ourselves and Oliver Jeffers’s wonderful illustrated fable about the difficult art of cultivating a sense of enoughness, then revisit Melville’s passionate, beautiful, heartbreaking love letters to Hawthorne and Maurice Sendak’s rare illustrations for Melville’s most creatively daring and commercially dismal book.


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