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A “Yellow Submarine” Love Story

“The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings.”

A “Yellow Submarine” Love Story

And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant animating force in my family story.

The anthology is now out as In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs (public library), featuring contributions from wonderful writers like Pico Iyer (“Yesterday”), Rosanne Cash (“No Reply”), Rick Moody (“The End”), Rebecca Mead (“Eleanor Rigby”), Roz Chast (“She Loves You”), Jane Smiley (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and Adam Gopnik (“Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”).

Here is my essay, as it appears in the book.

YELLOW SUBMARINE
by Maria Popova

My parents fell in love on a train. It was the middle of the Cold War and they were both traveling from their native Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where they were to attend different universities — my father, an introvert of formidable intelligence, was studying computer science; my mother, a poetry-writing (bordering-on-bossy) extrovert, library science.

An otherwise rational man, my father describes the train encounter as love at first sight. Upon arrival, he began courting my mother with such subtlety that it took her two years to realize she was being courted. 

One spring morning, having finally begun to feel like a couple, they were walking across the lawn between the two dorms and decided it was time for them to have a whistle-call. At the time, Bulgarian couples customarily had whistle-calls — distinctive tunes they came up with, usually borrowed from the melody of a favorite song, by which they could find each other in a crowd or summon one another from across the street.

Partway between the primitive and the poetic, between the mating calls of mammals and the sonnets by which Romeo and Juliet beckoned one another, these signals were part of a couple’s shared language, a private code to be performed in public. Both sets of my grandparents had one. My mother’s parents, elementary schoolteachers in rural Bulgaria who tended to an orchard and the occasional farm animal, used a melody of unclear origin but aurally evocative of a Bulgarian folk song; my father’s parents, both civil engineers and city intellectuals, used a fragment from a Schumann waltz. 

That spring morning, knowing that my mother was a Beatles fan, my father suggested “Yellow Submarine.” There was no deliberation, no getting mired in the paradox of choice — just an instinctive offering fetched from some mysterious mental library.

Eventually, my parents got pregnant, got married, had this child. They continued to summon each other, and eventually me, by whistling “Yellow Submarine.” Although I didn’t know at the time that it was originally written as a children’s song, it came to color my childhood. I had always wondered why, of all possible songs saturating their youth, my parents had chosen “Yellow Submarine” — a song released long before they met. My father wasn’t much of a Beatles fan himself, and yet that spring morning, he was able to open the cabinet of his semi-conscious memory, fetch a melody he had heard almost twenty years earlier, and effortlessly whistle it to his beloved. The familial whistle-call became a given in my childhood, like math homework and Beef Stroganoff Sundays, so it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that it occurred to me to inquire about how “Yellow Submarine” wove itself into the family fabric. The story of how that seemingly random song had implanted itself in my father’s mind is the archetypal story of how popular music, and perhaps all popular art, is metabolized in the body of culture. Once it has entered the crucible of consciousness, a song becomes subject to a peculiar alchemy — the particularities of the listener’s life at that particular moment transmute its objective meaning, if there ever was one at all, into a subjective impression. That impression is what we encode into memory, what we retrieve to whistle twenty years later. The artist’s original intent is melded with the listener’s personal context into an amorphous mass of inexpressible yet unforgettable unity — a dormant seed whose blossoming depends on the myriad factors fertilizing the surrounding soil. That the seed was planted at all may remain unheralded until the moment of its blossoming.

My great-grandfather — my father’s maternal grandfather — was an astronomer and mathematician born at the dawn of the twentieth century, into Bulgaria’s nascent monarchy that followed five hundred years of Ottoman slavery. He lived through two World Wars, then watched his homeland, battered by centuries of oppression and brutalized by decades of war, crumble into communism when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1940s. The pernicious anti-intellectualism of the communist regime took great pains to silence any cultural signal from the other side of the Iron Curtain. On the radio — then the dominant form of mass media — Western broadcasts in translation were banned and their frequencies muffled. But because so few Bulgarians spoke non-Slavic languages, the government didn’t bother to muffle foreign broadcasts in the original — those were just buried on hard-to-find frequencies.

Witnessing the timorous promise of freedom succumb to dictatorship must have been unbearable for my great-grandfather. Somehow, he hacked his transistor radio into the frequency of the BBC World Service and, well into his fifties by that point, set about teaching himself English. He acquired an English dictionary and a few literary classics through some underground channel — from Jane Austen to first-edition Hemingways, which survive to this day in my grandmother’s library — and began underlining words, filling the margins with translations, and code-cracking English grammar. It was a small act of rebellion, but a monumental one. By the 1960s, he had become fluent in English, with the BBC as his sole conduit to the other side — a lifeline of intellectual liberty.

When his nine grandchildren were entrusted in his daytime care, he decided to weave this surreptitious insurgency into his legacy by teaching them English. He would take them to the park and when the time came for their afternoon snack, he wouldn’t feed them until they were able to ask for their sandwiches in proper Queen’s English.

The BBC World Service was always on in the kitchen and in the late summer of 1966, just before my father’s sixth birthday, “Yellow Submarine” was on heavy rotation — it had been released on August 5. One morning, my great-grandfather decided to use the song as an opportunity for another English lesson with the kids. Perhaps because this was in Varna — Bulgaria’s naval capital, where the city’s celebrated Naval Museum is still housed in a giant decommissioned submarine — and perhaps simply because he was a little boy and little boys have such obsessions, my father was enamored of submarines and instantly took the bait. He fell in love with the song, learned its melody, and memorized the lyrics.

He grew up, fluent in English and German (my great-grandfather had also hacked his way into the Deutsche Welle), and although his obsession with the engineering of military vehicles and vessels never left him, the yellow submarine became a distant childhood memory. But it left a vestige, invisible and dormant until it was fertilized by the unlikeliest — or is it the likeliest? — of catalysts: love. The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings. In a marvelous yet hardly surprising parallel, the very origin of “Yellow Submarine” intimates such boyhood vestiges.

Paul McCartney wrote the song as a nonsense children’s rhyme to which the Beatles added an irreverent edge.

In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea

McCartney’s grandfather, Joseph, grew up near the Liverpool docks and played the E-flat bass, a giant tuba-like brass instrument. Lennon’s grandfather, George, was a lifelong mariner who was aboard one of the first three-masted ships to sail around the world. After he met his wife at the bustling old Roman seaport of Chester, he retired into domesticity by taking a shoreside job recovering wreckage from sunk submarines. McCartney later recounted that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” by making up a melody in his head and letting it carry the story of “an ancient mariner, telling the young kids where he’d lived.” Could this “man who sailed the sea” be an amalgam of these two boyhood vestiges?

It is, of course, a perennial mystery how the innumerable fragments of experience we amass in the course of living come into contact with one another, how they are fused together in the combinatorial process of creativity and transformed into something new. Impatient with mystery, we tend to seek to fill the unknown with easy explanations. When “Yellow Submarine” was released — on the other side of “Eleanor Rigby,” on the same day as Revolver – people rushed to presumptions about the obvious agent of transmutation: This, after all, was the middle of the 1960s and the Beatles had just begun experimenting with psychedelics. But while John and George were busting open the doors of perception with acid, Paul was largely uninterested in such synthetic aids — bursting with creative energy, his spiritual electricity was self-synthesized. Although he insisted over and over on the innocuous origin of the song, throngs of critics both professional and self-appointed continued to interpret the song as an ode to psychedelics.

If psychedelics played a role at all, it was indirect — at most as a cross-pollinating agent of adjacent imaginations. Since the Beatles shared so much of their lives, Paul was inevitably immersed in his bandmates’ newfound wonderland of psychedelia and absorbed its rousing visual language. According to a Beatles intimate quoted in Bob Spitz’s excellent biography of the Fab Four, one of those early acid experiences produced “marvelous visions” of “rainbow-colored submarines” — an image so wild and whimsical that John and George, in their wide-eyed exhilaration, likely enthused about it to the rest. Paul might have folded that image into his mental catalogue of fragments — in fact, his first draft of the lyrics included multiple submarines of various colors before they were distilled into the sole yellow submarine. (Donovan added the line “Sky of blue and sea of green” — a welcome reinjection of color into the final yellow monochrome.)

McCartney had written the song for Ringo Starr, who was “very good with kids,” deliberately keeping it “not too rangey in the vocal range” for Ringo to perform. It was a perfect fit — the song became by far the most successful Beatles track with Ringo as a vocalist. But there was something else, something singularly magical, that lent it timeless luster and increasingly timely allure today. Its recording was a jubilant celebration of phenomena that have since gone just about extinct — the communal element of making art and the messy, hands-on craftsmanship of sound.

On May 26, 1966, the Beatles packed into Studio Two along with a motley cast of Abbey Road regulars and irregulars, spearheaded by legendary producer George Martin.

And our friends are all on board

The gang proceeded to fetch an arsenal of noisemaking tools from the utility closet — chains, whistles, buckets, glasses, wind-makers, thunderstorm machines, wartime hand bells, hooters, ship’s bells — which quickly cluttered the studio’s spacious wooden floor as the cacophonous crew set out to create the song’s weird and wonderful aural atmosphere. The cash register that would later ring up Pink Floyd’s “Money” appeared from somewhere. An old-fashioned metal bath was dragged in and filled; the Beatles’ chauffeur, Alf Bicknell, was assigned a chain to whirl through the water.

And the band begins to play

At the end, the band’s road manager, Mal Evans, grabbed a bass drum and led a conga line around this makeshift wonderland of music-making to the collective incantation:

We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine

There’s a wonderful symmetry here, between the childlike playfulness that filled the studio and the sensibility of the song itself. More than that, the recording session stands as a testament to the song’s true intent — an ode to pure fun, nothing more and nothing less. But while fun — the exultant joy of creation — has always been a major animating force of art, it has never been a sufficient raison d’être for art criticism. In one of his beautiful 1930s essays on music, Aldous Huxley — perhaps the patron saint of psychedelics and a prominent paste-up presence in the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover — remarked on the “absurd multiplicity of attributed ‘meanings’” that music can invoke. “Yellow Submarine,” due to its nonsensical lyrics and its particular placement in the chronology of the Beatles as odd bedfellow to “Eleanor Rigby” and creative counterpoint to Revolver, lent itself to particularly extravagant interpretations, from the sociocultural to the political. One folk magazine took it to be an anti-Vietnam War anthem. The great African American poet, dramatist, and essayist Amiri Baraka saw it as a pathetic paean to white privilege. The English music critic Peter Doggett remarked, “Culturally empty, ‘Yellow Submarine’ became a kind of Rorschach test for radical minds.” (We can put aside for a moment the notion that childlike wonder and sensorial delight amount to cultural emptiness — a lamentable bias that warrants a separate essay.)

This question of the song’s meaning reached a crescendo when it was adapted into an animated feature film two years later. What began as a throwaway licensing deal and a mere afterthought for the Beatles became a messy parable of the rift between culture as creative communion and culture as commodity. Before “Yellow Submarine” conquered the airwaves as the highest-grossing single in the UK the year of its release, the Beatles had agreed — or, rather, their manager Brian Epstein had procured their impetuous agreement — to contribute an original soundtrack and lend their endorsement to a cartoon adaptation by King Features, which had already adapted the life and music of the Beatles into five dozen cartoons. Young painters were recruited from local art schools and an impressive crew of animators, inkers, background artists, and sound engineers was hired from all over the world — Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Scotland, Spain, the U.S. and all over the U.K. As the animation crew worked day and night for eleven months, the Beatles, not quite realizing what they had agreed to, began actively resenting the very idea of the project and treated it like a tedious chore they just had to get out of the way. The film was ultimately finished with very little and very begrudging input from the band.

Its premiere at London Pavilion in July of 1968 sparked a heightened state of Beatlemania. Fans loved it, most commentators loved it, and even the Fab Four had to admit its charm. But amid the flurry of enthusiasm, the few shrieks of criticism became emblematic of the cultural unease which “Yellow Submarine” sparked — a discomfort with an uninterpretable open-endedness that resists the categorization by which we navigate and process cultural material. The irritation of this unease was best captured by Daily Mail entertainment columnist Trudi Pacter, who complained that “the Beatles stubbornly continue to experiment” instead of sticking to the formula that had already proven their music wildly successful. It’s a grievance both utterly ridiculous and utterly human: We yearn for art to surprise us, but we also yearn for the control, for certitude, for knowing what to expect from those we’ve come to trust. But what made the Beatles a cultural force was precisely the stubbornness with which they continued to experiment forward into greatness. “Yellow Submarine” was a particularly successful experiment.
Full speed ahead, Ms. Pacter, full speed ahead!

It is precisely this uncomfortable open-endedness of meaning that drove generations of critics to fill the abyss with manufactured meanings. Interpretation, of course, always reveals far more about the interpreter than it does about the interpreted. Just two years before the release of “Yellow Submarine,” in her terrific treatise “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag bemoaned the reactionary “arrogance of interpretation” and called it “the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

And yet the interpretation of art is inescapable, and this might not be such a bad thing after all. “Yellow Submarine,” more so than the average song due to its nonsensical nature, has meant different things to every person who has ever heard it and filled it with subjective sense. It meant different things to my great-grandfather, to my father, and to myself. For the old mathematician, it signified a vitalizing act of intellectual insurgency; for the little boy, a playful and infectious wink at a childhood obsession; for the young man in love, a thread stretching backward and forward in time, connecting him to his childhood self and to the future wife who would beget his own child. And although I, that future child, never got to meet my intellectual insurrectionist great-grandfather, I am linked to him by DNA and by a song from long ago, embedded in my father’s synapses and worn note-bare by my mother’s lips.

“Once a poem is made available to the public,” teenage Sylvia Plath once wrote to her mother, “the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” It is by this right of interpretation that popular music, popular culture, and perhaps all culture belongs to us at all. It is by this right that art is always appropriated by life, that a catchy song with no particular meaning, eavesdropped on by a little boy with his ear pressed to the Iron Curtain, can be woven into a family myth across time and space. This is what popular art does at its best — it provides a screen onto which vastly different people in vastly different circumstances can project the singular meaning of their lives.

In Their Lives features twenty-seven more essays on beloved Beatles songs, cross-pollinating personal histories with cultural history in a poetic intersection of memoir, music, and the collective legend-making of great storytelling.

BP

Rosanne Cash on How Science Saved Her Life, the Source of Every Artist’s Power, and Her Beautiful Reading of Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Marie Curie

“All creative people feel that the source of their creativity comes from the same room as their deepest pain.”

Most know Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) as a trailblazing scientist — a pioneer of radioactivity, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize, and to this day the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences, chemistry and physics. But unbeknownst to most, she was also a woman of tremendous humanitarian heroism and courage: When WWI swept Europe, Curie, a vehement pacifist, invented and operated mobile X-ray units known as “Little Curies” — ambulances which she herself drove, treating an estimated one million wounded soldiers and civilians, using the technology her own discoveries had made possible to save innumerable lives.

It fell on another extraordinary woman, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), to eulogize Curie exactly forty years after the trailblazing scientist’s death in the 1974 poem “Power,” which opens Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library).

Marie Curie

Another forty years later, another remarkable woman animated this double legacy of greatness — multiple Grammy winner Rosanne Cash, a musician of enormous poetic potency, a beautiful memoirist, and one of very few women inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Cash brought Rich’s masterpiece to life at The Universe in Verse — the celebration of science through poetry, which gave us Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s sublime performance of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy.

Prefacing her reading, Cash offered the greatest testimonial to the power of science there is — one attested to with her very life, which science saved after pseudo-science and today’s fossils of superstition imperiled it — and reflected on how Rich’s poem, while celebrating a scientist, also speaks to the deepest source of every artist’s power.

Persist and verify… The power that we abdicate to others out of our insecurity — to others who insult us with their faux-intuition or their authoritarian smugness — that comes back to hurt us so deeply… But the power we wrest from our own certitude — that saves us.

And here is the isolated poem:

POWER
by Adrienne Rich

Living    in the earth-deposits    of our history

Today a backhoe divulged    out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle    amber    perfect    a hundred-year-old
cure for fever    or melancholy    a tonic
for living on this earth    in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered    from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years    by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin    of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold    a test-tube or a pencil

She died    a famous woman    denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds    came    from the same source as her power

Rich was the only poet with two poems represented in The Universe in Verse. Devour the other one — her tribute to Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer — here, then revisit Rich herself reading her increasingly timely poem “What Kind of Times Are These?”

For other enchanting readings of beloved poets’ work, hear Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska.

BP

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the Unknown, the Horizons of the Knowable, and Why the Cross-Pollination of Disciplines is the Seedbed of Truth

“What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science… Stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.”

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the Unknown, the Horizons of the Knowable, and Why the Cross-Pollination of Disciplines is the Seedbed of Truth

In a recent MoMA talk about the lacuna between truth and meaning, I proposed that, just like there is a limit to the speed of light arising from the fundamental laws of physics that govern the universe, there might be a fundamental cognitive limit that keeps human consciousness from ever fully comprehending itself. After all, the moment a system becomes self-referential, it becomes susceptible to limitation and paradox — the logical equivalent to Audre Lorde’s memorable metaphor that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell articulated this splendidly when she wrote in her diary in 1854:

The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

The century and a half since has been strewn with myriad scientific breakthroughs that have repeatedly transmuted what we once thought to be unknowable into what is merely unknown and therefore knowable, then eventually known. Evolutionary theory and the discovery of DNA have answered age-old questions considered unanswerable for all but the last blink of our species’ history. Einstein’s relativity and the rise of quantum mechanics have radically revised our understanding of the universe and the nature of reality.

And yet the central question remains: Against the infinity of the knowable, is there a fundamental finitude to our capacity for knowing?

That’s what English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores with intelligent and imaginative zest in The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library) — an inquiry into the puzzlement and promise of seven such unknowns, which Du Sautoy terms “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see.

Marcus du Sautoy

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s assertion that our appetite for seemingly unanswerable questions is what makes us human, Du Sautoy writes:

For any scientist the real challenge is not to stay within the secure garden of the known but to venture out into the wilds of the unknown.

[…]

The knowledge of what we don’t know seems to expand faster than our catalog of breakthroughs. The known unknowns outstrip the known knowns. And it is those unknowns that drive science. A scientist is more interested in the things he or she can’t understand than in telling all the stories we already know the answers to. Science is a living, breathing subject because of all those questions we can’t answer.

Among those are questions like whether the universe is infinite or finite, what dark matter is made of, the perplexity of multiverses, and the crowning curio of devising a model of reality that explains the nature and behavior of all energy and matter — often called a “theory of everything” or a “final theory” — unifying the two presently incompatible models of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which deals with the largest scale of physics, and quantum field theory, which deals with the smallest scale.

Du Sautoy, who believes — as do I — that “we are in a golden age of science,” considers the central ambivalence behind such a final theory and the very notion of knowing everything. Echoing artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous advice that “making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” he writes:

Would we want to know everything? Scientists have a strangely ambivalent relationship with the unknown. On the one hand, what we don’t know is what intrigues and fascinates us, and yet the mark of success as a scientist is resolution and knowledge, to make the unknown known.

And yet, too often, our human tendency when faced with unknowns is to capitulate to their unknowability prematurely — nowhere more famously, nor more absurdly, than in the proclamation Lord Kelvin, one of the most esteemed scientists of his era, made before the British Association of Science in 1900: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Elsewhere in Europe, Einstein was incubating the ideas that would precipitate humanity’s greatest leap of physics just five years later. Lord Kelvin had failed to see beyond the edge of the known.

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

A quarter century after James Gleick introduced the world to chaos theory, Du Sautoy selects chaos as the first of his seven “edges” and writes:

There are natural phenomena that will never be tamed and known. Chaos theory asserts that I cannot know the future of certain systems because they are too sensitive to small inaccuracies. Because we can never have complete knowledge of the present, chaos theory denies us access to the future.

That’s not to say that all futures are unknowable. Very often we are in regions that aren’t chaotic, where small fluctuations have little effect. This is why mathematics has been so powerful in helping us to predict and plan. The power of mathematical equations has allowed us to land spaceships on other planets, predict the paths of deadly typhoons on Earth, and model the effects of deadly viruses, allowing us to take action before they become a pandemic. But at other times we cannot accurately predict or control outcomes.

This, Du Sautoy notes, is representative of the common denominator between all of the “edges” he identifies — the idea, also reflected in the aforementioned problem of consciousness, that we might be fundamentally unable to grasp a system from a bird’s-eye perspective so long as we are caged inside that system. Perhaps the most pervasive manifestation of this paradox is language itself, the hallmark of our cognitive evolution — language contains and carries knowledge, but language is a system, be it the language of the written word or that of mathematics.

Du Sautoy reflects on this possible meta-limitation:

Many philosophers identify language as a problem when it comes to the question of consciousness. Understanding quantum physics is also a problem because the only language that helps us navigate its ideas is mathematics.

At the heart of this tendency is what is known as “the paradox of unknowability” — the logical proof that unless you know all there is to be known, there will always exist for you truths that are inherently unknowable. And yet truth can exist beyond logic because logic itself has fundamental limits, which the great mathematician Kurt Gödel so elegantly demonstrated in the 1930s.

Illustration from a vintage children’s adaptation of Micromégas, Voltaire’s trailblazing science fiction homage to Newton

So where does this leave us? With an eye to his seven “edges,” Du Sautoy writes:

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that science gives us verisimilitudinous knowledge of the universe; that is, it gives us a narrative that appears to describe reality. We believe that a theory that makes our experience of the world intelligible is one that is close to the true nature of the world, even if philosophers tell us we’ll never know. As Niels Bohr said, “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

In consonance with my foundational belief that the cross-pollination of disciplines is what catalyzes the combinatorial creativity out of which every meaningful new idea is born, Du Sautoy adds:

Science flourishes when we share the unknowable with other disciplines. If the unknowable has an impact on how we lead our lives, then it is worth having ways to probe the consequences of choosing an answer to an unknowable. Music, poetry, stories, and art are powerful tools for exploring the implications of the unknowable.

[…]

Chaos theory implies that … humans are in some ways part of the unknowable. Although we are physical systems, no amount of data will help us completely predict human behavior. The humanities are the best language we have for understanding as much as we can about what it is to be human.

Studies into consciousness suggest boundaries beyond which we cannot go. Our internal worlds are potentially unknowable to others. But isn’t that one of the reasons we write and read novels? It is the most effective way to give others access to that internal world.

What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science. We may not know, but that doesn’t stop us from creating stories, and these stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.

Complement the thoroughly fascinating The Great Unknown, which examines the implications of these seven elemental unknowns for everything from consciousness to our experience of time to the future of artificial intelligence, with Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, philosopher Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, and artist Ann Hamilton on the creative power of not-knowing.

BP

The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

“There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days.”

The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

You find yourself in a city you hadn’t visited in years, walking along a street you had once strolled down with your fingers interlacing a long-ago lover’s, someone you then cherished as the most extraordinary person in the world, who is now married in Jersey with two chubby bulldogs. You find yourself shocked by how an experience of such vivid verisimilitude can be fossilized into a mere memory buried in the strata of what feels like a wholly different person, living a wholly different life — it was you who then lived it, and you who now remembers it, and yet the two yous have almost nothing in common. They inhabit different geographical and social loci, lead different lives, love different loves, dream different dreams. Hardly a habit unites them. Even most of the cells in the body striding down that street are different.

What, then, makes you you? And what is inside that cocoon of certitudes we call a self?

It’s an abiding question with which each of us tussles periodically, and one which has occupied some of humanity’s most fertile minds. The ancient Greeks addressed it in the brilliant Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Walt Whitman marveled at the paradox of the self. Simone de Beauvoir contemplated how chance and choice converge to make us who we are. Jack Kerouac denounced “the imaginary idea of a personal self.” Amelie Rorty taxonomized the seven layers of identity. Rebecca Goldstein examined what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change.

The young Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) set out to explore this abiding question in one of his earliest prose pieces, the 1922 essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” found in his splendid posthumously collection Selected Non-Fictions (public library).

Jorge Luis Borges, 1923

Shortly after his family returned to their native Buenos Aires after a decade in Europe and more than a year before he published his first collection of poems, the 22-year-old Borges begins by setting his unambiguous, unambivalent intention:

I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century, sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.

Exactly three decades before he faced his multitudes in the fantastic Borges and I, he writes:

There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an in­difference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?

I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.

It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.

Illustration by Cecilia Ruiz from The Book of Memory Gaps, inspired by Borges

Half a century before neuroscientists demonstrated that memory is the seedbed of the self, Borges writes:

There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inac­cessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose rul­ing you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving them­ selves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.

In a passage of inimitable Borgesian splendor, he adds:

I do not deny this consciousness of being, nor the immediate security of here I am that it breathes into us. What I do deny is that all our other convictions must be adjusted to the customary antithesis between the self and the non-self, and that this antithesis is constant. The sensation of cold, of spacious and plea­surable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing and rig­orous self.

[…]

There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days. There is no community of intention in them, nor are they propelled by the same breeze.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Borges draws on two of his great influences in fortifying his point — Walt Whitman, “the first Atlas who attempted to make this obstinacy a reality and take the world upon his shoulders,” and who had himself contemplated the perplexity of personal identity seven decades earlier, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose words Borges cites directly:

An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I through­out all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is, all who during that time said I, were in fact I.

Echoing Kafka’s reflections on reality vs. appearance, Borges adds:

Reality has no need of other realities to bolster it. There are no divini­ties hidden in the trees, nor any elusive thing-in-itself behind appearances, nor a mythological self that orders our actions. Life is truthful appearance.

Citing a famous Buddhist precept of non-self — “those things of which I can perceive the be­ginnings and the end are not my self” — Borges illustrates its veracity with the palpable realness of its living manifestations:

I, for example, am not the visual reality that my eyes encompass, for if I were, darkness would kill me and nothing would remain in me to desire the spectacle of the world, or even to forget it. Nor am I the audible world that I hear, for in that case si­lence would erase me and I would pass from sound to sound without memory of the previous one. Subsequent identical lines of argument can be directed toward the senses of smell, taste, and touch, proving not only that I am not the world of appearances — a thing generally known and undisputed — but that the apperceptions that indicate that world are not my self either. That is, I am not my own activity of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Nor am I my body, which is a phenomenon among oth­ers. Up to this point the argument is banal; its distinction lies in its applica­tion to spiritual matters. Are desire, thought, happiness, and distress my true self? The answer, in accordance with the precept, is clearly in the negative, since those conditions expire without annulling me with them. Consciousness — the final hideout where we might track down the self­ — also proves unqualified. Once the emotions, the extraneous perceptions, and even ever-shifting thought are dismissed, consciousness is a barren thing, without any appearance reflected in it to make it exist.

Borges concludes:

The self [is] a mere logical imperative, without qualities of its own or distinctions from individual to individual.

Complement this particular fragment of Borges’s wholly terrific Selected Non-Fictions with Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on selfhood and the crucible of identity, philosopher Jacob Needleman on how we become who we are, and neuroscientist Sam Harris on the paradox of free will, then revisit Borges on writing and his sublime refutation of time.

BP

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