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Germaine de Staël’s Guide to Haters: The First Modern Woman on Meritocracy, the Psychology of Why the Masses Rejoice in Tearing Down Successful Individuals, and the Only True Measure of Genius

“The life of man, so short in itself, is still of longer duration than the judgment and the affections of his contemporaries.”

Germaine de Staël’s Guide to Haters: The First Modern Woman on Meritocracy, the Psychology of Why the Masses Rejoice in Tearing Down Successful Individuals, and the Only True Measure of Genius

Napoleon is said to have recognized only three powers in Europe: Britain, Russia, and Germaine de Staël (April 22, 1766–July 14, 1817) — the brilliant Swiss-French woman of letters, who rose against the odds of her time and culture to become Europe’s reigning intellectual queen and the most public critic of Napoleon’s dictatorial regime, for which he banished her from Paris for a decade and punished heavily those who visited her in exile.

In the epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy counted De Staël among the “influential forces” that have propelled humanity forward. Lord Byron considered her the greatest living writer. Stendhal used her name as the basis of his pseudonym. Emerson credited her with introducing him to German thought, which profoundly shaped his own influential philosophy. She was one of a handful of women, alongside Joan of Arc and Sappho, whom Auguste Comte included in his famous Calendar of Great Men — a compendium of 559 world-changing minds, spanning from Saint Augustine to Galileo to Zeno. (Lest we forget, for the vast majority of human history, brilliant women were “men.”)

Germaine de Staël (Posthumous portrait by François Pascal Simon, 1817)

A woman of unapologetic genius and self-possession, often celebrated as the first Modern Woman, De Staël was a published author before she was twenty and lived a life untrammeled by convention, alleviating her loveless convenience marriage to a vapid older politician by taking as lovers men and women she found intellectually riveting.

A decade before her semi-autobiographical 1807 feminist novel Corinne painted a trailblazing landscape of possibility for woman as an intellectual, artist, and sovereign citizen of humanity, De Staël published A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations (public library | PDF) — a masterwork of penetrating, timeless reflection “on the nature of individual and political felicity; on the road that leads to it; on the limits that confine it; on the rocks that rise between, and bar us from its enjoyment.”

Writing during the calamitous upheaval of the French Revolution — a time of widespread suffering “when either the hope or the want of happiness has prompted the human race to rise” — De Staël argues that every restriction imposed upon liberty “is always prescribed by the effervescence of some one of the human passions,” so that the attainment of freedom, both personal and political, is contingent upon promoting “the moral independence of man.” In her investigation of the psychological, sociological, and cultural forces driving our personal and collective flourishing or suffering, De Staël is governed by the conviction that “in all human sciences we begin with complex ideas, and only attain simple ideas as we advance in the progress to perfection.”

One of the most fascinating portions of her treatise, for it applies to nearly every aspect of life in every era at every level of society, deals with the complex ecosystem of talent, ambition, and success — what we do with our talent, what others make of our success, and how to cope with one of the ugliest impulses of the human heart: the small-spirited urge to tear down those who have risen to prominence by their own merit.

De Staël writes:

Of all the passions of which the human heart is susceptible, there is none which possesses so striking a character as the Love of Glory. The traces of its operations may be discovered in the primitive nature of man, but it is only in the midst of society that this sentiment acquires its true force.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Writing two centuries before the rise of celebrity culture as we know it, De Staël cautions that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.” Celebrity may be the product of ambition, which bears no correlation with talent, but not of genius — it is a species of “fleeting success which may imitate or resemble glory,” but is only relevant to its time, whereas glory is the product of genius that endures across the epochs. And yet those who dare to defy convention, transcend expectation, and distinguish themselves by the work of their talent invariably rile their contemporaries:

The efforts which are necessary to rise from an obscure situation, in order to perform a part which we have not been called upon to undertake, offend the majority of men.

Embedded in glory is thus the core paradox of meritocracy — when a person rises above the multitude by means of some singular talent, De Staël argues, jealous others invariably feel that the degree of the person’s talent eclipses their own and grow inflamed with the impulse to tear them down. The ferocity of the impulse is proportionate to the magnitude of the person’s success — we see it in the vicious attacks on Marie Curie, in the slap-down of E.E. Cummings’s creative courage, and perhaps most clearly in the endless campaign to poke holes in the image of the quintessential modern genius: Albert Einstein, a man of intellectual as well as moral genius, continually attacked by ill-informed cynics who readily judge — which is to say misjudge — his personal life.

A century and a half before Einstein himself lamented that the fate of people “the bored public has taken possession of” is to be “worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow,” De Staël limns the psychology of this small-spirited impulse for self-inflation by the demolition of genius:

He who distinguishes himself is at variance with the self-love of others: every step which raises him above the level kindles the wish to bring him down from his eminence. The mass of enlightened men assume a kind of active pride which destroys the success of individuals.

Art by Lesley Barnes from The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature.

In some respects, De Staël notes, the animosity of talented peers can exceed that of the talentless masses:

Rivals among that limited number to which you belong, those who consider themselves in many respects your equals, press close, more close around you; and, should you be inclined to remove them to a distance, nothing is more difficult than to know to what degree we ought to cultivate the desire of popularity while we enjoy unpopular distinctions.

And yet, paradoxically, the measure of true genius is not in the admiration conferred upon the talented person in their lifetime but in their contribution to humanity’s collective growth and flourishing on far vaster scales of time and significance, effecting the dissolution of any personal ego. De Staël writes:

Every discovery which knowledge has produced, by enriching the mass, diminishes the empire of the individual. Human kind is the heir of genius, and the truly great men are those who have rendered such superior beings as themselves less necessary to future generations. The more the mind is allowed to expatiate in the future career of possible perfectibility, the more we see the advantages of understanding surpassed by positive knowledge, and the spring of virtue more powerful than the passion of glory.

In a sobering antidote to our narrow lens of consideration and its attendant blindness of short-termism, even more acute today than it was in De Staël’s day, she adds:

It will not, perhaps, yet be found that the present age affords the idea of such a progress; but we must see in the actual effect the future cause, in order to judge completely of an event. He who, in the mines where metals are concocted, sees only the devouring fire which seems to consume everything, is unacquainted with the course of nature; and cannot paint to his fancy the future but by multiplying the present.

De Staël considers how persons of genius polarize their contemporaries into ardent supporters and envious rivals, and how these roles interpolate as the object of their passions rises to and falls from favor:

Two parties immediately form, respecting the reputation of the individual concerned; not that there are different modes of judging of the same conduct, but because ambition connects itself with one side or the other. He who is inclined to become the adversary of great success, remains passive as long as its brilliancy remains undiminished. During the same period it is that friends are most indefatigable in favour of him who has gained distinction. They are fatigued with their previous exertions, when the moment of misfortune arrives… Enemies enter the lists with fresh arms, while friends have blunted theirs, by making a vain parade of them around the triumphal car.

“Ferdinand Faithful and Ferdinand Unfaithful” illustrated by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Seventeen centuries after Seneca contemplated true and false friendship, De Staël probes:

It may be asked, why is friendship less persevering than animosity? The reason is, that the one may be abandoned in a great variety of modes; which in the other, success alone can remove the danger and the shame which would result from giving up the object. Friends can so easily attribute to the goodness of their own hearts the excess of their enthusiasm, and ascribe to the neglect of their advice the last misfortunes which their friend has sustained; there are so many ways in which a man can take credit for abandoning a friend, that the slightest difficulties are sufficient to determine a man to pursue that course. But hatred, on the other hand, from the first step which it takes, engaged without the possibility of retreat, is resolved to employ all the resources of desperate situations… because, then, even the coward sees no salvation but in the exercise of his courage.

Genius, De Staël argues, is only recognized not under the microscope of the myopic present but by taking the telescopic perspective which we so readily relinquish but which so steadily frames the largest truths:

The aggregate of observation which constitutes the code of experience proves that the life of man, so short in itself, is still of longer duration than the judgment and the affections of his contemporaries. The great man … must traverse many epochs of various or contradictory opinions. These oscillations cease with the passions by which they were produced. Still we live in the midst of them, and their concussion, which can have no influence on the judgment of posterity, destroys that present happiness which is immediately within our reach.

With an eye to the varied disconnects between inherent genius and its recognition by spectators, De Staël considers the crucial difference between glory, success, and admiration:

Success is the pageantry of genius… Glory is the joint production of the gifts of nature and of chance… He who is desirous of exciting [admiration] … must owe it to the effects which talents produce, much more than to their real value.

Admiration, she argues, is intolerant of “the defects which are often found combined with the most eminent qualities” — a combination that inheres in humanity’s greatest geniuses. This intolerance eventually ejects the person of genius from popular favor and pounces on them with a savage appetite for destruction of the admired image as they fall from grace. Centuries before social media became the supreme gladiatorial arena for this savagery, De Staël laments:

What a vast field for the prying curiosity of little minds! How they plume themselves upon having foreseen what yet they hardly comprehend!… What illumination they derive from the event! How many satisfactory recollections they enjoy in criticizing the conduct of another!

When, in the midst of such attacks, the person of genius pays no attention to this ferocious mob of nobodies, “they consider this silence proof of their superiority.” The persistent existence of these patterns, De Staël argues, is evidence that while glory may be thus dependent on its contemporaries, fickle as they are in their favor, genius transcends the turbulences of current opinion and passes into a wholly different realm of significance unmoored from the tyranny of the present moment:

Contemporary glory is submitted to [the public’s] decision, for it is characterised by the enthusiasm of the multitude. Real merit is independent of everything; but reputation acquired by that merit obtains the name of glory only by the noise of the acclamations of the multitude…. Whoever requires the suffrage of others, has at once placed his life in the power of calculation and of chance; to such a degree, that the labours of calculation cannot secure him from the accidents of chance, and the accidents of chance cannot exempt him from the pain of calculation.

Long before Emerson made his impassioned case for protecting individual integrity from the tyranny of the masses, De Staël considers how the massing of sentiment in popular opinion blunts the creative and reasoning faculties of the individual:

It is not the wisdom of any individual, but the general impulse of the whole, which leads to action, and this impulse is communicated by the most fanatical of the whole. One idea may be compounded of various reflections; a sentiment springs perfect and entire from the soul in which it is felt. The only opinion which the multitude by whom it is adopted displays, is the injustice of one man exercised by the audacity of all, that audacity which springs from the consciousness of strength, and the impossibility of being subjected to any kind of personal responsibility.

She examines the double-edged blade of admiration, which carves the image of the idealized public persona while wounding the living person with impossible expectations of superhuman perfection, unforgiving of the fallibilities and foibles that are the mark of being human:

The events of chance, those which none of the powers of thought can control, are, nevertheless, considered by public opinion as within the direction of genius. Admiration is a kind of fanaticism which expects miracles. It will not consent to allow the man, on whom it fixes, a place inferior to others, it will not renounce the exercise of its understanding, to believe and obey him, but, by ascribing to him something supernatural which cannot be compared to human faculties. In order to guard against such an error, it is necessary for us to be modest and just, to recongnise at once the limits of genius, and it superiority over ourselves.

In the remainder of her immensely insightful Treatise on the Influence of the Passions Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations, De Staël goes on to explore the complexities of power (“Power is the most inauspicious of all the relations by which we can be connected with a great number of men.”), love (“Of all the chapters in this work, there is none upon which I expect so much criticism as on [this one].”), and various other facets of human nature integral to the attainment of the constellation of satisfactions we call “happiness.” Complement this particular portion with Dostoyevsky on ambition and success, Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you, Van Gogh on the human pursuit of greatness, and Schopenhauer’s sublime distinction between talent and genius, then revisit Kierkegaard’s abiding insight into why haters hate.

BP

This Book Is a Planetarium: A Pop-Up Masterpiece Translating the Laws of Physics into Playful and Poetic Tangibility

From light to time, magical hands-on demonstrations making concretely comprehensible the abstract forces and phenomena we experience but cannot ordinarily touch.

This Book Is a Planetarium: A Pop-Up Masterpiece Translating the Laws of Physics into Playful and Poetic Tangibility

In her stunning poem “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich wrote of translating “pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind.” Poetry itself is the work of such mind-reconstructing translation, its images making comprehensible the most ineffable pulsations of thought and feeling. So is science, translating the abstractions of sensation and perception into a relief of concrete truths.

Occupying the embodied space between poetry and science is This Book Is a Planetarium (public library) by Brooklyn-based artist and designer Kelli Anderson — a wondrous pop-up masterpiece that translates the laws of physics, from light to time, into magical hands-on demonstrations that make tangible and concretely comprehensible the abstract forces and phenomena we experience daily but cannot ordinarily touch.

Using nothing but paper and human ingenuity, Anderson — a poet of prototyping and a virtuosic explorer of the wonders hidden in everyday things — demonstrates the principles at the heart of cryptography in a decoder ring, the science of sound in a papercraft musical instrument and a pop-up speaker, the measurement of time based on Earth’s orbital period in a perpetual calendar.

Place a smartphone inside the pop-up planetarium and it will illuminate the annual rotation of constellations in the night sky. Slip a piece of paper into the spiralgraph sleeve and press a pencil down into the gear-wheel to produce the irregular but mathematically predictable line known as an epicycloid.

Accompanying each lyrical pop-up delight is a succinct explanation of the science behind it and why it works.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the book and the marvelous mind from which it sprang:

This Book Is a Planetarium is immeasurably delightful in its totality, an achievement of elaborate engineering that feels somehow as spare and precise as a poem. Complement it with a very different pop-up masterpiece about the ultimate forces of life by Japanese artist Katsumi Komagata and a vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo, whose dual enchantment of art and science Anderson carries on into the twenty-first century.

BP

A Winter Walk with Thoreau: The Transcendentalist Way of Finding Inner Warmth in the Cold Season

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

A Winter Walk with Thoreau: The Transcendentalist Way of Finding Inner Warmth in the Cold Season

“Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey,” Adam Gopnik wrote in his wondrous love letter to winter, and no one has honeyed the spirit with more splendid metaphors wrung from winter than Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862).

Long before he contemplated winter cabbage as a lesson in optimism, Thoreau explored winter’s rapturous yet overlooked rewards in a stunning, meandering meditation titled “A Winter Walk,” included in his indispensable Excursions (free ebook | public library).

thoreau1

Writing in the winter of 1843, shortly after Margaret Fuller’s mentorship made him a writer, the twenty-five-year-old Thoreau awakens to a snow-covered wonderland and marvels at the splendor — a singularly earthly splendor — of a world reborn:

The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. The meadow-mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed. The watch-dog has lain quiet on the hearth, and the cattle have stood silent in their stalls. The earth itself has slept, as it were its first, not its last sleep, save when some street-sign or wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge, cheering forlorn nature at her midnight work, — the only sound awake twixt Venus and Mars, — advertising us of a remote inward warmth, a divine cheer and fellowship, where gods are met together, but where it is very bleak for men to stand. But while the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields.

We sleep, and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window-sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol

This quieting of the outside world, this kindling of the inner hearth, is indeed winter’s greatest reward for Thoreau. A century before Albert Camus wrested from the seasons his immortal metaphor for the human spirit — “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” — Thoreau writes:

There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill…. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.

This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast, for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveller cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart. There is the south. Thither have all birds and insects migrated, and around the warm springs in his breast are gathered the robin and the lark.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from The River.

Thoreau believed that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” As he walks through the meadows blanketed in white, up the hills draped with snow-bowed branches, through a world enveloped in delicious quietude and covered in a “pure elastic heaven,” he returns to the invaluable inward focus which winter alone invites — a quiet conquest of one’s interior world. A century before Rilke painted winter as the season for tending to one’s inner garden, Thoreau writes:

In this lonely glen, with its brook draining the slopes, its creased ice and crystals of all hues, where the spruces and hemlocks stand up on either side, and the rush and sere wild oats in the rivulet itself, our lives are more serene and worthy to contemplate.

[…]

In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.

He revisits the subject in a series of diary entires from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on writing, the sacredness of public libraries, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary. On Christmas Day of 1856, he issues an exhortation central to his philosophy and his daily practice:

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.

Four days later, Thoreau amplifies the fervor of his point:

We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is in this sense a hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity which I had lost almost the instant that I come [outdoors].

Art by Princesse Camcam from Fox’s Garden

The following week, as New England lurches into one of the harshest winters ever recorded, Thoreau reflects on how withdrawing from “the wearying and unprofitable world of affairs” and into the sanity-restoring world of the winter wilderness cleanses him of society’s impurities and trifles:

The things I have been doing have but a fleeting and accidental importance, however much men are immersed in them, and yield very little valuable fruit. I would fain have been wading through the woods and fields and conversing with the sane snow. I thus from time to time break off my connection with eternal truths and go with the shallow stream of human affairs, grinding at the mill of the Philistines; but when my task is done, with never-failing confidence I devote myself to the infinite again.

[…]

There is nothing so sanative, so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields even now, when I meet none abroad for pleasure. In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it, — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.

[…]

I wish to forget, a considerable part of every day, all mean, narrow, trivial men (and this requires usually to forego and forget all personal relations so long), and therefore I come out to these solitudes, where the problem of existence is simplified.

Complement this particular portion of the timelessly rewarding Journal of Henry David Thoreau with Annie Dillard on how winter awakens us to life, then revisit Thoreau on the greatest gift of growing old, the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, the only worthwhile definition of success, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.

BP

The Wonders of Possibility: Lewis Thomas on Our Human Potential and Our Cosmic Responsibility to the Planet and to Ourselves

“We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before.”

The Wonders of Possibility: Lewis Thomas on Our Human Potential and Our Cosmic Responsibility to the Planet and to Ourselves

“Our origins are of the earth,” Rachel Carson wrote in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature. “And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” By channeling this elemental human response in immensely lyrical prose about the science of the natural world — a testament to Susan Sontag’s assertion that “information will never replace illumination” — Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience and pioneered a new aesthetic of writing and thinking about the poetic truths radiating from the facts of physical reality.

Few science writers in the decades since have ascended to the top of the hierarchy of explanation, elucidation, and enchantment, which Carson crowned. Among them was the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993), who explores that delicate relationship between humanity and the rest of nature in a splendid essay titled “Seven Wonders,” found in his timelessly rewarding 1983 collection Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (public library).

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

With an eye to the consciousness-reconfiguring cosmic perspective which twentieth-century space exploration unlatched, Thomas writes:

We named the place we live in the world long ago, from the Indo-European root wiros, which meant man. We now live in the whole universe, that stupefying piece of expanding geometry. Our suburbs are the local solar system, into which, sooner or later, we will spread life, and then, likely, beyond into the galaxy. Of all celestial bodies within reach or view, as far as we can see, out to the edge, the most wonderful and marvelous and mysterious is turning out to be our own planet earth. There is nothing to match it anywhere, not yet anyway.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

Building on Carson’s far-reaching ecological legacy, Thomas adds:

[Earth] is a living system, an immense organism, still developing, regulating itself, making its own oxygen, maintaining its own temperature, keeping all its infinite living parts connected and interdependent, including us. It is the strangest of all places, and there is everything in the world to learn about it. It can keep us awake and jubilant with questions for millennia ahead, if we can learn not to meddle and not to destroy. Our great hope is in being such a young species, thinking in language only a short while, still learning, still growing up.

We are not like the social insects. They have only the one way of doing things and they will do it forever, coded for that way. We are coded differently, not just for binary choices, go or no-go. We can go four ways at once, depending on how the air feels: go, no-go, but also maybe, plus what the hell let’s give it a try. We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before.

In a lovely counterpoint to today’s fashionably glib view of our potential and our shared future, Thomas echoes John Cage’s insistence that “it is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature” and concludes:

Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.

At this early stage in our evolution, now through our infancy and into our childhood and then, with luck, our growing up, what our species needs most of all, right now, is simply a future.

Illustration from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

Complement this particular portion of Thomas’s wholly magnificent Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with Rachel Carson’s courageous letter of dissent against the destruction of nature and Henry Beston — who influenced Carson — on relearning to be nurtured by nature and how our relationship to the Earth reveals us to ourselves, then revisit Lewis Thomas on how we grow from ignorance to knowledge.

BP

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