“The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.”
By Maria Popova
“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle,” the great philosopher of science and natural history writer Loren Eiseley observed in his 1960 masterpiece on what a woodland creature taught him about the meaning of life.
Eiseley belongs to that rare class of enchanter — a lineage of exceptional nonfiction writers stretching from lyrically consummate scientists like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Janna Levin to poet laureates of nature like Henry Beston and Annie Dillard — writers whose lyrical sensibility can be traced to one forgotten, immensely influential progenitor: the British nature writer Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887).
Having dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, Jefferies educated himself by reading voraciously and wandering the wilderness of the English countryside, convinced that he was destined to become a writer — a career he pursued unrelentingly, first as a newspaper journalist, then as a novelist, and finally as a nature writer of tremendous poetic potency. Deeply inspired by Charles Darwin, Jefferies lauded him as a “great genius, who had not only untiring patience to observe and verify, but also possessed imagination, and could therefore see the motive idea at work behind the facts” — imaginative insight Darwin translated into “astonishing works of singular patience and careful observation.”
Jefferies bridged the sensibility of the great Romantic and Transcendentalist poets with the intellectual curiosity of the “natural philosophers” — as the professional observers of nature were known before the word “scientist” was coined for the mathematician Mary Somerville. He developed his own singular style of translating the inherent poetry of nature into uncommonly poetic prose, nowhere more enchantingly than in his 1884 book The Life of the Fields (public library | free ebook) — an exquisite eulogy for the way attentiveness to nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between ourselves and the world.
In a section titled “The Pageant of Summer,” Jefferies writes:
Every blade of grass, each leaf, each separate floret and petal, is an inscription speaking of hope… My heart is fixed firm and stable in the belief that ultimately the sunshine and the summer, the flowers and the azure sky, shall become, as it were, interwoven into man’s existence. He shall take from all their beauty and enjoy their glory. Hence it is that a flower is to me so much more than stalk and petals.
Learning to attend to and savor these transcendent fragments of nature, Jefferies argues, is learning to inhabit our own wholeness:
I cannot leave it; I must stay under the old tree in the midst of the long grass, the luxury of the leaves, and the song in the very air. I seem as if I could feel all the glowing life the sunshine gives and the south wind calls to being. The endless grass, the endless leaves, the immense strength of the oak expanding, the unalloyed joy of finch and blackbird; from all of them I receive a little. Each gives me something of the pure joy they gather for themselves. In the blackbird’s melody one note is mine; in the dance of the leaf shadows the formed maze is for me, though the motion is theirs; the flowers with a thousand faces have collected the kisses of the morning. Feeling with them, I receive some, at least, of their fulness of life.
The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, so that the longer we can stay among these things so much the more is snatched from inevitable Time.
These are the only hours that are not wasted—these hours that absorb the soul and fill it with beauty. This is real life, and all else is illusion, or mere endurance. Does this reverie of flowers and waterfall and song form an ideal, a human ideal, in the mind? It does; much the same ideal that Phidias sculptured of man and woman filled with a godlike sense of the violet fields of Greece, beautiful beyond thought, calm as my turtle-dove before the lurid lightning of the unknown. To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of nature.
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on how Darwin and Freud reframed our mortality as an organizing principle of human life.
By Maria Popova
Our lifelong struggle to learn how to live is inseparable from two facts only: that of our mortality and that of our dread of it, dread with an edge of denial. Half a millennium ago — a swath of time strewn with the lives and deaths of everyone who came before us — Montaigne captured this paradox in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Centuries later, John Updike — a mind closer to our own time but now swept by mortality to the same nonexistence as Montaigne — echoed the sentiment when he wrote: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead, so why… be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
How to live with what lies behind that perennial “why” is what British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips examines in Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories (public library) — a rather unusual and insightful reflection on mortality, suffering, and the redemptions of living through the dual lens of the lives of two cultural titans who have shaped the modern understanding of life from very different but, as Phillips demonstrates, powerfully complementary angles: Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.
For Freud, as for Darwin, there is not just the right amount of suffering in any conventionally moral sense of right: for who could ever condone suffering? But there is a necessary amount. Our instincts, at once the source of our suffering and of our satisfaction, ensure the survival of the species and the death of the individual.
The amount of suffering in the world is not something added on; it is integral to the world, of a piece with our life in nature. This is one of the things that Freud and Darwin take for granted. But it is one thing not to believe in redemption — in saving graces, or supernatural solutions — and quite another not to believe in justice. So the question that haunts their writing is: how does one take justice seriously if one takes nature seriously?
Darwin, to be sure, had his own profound confrontation with suffering in his beloved daughter Annie’s death just as he was beginning to tell the story of life itself. After two generational revolutions of the cycle of life, Freud made our relationship to death a centerpiece of understanding our trials of living. With an eye to these parallel legacies, Phillips writes:
If death was at once final and unavoidable, it was also a kind of positive or negative ideal; it was either what we most desired, or what, for the time being, had to be avoided at all costs. For both Darwin and Freud, in other words, death was an organizing principle; as though people were the animals that were haunted by their own and other people’s absences… Modern lives, unconsoled by religious belief, could be consumed by the experience of loss.
So what else could a life be now but a grief-stricken project, a desperate attempt to make grief itself somehow redemptive, a source of secular wisdom? Now that all modern therapies are forms of bereavement counselling, it is important that we don’t lose our sense of the larger history of our grief. It was not life after death that Darwin and Freud speculated about, but life with death: its personal and trans-generational history.
Redemption — being saved from something or other — has been such an addictive idea because there must always be a question, somewhere in our minds, about what we might gain from descriptions and experiences of loss. And the fact of our own death, of course, is always going to be a paradoxical kind of loss (at once ours and not ours). But the enigma of loss — looked at from the individual’s and, as it were, from nature’s point of view — was what haunted Darwin and Freud. As though we can’t stop speaking the language of regret; as though our lives are tailed by disappointment and grief, and this in itself is a mystery. After all, nothing else in nature seems quite so grief-stricken, or impressed by its own dismay.
Well before twentieth-century physics illuminated the impartiality of the universe, Darwin and Freud planted the seed for rendering the notion of suffering — that supreme species of disappointment at the collision between human desires and reality — irrelevant against the vast backdrop of nature, inherently indifferent to our hopes and fears. Phillips writes:
Darwin and Freud showed us the ways in which it was misleading to think of nature as being on our side. Not because nature was base or sinful, but because nature didn’t take sides, only we did. Nature, in this new version, was neither for us nor against us, because nature (unlike God, or the gods) was not that kind of thing. Some of us may flourish, but there was nothing now that could promise, or underwrite, or predict, a successful life. Indeed, what it was that made a life good, what it was about our lives that we should value, had become bewildering. The traditional aims of survival and happiness, redescribed by Darwin and Freud, were now to be pursued in a natural setting. And nature seemed to have laws but not intentions, or a sense of responsibility; it seemed to go its own unruly, sometimes discernibly law-bound, way despite us (if nature was gendered as a mother, she was difficult to entrust ourselves to; and if we could love a mother like this, what kind of creatures were we?). And though we were evidently simply pails of nature — nature through and through — what nature seemed to be like could be quite at odds with what or who we thought we were like.
Nature, apparently organized but not designed, did not have what we could call a mind of its own, something akin to human intelligence. Nor does nature have a project for us; it cannot tell us what to do, only we can. It doesn’t bear us in mind because it doesn’t have a mind… And what we called our minds were natural products, of a piece with our bodies. So we couldn’t try to be more or less natural — closer to nature, or keeping our distance from it — because we were of nature.
If, once, we could think of ourselves as (sinful) animals aspiring to be more God-like, now we can wonder what, as animals without sin (though more than capable of doing harm), we might aspire to.
In the early nineteenth century, a young South African woman named Saartje Baartman went to Europe with her employer, a free black man, and an English doctor. There, she began being exhibited at freak show attractions on account of her large buttocks — a feature whose possessors became known as Hottentot Venuses, Baartman being the most famous Venus Hottentot.
After she was sold in France in the final year of her short life, Baartman was examined by the French anatomist Georges Cuvier, who sought in her body evidence of the missing link between humans and other species. When she died in 1815 at only twenty-six, Cuvier conducted a dissection, focusing on her genitalia, in an effort to prove his theories of racial evolution — he wanted to demonstrate that Baartman, like all black Africans, had more in common with apes than with humans.
Nearly two centuries later, the great science writer Stephen Jay Gould found himself so appalled by Baartman’s case that it inspired his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man — a haunting inquiry into the misuses of science and the uses of pseudoscience as a tool of oppression, of which our present age of “alternative facts” is an echo. Gould originally intended to title the book Great Is Our Sin, after his hero Charles Darwin’s famous line condemning the false hierarchies upon which slavery was built and insisting instead on the natural biological equality of the races: “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
In the book, Gould goes on to write about the Venus Hottentot case as a gruesome pinnacle of pseudoscience used to advance not the liberation that comes from knowledge but the oppression of institutionalized ignorance:
The human body can be measured in a thousand ways. Any investigator, convinced beforehand of a group’s inferiority, can select a small set of measures to illustrate its greater affinity with apes. (The procedure, of course, would work equally well with white males, though no one ever made the attempt. White people, for example, have thin lips — a property shared with chimpanzees — while most black Africans have thicker, consequently more “human,” lips.)
But the Venus Hottentot case and its cascade of cautionary implications come most blazingly alive not in a science book but in a poem — in the stunning and stirring poem “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, originally written in 1990 and later included in her spectacular poetry collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library).
Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful
blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.
A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary
crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles
of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will
ever see what I see
through this microscope.
crowd my notebook pages,
and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers
signify aspects of
will float inside a labeled
pickling jar in the Musée
de l’Homme on a shelf
above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”
Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.
There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.
I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk
dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.
That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays
at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is Prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.
“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
toward the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.
Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak
English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid broth. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach
is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjur my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts
and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian
archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have not forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up
from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.
“All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.”
By Maria Popova
“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion observed in her classic meditation on loss. Abraham Lincoln, in his moving letter of consolation to a grief-stricken young woman, wrote of how time transmutes grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.” But what, exactly, is the mechanism of that transmutation and how do we master it before it masters us when grief descends in one of its unforeseeable guises?
Long before Didion, before Lincoln, another titan of thought — the great Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca — addressed this in what might be the crowning achievement in the canon of consolation letters, folding into his missive an elegant summation of Stoicism’s core tenets of resilience.
In the year 41, Seneca was sentenced to exile on the Mediterranean island of Corsica for an alleged affair with the emperor’s sister. Sometime in the next eighteen months, he penned one of his most extraordinary works — a letter of consolation to his mother, Helvia.
Helvia was a woman whose life had been marked by unimaginable loss — her own mother had died while giving birth to her, and she outlived her husband, her beloved uncle, and three of her grandchildren. Twenty days after one the grandchildren — Seneca’s own son — died in her arms, Helvia received news that Seneca had been taken away to Corsica, doomed to life in exile. This final misfortune, Seneca suggests, sent the lifelong tower of losses toppling over and crushing the old woman with grief, prompting him in turn to write Consolation to Helvia, included in his Dialogues and Letters (public library).
Although the piece belongs in the ancient genre of consolatio dating back to the fifth century B.C. — a literary tradition of essay-like letters written to comfort bereaved loved ones — what makes Seneca’s missive unusual is the very paradox that lends it its power: The person whose misfortune is being grieved is also the consoler of the griever.
I have often had the urge to console you and often restrained it. Many things have encouraged me to venture to do so. First, I thought I would be laying aside all my troubles when I had at least wiped away your tears, even if I could not stop them coming. Then, I did not doubt that I would have more power to raise you up if I had first risen myself… Staunching my own cut with my hand I was doing my best to crawl forward to bind up your wounds.
But what kept Seneca from intervening in his mother’s grief was, above all, the awareness that grief should be grieved rather than immediately treated as a problem to be solved and done away with. He writes:
I realized that your grief should not be intruded upon while it was fresh and agonizing, in case the consolations themselves should rouse and inflame it: for an illness too nothing is more harmful than premature treatment. So I was waiting until your grief of itself should lose its force and, being softened by time to endure remedies, it would allow itself to be touched and handled.
[Now] I shall offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife.
Let those people go on weeping and wailing whose self-indulgent minds have been weakened by long prosperity, let them collapse at the threat of the most trivial injuries; but let those who have spent all their years suffering disasters endure the worst afflictions with a brave and resolute staunchness.
Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.
In a sentiment of uncompromising Stoicism, he adds:
All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.
Observing the particular difficulty of his situation — being both his mother’s consoler and the subject of her grief — Seneca finds amplified the general difficulty of finding adequate words in the face of loss:
A man lifting his head from the very funeral pyre must need some novel vocabulary not drawn from ordinary everyday condolence to comfort his own dear ones. But every great and overpowering grief must take away the capacity to choose words, since it often stifles the voice itself.
Instead of mere words, Seneca proceeds to produce a rhetorical masterpiece, bringing the essence of Stoic philosophy to life with equal parts logic and literary flair. He writes:
I decided to conquer your grief not to cheat it. But I shall do this, I think, first of all if I show that I am suffering nothing for which I could be called wretched, let alone make my relations wretched; then if I turn to you and show that your fortune, which is wholly dependent on mine, is also not painful.
First I shall deal with the fact, which your love is longing to hear, that I am suffering no affliction. I shall make it clear, if I can, that those very circumstances which you think are crushing me can be borne; but if you cannot believe that, at least I shall be more pleased with myself for being happy in conditions which normally make men wretched. There is no need to believe others about me: I am telling you firmly that I am not wretched, so that you won’t be agitated by uncertainty. To reassure you further, I shall add that I cannot even be made wretched.
We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.
Fortune … falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.
Seneca makes a sobering case for the most powerful self-protective mechanism in life — the discipline of not taking anything for granted:
No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.
For this reason, Seneca points out, he has always regarded with skepticism the common goals after which people lust in life — money, fame, public favor — goals he has found to be “empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colours, with nothing inside to match their appearance.” But the converse, he argues, is equally true — the things people most commonly dread are as unworthy of dread to the wise person as the things they most desire are of wise desire. The very concept of exile, he assures his mother, seems so terrifying only because it has been filtered through the dread-lens of popular opinion.
Seneca then comes full-circle to his opening argument that grief is better confronted than resisted:
It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.
Seneca points unwaveringly to philosophy and the liberal arts as the most powerful tools of consolation in facing the universal human experience of loss — tools just as mighty today as they were in his day. Commending his mother for having already reaped the rewards of liberal studies despite the meager educational opportunities for women at the time, he writes:
I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will withdraw all your melancholy. Even if you had never been familiar with them you would have need of them now. But, so far as the old-fashioned strictness of my father allowed, you have had some acquaintance with the liberal arts, even if you have not mastered them. If only my father, best of men, had been less devoted to ancestral tradition and had been willing that you be steeped in the teaching of philosophy and not just gain a smattering of it: you would not now have to acquire your defence against Fortune but just bring it forth. He was less inclined to let you pursue your studies because of those women who use books not to acquire wisdom but as the furniture of luxury. Yet thanks to your vigorously inquiring mind you absorbed a lot considering the time you had available: the foundations of all formal studies have been laid. Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.
He concludes by addressing the inevitability of his mother’s sorrowful thoughts returning to his own exile, deliberately reframeing his misfortune for her:
This is how you must think of me — happy and cheerful as if in the best of circumstances. For they are best, since my mind, without any preoccupation, is free for its own tasks, now delighting in more trivial studies, now in its eagerness for the truth rising up to ponder its own nature and that of the universe. It seeks to know first about lands and their location, then the nature of the encompassing sea and its tidal ebb and flow. Then it studies all the awesome expanse which lies between heaven and earth — this nearer space turbulent with thunder, lightning, gales of wind, and falling rain, snow and hail. Finally, having scoured the lower areas it bursts through to the heights and enjoys the noblest sight of divine things and, mindful of its own immortality, it ranges over all that has been and will be throughout all ages.