“In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.”
By Maria Popova
“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others,” the great seventeenth-century French physicist, philosopher, and inventor Blaise Pascal wrote as he contemplated the art of changing minds. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) provided supreme practical proof of Pascal’s insight as he forever changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth. And he did so with immense rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the intricate art of crippling potential criticism of one’s ideas by taking charge of all conceivable counterarguments.
Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of preempting criticism, is what New Yorker contributor and essayist extraordinaire Adam Gopnik explores in a portion of the altogether magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library) — a slim but in many ways enormous book, for it tackles some of the most abiding and unanswerable enormities of existence.
Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterwork On the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:
The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.
Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.
A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.
This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.
Darwin’s singular genius was the marriage of visionary ideas and supreme mastery of argument. But it was the latter, Gopnik argues, that lent Darwin’s ideas their victorious competitive advantage in the natural selection propelling cultural evolution:
All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life. This is where we get it all wrong if we think that Wallace might have made evolution as well as Darwin; he could have written the words, but he could not have answered the objections. He might have offered a theory of natural selection, but he could never (as he knew) have written On the Origin of Species. For The Origin is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked, and of examples answering those still faceless opponents.
Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone — believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet… The tone reflects his real state. He was worried about the objections, he did spend long days worrying about eyes and wings and missing fossils, and he found a way to articulate both the anxiety and the answers to it. Darwin tells us himself that he forced on himself the habit, whenever he came across a fact that might be inconvenient for his thesis, of copying it down and paying attention to it, and that this, more than anything else, gave him his ability to anticipate critics and answer them.
In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.
Darwin not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moved beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument. He makes the negative case as urgent as the positive claims… What’s striking is that Darwin anticipates arguments against his theory that no one had yet made… It’s a really amazing piece of intellectual empathy, and of beating one’s opponents to the punch.
Gopnik’s account of what set Darwin apart calls to mind a lecture Michael Faraday delivered five years before the publication of The Origin, in which the trailblazing scientist called for the mental discipline of contradicting one’s own ideas — a hallmark of reason, of which Darwin’s prose made a high art. Gopnik writes:
Although scientific theories imply their falsifications, they rarely list them. Darwin’s does.
[This] supplies an inner voice, a sound of rational anxiety, a recognition of fallibility and of seriousness that gives his great book an oddly unbullying tone despite being a thrusting, far from tentative or timid argument.
The habit of sympathetic summary, of reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately and even, if possible, with greater force than its own believers might be able to summon, remains since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee, of what we call seriousness. Darwin’s special virtue in this enterprise is that he had to summarize, sympathetically, views contrary to his own that did not yet exist except in his own imagination. His special shrewdness lay in making as large an emotional meal of the objections in advance as could be made; he preempted his critics by introjecting their criticisms. He saw what people might say, turned it into what they ought to say, and then answered.
For more of Gopnik’s own genius, treat yourself to his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which brought this miraculously rewarding book to my attention and which is by far one of the most insightful interviews ever conducted, on both sides:
The price of human consciousness is the knowledge of mortality.
“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating music’s singular power over the human spirit — a power that has humbled some of humanity’s most brilliant minds into a state of awe that transcends the intellect.
Among them was the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900). He who proclaimed that “god is dead” and believed that nothing worthwhile is easy found in music life’s sole unmerited grace.
God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.
Nietzsche wrote these lines two months before his fourteenth birthday — a detail doubly poignant when contrasted with the “vain ostentations” marketed to teenagers today. But his profound reverence for music never left him. Toward the end of his life, he immortalized it in an aphorism included in his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer:
What trifles constitute happiness! The sound of a bagpipe. Without music life would be a mistake. The German imagines even God as a songster.
The extraordinary survival story of “a creature of muscle, motion and music, all inseparable and in unison with each other.”
By Maria Popova
“Without music I should wish to die,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a 1920 letter to a friend. One fateful afternoon half a century later, beloved British neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) — a Millay of the mind, a lover of poetry, and a scientist of enormous spiritual exuberance — came to live this sentiment as more than a dramatic hyperbole.
In his superb 1984 memoir A Leg to Stand On (public library), Dr. Sacks tells the story of an extraordinary experience he had atop a Norwegian mountain a decade earlier, on “an afternoon of peculiar splendor, earth and air conspiring in beauty, radiant, tranquil, suffused in serenity,” many miles from the nearest human being — an experience in which the only thing that stood between him and his death was music; an experience that brought him not merely near death but in an intimate tango with it danced to the sound of life itself.
With his Thoreauesque prose, Dr. Sacks recounts the August day on which he set out to climb a Norwegian fjord up a steep mountain path and before descending into hell:
Saturday the 24th started overcast and sullen, but there was promise of fine weather later in the day… I looked forward to the walk with assurance and pleasure.
I soon got into my stride — a supple swinging stride, which covers ground fast. I had started before dawn, and by half past seven had ascended, perhaps, to 2,000 feet. Already the early mists were beginning to clear. Now came a dark and piney wood, where the going was slower, partly because of knotted roots in the path and partly because I was enchanted by the world of tiny vegetation which sheltered in the wood, and was always stopping to examine a new fern, a moss, a lichen. Even so, I was through the woods by a little after nine, and had come to the great cone which formed the mountain proper and towered above the fjord to 6,000 feet.
There, to his surprise, was a fence bearing an even more surprising sign: “BEWARE OF THE BULL!” Accompanying the cautionary verbal message was a visual one in the universal language of comic art: “a rather droll picture of a man being tossed.”
So absurd was the sign, so bizarre the very notion of a dangerous bull living up in the fjord, that Dr. Sacks took it for a prank by the local villagers and carried on, walking past the fence and up the path, determined to make it to the top of the mountain by noon. Unperturbed by the awareness of this “not exactly a populous part of the world,” he felt rather liberated by the sense of solitude — the kind of soul-stretching solitude where, as Wendell Berry memorably put it, “one’s inner voices become audible.”
And, suddenly, his solitude was ruptured by a most prominent presence:
There were ambiguous moments when I would stop in uncertainty, while I descried the shrouded shapes before me. … But when it happened, it was not at all ambiguous!
The real Reality was not such a moment, not touched in the least by ambiguity or illusion. I had, indeed, just emerged from the mist, and was walking round a boulder as big as a house, the path curving round it so that I could not see ahead, and it was this inability to see ahead which permitted the Meeting. I practically trod on what lay before me — an enormous animal sitting in the path, and indeed totally occupying the path, whose presence had been hidden by the rounded bulk of the rock. It had a huge horned head, a stupendous white body and an enormous mild milk-white face. It sat unmoved by my appearance, exceedingly calm, except that it turned its vast white face up towards me. And in that moment, in my terror, it changed, before my eyes, becoming transformed from magnificent to utterly monstrous. The huge white face seemed to swell and swell, and the great bulbous eyes became radiant with malignance. The face grew huger and huger all the time, until I thought it would blot out the universe. The bull became hideous — hideous beyond belief, hideous in strength, malevolence and cunning. It seemed now to be stamped with the infernal in every feature. It became, first a monster, and now the Devil.
Mustering a semblance of composure, Dr. Sacks spun on his heel mid-stride, turned around, and coolly began his descent. But the calm facade soon gave way to the irrepressible inner terror of the encounter:
I ran for dear life — ran madly, blindly, down the steep, muddy, slippery path, lost here and there in patches of mist. Blind, mad panic! — there is nothing worse in the world — nothing worse, and nothing more dangerous. I cannot say exactly what happened. In my plunging flight down the treacherous path I must have mis-stepped — stepped on to a loose rock, or into mid-air. It is as if there is a moment missing from my memory — there is “before” and “after,” but no “in-between.” One moment I was running like a madman, conscious of heavy panting and heavy thudding footsteps, unsure whether they came from the bull or from me, and the next I was lying at the bottom of a short sharp cliff of rock, with my left leg twisted grotesquely beneath me, and in my knee such a pain as I had never, ever known.
Always a master of extrapolating from the facts of his life the greater truths of human existence, he adds:
To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next — such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations.
True to our tendency to leave our bodies after trauma, Dr. Sacks found himself, despite the excruciating pain, an almost disembodied observer of what was happening — but he used this disembodiment to his advantage, recasting his role in the unfolding drama from that of the patient to that of the professional physician. As if performing for an invisible audience of his students, he examined himself to determine the extent of the injury — “a complete rupture of the quadriceps tendon… muscle paralyzed and atonic.. unstable knee-joint… ripped out the cruciate ligaments.. considerable swelling, probably tissue and joint fluid, but tearing of blood vessels can’t be excluded…” — and proclaimed, aloud into the solitary stillness of the mountain air, that it was “a fascinating case!”
But he soon remembered that he was also the patient, the “case” in question:
Now, all of a sudden, the fearful sense of my aloneness rushed in upon me.
He realized, too, that at this altitude and latitude, he could easily freeze to death overnight, so his survival depended on being rescued before nightfall. He knew he had to climb down the mountain, closer to the villages, where his chances of being found would be higher.
What happened next was nothing short of astonishing — a supreme feat of the human spirit.
Mobilized by the life-or-death choice before him, Dr. Sacks found himself suddenly “very calm and composed.” Thanks to his personal quirk of carrying an umbrella at all times, he had used one as a walking stick up the mountain and had somehow clutched it by instinct during his fall. Ripping his anorak in two and snapping off the umbrella handle, he fashioned a makeshift splint for his limp leg — without one, he realized, he wouldn’t have been able to move.
Speaking to a truth we all too often forget or gloss over — the fact that “luck” is a contextual grace, relative rather than absolute — Dr. Sacks adds:
Mercifully, then, I had not torn an artery, or major vessel, internally… I had not fractured my spine or my skull in my fall. I had three good limbs, and the energy and strength to put up a good fight. And, by God, I would! This would be the fight of my life — the fight of one’s life which is the fight for life.
What followed is a remarkable testament to how great art lodges itself in the soul, a Trojan horse of hope, installing in us a kind of dormant software of knowledge and resourcefulness activated in moments of acute need — like the need to fight for one’s life. As Neil Gaiman observed in his magnificent meditation on how stories last, great art “can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” That’s precisely what Dr. Sacks experienced as he realized that if he didn’t make it off the mountain by nightfall, he would likely freeze to death. Suddenly, he remembered Tolstoy’s Master and Man — a moving 1885 short story about a selfish master who undergoes a spiritual awakening as he brings his peasant back from the brink of hypothermia by lying on top of him to save his life. The memory of this story sparked a life-saving epiphany:
If only I had had a companion with me! The thought suddenly came to me once again, in the words from the Bible not read since childhood, and not consciously recollected, or brought to mind, at all: “Two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.” And, following immediately upon this, came a sudden memory, eidetically clear, of a small animal I had seen in the road, with a broken back, hoisting its paralyzed hindlegs along. Now I felt exactly like that creature. The sense of my humanity as something apart, something above animality and mortality — this too disappeared at that moment, and again the words of Ecclesiastes came to my mind: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other … so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.”
A series of such life-saving literary epiphanies followed, carrying Dr. Sacks’s spirit over the abyss of desperation and connecting once more to his work with patients:
While splinting my leg, and keeping myself busy, I had again “forgotten” that death lay in wait. Now, once again, it took the Preacher to remind me. “But,” I cried inside myself, “the instinct of life is strong within me. I want to live — and, with luck, I may still do so. I don’t think it is yet my time to die.” Again the Preacher answered, neutral, non-committal: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time …” This strange, profound emotionless clarity, neither cold, nor warm, neither severe nor indulgent, but utterly, beautifully, terribly truthful, I had encountered in others, especially in patients, who were facing death and did not conceal the truth from themselves; I had marvelled, though in a way uncomprehendingly, at the simple ending of Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murad” — how, when Hadji has been fatally shot, “images without feelings” stream through his mind; but now, for the first time, I encountered this — in myself.
With this unfeeling clarity, he came up with the kind of idiosyncratic ingenuity that only grave necessity sparks:
I proceeded, using a mode of travel I had never used before — roughly speaking, gluteal and tripedal. That is to say, I slid down on my backside, heaving or rowing myself with my arms and using my good leg for steering and, when needed for braking, with the splinted, flail leg hanging nervelessly before me. I did not have to think out this unusual, unprecedented, and — one might think — unnatural way of moving. I did it without thinking, and very soon got accustomed to it. And anyone seeing me rowing swiftly and powerfully down the slopes would have said, “Ah, he’s an old hand at it. It’s second nature to him.”
Always extrapolating from the particular to the universal and using his personal experience as raw material for advancing his scientific work to the benefit of all humanity, he adds:
So the legless don’t need to be taught to use crutches: it comes “unthinkingly” and “naturally,” as if the person had been practicing it, in secret, all his life. The organism, the nervous system, has an immense repertoire of “trick movements” and “back-ups” of every kind — completely automatic strategies, which are held “in reserve.” We would have no idea of the resources which exist in potentia, if we did not see them called forth as needed.
At that point, he thought of crying for help, and did — “lustily, with huge yells, which seemed to echo and resound from one peak to another.” But the cries suddenly reawakened his terror of the bull and made him fear a vengeful attack by the beastly overlord of the fjord. So he descended in perfect silence, too afraid to even whistle, as “the hours passed, silently, slithering.”
Suddenly, he came upon a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — a stream he had been reluctant to cross even on his able-bodied way up, which he now had to traverse somehow. Unable to “row” himself across it with his gluteal-tripedal technique, he flipped into a facedown position and, with rigid outstretched arms — lest we forget, Dr. Sacks had been a weightlifting champion just a few years earlier — he propelled himself across the rapid-flowing, ice-cold stream, his head barely above water, exhorting himself:
Hold on, you fool! Hold on for dear life! I’ll kill you if you let go — and don’t you forget it!
But when he made it to the other shore, he faced another fork in this otherworldly road between life and death, one chillingly familiar to mountaineers and polar adventurers alike:
Somehow my exhaustion became a sort of tiredness, an extraordinarily comfortable, delicious languor.
“How nice it is here,” I thought to myself. “Why not a little rest — a nap maybe?”
The apparent sound of this soft, insinuating, inner voice suddenly woke me, sobered me and filled me with alarm. It was not “a nice place” to rest and nap. The suggestion was lethal and filled me with horror, but I was lulled by its soft, seductive tones.
“No,” I said fiercely to myself. “This is Death speaking — and in its sweetest, deadliest Siren-voice. Don’t listen to it now! Don’t listen to it ever! You’ve got to go on whether you like it or not. You can’t rest here — you can’t rest anywhere. You must find a pace you can keep up, and go on steadily.”
This good voice, this “life” voice, braced and resolved me.
Another, life-saving Siren took over — music’s miraculous power to enliven, which he had witnessed in his patients and recorded in his now-legendary book-turned-movie Awakenings, published just a few months before his encounter with the taurine devil. He recounts:
There came to my aid now melody, rhythm and music. Before crossing the stream, I had muscled myself along — moving by main force, with my very strong arms. Now, so to speak, I was musicked along. I did not contrive this. It happened to me. I fell into a rhythm, guided by a sort of marching or rowing song, sometimes the Volga Boatmen’s Song, sometimes a monotonous chant of my own, accompanied by these words “Ohne Haste, ohne Rast! Ohne Haste, ohne Rast!” (“Without haste, without rest”), with a strong heave on every Haste and Rast. Never had Goethe’s words been put to better use!
Oh, how Goethe, himself an ardent advocate of science, would have rejoiced in knowing that his art was nothing short of life-saving for one of humanity’s greatest scientific minds. This melodic transcendence uncorked a surprising reservoir of perfectly paced strength Dr. Sacks didn’t know he had:
I no longer had to think about going too fast or too slow. I got into the music, got into the swing, and this ensured that my tempo was right. I found myself perfectly co-ordinated by the rhythm — or perhaps subordinated would be a better term: the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded obediently — all save those in my left leg which seemed silent — or mute? Does not Nietzsche say that when listening to music, we “listen with our muscles?” I was reminded of my rowing days in college, how the eight of us would respond as one man to the beat, a sort of muscle-orchestra conducted by the cox.
Somehow, with this “music,” it felt much less like a grim anxious struggle. There was even a certain primitive exuberance, such as Pavlov called “muscular gladness.” And now, further, to gladden me more, the sun burst from behind the clouds, massaged me with warmth and soon dried me off. And with all this, and perhaps other things, I found my internal weather was most happily changed.
More than thirty years later, in his 2007 book Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks would come to illuminate the neurological underpinnings of this astounding connection between music and the mind. But here, one limp foot over the precipice of death atop the Norwegian mountain, he simply observed with awe the way in which music led his mind to mobilize his body into the rhythmic motion that would carry him to survival:
It was only after chanting the song in a resonant and resounding bass for some time that I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the bull. Or, more accurately, I had forgotten my fear — partly seeing that it was no longer appropriate, partly that it had been absurd in the first place. I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music. And even when it was not literally (audibly) music, there was the music of my muscle-orchestra playing — “the silent music of the body,” in Harvey’s lovely phrase. With this playing, the musicality of my motion, I myself became the music — “You are the music, while the music lasts.” A creature of muscle, motion and music, all inseparable and in unison with each other — except for that unstrung part of me, that poor broken instrument which could not join in and lay motionless and mute without tone or tune.
As a child I had once had a violin which got brutally smashed in an accident. I felt for my leg, now, as I felt long ago for that poor broken fiddle. Admixed with my happiness and renewal of spirit, with the quickening music I felt in myself, was a new and sharper and most poignant sense of loss for that broken musical instrument which had once been my leg. When will it recover? I thought to myself. When will it sound its own tune again? When will it rejoin the joyous music of the body?
At last, he could see the village in the distance — close enough to see it but not close enough for his cries for help to be heard, a tortuous rift between possibility and impossibility that once again reminded him of the interconnectedness of all life:
An anguish of yearning sharpened my eyes, a violent need to see my fellow men and, even more, to be seen by them. Never had they seemed dearer, or more remote… There was something impersonal, or universal, in my feeling. I would not have cried “Save me, Oliver Sacks!” but “Save this hurt living creature! Save life!,” the mute plea I know so well from my patients — the plea of all life facing the abyss, if it be strongly, vividly, rightly alive.
Slowly losing hope that he would live to see another tomorrow, his mind began unraveling the yarn of yesterdays of which a life is woven:
As the blue and golden hours passed, I continued steadily on my downward trek, which had become so smooth, so void of difficulties, that my mind could move free of the ties of the present… Hundreds of memories would pass through my mind, in the space between one boulder and the next, and yet each was rich, simple, ample, complete, and conveyed no sense of being hurried through… Entire scenes were re-lived, entire conversations re-played, without the least abbreviation. The very earliest memories were all of our garden — our big old garden in London, as it used to be before the war. I cried with joy and tears as I saw it — our garden with its dear old iron railings intact, the lawn vast and smooth, just cut and rolled (the huge old roller there in a corner); the orange-striped hammock with cushions bigger than myself, in which I loved to roll and swing for hours; and the enormous sunflowers, whose vast inflorescences fascinated me endlessly and showed me at five the Pythagorean mystery of the world…
All of these thoughts and images, involuntarily summoned and streaming through my mind, were essentially happy, and essentially grateful. And it was only later that I said to myself “What is this mood?” and realized that it was a preparation for death. “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” as Auden says.
Just as the sun set and dusk began descending with its promise of darkness and death, the improbable happened: Two reindeer hunters, a father and a son, emerged atop a nearby rock as though out of thin air, saw that struggling “creature of muscle, motion and music,” and ran toward him. Dr. Sacks recounts:
I had become almost totally unaware of the environment, having, at some level, given up all thoughts of rescue and life, so that rescue, when it came, came from nowhere, a miracle, a grace, at the very last moment.
As if this miraculous salvation by literature, music, and human kindness wasn’t already a most remarkable testament to Dr. Sacks’s genius and tenacity of spirit, the story took an even more moving turn as he found himself at the hospital, at once immensely grateful for his life and terrified of the long journey toward an uncertain recovery:
There was to be another story or, perhaps, another act in the same strange complex drama, which I found utterly surprising and unexpected at the time and almost beyond my comprehension or belief.
Bedridden in a small Norwegian hospital, in the so-called care of an uncaring and downright hostile nurse, he found most anguishing of all the complete privation of music. He longed for it “hungrily, thirstily, desperately.” At last, a friend brought him a tape recorder with a single cassette — Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
Dr. Sacks recounts the reprise of music’s enlivening role in the story of his survival:
It was (and remains) a matter of amazement to me that this charming, trifling piece of music should have had such a profound and, as it turned out, decisive effect on me. From the moment the tape started, from the first bars of the Concerto, something happened, something of the sort I had been panting and thirsting for, something that I had been seeking more and more frenziedly with each passing day, but which had eluded me. Suddenly, wonderfully, I was moved by the music. The music seemed passionately, wonderfully, quiveringly alive — and conveyed to me a sweet feeling of life. I felt, with the first bars of the music, a hope and an intimation that life would return to my leg — that it would be stirred, and stir, with original movement, and recollect or recreate its forgotten motor melody. I felt, in those first heavenly bars of music, as if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music, or consubstantial with music; that our living moving flesh, itself, was “solid” music — music made fleshy, substantial, corporeal.
The sense of hopelessness, of interminable darkness, lifted… A sense of renewal grew upon me.
“Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.”
By Maria Popova
If I should ever cease to be amazed and enraptured by the magic of clouds, I should wish myself dead. And I am hardly alone — since the dawn of our species, the water cycle’s most visible expression in the skies has bewitched artists, poets, and scientists like as a beautiful natural metaphor for the philosophy that there in an inherent balance to life, that what we give will soon be replenished. More than two millennia before poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark joined forces on their breathtaking love letter to clouds, before Georgia O’Keeffe extolled the beauty of the Southwest skies, before scientists figured out why cloudy days help us think more clearly, the great ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote: “They are the celestial Clouds, the patron goddesses of the layabout. From them come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason.” Indeed, there is a singular quality of prayerfulness to clouds — a certain secular reverence undergirding their allure to both art and science.
No poetic titan was more enchanted by the prayerful art-science of clouds than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote:
To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Goethe was Europe’s most celebrated intellectual icon and Luke Howard — the man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” a young amateur meteorologist who pioneered a classification system for humanity’s favorite atmospheric phenomena — was the only Englishman whom Goethe ever addressed as “Master.” The verses the elderly Goethe penned for the young Howard endure as the most beautiful homage ever paid by one extraordinary mind to another — sentiments rendered in words even more moving than Thomas Mann’s tribute to Hermann Hesse and JFK’s eulogy for Robert Frost.
In 1803, Howard self-published and distributed to friends a 32-page pamphlet titled On the Modifications of Clouds, &c — a classification system equal parts poetic and practical. Dusting off his schoolboy Latin, he came up with names for the three main categories of clouds — cumulus, stratus, and cirrus — and their various sub-taxonomies and combinations.
With his earnest enthusiasm for organizing the skies and imposing human order upon their ancient mystery, Howard rather unexpectedly captured the popular imagination — half a century before the telegraph became the first widespread medium of instant communication and long before contemporary social media, his essay, so to speak, went viral: Ardently discussed and passed hand to hand across the scientific and Quaker communities at a speed unprecedented in that era, it soon found its way to the prestigious journal Annual Review.
Soon, Howard was catapulted into the status of a scientific celebrity — but his feelings about fame and success, like Steinbeck’s, were ambivalent: Mired in self-doubt, he was embarrassed by the praise he received but was gladdened to see his labor of love make a lasting imprint on culture. Hamblyn captures the root of this ambivalence:
Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.
Howard was at the mercy of all these pernicious forces — some of his peers criticized his use of Latin words instead of ordinary English language in naming the clouds, while others got busy pirating and plagiarizing his popular essay for profit. But his classification system stuck and took off — two centuries before Kevin Kelly coined his famous 1,000 true fans theory, Howard benefited from precisely this potency of a handful of dedicated supporters, who ensured that his morphology was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica and carried over into other European languages.
But no true fan was more crucial to the success and enduring legacy of Howard’s work than Goethe.
Around the time of Howard’s rise to fame, Goethe had grown increasingly interested in science in general and morphology, the study of forms, in particular — a rigorous fascination that produced, among many other things, his theory of the psychology of color and emotion. But meteorology, perhaps because it was a science of contemplation celebrating the inherent poetics of nature, enchanted the great German philosopher and poet more than any other scientific field.
When Howard came under criticism for using Latin rather than the spoken English of the era in his classification system, Goethe penned a passionate defense, insisting that Howard’s Latin cloud names “should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed.” As Hamblyn points out, Goethe was “an arbiter of cultural and civilized value” and his word “was enough to settle any matter” — and so it did, ensuring Howard’s Latin terms were henceforth the names by which we call the clouds.
But then something even more extraordinary happened — Goethe sent Howard fan mail.
So effusive was the letter, so full of ardent admiration — it even claimed that the cloud classification system had inspired Goethe to write poetry about Howard — that the humble young meteorologist immediately assumed it was a hoax, a cruel joke by one of his critics or a prank by a facetious friend looking to check the scientific starlet’s ego. But it was all true — Goethe was a great admirer of Howard’s work, and had written and published poems inspired by it and even celebrating it directly. Hamblyn explains:
Goethe’s encounter with the classification of clouds … had given him enormous pleasure. For some time he had been speaking of little else, and all in all it seemed as if the old man of letters had been granted a new lease of life.
Eventually, Howard copied Goethe’s words into one of his notebooks — perhaps to assure himself that he hadn’t dreamt the glowing praise, or to immortalize its gladdening effects on the spirit:
How much the Classification of the clouds by Howard has pleased me, how much the disproving of the shapeless, the systematic succession of forms of the unlimited, could not but be desired by me, follows from my whole practice in science and art.
Hamblyn traces the origin of Goethe’s enchantment with the classification system some years earlier:
Howard’s theories of cloud formation thus enhanced the development of Goethe’s own view of the ‘wholeness’ of nature, the wholeness of its ’mind’, as it were, and in his essay ‘Wolkengestalt nach Howard’ (‘Cloud-shapes According to Howard’) he praised the achievements and evident humanity of the brilliant young English meteorologist. But this was only the beginning. Goethe’s admiration and his sense of indebtedness to Howard’s meteorological theories did not rest there, but led on to one of the most extraordinary personal homages ever paid by one scientific worker to another.
The great German poet set out to adapt Howard’s essay into a series of short musical poems, one for each of the major classes of clouds, together titled Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honor of Howard) — a beautiful celebration of the eternal dialogue between art and science in the shared enterprise of illuminating nature’s mystery, and an immensely heartwarming homage from one great illuminator to another.
When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.
Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.
And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.
Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.
Hamblyn considers what impelled Goethe to transmute Howard’s classification into his high art of poetry:
For Goethe the identification and naming of the clouds had done nothing less than transfigure mankind’s relationship with aerial nature. The clouds had been released into the scientific consciousness, from where they could reach further, into the realm of the pure intellectual spirit, as addressed in the last line of ‘Nimbus.’ The greatness of Howard’s classification, for Goethe, was that it accounted for the material forces of cloud formation while allowing for the immaterial forces of poetic response to be heard. And his poems, like the essay which preceded them, took the form of just such a response. Art could answer science, it could find within it not only a source of subject matter but a source of real inspiration. Goethe’s cloud poems, as reactions to an energizing scientific insight, were heartfelt, joyous and sincere.
In yet another testament to the power of creative culture’s unsung sidekicks, the four cloud poems Goethe wrote in 1817 would have remained little more than a private delight for the German luminary — were it not for a young translator at London’s Foreign Office who was so captivated by the poems that he took it upon himself to translate them into English and give them a wider audience. That young clerk, Johann Christian Hüttner, was the one who translated and transmitted Goethe’s admiration to Howard himself — a dedicated cross-pollinator of greatness.
But Hüttner’s vision extended beyond the mere translation of the verses — feeling that the poems would greatly benefit from a richer context for readers who may not have encountered Howard’s original essay, he convinced Goethe to write a few introductory remarks about Howard and his work. The poet was happy to oblige and penned the following verse in just a few days:
When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.
Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.
But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. — Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.
It was an astonishing gesture of intellectual generosity and remains among history’s most touching intersections of notable lives. So intensely interested was Goethe in the mind behind the cloud classification system that, with Hüttner’s help, he soon convinced Howard to write a short memoir chronicling the development of his scientific ideas and the circumstances of his life that fertilized the soil for his invention. Howard sent back an earnest text of irrepressible humility, in which he wrote:
I am a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends, whose company I quit with reluctance to join other circles.
This made Goethe all the more enamored with the young meteorologist’s sincerity of spirit. Well into his seventies, he wrote in a letter to Hüttner:
For a long time nothing has given me so much pleasure as the autobiography of Mr. Howard, which I received yesterday and have been thinking of ever since. In truth nothing more pleasant could have happened to me than to see the tender religious soul of such an excellent man opened out to me in such a way that he has been able to lay bare for me the story of his destiny and development as well as his innermost convictions.