“True eternity lies not behind either/or but ahead of it.”
By Maria Popova
“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek observed in his beautiful meditation on complementarity as the quantum of life.
Shortly after his contemporary Charles Darwin compiled his amusing list of the pros and cons of marriage, Kierkegaard begins with this common conundrum and extrapolates from it the larger principle of how we confront our existential dilemmas:
If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.
To get caught in this bind of “double regret,” Kierkegaard cautions, is to reduce eternity to “a painful succession of moments in time.” He writes:
It isn’t just in single moments that I view everything aeterno modo [in the mode of eternity], as Spinoza says; I am constantly aeterno modo. Many people think that’s what they are too when, having done the one or the other, they combine or mediate these opposites. But this is a misunderstanding, for the true eternity lies not behind either/or but ahead of it.
Transcending the trap of either/or, Kierkegaard suggests, is an immense expansion of possibility, which is in turn life’s greatest reward:
Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but for the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.
“In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day.”
By Maria Popova
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote in his short, potent meditation on how to love. Developmentally, we humans learn — or mislearn — how to love through our formative attachment patterns, modeled by and cultivated within the family — patterns that imprint our emotional identity and shape the defaults of how we connect, be they wounding or harmonizing. Family dynamics thus become inseparable from our sense of identity, and although we might eventually rewire our attachment patterns through new relationships and ample self-work, we can never fully unmoor ourselves from those formative affections, for they are woven into the mysterious thread that makes us and our childhood selves one person.
That peculiar, inescapable dance between the family and the self is what beloved novelist Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) explores in one of the pieces found in her altogether magnificent 1936 nonfiction collection Not Under Forty (public library).
In a beautiful appreciation of Katherine Mansfield’s genius for conveying the complexities of human relationships, Cather writes:
I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.
One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbor’s household, and, underneath, another — secret and passionate and intense — which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.
And yet even amid this glibness, Cather does what she does best — out of the seemingly damning, she wrests the redemptive:
In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works…
These secret accords and antipathies which lie hidden under our everyday behavior … more than any outward events make our lives happy or unhappy.
From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.
By Maria Popova
A Galileo of the mind and a Goethe of medicine, Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) considered his patients “more instructive than any book.” And yet he enchanted the world with their stories and turned the case study into a poetic form precisely because of his abiding love of books, the indelible exoskeleton that bolstered his enormous spirit. He read widely and voraciously since childhood, reaching for literature spanning an incredible range of eras, subjects, and sensibilities — the true mark of the prepared mind. Some he read in the course of specific research related to his own work, others through the sheer centrifugal force of unbridled curiosity radiating into the everythingness of everything.
Science was his constant companion — from its granular esoterica, particularly related to his obsessions with minerals, cephalopods, and ferns, to its masterworks on consciousness and the brain, to its meeting point with art in science fiction. As I recently learned from Kate Edgar, Dr. Sacks’s friend, assistant, and editorial collaborator of thirty years, he especially loved biographies of great scientists. But he also cherished philosophy and poetry. The slim, poignant autobiography Scottish philosopher David Hume penned in the last year of his life inspired Dr. Sacks’s own poignant farewell to the world. His friendship with the poet Thom Gunn deeply informed his understanding of creativity and his own magnificent autobiography — which crowned the best books of 2015 and remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — borrows its title from a Gunn verse.
In his autobiography, Dr. Sacks traces his lifelong love of books to his childhood home:
Another sacred room was the library, which, in the evenings at least, was especially my father’s domain. One section of the library wall was covered with his Hebrew books, but there were books on every subject — my mother’s books (she was fond of novels and biographies), my brothers’ books, and books inherited from grandparents. One bookcase was entirely devoted to plays — my parents, who had met as fellow enthusiasts in a medical students’ Ibsen society, still went to the theater every Thursday.
In many ways, his uncommonly wide lens on the world reflected the fundamentally different animating motives of his parents — his father, the humanist; his mother, the scientist. Dr. Sacks writes in his autobiography:
My father’s quiet hours were all spent with books, in the library, surrounded by biblical commentaries or occasionally his favorite First World War poets. Human beings, human behavior, human myths and societies, human language and religions occupied his entire attention — he had little interest in the nonhuman, in “nature,” as my mother had. I think my father was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society, and that he saw himself in an essentially social and ritual role. I think my mother, though, was drawn to medicine because for her it was part of natural history and biology. She could not look at human anatomy or physiology without thinking of parallels and precursors in other primates, other vertebrates. This did not compromise her concern and feeling for the individual — but placed it, always, in a wider context, that of biology and science in general.
Outside the home, young Oliver found refuge in another sanctuary of books:
The Willesden Public Library was an odd triangular building set at an angle to Willesden Lane, a short walk from our house. It was deceptively small outside, but vast inside, with dozens of alcoves and bays full of books, more books than I had ever seen in my life. Once the librarian was assured I could handle the books and use the card index, she gave me the run of the library and allowed me to order books from the central library and even sometimes to take rare books out. My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed, as I wished…
In my years of devouring his writing, I was always fascinated by Dr. Sacks’s reading range — his voracious and unsystematic hoverings, which stayed with him for life. I kept extensive notes on the books he mentioned — some sentimentally, with the tenderness of one paying due homage to a formative influence, and some scholarly, as scientific beacons that lit the way for his own work with patients.
Having previously compiled similar lifelong reading lists for Patti Smith and Gabriel Garcia Márquez based on their respective autobiographical writings, I set out to do the same for Dr. Sacks — an undertaking much more labor-intensive by comparison, on account of his impressive body of work, and months in the making.
Gathered here for the first time are the books that informed, inspired, and invigorated one of the most radiant and unrepeatable minds of our time, culled from his own many books and including a few of his particularly delightful reflections on some of his favorites. Special thanks to Kate Edgar, who now spearheads the Oliver Sacks Foundation, for helping me fill in any crucial gaps.
Thom Gunn has written powerfully of the “occasions” of poetry. Science has its occasions no less than art: sometimes a dream-metaphor, like Kekulé’s snakes; sometimes an analogy, like Newton’s apple; sometimes a literal event, the thing-in-itself, which suddenly explodes into unimagined significance, like Archimedes’s “Eureka!” in his bath. Every such occasion is a eureka or epiphany.
Eve Curie’s biography of her mother—which my own mother gave me when I was ten — was the first portrait of a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply impressed me.1 It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images — Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine; inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming vats and crucibles, stirring them with an iron rod almost as big as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless solutions, more and more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grit continually getting into the solutions and undoing the endless work.
I was particularly moved by the description in Eve Curie’s book of how her parents, restless one evening and curious as to how the fractional crystallizations were going, returned to their shed late one night and saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates, and realized for the first time that their element was spontaneously luminous. The luminosity of phosphorus required the presence of oxygen, but the luminosity of radium arose entirely from within, from its own radioactivity. Marie Curie wrote in lyrical terms of this luminosity:
“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night when we perceived the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles and capsules containing our products… It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”
In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I was talking I became conscious of a very old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t be!” But it was — it was Eve Curie, and she signed her book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it.
When I asked Deborah whether Clive [Wearing’s amnesiac husband] knew about her memoir, she told me that she had shown it to him twice before, but that he had instantly forgotten. I had my own heavily annotated copy with me, and asked Deborah to show it to him again.
“You’ve written a book!” he cried, astonished. “Well done! Congratulations!” He peered at the cover. “All by you? Good heavens!” Excited, he jumped for joy. Deborah showed him the dedication page (“For my Clive”). “Dedicated to me?” He hugged her. This scene was repeated several times within a few minutes, with almost exactly the same astonishment, the same expressions of delight and joy each time.
Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other, despite his amnesia (indeed, the [first edition] subtitle of Deborah’s book is A Memoir of Love and Amnesia). He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.
[It is] a remarkable book, so tender, yet so tough-minded and realistic.
A workhorse of a book — straight, uninspired, pedestrian in tone, designed as a practical manual, but nevertheless, for me, filled with wonders. Inside its cover, corroded, discolored, and stained (for it had done time in the lab in its day), it bore the words “Best wishes and congratulations 21/1/1 — Mick” — it had been given to my mother on her eighteenth birthday by her twenty-five-year-old brother Mick, already a research chemist himself. Uncle Mick, a younger brother of Dave, had gone to South Africa with his brothers, and then worked in a tin mine on his return. He loved tin, I was told, as much as Uncle Dave loved tungsten, and he was sometimes referred to in the family as Uncle Tin. I never knew Uncle Mick, for he died of a malignancy the year I was born — he was only forty-five — a victim, his family thought, of the high levels of radioactivity in the uranium mines in Africa. But my mother had been very close to him, and his memory and image stayed vividly in her mind. The notion that this was my mother’s own chemistry book, and of the never-known, young chemist uncle who gave it to her, made the book especially precious to me.
Very different in style and content, though equally designed to awake the sense of wonder (“The common life of man is full of Wonders, Chemical and Physiological. Most of us pass through this life without seeing or being sensible of them …”)
Auntie Len had given me [this book] for my tenth birthday, and I had been intoxicated by the imaginary journey Jeans described into the heart of the sun, and his casual mention that the sun contained platinum and silver and lead, most of the elements we have on earth.
Soddy’s book The Interpretation of Radium in the last year of the war, and I was enraptured by his vision of endless energy, endless light. Soddy’s heady words gave me a sense of the intoxication, the sense of power and redemption, that had attended the discovery of radium and radioactivity at the start of the century.
But side by side with this, Soddy voiced the dark possibilities, too. These indeed had been in his mind almost from the start, and, as early as 1903, he had spoken of the earth as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of.” This note was frequently sounded in The Interpretation of Radium, and it was Soddy’s powerful vision that inspired H.G. Wells to go back to his early science-fiction style and publish, in 1914, The World Set Free (Wells actually dedicated his book to The Interpretation of Radium).
When I first found that my patients’ reactions to L-DOPA were becoming erratic and unpredictable — that what had been clear was clear no longer, that something strange and unintelligible was gradually taking over — I felt fear, guilt, and a sort of revulsion.
This attitude changed when I first read Prigogine and gained the sense that there could be a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder. A most vivid sense of this new order – new, but also old, because it is the order of trees, of landscapes, of innumerable natural features — was given to me, visually, when I saw Mandelbrot’s book.
My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures and, a couple of years later, had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favorite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider—stronger than most beer and cheaper, too.
Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize — the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Human Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper.
There were seven questions to be answered; I pounced on one (“Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?”) and wrote nonstop for two hours on the subject, bringing in whatever zoological and botanical knowledge I could muster to flesh out the discussion. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.
The results were in The Times that weekend; I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded — how could someone who had come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams prize? I was not entirely surprised, for it was a sort of repetition, in reverse, of what had happened when I took the Oxford prelims. I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but can spread my wings with essays.
Fifty pounds came with the Theodore Williams prize — £50! I had never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s bookshop (next door to the pub) and bought, for £44, the twelve volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, for me the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf, now and then, for bedtime reading.
Please join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation, whose mission is to extend Dr. Sacks’s legacy by bringing to life his unpublished writings and supporting the work of other writers animated by a shared ethos of illuminating the human mind and brain through narrative nonfiction.
How a day is composed in the hours between sleep o’clock and symphony o’clock.
By Maria Popova
“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us,” Mary Oliver wrote in contemplating how our routines give shape to our inner lives. This, perhaps, is why we’re so transfixed by the daily routines of great artists, writers, and scientists — a sort of magical thinking under the spell of which we come to believe that if we were to replicate the routines of geniuses, we would also replicate some dimension of their inner lives and, in turn, their outer greatness.
Still, magical thinking aside, without insight into the routines of those who lead creatively fruitful lives, we would have never been able to study the psychology of the ideal daily routine. And few lives have been more creatively fruitful than that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791). In a letter to his father from December of 1777, found in Letters of Mozart (free ebook | public library), 21-year-old Mozart describes his daily routine at Mannheim, where he had traveled in search of employment. Unable to find work, he moved in with the musical Weber family he had befriended and fell in love with Aloysia, one of the family’s four daughters, who rejected his suit.
He describes his days at the Weber house:
I am writing this at eleven at night, because I have no other leisure time. We cannot very well rise before eight o’clock, for in our rooms (on the ground-floor) it is not light till half-past eight. I then dress quickly; at ten o’clock I sit down to compose till twelve or half-past twelve, when I go to Wendling’s, where I generally write till half-past one; we then dine. At three o’clock I go to the Mainzer Hof (an hotel) to a Dutch officer, to give him lessons in galanterie playing and thorough bass, for which, if I mistake not, he gives me four ducats for twelve lessons. At four o’clock I go home to teach the daughter of the house. We never begin till half past four, as we wait for lights. At six o’clock I go to Cannabich’s to instruct Madlle. Rose. I stay to supper there, when we converse and sometimes play; I then invariably take a book out of my pocket and read…
But as he struggled to reconcile the growing demands of his evolving career and with those of his romance with Constanze, the third Weber daughter, his daily routine changed considerably. In a letter to his sister penned in 1782, a few months before he married his beloved, Mozart outlines a routine so intense that it left him a mere five hours of night’s sleep:
At six o’clock in the morning I have my hair dressed, and have finished my toilet by seven o’clock. I write till nine. From nine to one I give lessons. I then dine, unless I am invited out, when dinner is usually at two o’clock, sometimes at three, as it was to-day, and will be to-morrow at Countess Zichi’s and Countess Thun’s. I cannot begin to work before five or six o’clock in the evening, and I am often prevented doing so by some concert; otherwise I write till nine o’clock. I then go to my dear Constanze, though our pleasure in meeting is frequently embittered by the unkind speeches of her mother, which I will explain to my father in my next letter. Thence comes my wish to liberate and rescue her as soon as possible. At half-past ten or eleven I go home, but this depends on the mother’s humor, or on my patience in bearing it. Owing to the number of concerts, and also the uncertainty whether I may not be summoned to one place or another, I cannot rely on my evening writing, so it is my custom (especially when I come home early) to write for a time before going to bed. I often sit up writing till one, and rise again at six.