The Marginalian

27 Jan. 2023

“The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.”


The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

It is a gladness to be able to call one’s daily work a labor of love, and to have that labor put food on the table the way any work does, dishwashing or dentistry. And yet such labors of diligence and devotion — the kind William Blake called “eternal work” — are somehow different, different and more vulnerable, for they enter the world in a singular spirit and are recompensed in a singular spirit, distinct from dentistry or dishwashing.

That spirit is the spirit of a gift — not the transaction of two commodities but the interchange of two mutual generosities, passing between people who share in the project of a life worth living.

A year before I was born, the poet Lewis Hyde taxonomized that vital and delicate distinction between work and labor in his eternally giving book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (public library) — a timeless inquiry into what it takes to harmonize “the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture.”

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Hyde writes:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. “Getting the program” in AA is a labor. It is likewise apt to speak of “mourning labor”: when a loved one dies, the soul undergoes a period of travail, a change that draws energy. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them… We wake up to discover the fruits of labor.

At the heart of the distinction is the recognition that those fruits are offered to the world not as a service or a transaction but as a gift — “the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.” The challenge arises when we try to reconcile the spiritual ecosystem of gifts with the material market economy within which they dwell — the economy of sustenance and solvency of which every modern person partakes just in the course of staying alive.

An epoch before Patreon and Kickstarter and Substack, Hyde issues a clarion call for honoring the gifts we receive:

If we really valued these gift labors, couldn’t we pay them well? Couldn’t we pay social workers as we pay doctors, pay poets as we do bankers, pay the cellist in the orchestra as we pay the advertising executive in the box seat? Yes, we could. We could — we should — reward gift labors where we value them. My point here is simply that where we do so we shall have to recognize that the pay they receive has not been “made” the way fortunes are made in the market, that it is a gift bestowed by the group. The costs and benefits of tasks whose procedures are adversarial and whose ends are easily quantified can be expressed through a market system. The costs and rewards of gift labors cannot.

Art by William Blake for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment that gladdens those of us who offer the fruits of our labors freely and are sustained by what is given freely in return, he adds:

The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation… The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.

The Gift remains a vitalizing read, all the more nourishing and necessary in our present culture that so commodifies creative labor and our market economy that so devalues those works of thought and tenderness that most help us live our lives: music, poetry, philosophy, art. Complement these fragments from it with some Hyde-fomented thoughts on music and the price of what we cherish, then revisit the story of how Van Gogh found his gift that revolutionized art and how Jeanne Villepreux-Power turned her gift into a breakthrough of science.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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26 Jan. 2023

“Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does.”


Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence supposes good will,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.” Yet our efforts to define and measure intelligence have been pocked with insensitivity to nuance, to diversity, to the myriad possible ways of paying attention to the world. Within the human realm, there is the dark cultural history of IQ. Beyond the human realm, there is the growing abashed understanding that other forms of intelligence exist, capable of comprehending and navigating the world in ways wildly different from ours, no less successful and no less poetic. One measure of our own intelligence may be the degree of our openness to these other ways of being — the breadth of mind and generosity of spirit with which we recognize and regard otherness.

The science-reverent English artist James Bridle invites such a broadening of mind in Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (public library). He writes:

The tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flowered everywhere.

[…]

There are many ways of “doing” intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially… Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does; it is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act. We have already learned — from the gibbons, gorillas and macaques — that intelligence is relational: it matters how and where you do it, what form your body gives it, and with whom it connects. Intelligence is not something which exists just in the head — literally, in the case of the octopus, who does intelligence with its whole body. Intelligence is one among many ways of being in the world: it is an interface to it; it makes the world manifest.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, 1909. (Available as a print and as a cutting board, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Borrowing ecological philosopher David Abram’s notion of “the more-than-human world,” he adds:

Intelligence, then, is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized, in all the multiple forms that it takes. The task is to figure out how to become aware of it, to associate with it, to make it manifest. This process is itself one of entanglement, of opening ourselves to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more-than-human world, much deeper and more extensive than those which can be performed in the artificial constraints of the laboratory. It involves changing ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours, rather than altering the conditions of our non-human communicants.

[…]

To think of intelligence in this way is not to reduce its definition, but to enlarge it. Anthropocentric science has argued for centuries that redefining intelligence in this way is to make it meaningless, but this is not the case. To define intelligence simply as what humans do is the narrowest way we could possibly think about it — and it is ultimately to narrow ourselves, and lessen its possible meaning. Rather, by expanding our definition of intelligence, and the chorus of minds which manifest it, we might allow our own intelligence to flower into new forms and new emergent ways of being and relating. The admittance of general, universal, active intelligence is a necessary part of our vital re-entanglement with the more-than-human world.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the emergence of a new branch on the tree of life — a “mechanical kingdom” of our own making, comprising our machines governed by a “self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race” — Bridle offers an optimistic implication of this redefinition for the future of what we now call “artificial intelligence”:

If intelligence, rather than being an innate, restrictive set of behaviours, is in fact something which arises from interrelationships, from thinking and working together, there need be nothing artificial about it all. If all intelligence is ecological — that is, entangled, relational, and of the world — then artificial intelligence provides a very real way for us to come to terms with all the other intelligences which populate and manifest through the planet.

What if, instead of being the thing that separates us from the world and ultimately supplants us, artificial intelligence is another flowering, wholly its own invention, but one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a greater accommodation with the world? Rather than being a tool to further exploit the planet and one another, artificial intelligence is an opening to other minds, a chance to fully recognize a truth that has been hidden from us for so long. Everything is intelligent, and therefore — along with many other reasons — is worthy of our care and conscious attention.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, Ursula K. Le Guin on the poetry of penguins, and Marilyn Nelson’s spare, splendid poem about octopus intelligence, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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25 Jan. 2023

On remaining in loving contact with the intangible, immutable part of the self.


What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

One of the hardest things in life is watching a loved one’s mind slowly syphoned by cognitive illness — that haunting ambiguous loss of the familiar body remaining, but the person slowly fading into otherness, their very consciousness frayed and reconstituted into that of a stranger.

How to go on loving this growing stranger is the supreme challenge of accompanying a precious human being through the most disorienting experience in life — the great open question pocked with guilt but pulsating with possibility.

The poet and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores how to step into that possibility with uncommon sensitivity and tenderness in one of the diary entries collected in the altogether magnificent The House by the Sea (public library).

May Sarton

Sarton was thirty-three when she met Judith Matlack, twelve years her senior. May and Judy fell in love — a love consecrated in Sarton’s almost unbearably beautiful poetry collection Honey in the Hive. When they separated thirteen years later, they remained not only friends but nothing less than family to each other.

Judy was not yet seventy when dementia began fraying her mind. Uncoupled and childless, she moved into a nursing home. Sarton visited regularly. Once she settled into her house by the sea in Maine, she often had Judy stay with her for several days at a time. During one of these visits, with Judy particularly disoriented, unable to hold a conversation, wandering into the neighbors’ yards, Sarton offers a passage of tender assurance:

Death comes by installments but sometimes the first installments can be very steep, perhaps much more painful to those around them than to the person. I do cherish her so; can one maintain the image of love when so much has gone?” I guess the answer to that question is, yes, because when one has lived with someone for years, as I did with Judy, something quite intangible is there, as though in the bloodstream, that no change in her changes.

Couple with Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most beautiful and redemptive life-advice you’ll ever receive — then revisit Sarton on how to live with tenderness in a harsh world.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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23 Jan. 2023

A vibrant foray into “a perfect world of wonders” fueled by the bittersweet dimension of life.


Marianne North (October 24, 1830–August 30, 1890) was twenty-six and had just lost her mother to a long tortuous illness when her father took her to an oasis of wonder in the heart of London — Kew Gardens, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth: a lush affirmation of life bustling with life-forms beyond the wildest imagination. In the majestic half-acre glass-and-iron palm house full of tropical plants, Marianne found a portal to another world. She fell under the spell of the exotic red Amherstia nobilis — “one of the grandest flowers in existence,” which made her “long to see the tropics,” she would recall a lifetime later, having obeyed the siren song of that longing and made of it a revolution.

Amherstia nobilis, Singapore, 1876. (© RBG Kew)

Over the next three decades, Marianne North would defy the central conventions of her era — an era in which women were expected to marry, were neither permitted nor practically able to travel alone, had access to no formal education in either art or science, and were excluded from scientific and artistic societies. She would go on to traverse the world, painting the living world she saw. Enduring storms and snakes, typhus and broken bones, unimaginable heat and long stretches without access to clean drinking water, she visited Egypt and South Africa, Borneo and Sicily, India and California, Chile and Australia, immortalizing nearly a thousand plants — plants the vast majority of our species had never seen and would never see with their own eyes, plants new to most botanists, and even some plants never before seen.

Marianne North in South Africa, 1883.
Nymphaea stellata, South Africa. (© RBG Kew)

She painted unlike any other botanical artist of her time. Rather than isolated specimens rendered in pencil or watercolor, her plants came alive in oil amid the integrated context of their native ecosystems. In an era before photography was a portable instrument of science, the precision of her paintings and their transportive power twined to make for a revolution in both botany and fine art. Enchanted by her work, Francis Galton and Charles Darwin came to see her as a peer and soon became close friends.

Night-flowering lily and ferns, Jamaica. (© RBG Kew)

Marianne’s first great creative love was not art but music — she trained to be a vocalist, but when her sonorous contralto voice broke and broke her dreams along with it, she found an alternate portal to beauty in painting, widened with wonder by her passion for plants. Her father, who never remarried, was the great champion and comrade of her calling. At their home in Hastings, he built three small greenhouses and populated them with exotic plants that sang to the young Marianne’s imagination as she tended to them alongside her father. “He was from first to last the one idol and friend of my life,” she would later recall, “and apart from him, I had little pleasure and no secrets.” She vowed never to leave his side.

After her sister married, father and daughter set out to travel Europe and the Middle East together, sharing a lively and generous curiosity in how other cultures live and what other lands are lush with. Taken with this “never-ending series of wonders,” Marianne captured what she saw in delicate and detailed watercolors.

In 1868, a new vista of the imagination burst open when Marianne, almost entirely self-taught, received her first lesson in oil painting from one of Australia’s most esteemed artists. She found it wildly addictive — “a vice, like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one.” It was also a revelation for botanical art, because oil preserves pigment perfectly, whereas the traditionally used watercolor fades and yellows with time.

Water lily (Nymphaea lotus), India. (© RBG Kew)

But only a year after this creative awakening, Marianne was struck by the greatest loss of her life — her father went to sleep and never again awoke. She was overcome by a profound existential loneliness, feeling as though she had been left entirely alone in the world. She would never cease grieving him. “I have no love to give you or anyone — it is all gone with him,” she would tell a suitor years later.

Just like her contemporary Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology while turning his personal tragedy into transcendent art for science, Marianne leaned on the only consolation she knew — nature’s steadfast beauty and the fragile, tenacious wonder of plants. She left Hastings forever and set out to visit all the lands that had enraptured her imagination ever since that long-ago visit to Kew Gardens with her father. She never married — wonder became her primary relationship.

Mount Fujiyama framed by wisteria, Japan. (© RBG Kew)

She traveled to America first, determined to capture its “natural abundant luxuriance,” and was awed by the redwoods of California, making an impassioned and prescient plea to save them from destruction. Epochs ahead of the modern environmental movement, a century before Rachel Carson cautioned that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Marianne North sorrowed to see the quarrying and chemicalizing of nature:

It broke one’s heart to think of man, the civiliser, wasting treasures in a few years to which savages and animals had done no harm for centuries.

On Christmas Eve 1871, she arrived in Jamaica — the portal into the tropics of her dreams. She found herself wonder-smitten by the majestic palms — some of Earth’s most ancient tree species, and some of the most otherworldly. She also found herself “alone and friendless.” But everywhere she went, Marianne seemed to attract kindness and sympathy with the sincerity of her pursuit — almost immediately “a young Cuban engineer appeared from the moon or elsewhere,” helped her with her boat, and shepherded her to her next destination, where she was met with more friendliness from strangers. Even so, her days were mostly solitary, but filled with wonder. “I was in a state of ecstasy and hardly knew what to paint first,” she wrote in her diaries, collected in Abundant Beauty: The Adventurous Travels of Marianne North, Botanical Artist (public library).

Cocoa tree (Theobroma Cacao), 1867. (© RBG Kew)

For a year, she lived in hut in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, painting incessantly amid “all these wonders seeming to taunt us mortals for trespassing on fairies’ grounds, and to tell us they were unapproachable.” Assaulted by armies of Earth’s most bloodthirsty ticks, she found them “worth bearing for the sake of the many wonders and enjoyments of the life I was leading in that quiet forest-nook” — a life that was for her “a series of wonders and endless beauties,” to be savored and celebrated in paint.

Old banyan trees, Java. (© RBG Kew)
Sacred lotus (Nelumbium speciosum), Java. (© RBG Kew)

In Java, she found “a perfect world of wonders.” Her passionate curiosity and amiable humor were always at her side:

The lycopodiums were in great beauty there, particularly those tinted with metallic blue or copper colour; and there were great
metallic arums with leaves two feet long, graceful trees over the streams with scarlet bark all hanging in tatters, and such huge black apes! One of these watched and followed us a long while, seeming to be as curious about us as we were about him. When we stopped he stopped, staring with all his might at us from behind some branch or tree-trunk; but I had the best of that game, for I possessed an opera-glass and he didn’t, so could not probably realise the whole of our white ugliness.

Everywhere she went, she walked for hours into the wilderness, often without companions. “Every day’s ramble showed me fresh wonders,” she wrote in what may be the single best summation of her life, and of any life well lived.

Marianne North by Julia Margaret Cameron.

When Marianne finally returned to England after many years of rambles, she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker — the founding father of geographical botany, Darwin’s closest friend, and the longtime director of Kew Gardens — and offered to donate her paintings, by then numbering several hundred and featuring plants wholly alien to European eyes. Hooker heartily agreed and a dedicated gallery for her work was built at Kew Gardens, which Marianne herself funded and helped design.

With her health failing, Marianne began composing an account of her extraordinary life, entrusting the manuscript to Hooker, by then her oldest friend. It was posthumously published as Recollections of a Happy Life (public library | public domain).

Today, several exotic plant species bear her name — including Nepenthes northiana (the tropical pitcher plant that was her greatest botanical infatuation), Areca northiana (a palm), Crinum northianum (also known as Seashore Lily or Asiatic Poison Lily), Kniphofia northiae (the vibrant red-hot poker beloved by gardeners), and Chassalia northiana (a blue-berried tropical plant only named in 2021) — as well as the entire genus Northia, containing some of Earth’s most ravishing flowering plants and so named by Hooker himself.

To this day, the North Gallery at Kew Gardens remains the only permanent solo exhibition by a woman in Great Britain.

Nepenthes northiana — a pitcher plant native to Borneo. (© RBG Kew)

Complement with the stunning botanical paintings of the artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson, and this sensuous botanical art inspired by the scandalous scientific poetry of Darwin’s grandfather, which popularized the Linnaean classification system of nature, then savor the wondrous work of North’s marine counterpart — the scientific artist Else Bostelmann, who brought the submarine wonderland to human eyes.

HT Sheril Kirshenbaum


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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22 Jan. 2023

“Everything we do matters, and matters wondrously.”


Rootedness and Reclaiming God

There is a peculiar existential loneliness that entombs us whenever we lose our sense of connection to the web of being — the self begins to feel like a twig torn from the tree of life, and something inside us withers with longing. We are left without sanctuary — a word that comes from the Latin sanctorium: a repository for holy things. The word “holy” shares its own Latin root with “whole” and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things. When we lose that sense of connection, that sense of belonging to the sanctorium of life, we are left less whole.

Naturalist and ecological philosopher Lyanda Lynn Haupt offers a remedy for this in Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit (public library) — a lovely lens on “how to live on our broken, imperiled, beloved earth.” She writes:

Rootedness is a way of being in concert with the wilderness — and wildness — that sustains humans and all of life.

[…]

The word rooted’s own root is the Latin radix, the center from which all things germinate and arise. The radix is the radical — the intrinsic, organic, fervent heart of being and action. Rooted lives are radically intertwined with the vitality of the planet. In a time that evokes fear and paralysis, rooted ways of being-within-nature assure us that we are grounded in the natural world. Our bodies, our thoughts, our minds, our spirits are affected by the whole of the earthen community, and affect this whole in return. This is both a mystical sensibility and a scientific fact. It is an awareness that makes us tingle with its responsibility, its beauty, its poetry. It makes our lives our most foundational form of activism. It means everything we do matters, and matters wondrously.

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

For those of us who live with secular rationality and a tenderness for life, that sense of wonder and connection is a kind of spirituality — the fundament of the sacred, in which the everyday holiness of this world comes alive.

Haupt gives shape to the way in which “apprehension of life’s radical interconnection” — whether we call it rootedness, or belonging, or love — reclaims the meaning of “God” for us who don’t abide by religion:

When the fraught name God comes up in conversation or reading, I always remind myself that whatever the source or language used, we are at root on common ground — invoking the graced, unnamable source of life, the sacredness that cradles and infuses all of creation, on earth and beyond. I know that prayer is the lifting of our hearts, our thoughts, and even our bodies in conversation, or contemplation, or remembrance, or supplication, or gratitude within this whole, requiring no dogma, only openness. Hildegard counseled, “To be alive is to give praise.”

Complement with poet Diane Ackerman’s wonderful personal religion of “the Earth ecstatic” and the young poet Marissa Davis’s exquisite ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, then revisit the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on science, transcendence, and our spiritual connection to nature.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 Jan. 2023

“Great genial power… consists… in being altogether receptive.”


Against the Cult of Originality: Emerson on the True Nature of Genius

The best things in life we don’t choose — they choose us. A great love, a great calling, a great illumination — they happen unto us, like light falling upon that which is lit. We have given a name to these unbidden greatnesses — genius, from the Latin for “spirit,” denoting the spirit of a universe we can only submit to but cannot govern.

A generation after Wordsworth defined the proof of genius as “the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) took up the mystery of genius — where it comes from, how it shapes the lives it befalls, and what it demands of them — in a wonderful essay on another great poet — Shakespeare — found in his indispensable Essays (public library).

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a resounding answer to the abiding question of whether genius is born or made, Emerson writes:

There is no choice to genius. A great man does not wake up on some fine morning, and say, “I am full of life, I will go to sea, and find an Antarctic continent: to-day I will square the circle: I will ransack botany, and find a new food for man: I have a new architecture in my mind: I foresee a new mechanic power:” no, but he finds himself in the river of the thoughts and events, forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.

In a sentiment James Baldwin would echo in his own superb meditation on Shakespeare, in which he observed that “the greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” Emerson adds:

Every master has found his materials collected, and his power lay in his sympathy with his people, and in his love of the materials he wrought in.

Altarpiece by Hilma af Klint, 1907. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

This recognition that art works with the raw materials of life undermines the cult of originality, which is itself the great hubris of the creative spirit — as Mark Twain wrote to Helen Keller, “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Stripping true creativity of this fetish for originality, Emerson anticipates Oscar Wilde’s insistence that creativity is the product of “the temperament of receptivity” and observes:

Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.

Couple with Schopenhauer on the crucial difference between genius and talent, then revisit Emerson on becoming your most authentic self and the key to living with presence.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 Jan. 2023

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — Saturdays, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.


The Unphotographable: The Moon, the Tide, and the Living Shore

“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore,” Rachel Carson wrote in her stunning meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life, “we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.”

That mystery comes alive through the lens of the humble, miraculous oyster in the opening pages of Rowan Jacobsen’s altogether wonderful book The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World (public library), modeled on John Steinbeck’s forgotten masterpiece The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Jacobsen writes:

When the full moon hauls back the waters, they emerge, a glittering band along the shore, like doubloons washed up from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. They close their shells tight and, for a few hours, become land. Bears slip out of the cedary woods and trundle over them, picking at small fish that lingered too long. From a distance you might think they were glinting rocks, just another cobbly beach, rather than acres of living coastline. But if you stepped out of your boat and explored, old shells popping softly beneath your boots, you’d smell their salt-spray aroma and hear the crackling of receding water droplets and know that they were the living sea itself, holding on to the land to keep it from squirming away. And if you sat down among them and pried open some shells and tipped the briny flesh into your mouth, you might get some sense of how it had always been.

Then the moon lets go and the water returns, snaking along the low points, bubbling up like springs from under the shells. Soon they are covered, and they phase back to their other existence. They open their shells and drink in the sea. The bears withdraw and sixteen-armed purple sea stars pull their way up the tide’s advancing edge, gobbling as they go. Tiny creatures hunker down beneath the shells, within the shells, spinning out little lives in a biogenic world. For a few hours, they disappear beneath the waves. And if you arrived at high water and didn’t take the time to poke around, or if you were from some place where the land and the water have already come unglued and you assumed that the world you knew was the one that had always been, then you’d probably keep on going, and you’d never even know they existed at all.

Complement with the optimism of the oyster, then revisit other enchanting Unphotographables: Henry Williamson on the transcendence of a winter storm; Jack Kerouac on the self-revelation of the windblown world; Richard Powers on the majestic migration of sandhill cranes; Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the sea and the stars; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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19 Jan. 2023

“Paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”


The Footpath to Yourself: Robert Macfarlane on Landscape as a Lens on Inner Life

“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his soulful Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But paths are more than metaphors — they do lead places and, along the way, do reveal us to ourselves in ways inconceivable at the outset, unattainable at home.

That is what the poetic nature writer (and spell-writer, and songwriter) Robert Macfarlane explores in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (public library) — the final book in his trilogy on landscape as a lens on inner life, exploring “the relationship between paths, walking and the imagination” through his experience of walking more than one thousand miles along ancient paths, only to find himself delivered more fully in the present.

Art by Arthur Rackham for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, 1906. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

He writes:

Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It’s hard to create a footpath on your own… Paths connect. This is their first duty and their chief reason for being. They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people. Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear: overgrown by vegetation, ploughed up or built over (though they may persist in the memorious substance of land law). Like sea channels that require regular dredging to stay open, paths need walking.

In consonance with Thomas Bernhard’s observation that “there is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking,” he considers an ancient creative relationship:

The compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature — a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.

Cemetery paths by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

This natural narrative undertone to paths has an even deeper effect on the fundaments of the psyche, for in walking we get to reexamine the story of the self as the landscapes we move through mirror us back to ourselves, magnified and transformed. Macfarlane considers the particular rewards of trodden paths which generations have walked as channels of self-discovery:

These are the consequences of the old ways with which I feel easiest: walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape; paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.

[…]

Paths run through people as surely as they run through places… I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, can “enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.”

Complement with the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark’s wonderful prose poem “In Praise of Walking” — which Macfarlane led me to through a fractal branching of the literary path he treads — then revisit Macfarlane’s splendid inquiry into the wonderland beneath our feet.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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16 Jan. 2023

“I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence.”


How to Be with Each Other’s Suffering: Elie Wiesel on the Antidote to Our Paralysis in the Face of World-Overwhelm

There is a phenomenon in forests known as inosculation — the fusing together of separate trees into a single organism after their branches or roots have been entwined for a long time. Sometimes, one of the former individuals may be cut or broken at the base, but it remains fully alive through its sinewy fusion with the former other. This is no longer symbiosis between two distinct organisms but a hybrid new organism fully sharing in the resources of life.

Everything alive has the potential for inosculation in one form or another. That, perhaps, is what the great naturalist John Muir meant when he observed that when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” To be proper citizens of that universe is to recognize ourselves as particles of it, indelibly linked to every other particle — particles each minuscule but majestic with possibility; it is to recognize that, as Dr. King observed, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Few have captured the responsibility and power of that mutuality more passionately, nor lived them more fully, than Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928–July 2, 2016).

Elie Wiesel

In Conversations with Elie Wiesel (public library), the Biblical question Cain poses to God after killing Abel — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — becomes a lens on what makes for brotherhood in the broadest humanistic sense. Wiesel reflects:

We are all our brothers’ keepers… Either we see in each other brothers, or we live in a world of strangers… There are no strangers in a world that becomes smaller and smaller. Today I know right away when something happens, whatever happens, anywhere in the world. So there is no excuse for us not to be involved in these problems. A century ago, by the time the news of a war reached another place, the war was over. Now people die and the pictures of their dying are offered to you and to me while we are having dinner. Since I know, how can I not transform that knowledge into responsibility? So the key word is “responsibility.” That means I must keep my brother.

Whenever we quiet the voices of so-called civilization — the voices of selfing and hard-edged individualism — that sense of the interconnectedness of life and of lives becomes audible. And yet we are habitually deafened to it by a kind of desensitization — the kind the poet May Sarton so poignantly captured as she contemplated how to live with tenderness in a harsh world. Much of it, Wiesel observes, is a form of paralysis that comes from the sheer mismatch between the scale of the problems the world hurls at us and our individual locus of agency — a particular pathology of the information age, further exploited by the news media and their crisis-mongering. Wiesel considers the consequence:

We are careless. Somehow life has been cheapened in our own eyes. The sanctity of life, the sacred dimension of every minute of human existence, is gone. The main problem is that there are so many situations that demand our attention. There are so many tragedies that need our involvement. Where do you begin?

With an eye to a central problem of our time — how to live with wisdom in the age of information — he adds:

We know too much. No, let me correct myself. We are informed about too many things. Whether information is transformed into knowledge is a different story, a different question.

He traces the emotional attrition that happens when we are bombarded with news of crises and traumatic events — at first deeply moved and invested in allaying the suffering we see, we grow exhausted by trauma-sighting and help-canvassing, just as news of the latest calamity or injustice is piling atop the previous one:

You couldn’t take it. There is a need to remember, and it may last only a day or a week at a time. We cannot remember all the time. That would be impossible; we would be numb. If I were to remember all the time, I wouldn’t be able to function. A person who is sensitive, always responding, always listening, always ready to receive someone else’s pain… how can one live?

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The antidote to this paralysis, Wiesel argues, is small action — a testament to Hannah Arendt’s conviction that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of… boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” A century and a half after Van Gogh insisted that “however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth… steps in and does something,” Wiesel insists on choosing from among the innumerable causes soliciting your attention and aid just one in which to get involved — an act seemingly small that, on the cumulative scale of humanity, moves the world.

The greatest challenge facing us all, however, is how to be with each other’s suffering. In consonance with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s insight that “when you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence,” Wiesel considers the wellspring of universal love and brotherhood:

I believe in dialogue. I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence. I would like my students to be presence whenever people need a human presence. I urge very little upon my students, but that is one thing I do. To people I love, I wish I could say, “I will suffer in your place.” But I cannot. Nobody can. Nobody should. I can be present, though. And when you suffer, you need a presence.

[…]

If there is a governing precept in my life, it is that: If somebody needs me, I must be there.

Brother’s keeper — inosculation at work. (Photograph: @lily_kdwong.)

Couple this fragment of the wholly vitalizing Conversations with Elie Wiesel with Wiesel’s stirring Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, then revisit Nick Cave on the antidote to our existential helplessness and the pioneering X-ray crystallographer and peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale on moral courage and our personal power.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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15 Jan. 2023

On the emotional machinery that suspends us between rapture and tears.


“A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” It is a wonderful metaphor in part because it dances with the literal: So often, what strums the resonance of our identity most powerfully is music — that most expansive and embodied repository of memory, the memory that strings the narrative of selfhood we call identity.

Music as a fundament of identity and a portal to spiritual homecoming is what Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explores in a passage from A Walker in the City (public library) — his absolutely wonderful inquiry into loneliness, otherness, and belonging.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a symphony. (Available as a print.)

Looking back on his childhood as the son of Russian Jewish refugees, in an era of routine discrimination and othering, he recounts how music filled his home with a sense of belonging, of homecoming, invoking the world his parents had left behind and rooting his own young self in a sense of communion with some greater whole:

You could melt their hearts with it; the effect of the violin on almost everyone I knew was uncanny. I could watch them softening, easing, already on the brink of tears — yet with their hands at rest in their laps, they stared straight ahead at the wall, breathing hard, an unforeseen smile of rapture on their mouths. Any slow movement, if only it were played lingeringly and sagely enough, seemed to come to them as a reminiscence of a reminiscence. It seemed to have something to do with our being Jews. The depths of Jewish memory the violin could throw open apparently had no limit — for every slow movement was based on something “Russian,” every plaintive melody even in Beethoven or Mozart was “Jewish.” I could skip from composer to composer, from theme to theme, without any fear, ever, of being detected, for all slow movements fell into a single chant of der heym and of the great Kol Nidre sung in the first evening hours of the Day of Atonement, in whose long rending cry — of contrition? of grief? of hopeless love for the Creator? — I relived all of the Jews’ bitter intimacy with death.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. (Available as a print.)

In a testament to the elemental fact that music is the most spiritual and the most spiritualizing of the arts, the one that most directly touches the mystery of aliveness, he adds:

Then I cranked up the old brown Victor, took our favorite records out of the red velvet pleated compartments, and we listened to John McCormack singing Ave Maria, Amelita Galli-Curci singing Caro Nome… and Alma Gluck singing Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. The high point was Caruso singing from La Juive. He inspired in my father and mother such helpless, intimidated adoration that I came to think of what was always humbly referred to as his golden voice as the invocation of a god. The pleasure he gave us was beyond all music.

Complement with other great writers on the singular power of music, the neurophysiology of how music moves us, and the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe, then join me in reckoning with our shared responsibility in the fate of music in our own time.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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13 Jan. 2023

A simple perspective shift that reorients the roots of being.


Hermann Hesse believed that trees are our greatest spiritual teachers. Walt Whitman cherished them as paragons of authenticity amid a world of mere appearances. Remembering his most beloved friend, he wrote that she was “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.” I too consider the people I most love my human trees — people firmly rooted in a foundation of moral beauty, relentlessly reaching for the light, bent into their particular beloved shape by the demands and traumas of their particular lives.

Ram Dass

A century after Whitman, Ram Dass (April 6, 1931–December 22, 2019) drew on the human-tree analogy in a soulful invitation to treat ourselves — and each other — with the same nonjudgmental spaciousness with which we regard trees. Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, he writes:

Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

Art by Corinna Luyken from The Tree in Me

In his landmark 1971 book Be Here Now (public library), he leans on trees for a different metaphor in considering the stages of our spiritual development:

When a tree is very small we protect it by surrounding it with a fence so that animals do not step on it. Later when the tree is bigger it no longer needs the fence. Then it can give shelter to many.

Our spiritual growth, Ram Dass observes, follows a similar pattern. The fence is the community of support, sangha in the Buddhist tradition: the kindred spirits with whom we surround ourselves when we are still vulnerable, still finding our rootedness — a lovely reminder of that mycelial connection that binds us to each other, just like the mycorrhizal network undergirds the forest with its web of communication and nutrition.

Complement with Paul Klee on how an artist is like a tree and artist Art Young’s wondrous century-old silhouettes of trees at night as a lens on human experience, then revisit Ram Dass on love.

HT swissmiss


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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12 Jan. 2023

“We have, because human, an inalienable prerogative of responsibility which we cannot devolve…not… even upon the stars. We can share it only with each other.”


A Responsibility to Wonder: Pioneering Neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington on the Spirituality of Nature

To be fully awake to life is a matter of ceaselessly digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder” — a matter of living, in the astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s immortal words, with “a responsibility to awe.” Out of that responsibility arises a kind of quietly rapturous spirituality — a way of moving through the world wonder-smitten by reality.

The great English neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington (November 27, 1857–March 4, 1952), laureate of the 1932 Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking discoveries of the function of neurons, termed this orientation “Natural Religion” and explored its rewards in his 1937 Gifford Lectures, later published as Man on His Nature (public library | public domain) — a book composed in the epoch when every woman was a “man,” yet replete with dazzling universal wisdom on our human experience of being material creatures moving through a cold cosmos as living hearths of consciousness.

Charles Scott Sherrington

Sherrington’s Natural Religion is rooted in Natural Science — in the living reality of this world, governed by the fundamental laws of the universe. Tracing the astonishing process by which we came to be — primordial matter becoming atoms becoming living cells becoming bodies crowned with minds — he writes:

We dismiss wonder commonly with childhood. Much later, when life’s pace has slackened, wonder may return. The mind then may find so much inviting wonder the whole world becomes wonderful. Then one thing is scarcely more wonderful than is another. But, greatest wonder, our wonder soon lapses. A rainbow every morning who would pause to look at? The wonderful which comes often or is plentifully about us is soon taken for granted. That is practical enough. It allows us to get on with life. But it may stultify if it cannot on occasion be thrown off. To recapture now and then childhood’s wonder, is to secure a driving force for occasional grown-up thoughts.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. (Available as a print.)

Wonder, Sherrington argues, is the appropriate mood with which to approach the workings of our improbable planet and their echo in the workings of the exquisite cathedral of chemistry and chance that is a human being. That is where traditional religions have both thrived and fallen short, emotionally compelling in their humanistic self-reference, yet limiting of wonder, which has to do with what lies beyond ourselves:

Anthropomorphism is perforce charged with the human and the personal, and the great historical religions are frankly anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism with its lien on the personal is always quick with emotion… Commonly the human is the strongest source of emotive appeal to human kind. Human doings, human feelings, human hopes and fears move man as does nothing which is not human. The great religions as part of their anthropomorphism cultivate the Deity as a personal Deity. That for their followers forms an element fraught with emotional drive of power, for some minds, elsewise unattainable… This source of emotional strength Natural Religion is without, for it sublimes personal Deity to Deity wholly impersonal.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

With an eye to the “sacred curiosity” that is the hallmark of human consciousness, Sherrington mounts a defense of the emotional dimension of a spirituality grounded in science:

Surely Truth, Beauty, Charity provide passion… Natural Religion has not forgone emotion. It has simply taken for itself new ground of emotion, under impulsion from and in sacrifice to that one of its values Truth. Its view of the world and of itself is based upon the purview of what by its lights it can accept as true. In that way, for it, much that is comfortable in other religions lapses. If you will, man’s situation is left bleaker. One feature of that situation is that the human mind, such as it is, is left the crown of mind to which human life in all its needs has direct access. Compared with a situation where the human mind beset with its perplexities had higher mind and higher personality than itself to lean on and to seek counsel from, this other situation where it has no appeal and no resort for help to beyond itself, has, we may think, an element of enhanced tragedy and pathos. To set against that, it is a situation which transforms the human spirit’s task, almost beyond recognition, to one of loftier responsibility. It elevates that spirit to the position of protagonist of a virility and dignity which otherwise the human figure could not possess. It raises the lowliest human being conjointly with the highest, Prometheus-like, to a rank of obligation and pathos which neither Moses in his law-giving nor Job in all his suffering could present. We have, because human, an inalienable prerogative of responsibility which we cannot devolve, no, not as once was thought, even upon the stars. We can share it only with each other.

Complement with quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger, who was inspired by Sherrington, on mind and matter and the great Lewis Thomas on the miraculous in a material world, then revisit Rachel Carson, writing the year Sherrington returned his borrowed stardust to the universe, on the sense of wonder as the antidote to self-destruction.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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11 Jan. 2023

“What is it like, such intensity of pain?”


Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower: Rilke’s Timeless Spell for Living Through Difficult Times

There are times in life when the firmament of our being seems to collapse, taking all the light with it, swallowing all color and sound into a silent scream of darkness. It rarely looks that way from the inside, but these are always times of profound transformation and recalibration — the darkness is not terminal but primordial; in it, a new self is being born, not with a Big Bang but with a whisper. Our task, then, is only to listen. What we hear becomes new light.

A century ago, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) extended a timeless invitation to listening for the light in his poem “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower,” translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows in their altogether indispensable book In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus (public library).

I read it here accompanied by another patron saint of turning darkness into light — Bach, and his Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, performed by Colin Carr:

LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELL TOWER
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Quiet friend who has come so far,

feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Complement with the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön on transformation through dark times, Emily Dickinson’s darkness-inspired ode to resilience, and Rebecca Solnit on hope in the dark, then revisit Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, the lonely patience of creative work, and the difficult art of giving space in love.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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10 Jan. 2023

“It is not easy to give closeness and freedom, safety plus danger.”


The Most Important Thing to Remember About Your Mother

One of the hardest realizations in life, and one of the most liberating, is that our mothers are neither saints nor saviors — they are just people who, however messy or painful our childhood may have been, and however complicated the adult relationship, have loved us the best way they knew how, with the cards they were dealt and the tools they had.

It is a whole life’s work to accept this elemental fact, and a life’s triumph to accept it not with bitterness but with love.

How to make that liberating shift of perspective is what the playwright, suffragist, and psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell (September 14, 1883–March 6, 1979) considers in a passage from her 1968 autobiography The Measure of My Days (public library).

Kinship by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

She writes:

A mother’s love for her children, even her inability to let them be, is because she is under a painful law that the life that passed through her must be brought to fruition. Even when she swallows it whole she is only acting like any frightened mother cat eating its young to keep it safe.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Kahlil Gibran’s insight into the delicate balance of intimacy and independence essential for romantic love — which is always an echo of our formative attachments — she adds:

It is not easy to give closeness and freedom, safety plus danger.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Crescendo

With a wary eye to the brunt of parental expectation under which all children live, well into adulthood, she writes:

No matter how old a mother is she watches her middle-aged children for signs of improvement. It could not be otherwise for she is impelled to know that the seeds of value sown in her have been winnowed. She never outgrows the burden of love, and to the end she carries the weight of hope for those she bore. Oddly, very oddly, she is forever surprised and even faintly wronged that her sons and daughters are just people, for many mothers hope and half expect that their newborn child will make the world better, will somehow be a redeemer. Perhaps they are right, and they can believe that the rare quality they glimpsed in the child is active in the burdened adult.

Perhaps that glimpse is what Maurice Sendak meant when he observed that life is largely a matter of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Complement with Kahlil Gibran’s advice on children, the pioneering psychologist Donald Winnicott on the mother’s contribution to society, and Alison Bechdel’s superb Winnicott-inspired Are You My Mother?, then savor My Mother’s Eyes — a soulful animated short film about loss and the unbreakable bonds of love — and Mary Gaitskill’s poignant advice on how to move through life when your parents are dying.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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8 Jan. 2023

“I believe talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it.”


Maya Angelou on Writing and Our Responsibility to Our Creative Gifts

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon urged in what remains some of the finest advice on writing and life ever committed to words. Our gifts come unbidden — that is what makes them gifts — but with them also comes a certain responsibility, a duty to live up to and live into our creative potential as human beings. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin admonished in his advice on writing. “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” That durational willingness to work at our gifts, to steward them with disciplined devotion, is our fundamental responsibility to them — our fundamental responsibility to ourselves.

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) considers what that means and what it takes in a wonderful 1983 interview, included in Black Women Writers at Work (public library).

Maya Angelou

She reflects:

I try to live what I consider a “poetic existence.” That means I take responsibility for the air I breathe and the space I take up. I try to be immediate, to be totally present for all my work.

[…]

My responsibility as a writer is to be as good as I can be at my craft. So I study my craft… Learning the craft, understanding what language can do, gaining control of the language, enables one to make people weep, make them laugh, even make them go to war. You can do this by learning how to harness the power of the word. So studying my craft is one of my responsibilities. The other is to be as good a human being as I possibly can be so that once I have achieved control of the language, I don’t force my weaknesses on a public who might then pick them up and abuse themselves.

With an eye to the abiding mystery of our creative gifts, she adds:

I believe talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it. Electricity makes no judgment. You can plug into it and light up a lamp, keep a heart pump going, light a cathedral, or you can electrocute a person with it. Electricity will do all that. It makes no judgment. I think talent is like that. I believe every person is born with talent.

When asked how she fits her art into her life, Angelou responds:

Writing is a part of my life; cooking is a part of my life. Making love is a part of my life; walking down the street is a part of it. Writing demands more time, but it takes from all of these other activities. They all feed into the writing. I think it’s dangerous to concern oneself too damned much with “being an artist.” It’s more important to get the work done. You don’t have to concern yourself with it, just get it done. The pondering pose — the back of the hand glued against the forehead — is baloney. People spend more time posing than getting the work done. The work is all there is. And when it’s done, then you can laugh, have a pot of beans, stroke some child’s head, or skip down the street.

Complement with Susan Sontag on writing and what it means to be a decent human being and Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech about storytelling and the art of tenderness, then revisit Maya Angelou on courage and facing evil, identity and the meaning of life, and her cosmic clarion call to humanity.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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7 Jan. 2023

“Music so readily transports us from the present to the past, or from what is actual to what is possible.”


The Neurophysiology of Enchantment: How Music Casts Its Spell on Us

“Music,” the trailblazing composer Julia Perry wrote, “has a unifying effect on the peoples of the world, because they all understand and love it… And when they find themselves enjoying and loving the same music, they find themselves loving one another.” But there is something beyond humanistic ideology in this elemental truth — something woven into the very structure and sensorium of our bodies; as the great neurologist Oliver Sacks observed, “music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”

Psychologist Dacher Keltner examines what that unmediated something is and how it pierces us in a portion of his altogether fascinating book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (public library) — a taxonomy of wonder derived from his study of twenty-six cultures around the world, across which music, above all other forms of beauty and spirituality, emerges as the most universal of our creaturely portals into transcendence.

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

After observing the virtuoso concert cellist Yumi Kendall respond bodily to the music she plays and cast an embodied enchantment upon those hearing it, Keltner writes:

When Yumi moves her bow across her cello’s strings, or when Beyoncé’s vocal cords vibrate as air moves through them, or when Gambian griot superstar Sona Jobarteh plucks the strings of her kora, those collisions move air particles, producing sound waves — vibrations — that move out into space. Those sound waves hit your eardrums, whose rhythmic vibrations move hairs on the cochlear membrane just on the other side of the eardrum, triggering neurochemical signals beginning in the auditory cortex on the side of your brain.

Sound waves are transformed into a pattern of neurochemical activation that moves from the auditory cortex to the anterior insular cortex, which directly influences and receives input from your heart, lungs, vagus nerve, sexual organs, and gut. It is in this moment of musical-meaning making in the brain that we do indeed listen to music with our bodies, and where musical feeling begins.

This neural representation of music, now synced up with essential rhythms of the body, moves through a region of the brain known as the hippocampus, which adds layers of memories to the ever-accreting meaning of the sounds. Music so readily transports us from the present to the past, or from what is actual to what is possible, spatiotemporal journeys that can be awe-inspiring.

And finally, this symphony of neurochemical signals makes its way to our prefrontal cortex, where, via language, we endow this web of sound with personal and cultural meaning. Music allows us to understand the great themes of social living, our identities, the fabric of our communities, and often how our worlds should change.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a symphony. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to a suite of studies examining the neurophysiology of awe through the lens of music — how different types of music affect our heart rate and hormones, how different people’s brains synchronize when listening to the same music — he adds:

When we listen to music that moves us, the dopaminergic circuitry of the brain is activated, which opens the mind to wonder and exploration. In this bodily state of musical awe, we often tear up and get the chills, those embodied signs of merging with others to face mysteries and the unknown… Music breaks down the boundaries between self and other and can unite us in feelings of awe… When we listen to music with others, the great rhythms of our bodies — heartbeat, breathing, hormonal fluctuations, sexual cycles, bodily motion — once separate, merge into a synchronized pattern. We sense that we are part of something larger, a community, a pattern of energy, an idea of the times — or what we might call the sacred.

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music and the universe, Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of algorithms, and some thoughts on music and the price of what we cherish, then revisit the kindred science of “soft fascination” and how nature helps us think.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

6 Jan. 2023

Reawakening to the rapture and responsibility of “a changing world that by every calculation ought never to have been.”


How Our Story Ends (and How to Begin Rewriting It): Richard Powers on Planetary Death and Life as Our Force of Resistance

In a universe governed by randomness and impartial laws, chance has been kind to us — a kindness so immense it feels like a benediction. Here we are, drifting through the austere blackness of pure spacetime on a planet just the right distance from its home star to have an atmosphere and water and warmth for life. And what life! A cornucopia of creatures moving through lushness beyond measure, born of blue oceans and shimmering shores.

It didn’t have to exist, not one bit of it — not the oceans, not the redwoods, not the octopus, not the miracle of consciousness that turns back on itself to stand wonder-smitten by the majesty of it all. And yet here it is and here we are, children of the flowers, captives of this wonderland, lulled by habit and hubris into dishonoring our benediction by forgetting the staggering improbability of it all.

Richard Powers extends an uncommonly beautiful invitation to unforgetting in his novel Bewilderment (public library) — the story of an astrobiologist father searching for habitable worlds beyond our Solar System and his sensitive son lovesick for Earth.

Art by Sophie Blackall from If You Come to Earth

A generation after the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Cosmic Ball” eulogized the Fermi paradox — the mournful question of where, if all probability points to the existence of life elsewhere in the universe, that other life is — Powers wrests poetry from this great puzzlement of science:

There was a planet that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness. That happened billions of times in our galaxy alone.

In the novel, another world, Earthlike but further along the evolutionary cycles of the universe, becomes a lens on our own — both on the precariousness of life and on its persistence: life as a force of resistance to entropy. Much like Kepler used the imaginative trope of lunar beings to awaken earthlings to the realities of our own world in the first work of true science fiction, Powers uses the fate of that other world to jolt us awake to the improbable wonder of our own:

The first time Thea died, a comet tore off a third of the planet and turned it into a moon. Nothing on Tedia survived. After tens of millions of years, the atmosphere came back, water flowed again, and life sparked a second time. Cells learned that symbiotic trick of how to combine. Large creatures spread once more into every niche of the planet. Then a distant gamma ray burst dissolved Tedia’s ozone shield and ultraviolet radiation killed most everything. Patches of life survived in the deepest oceans, so this time it was faster coming back. Ingenious forests set out again across the continents. A hundred million years after that, just as a species of cetacean was beginning to make tools and art, a neighborhood star system supernovaed, and Tedia had to start again. The problem was that the planet lay too near the galactic center, packed in too closely to the calamities of other stars. Extinction would never be far away. But there were periods of grace, between the devastations. Forty resets in, the calm lasted long enough for civilization to take hold. Intelligent bear-people built villages and mastered agriculture. They harnessed steam, channeled electricity, learned and built simple machines. But when their archaeologists revealed how often the world ended, and their astronomers figured out why, society broke down and destroyed itself, millennia before the next supernova would have. This, too, happened again and again.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Hinting at this eternal dialogue between nature and human nature, Powers considers the time arrow of the mind, reminding us that curiosity and all the tendrils of human longing exist only for as long as we ourselves exist; lest we forget, life as we know it — as we are it — is but “a flash in the pan, a few moments in the vast unfolding of time and space in the cosmos.” He writes:

Light travels at three hundred thousand kilometers a second. It takes ninety-three billion years to cross from one end of space to the other, past black holes and pulsars and quasars, neutron and preon and quark stars, metallics and blue stragglers, binaries and triple-star systems, globular and hypercompact clusters, coronal, tidal, and halo galaxies, reflection and plerion nebulae, stellar, interstellar, and intergalactic disks, dark matter and energy, cosmic dust and filaments and voids, all spun from the laws folded up into vibrations far smaller than the smallest units we have names for. The universe is a living thing, and my son wants to take me for a quick look around while there’s still time.

Set a half-tone up the scale of time from the menacing tritone of our present predicament, the novel paints a world for which time has run out in order to awaken a world, this world, teetering on the event horizon of too late. The story ends with that rarest and most beautiful of compositional triumphs — a requiem that is also a clarion call:

Oh, this planet was a good one. And we, too, were good, as good as the burn of the sun and the rain’s sting and the smell of living soil, the all-over song of endless solutions signing the air of a changing world that by every calculation ought never to have been.

Complement with Richard Powers on how to live with bewilderment, then revisit Lewis Thomas’s almost unbearably wonder-full meditation on our destiny as the fragile species and Rachel Carson on wonder as the antidote to self-destruction.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

4 Jan. 2023

How to ferment our natural gifts into nectar for the world.


Seneca on Creativity: Lessons from the Bees

A founding credo of The Marginalian is what I long ago termed combinatorial creativity — the idea that everything of beauty and substance we contribute to the world is composed of myriad influences and inspirations acquired in the course of being alive and awake to ideas, unconsciously composited into something new. Rilke understood this when he considered what it takes to create, and Einstein understood it when he placed “combinatory play” at the center of his way of thinking.

Millennia before me and you and Rilke and Einstein, the great Stoic philosopher Seneca captured this spirit of combinatorial creativity in Letter 84 from his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later collected as the indispensable Letters from a Stoic (public library).

Still from Bloom.

Long before we understood the role of pollinators in the creation of life on Earth, Seneca writes:

We should follow… the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in… The materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation, — whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

Two thousand years before Audre Lorde drew human wisdom from the way of the bee, Seneca adds:

We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us, — in other words, our natural gifts, — we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

Complement with David Bowie on creativity, Virginia Woolf on the courage to create rather than cater, and the fascinating science of how time in nature magnifies our creative ability, then revisit Seneca on gratitude, the antidote to anxiety, and the key to resilience in the face of loss.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

3 Jan. 2023

“Hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe.”


The Tragic Miracle of Consciousness: John Steinbeck on the True Meaning and Purpose of Hope

We hope, we despair, and then we hope again — that is how we stay afloat in the cosmos of uncertainty that is any given life. Just as the universe exists because, by some accident of chance we are yet to fathom, there is more matter than antimatter in it, we exist — and go on existing — because there is more hope than despair in us. “Hope,” the great Czech dissident playwright turned president Václav Havel wrote, “is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” Hope, I have long believed, is the antidote to cynicism — that most cowardly and self-defeating of existential orientations. Hope, Rebecca Solnit reminds us, “is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.” For it is a power indeed — the power to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps from even the darkest and most dispiriting of circumstances, so that we may go on reaching for the light. In this capacity, hope might be our greatest evolutionary adaptation — the mitochondria of our spiritual metabolism, the opposable thumb of our grip on life.

That function of hope is what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) explores from an uncommonly illuminating perspective in a portion of The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) — his forgotten masterpiece about how to think, wrested from a marine biology expedition into the Gulf of California at the outbreak of a World War.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck weighs what we are against the living reality — the living brutality — of other species, considering hope as our adaptive calibration of what is most brutal in our own nature. Writing two years before his humanistic reckoning with hope and despair, he reflects:

We have looked into the tide pools and seen the little animals feeding and reproducing and killing for food. We name them and describe them and, out of long watching, arrive at some conclusion about their habits so that we say, “This species typically does thus and so,” but we do not objectively observe our own species as a species, although we know the individuals fairly well. When it seems that men may be kinder to men, that wars may not come again, we completely ignore the record of our species. If we used the same smug observation on ourselves that we do on hermit crabs we would be forced to say, with the information at hand, “It is one diagnostic trait of Homo sapiens that groups of individuals are periodically infected with a feverish nervousness which causes the individual to turn on and destroy, not only his own kind, but the works of his own kind. It is not known whether this be caused by a virus, some airborne spore, or whether it be a species reaction to some meteorological stimulus as yet undetermined.” Hope, which is another species diagnostic trait — the hope that this may not always be — does not in the least change the observable past and present. When two crayfish meet, they usually fight. One would say that perhaps they might not at a future time, but without some mutation it is not likely that they will lose this trait. And perhaps our species is not likely to forgo war without some psychic mutation which at present, at least, does not seem imminent. And if one place the blame for killing and destroying on economic insecurity, on inequality, on injustice, he is simply stating the proposition in another way. We have what we are. Perhaps the crayfish feels the itch of jealousy, or perhaps he is sexually insecure. The effect is that he fights. When in the world there shall come twenty, thirty, fifty years without evidence of our murder trait, under whatever system of justice or economic security, then we may have a contrasting habit pattern to examine. So far there is no such situation. So far the murder trait of our species is as regular and observable as our various sexual habits.

Common crayfish from The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology, 1895. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

The Log from the Sea of Cortez is very much an admonition against the traps of teleological thinking — the antiscientific tendency to explain things by some purpose they serve, usually in relation to us, as opposed to meeting reality on its own terms and accepting that things are because they are. With an eye to “how the strictures of the old teleologies infect our observation,” keeping us from seeing reality clearly and seducing us with “causal thinking warped by hope,” Steinbeck builds on this idea of hope as a diagnostic trait for our species:

Hope is a diagnostic human trait, and this simple cortex symptom seems to be a prime factor in our inspection of our universe. For hope implies a change from a present bad condition to a future better one. The slave hopes for freedom, the weary man for rest, the hungry for food. And the feeders of hope, economic and religious, have from these simple strivings of dissatisfaction managed to create a world picture which is very hard to escape. Man* grows toward perfection; animals grow toward man; bad grows toward good; and down toward up, until our little mechanism, hope, achieved in ourselves probably to cushion the shock of thought, manages to warp our whole world. Probably when our species developed the trick of memory and with it the counterbalancing projection called “the future,” this shock-absorber, hope, had to be included in the series, else the species would have destroyed itself in despair. For if ever any man were deeply and unconsciously sure that his future would be no better than his past, he might deeply wish to cease to live… In saying that hope cushions the shock of experience, that one trait balances the directionalism of another, a teleology is implied, unless one know or feel or think that we are here, and that without this balance, hope, our species in its blind mutation might have joined many, many others in extinction.

Art Giuliano Cucco by from Before I Grew Up

But this shock-absorber of survival serves another, far subtler purpose as an emblem of our incompleteness, reminding us, as James Baldwin knew, that “nothing is fixed”; reminding us, as Lewis Thomas knew, that we are a fragile species still in its adolescence. Steinbeck considers hope as our valve of becoming:

We have made our mark on the world, but we have really done nothing that the trees and creeping plants, ice and erosion, cannot remove in a fairly short time… In spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the trait of hope still controls the future… Man in his thinking or reverie status admires the progression toward extinction, but in the unthinking stimulus which really activates him he tends toward survival. Perhaps no other animal is so torn between alternatives. Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps… his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming.

Complement this fragment of The Log from the Sea of Cortez — which was among the finest things I read all year — with Jane Goodall on the deepest wellspring of hope and some thoughts on hope and the remedy for despair from Nick Cave and Gabriel Marcel, then revisit Steinbeck on the art of seeing the pattern beyond the particular and his timeless advice on love.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

1 Jan. 2023

“We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys.”


May Sarton on How to Live with Tenderness in a Harsh World

This world is radiant with beauty. This world is also capable of bone-chilling brutality and the small, corrosive daily cruelties that salt our days with sorrow. For a sensitive person to live with the duality, to keep the light aflame without turning away from the darkness that needs illumination, may be the most difficult thing in life — and the most rewarding.

What it takes, and how it rewards us, is what the great poet and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in a journal entry from her altogether dazzling 1977 book The House by the Sea (public library).

May Sarton

With an eye to the daily reality of teenagers killing with firearms — a reality that, in the decades since, has been magnified from interpersonal violence to mass shootings — she considers the long roots of desensitization, fanged into the body of the world with every war:

What have we done to our children that such indifference is possible? A total disconnection between the act and the human terror and despair involved?

In a passage of stunning prescience and relevance to our own epoch, she answers:

We are in a period where torture is taken for granted almost everywhere, and where the so-called civilized peoples must go on eating candy and drinking whiskey while millions die of hunger. So one has to extrapolate the morally indifferent boys to the whole ethos in which they live. And at the root of it all is the lack of imagination. If we had imagined what we were doing in Vietnam it would have had to be stopped. But the images of old women holding shattered babies or of babies screaming ended by passing before our eyes but never penetrating to consciousness where they could be experienced. Are we paying for Vietnam now by seeing our children become monsters?

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… — a child’s vision for a better world.

Sarton offers a cure for this deadly indifference — a cure that honeys this twenty-first-century soul with its poignancy and its potency:

I am more and more convinced that in the life of civilizations as in the lives of individuals too much matter that cannot be digested, too much experience that has not been imagined and probed and understood, ends in total rejection of everything — ends in anomie. The structures break down and there is nothing to “hold onto.” It is understandable that at such times religious fanatics arise and the fundamentalists rise up in fury. Hatred rather than love dominates. How does one handle it? The greatest danger, as I see it in myself, is the danger of withdrawal into private worlds. We have to keep the channels in ourselves open to pain. At the same time it is essential that true joys be experienced, that the sunrise not leave us unmoved, for civilization depends on the true joys, all those that have nothing to do with money or affluence — nature, the arts, human love. Maybe that is why the pandas in the London Zoo brought me back to poetry for the first time in two years.

Complement this fragment of the wholly ravishing The House by the Sea with Sarton on the cure for despair, then revisit Walt Whitman, writing shortly after his paralytic stroke, on what makes life worth living and Mary Oliver on the measure of a life well lived.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

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