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Sir Thomas Browne on the Divine Heartbreak of Romantic Friendship

BrainPickings.org - 7 hours 16 min ago
“United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other.”

Navigating the various types of platonic relationships can be challenging enough. But few things are more existentially disorienting than trying to moor oneself within a relationship that floats back and forth across the porous boundary between the platonic and the erotic — one rooted in a deep friendship but magnetized with undeniable romantic intensity, like the relationships between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann in the nineteenth century and Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman in the twentieth.

But as beautiful and vitalizing as such more-than-friendships can be, they tend to be inevitably dampened by an undercurrent of disappointment, a quiet undulating heartache that comes from the disconnect between the enormity one or both persons long for and the lesser-than reality permitted by the other person’s nature or the circumstances of one or both of their lives.

Four centuries ago, the English polymath Sir Thomas Browne (October 19, 1605–October 19, 1682) captured the divine heartbreak of romantic friendship with enduring insight in a passage from his first literary work, Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) (public library), penned the year of his thirtieth birthday.

Sir Thomas Browne by Jane Carlile

Browne, whose enchanting and lyrical writing inspired many of the Romantics, celebrates romantic friendship as a love that, in transcending regular friendship, approaches the divine:

I hope I do not break the fifth commandment, if I conceive I may love my friend before the nearest of my blood, even those to whom I owe the principles of life. I never yet cast a true affection on a woman; but I have loved my friend as I do virtue, my soul, my God. From hence, methinks, I do conceive how God loves man.

He then presents a taxonomy of the “three most mystical unions”:

1. two natures in one person; 2. three persons in one nature; 3. one soul in two bodies. For though indeed they be really divided, yet are they so united, as they seem but one, and make rather a duality in two distinct souls.

There are wonders in true affection; it is a body of enigmas, mysteries, and riddles, wherein two so become one, as they both become two.

But Browne’s most poignant insight deals with the paradoxical nature of such intense connections. When we seek for another to be our everything, he suggests, we doom ourselves to continual despair and disappointment, because the most anyone can ever give us is still less-than-everything, which to the heart that longs for everything — for a complete merging of natures — feels like a sorrowing incompleteness next to nothing. He writes:

I love my friend before myself, and yet methinks I do not love him enough: some few months hence my multiplied affection will make me believe I have not loved him at all. When I am [apart] from him, I am dead till I be with him; when I am with him, I am not satisfied but would still be nearer him. United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other; which being impossible, their desires are infinite, and must proceed without a possibility of satisfaction.

And yet the redemption of this perennial dissatisfaction, Browne argues, is that by so intensely throwing ourselves into a love that can never be fully requited, we master the difficult art of unselfish love — a love we can then direct at anyone, free of expectation of return, perhaps more akin to the Ancient Greek notion of agape, which inspired Dr. King’s “experiment in love.” Browne puts it simply:

He that can love his friend with this noble ardor will, in a competent degree, affect all.

Complement with Van Gogh on unrequited love as fuel for creative work and David Whyte on reclaiming heartbreak, then revisit the stunning epistolary record of Kahlil Gibran’s rich and nuanced relationship with Mary Haskell.

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How Bach Will Save Your Soul: German Philosopher Josef Pieper on the Hidden Source of Music’s Power

BrainPickings.org - Thu, 07/27/2017 - 11:00
“Music opens a path into the realm of silence.”

Some of humanity’s greatest and most fertile minds — including Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, and Friedrich Nietzsche — have contemplated the power of music, and yet the question of why music moves us so remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable. Why is it that music can permeate our deepest memories, help us grieve, and save our lives?

Four years after his increasingly timely case for shedding the culture-crushing shackles of workaholism, of the German philosopher Josef Pieper (May 4, 1904–November 6, 1997) explored the abiding puzzlement of music’s power in a speech delivered during intermission at a Bach concert in 1952, later published under the title “Thoughts About Music” in his small, enormous posthumous essay collection Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (public library) — a set of reflections titled after Augustine’s beautiful assertion that “only he who loves can sing” (which Van Gogh echoed in his insistence that art and love are one), exploring what Pieper argues is the “hidden root” of the richness of all music, fine art, and poetry: contemplation.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

Piper begins his Bach speech by examining our age-old preoccupation with pinning down the elusive source of music’s singular enchantment:

Not only is music one of the most amazing and mysterious phenomena of all the world’s miranda, the things that make us wonder (and, therefore, the formal subject of any philosopher…) [but] music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul… yet, with the soul entirely oblivious, that philosophy, in fact, is happening here… Beyond that, and above all, music prompts the philosopher’s continued interest because it is by its nature so close to the fundamentals of human existence.

Pieper considers the question of what we actually perceive when we listen to music. Surely, he points out, we perceive something greater and beyond the sum total of the specific sounds and words, something of additional intimacy and meaning, just as in poetry we “perceive more and something other than the factual, literal meaning of its words.” Echoing Aldous Huxley’s exquisite assertion that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Pieper writes:

Music opens a path into the realm of silence. Music reveals the human soul in stark “nakedness,” as it were, without the customary linguistic draperies.

Art by Julia Kuo from The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito

With an eye to the canon of ideas about music in Western philosophy — including Schopenhauer, who believed that music is superior to all other arts for they “speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence,” and Nietzsche, who dramatized his monumental regard for music in the proclamation that “without music life would be a mistake” — Pieper summarizes the landscape of thought:

The nature of music variously [has] been understood … as nonverbal articulation of weal and woe, as wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey toward ethical personhood, as the manifestation of man’s will in its aspects, as love.

All of these ideas, he suggests, can be summed up in a single formulation. A decade after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer framed music as a laboratory for feeling and time, Pieper writes:

Music articulates the inner dynamism of man’s existential self, which is music’s “prime matter” (so to speak), and both share a particular characteristic — both move in time.

Much as the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky would argue decades later that cinema is the art of “sculpting in time,” Pieper argues that this temporal element of music gives us a vital tool with which to sculpt our personhood:

Since music articulates the immediacy of man’s basic existential dynamism in an immediate way, the listener as well is addressed and challenged on that profound level where man’s self-realization takes place. In this existential depth of the listener, far below the level of expressible judgments, there echoes — in identical immediacy — the same vibration articulated in the audible music.

We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man’s formation and perfection… beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching, or education.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

In a passage of even more jarring pertinence to our own era of formulaic mass-produced mediocrity marketed as popular music, Pieper writes:

If we now look at our society … we observe how much the most trivial and “light” music, the “happy sound,” has become the most common and pervasive phenomenon. By its sheer banality, this music expresses quite accurately the cheap self-deception that on the inner existential level all is fine… We observe how much attention is demanded by — and willingly given to — the rhythmic beat of a certain crude and orgiastic music… Both kinds of music, the “happy sound” as well as the numbing beat, claim legitimacy as “entertainment,” as means, that is, of satisfying, without success, the boredom and existential void that are caused and increased by each other and that equally have become a common and pervasive phenomenon. We further observe how music … is frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely “skin-deep” (von aussen her, as Rilke said)… We observe all this with great alarm, aware that music lays bare man’s inner existential condition, removing veil and façade (and it cannot be otherwise), while this same inner condition receives from music the most discreet impulses, for better or for worse.

Pieper returns to the subject of his speech, extolling Bach as a timeless counterpoint to this debasement of the soul in music — a supreme example of the kind of music that ennobles our personhood by inviting existential contemplation:

We observe and ponder all this and then are moved to rejoice as we become aware again and acknowledge anew that among all the various kinds of music today there still exists, also and especially, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach!

Obviously, this implies a challenge to ourselves, a challenge not easily nor “automatically” satisfied. That we are willing to listen attentively to the essential message of this music and that we let this message find an echo, as if on reverberating strings, within the immediacy of our soul is decisive. This will lead to new and rekindled clarity, authenticity, and vigor of our inward existence; to the dissatisfaction with entertaining but hollow achievements; and to a sober and perceptive alertness that is not distracted from the realities of actual life by the promise of easy pleasure proffered in superficial harmonies. Above all, this will guide us to turn with resolve, constancy, courage, and hope toward the one and only Good by whose grace our inner existential yearning finds fulfillment; the one Good praised and exalted particularly in Bach’s music with such ever-present “wordless jubilation.”

Complement this particular portion of the wholly jubilant Only the Lover Sings with Franz Kafka on the power of music and the point of making art and Aldous Huxley on why music speaks to our souls, then revisit Pieper on the neglected seedbed of creative culture.

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Advice to the Young from Pioneering Astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Who Discovered the Composition of the Universe

BrainPickings.org - Wed, 07/26/2017 - 01:00
Work with love, embrace the unexpected, let no one else make intellectual decisions for you, and always remain in direct touch with the fountain-head.

The English-American astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900–December 7, 1979) — the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard and the first woman to chair a Harvard department — overcame tremendous courterforces of cultural resistance to change our understanding of the cosmos and pave the way for women in science.

During her youth in England, Cecilia endured “concentrated agony” as she tried to perform the social dances in which her peers engaged and was taunted for being “a girl who reads Plato for pleasure,” as a friend of her brother’s scoffed. Disheartened but undeterred, she continued pursuing her intellectual passions. But upon completing her studies at Cambridge, she was not awarded a degree — the university wouldn’t accredit women for another half-century. Disillusioned with her prospects in England, she applied for a fellowship at the Harvard College Observatory, home to the trailblazing Harvard Computers. In her 215-page Harvard doctoral thesis of 1925 — a time when there was only rudimentary awareness of the existence of stellar nuclei and nuclear reactions — Payne-Gaposchkin found that stars were made primarily of hydrogen, illuminating for the first time the chemical composition of the cosmos.

Cecilia Payne, Harvard College Observatory

In the introduction to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections (public library), Virginia Trimble — herself an influential astronomer who at the age of eighteen had been profiled in Life magazine under the headline “Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 I.Q.” and who went on to become the second woman ever allowed at the famed Palomar Observatory a year after Vera Rubin broke the optical-glass ceiling — remarks that Payne-Gaposchkin was “pretty unambiguously the first woman to make original contributions in astronomy and astrophysics (in the sense we now expect of both genders as researchers) by inventing her own problems and solving them.”

Payne-Gaposchkin accomplished this despite the consistent institutional discrimination she faced on account of her gender and her youth, which rendered her so underpaid compared to her male peers at Harvard that she was too ashamed to admit her income to her family in England. But she found her scientific calling so deeply rewarding that she simply continued to work with rapturous rigor and devotion — and also played the violin, read broadly and voraciously, wrote poetry, pioneered the now-worn aesthetic of using lines from famous poems as chapter epigraphs in popular science books, and once needlepointed a supernova.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s embroidery of supernova remnant Cas A. Read the story behind the project here.

Looking back on the landscape of human knowledge over the span of her long career, she writes in her autobiography:

We know much less than we did when I came here as a student more than 50 years ago.

Shifting from the evolution of scientific knowledge to the evolution of culture, she reflects on what it takes to override the forces of resistance:

I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams, have predicted 50 years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent. I was not consciously aiming at the point I finally reached. I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery, toward an unexpected goal.

This appears to be a common sentiment among accomplished women in science — Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, would echo it in her own thoughts on minimizing obstacles. Such a dogged devotion to the work itself, Payne-Gaposchkin asserts, is the single most substantive aim for anyone endeavoring to succeed — in science as much as in life. She writes:

Young people, especially young women, often ask me for advice. Here it is, valeat quantum [literally “equivalent amount” in Latin, an idiom for “(let it be worth) as much as it is worth”]. Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.

Cecilia Payne by Rachel Ignotofsky from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Writing with humbling clarity of conviction, she extols the centrality of trusting one’s most authentic sense of purpose, untainted by external interference of other people’s ideas, expectations, and permissions of possibility:

There are those — and I am one of them — who rebel at having to deal with an intermediary. They want to go to the fountain-head. Someone who knows me well says that science, to me, has been a religious experience. He is probably right. If my religious passion had been turned toward the Catholic Church I should have wanted to be a priest. I am sure that I should never have settled for being a nun. If it had been directed toward medicine, I should have wanted to be a surgeon; nothing would have persuaded me to be content to be a nurse. As I look over the world of science, I picture most of the many women who are working in that field today in the role of nuns and nurses. They are not allowed — they are not supposed to be fit — to be in direct touch with the fountain-head, whether you call it God or the Universe. (But even as I write, this situation is changing.) Here I have had no cause for complaint. I have always been in direct touch with the fountain-head. No other mortal has made my intellectual decisions for me. I may have been underpaid, I may have occupied subordinate positions for many years, but my source of inspiration has always been direct.

Two years before her death, Payne-Gaposchkin builds on her reflections on the true rewards of science and the measure of success in her 1977 memorial lecture delivered upon receiving the prestigious Henry Russell Prize from the American Astronomical Society, excerpted in Clifford Pickover’s book The Stars of Heaven:

The reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience; it engenders what Thomas Huxley called Divine Dipsomania. The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape. Not a finished picture, of course; a picture that is still growing in scope and detail with the application of new techniques and new skills. The old scientist cannot claim that the masterpiece is his own work. He may have roughed out part of the design, laid on a few strokes, but he has learned to accept the discoveries of others with the same delight that he experienced his own when he was young.

Complement this portion of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections with neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the six “diseases of the will” that keep the gifted from reaching greatness, astronomer Maria Mitchell on the art of knowing what to do with your life, and Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s timeless advice to the young, then revisit the remarkable story of how physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission and paved the way for women in science against enormous cultural odds.

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Albert Camus on the Three Antidotes to the Absurdity of Life

BrainPickings.org - Mon, 07/24/2017 - 01:00
“In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity.”

What an astrophysicist might have the perspective to eulogize as “the incredibly improbable trip that we’re on” the rest of us might, and often do, experience as simply and maddeningly absurd — so uncontrollable and incomprehensible as to barely make sense. What are we to make of, and do with, the absurdity of life that swarms us daily? Oliver Sacks believed that “the most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” And yet parsing the what-it-is-like can itself drive us to despair. Still, parse we must.

More than a decade before Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) became the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times,” he contemplated the relationship between absurdity and redemption in a 1945 interview by the French journalist Jeanine Delpech, included at the end of his Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library) — the superb posthumous collection that gave us Camus on how to strengthen our character in difficult times and happiness, despair, and the love of life.

Albert Camus

Three years before the interview, twenty-eight-year-old Camus had stunned the world with his revolutionary philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, which begins with one of the most powerful opening sentences in all of literature and explores the paradox of the absurd in life. “I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion,” he writes — something that prompted his interviewer to ask whether a philosophy predicated on absurdity might incline people to despair.

Camus — who years earlier had asserted that “there is no love of life without despair of life” — answers:

All I can do is reply on my own behalf, realizing that what I say is relative. Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful. An analysis of the idea of revolt could help us to discover ideas capable of restoring a relative meaning to existence, although a meaning that would always be in danger.

Speaking at the close of the meaningless brutality of World War II, six years before he formulated his ideas on solidarity and what it really means to be a rebel, Camus considers the only act of courage and rebellion worth undertaking:

In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish. To do so, certain conditions must be fulfilled: men must be frank (falsehood confuses things), free (communication is impossible with slaves). Finally, they must feel a certain justice around them.

I have often wondered whether Camus had read W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” written in 1940, which includes this searing stanza so kindred to Camus’s sentiment:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Complement this particular fragment of Camus’s endlessly rewarding Lyrical and Critical Essays with Albert Einstein on our mightiest counterforce against injustice and Naomi Shihab Nye on choosing kindness over fear, then revisit Camus’s abiding ideas on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, the most important question of existence, the lacuna between truth and meaning, and the touching letter of gratitude he sent to his boyhood teacher shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize.

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The Drift Called the Infinite: Emily Dickinson on Making Sense of Loss

BrainPickings.org - Thu, 07/20/2017 - 02:00
Reflections on silence and eternity from the poet laureate of death.

“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” poet Meghan O’Rourke wrote in her stirring memoir of losing her mother. More than a century earlier, another poet with a rare gift for philosophical prose reflected on mortality in the wake of her own mother’s death.

Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) was about to turn fifty-two when her mother, after whom she was named, died. A stroke had left her paralyzed and almost entirely disabled eight years earlier. Despite her lifelong infirm health, her disinterest in the life of the mind, and the surges of unhappiness in the Dickinson home, Emily Norcross Dickinson had been attentive and affectionate to her daughter, igniting the poet’s little-known but ardent passion for botany and prompting her to write that “home is a holy thing.”

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, circa 1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Although a contemplation of mortality haunts nearly all of Dickinson’s 1775 surviving poems in varying degrees of directness, her mother’s death forced a confrontation with mortality of a wholly different order — loss as an acute immediacy rather than a symbolic and speculative abstraction.

In a letter to her cousins penned shortly after her mother’s death in November of 1882 and found in The Letters of Emily Dickinson (public library), the poet writes:

Mother’s dying almost stunned my spirit… She slipped from our fingers like a flake gathered by the wind, and is now part of the drift called “the infinite.”

We don’t know where she is, though so many tell us.

Even as a child, Emily had come to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me,” she wrote in her twenties to Susan Gilbert — her first great love and lifelong closest friend. Dickinson went on to reject the prescriptive traditional religion of her era, never joined a church, and adopted a view of spirituality kindred to astronomer Maria Mitchell’s. It is with this mindset that she adds in the letter to her cousins:

I believe we shall in some manner be cherished by our Maker — that the One who gave us this remarkable earth has the power still farther to surprise that which He has caused. Beyond that all is silence…

Emily Norcross Dickinson, daguerreotype, circa 1847 (Monson Free Library)

Writing less than four years before her own untimely death, she ends the letter with these words:

I cannot tell how Eternity seems. It sweeps around me like a sea… Thank you for remembering me. Remembrance — mighty word.

In another letter from the following spring, penned after receiving news of a friend’s death, Dickinson stills her swirling sorrow the best way she knew how — in a poem:

Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.

She adds a sobering reflection on the shock each of us experiences the first time we lose a loved one:

Till the first friend dies, we think ecstasy impersonal, but then discover that he was the cup from which we drank it, itself as yet unknown.

Complement with a collection of moving consolation letters by great artists, writers, and scientists ranging from Lincoln to Einstein to Turing, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on how Darwin and Freud shaped our relationship to mortality, Seneca on the key to resilience in the face of loss, and this unusual Danish picture-book about death, then revisit Cynthia Nixon’s beautiful reading of Dickinson’s “While I was fearing it, it came” and Dickinson’s forgotten herbarium — an elegy for time and mortality at the intersection of poetry and science.

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A Pioneering Scientist on Memory, the Value of Our Unremembered Work, and the Incalculable Sum Total of the Human Experience

BrainPickings.org - Tue, 07/18/2017 - 20:00
“Are we not … parts of a greater organism, kept alive through the ever more vividly circulating blood of an enormous past?”

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it,” Gabriel García Márquez asserted in immortalizing the memory of his own life. And yet however much truth the sentiment may hold, it holds twice as much tragedy — although memory is the seedbed of our sense of self, the vast majority of life unfolds in the small, unremembered moments that furnish the microscopic threads in the tapestry of being. Sally Mann captured this paradox in her exquisite meditation on the dark side of memory: “The exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.”

Memory, then, is not the pencil with which the outline of a life is drawn but the eraser — something as true of our personal memory as it is of our collective memory, which contains everything we know as culture: the great works of art celebrated generations after their creators have returned to stardust, the scientific discoveries that become the building blocks of subsequent theories and breakthroughs.

Perhaps because science is the ultimate self-correcting mechanism and necessarily builds on both the errors and the triumphs of the past, scientists must have a particularly revealing perspective on memory and its paradoxes. That’s what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff (August 11, 1905–June 20, 2002) explores in a passage of Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature — his uncommonly lyrical memoir, which gave us Chargaff on the poetics of curiosity and the power of being an outsider.

Erwin Chargaff

Chargaff writes:

If we could not forget, we could not remember; just as only the trembling balance can weigh. There are nights with a rose tint, there are days black with clouds, a groan from a deathbed, a hand on my hair, a voice out of the pyre of forgottenness. The ashes do speak, but it is a broken murmur. Brief reflections of brightness, as from a shattered mirror, play over the blackness of an ever-present past.

I tell what I am told. Who is the speaker? If it is memory, then why does it sometimes whisper, sometimes shout, often chatter, and mostly remain in sullen silence?

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Noting that this nature of memory condemns him to “writing as a fragmentist,” Chargaff looks back on his own past as a scientist and reflects on the “ghostly pantomime” in which scientists engage as they test theories and perform experiments invisible to the outside world, lost to the canon of collective memory, which James Gleick once so elegantly termed “the fast-expanding tapestry of interwoven ideas and facts that we call our culture.” With an eye to his days in the laboratories of Columbia University and their invisibilia of forgotten yet undismissable work, Chargaff writes:

That most of this activity did not lead to anything handed on to posterity was perhaps a pity. But does this count in the face of a human life? Does not the great corpus mysticum of the world contain all that was once felt or thought, suffered or overcome, created or forgotten, whether written or unwritten, made or destroyed? Are we not in this sense parts of a greater organism, kept alive through the ever more vividly circulating blood of an enormous past?

Heraclitean Fire is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Virginia Woolf on how memory threads our lives together, Arthur Schopenhauer on how it mediates the blurry line between sanity and insanity, and this stunning short film about memory, inspired by Oliver Sacks.

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When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

BrainPickings.org - Mon, 07/17/2017 - 02:00
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

In every life, there comes a time when we are razed to the bone of our resilience by losses beyond our control — lacerations of the heart that feel barely bearable, that leave us bereft of solid ground. What then?

“In art,” Kafka assured his teenage walking companion, “one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.” As in art, so in life — so suggests the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library), she draws on her own confrontation with personal crisis and on the ancient teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to offer gentle and incisive guidance to the enormity we stand to gain during those times when all seems to be lost. Half a century after Albert Camus asserted that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Chödrön reframes those moments of acute despair as opportunities for befriending life by befriending ourselves in the deepest sense.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Writing in that Buddhist way of wrapping in simple language the difficult and beautiful truths of existence, Chödrön examines the most elemental human response to the uncharted territory that comes with loss or any other species of unforeseen change:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

This clarity, Chödrön argues, is a matter of becoming intimate with fear and rather than treating it as a problem to be solved, using it as a tool with which to dismantle all of our familiar structures of being, “a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.” Noting that bravery is not the absence of fear but the intimacy with fear, she writes:

When we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

In essence, this is the hard work of befriending ourselves, which is our only mechanism for befriending life in its completeness. Out of that, Chödrön argues, arises our deepest strength:

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.

[…]

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Decades after Rollo May made his case for the constructiveness of despair, Chödrön considers the fundamental choice we have in facing our unsettlement — whether with aggressive aversion or with generative openness to possibility:

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

To stay with that shakiness — to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic — this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation — harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Half a century after Alan Watts began introducing Eastern teachings into the West with his clarion call for presence as the antidote to anxiety, Chödrön points to the present moment — however uncertain, however difficult — as the sole seedbed of wakefulness to all of life:

This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.

[…]

We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Remaining present and intimate with the moment, she argues, requires mastering maitri — the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness toward oneself, that most difficult art of self-compassion. She contrasts maitri with the typical Western therapy and self-help method of handling crises:

What makes maitri such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.

[…]

In the midst of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.

Another Buddhist concept at odds with our Western coping mechanisms is the Tibetan expression ye tang che. Chödrön explains its connotations, evocative of Camus’s insistence on the vitalizing power of despair:

The ye part means “totally, completely,” and the rest of it means “exhausted.” Altogether, ye tang che means totally tired out. We might say “totally fed up.” It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.

[…]

Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

Decades after Simone de Beauvoir’s proclamation about atheism and the ultimate frontier of hope, Chödrön points out that at the heart of Buddhism’s approach is not the escapism of religion but the realism of secular philosophy. And yet these crude demarcations fail to capture the subtlety of these teachings. She clarifies:

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

[…]

Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security… Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.

[…]

When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself… In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.

Art from The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

Only through such active self-compassion to our own darkness, Chödrön suggests, can we begin to offer authentic light to anybody else, to become a force of radiance in the world. She writes:

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

Complement the immensely grounding and elevating When Things Fall Apart with Camus on strength of character in times of trouble, Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, and Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, then revisit Chödrön on the art of letting go.

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The World’s First Celestial Spectator Sport: Astronomer Maria Mitchell’s Stunning Account of the 1869 Total Solar Eclipse

BrainPickings.org - Thu, 07/13/2017 - 02:00
“All nature rejoiced, and … we rejoiced with Nature.”

Trumpeted by the press as “the great eclipse of the nineteenth century,” the total solar eclipse of August 7, 1869 was the world’s first astronomical event marketed as popular entertainment — not merely a pinnacle of excitement for the scientific community, but a celestial spectator sport for laypeople. Smoked, stained, or vanished glass sold faster than any other item in American stores that summer. Small towns on the eclipse path, which stretched from Alaska to the mid-Atlantic coast, experienced an unprecedented surge of tourism. Newspapers offered extensive coverage of the event in the weeks leading up to it, crowned by front-page headlines the morning after the eclipse.

But by far the most exquisite and original piece about the cosmic marvel came two months later from the inimitable Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first female astronomer, who paved the way for women in science and became the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus” — a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world.

Total solar eclipse of 1869. Photograph by Benjamin Peirce, Harvard University.

Writing in the October issue of Hours at Home, Scribner’s first magazine, Mitchell reported on the eclipse expedition she had led to Burlington, Vermont. (Nearly a decade later, she would draw on this experience and a subsequent one in her tips on how to watch a solar eclipse.) Fusing rigorous insight into the science of eclipses with a poetic account of this uncommonly transcendent encounter with the universe, Mitchell ends her anonymous essay with a clever rhetorical twist that throws a grenade into society’s most foundational assumptions about science, gender, and human nature.

Maria Mitchell

She begins by framing the enormity of the fanfare surrounding the event, summoning the throngs “ticketed to totality”:

Every known astronomer received courteous invitations into the shadow. Every astronomer, professional or amateur, prepared to go. The observatories must have been left undirected; the mathematical chairs of the colleges must have been empty, and, judging from the crowded condition of hotels within the darkness, Saratoga and Newport must have felt the different set of the travelling current… In the halls of the hotels we saw meetings between friends long separated, and heard joyous exclamations as grayhaired men met and shook hands and laughed, that neither could recognize in the middle-aged other the youth whom he had left, and whom he had since known only through scientific journals.

Leading a team of six young scientists, Mitchell arrived at Burlington College on August 4, “too late to attempt any work that day,” and was engulfed in inclement weather for the next two days, glooming from cloudy to “rainy, rainy all day.” When the third day broke with “as beautiful as morning could be,” they began setting up their instruments. Writing deliberately in the masculine, she describes the technical setup:

In preparing for an observation of time, the astronomer gives himself every possible facility. He ascertains to a tenth of a second the condition of his chronometer, not only how fast or how slow it is, but how much that fastness or that slowness varies from hour to hour. He notes exactly the second and part of a second when the expected event should arrive; and a short time before that he places himself at the telescope.

Diagram of a total solar eclipse (Atlas of Astronomy, 1869)

Mitchell then pivots smoothly from this matter-of-factly reportage to a lyrical account of the pinnacle of the experience — the sight of the corona and its attendant otherworldly light:

There were some seconds of breathless suspense, and then the inky blackness appeared on the burning limb of the sun. All honor to my assistant, whose uniform count on and on, with unwavering voice, steadied my nerves! That for which we had travelled fifteen hundred miles had really come. We watched the movement of the moon’s black disk across the less black spots on the sun’s disk, and we looked for the peculiarities which other observers of partial eclipses had known. The colored glasses of our telescope were several, arranged on a circular plate, so that w could slip a green one before the eye, change it for a red one or a yellow one, or, if we wished to look with the eye unprotected, a vacant space could be found in the circumference. In the course of the hour, from the beginning of the eclipse to total phase, this was readily done. I fancied that an orange hue suited my eye best, and kept that in place intending to slip it aside and receive the full light when the darkness came on. As the moon moved on, the crescent sun became a narrower and narrower golden curve of light, and as it seemed to break up into brilliant lines and points, we knew that the total phase was only a few seconds off.

Light clouds had for some time seemed to drift toward the sun; the Mississippi assumed a leaden hue; a sickly green spread over the landscape; Venus shone brightly on one side of the sun, Mercury on the other; Arcturus was gleaming overhead, Saturn was rising in the east; the neighboring cattle began to low; the birds uttered a painful cry; fireflies twinkled in the foliage, and when the last ray of light was extinguished, a wave of sound came up from the villages below, the mingling of the subdued voices of the multitude.

Instantly the corona burst forth, a glory indeed! It encircled the sun with a soft light, and it sent off streamers for millions of miles into space!

[…]

On looking through the glass, two rosy prominences were seen on the right of the sun’s disk, perhaps one-twentieth of the diameter of the moon, having the shape of the half-blown morning-glory. I found myself continually likening almost all these appearances to flowers, possibly from the exquisite delicacy of the tints. They were not wholly rosy, but of an invariegated pink and white, with a mingling of violet.

Corona of the total solar eclipse of 1869, as seen through a four-inch telescope. Lithograph by J. Bien and J. F. Gedney.

Here, in a supreme testament to the subjectivity of individual human consciousness — the sole tool we have for probing the objective truths of the universe — Mithcell reminds us that no two perceptual experiences of the same phenomenon are alike. (My blue is never your blue.) A century and a half before modern neuroscience coined the notion of the “qualia” that shape our experience of the world, she writes:

Any correct observation of color is, however, impossible. Beside the different perception of the eye, in its normal state, the retina cannot instantly lose the effect of the colored glass. I had just left an orange glass, and was quite insensible to that color; while one of our party who had been using a green glass declares the protuberances to be orange-red.

In a parallel sentiment, with an eye to the representatives of various disciplines observing the eclipse — photography, spectrography, astronomy — she offers a reflection on the nature of knowledge itself:

No one person can give an account of this eclipse, but the speciality of each is the bit of mosaic which he contributes to the whole.

“Four Views of the Solar Eclipse, August 1869″ by John Adams Whipple

Mitchell, who around that very time had written in her diary that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” returns to the aesthetic and almost numinous enchantment of this scientific phenomenon:

As I ran my glance along the limb of the moon I saw another protuberance much larger than the former ones, very nearly at the vertex, increasing rapidly. It seemed to be brought into light as the moon moved on; and yet, billowy in shape and mottled in color, it appeared to have, or possibly it had, a motion within itself. Next there leapt out on the left of the moon two more flower-shaped and flower-tinted creations. Twice, as I was looking at these, a flickering light caught my eye, as if from the moon’s centre; another strangely shaped figure rushed out as if from behind the moon, and instantly the sun came forth. All nature rejoiced, and much as we needed more time, we rejoiced with Nature, and felt that we loved the light… The darkness was neither that of twilight nor of moonlight.

Now here is the ingenious twist: The attentive reader would notice that, throughout her account of the phenomenon, Mitchell is deliberately using the gender-neutral “we” to refer to her team of scientists and doesn’t once use gender pronouns in her first-person narrative. A century and a half before Ursula K. Le Guin so brilliantly unsexed the universal pronoun, Mitchell’s choice inclines her reader to the assumption, standard in her era and still lamentably common in ours, that “scientist” defaults to maleness (even though the word itself had been coined for woman thirty-five years earlier). Against that backdrop of implicit assumption, Mitchell draws on a Wordsworth verse and concludes her anonymous essay with a dramatic revelation surprising, perhaps even shocking, to her reader:

[The English astronomer Charles] Piazzi Smyth says: “The effect of a total eclipse on the minds of men is so overpowering, that if they have never seen it before they forget their appointed tasks, and will look around during the few seconds of obscuration to witness the scene.” Other astronomers have said the same. My assistants, a party of young students, would not have turned from the narrow line of observation assigned to them if the earth had quaked beneath them. They would have said

— “by the storms of circumstance unshaken
And subject neither to eclipse nor wane,
Duty exists.”

Was it because they were women?

In 1869, what a way to turn the magazine page into a drum onto which to play such a zinging rimshot sting.

Complement with Mitchell on science, spirituality, and the conquest of truth, the art of knowing what to do with your life, and her advice on how to watch a solar eclipse, then revisit poet Adrienne Rich’s tribute to astronomy’s unsung heroines and the story of the remarkable women who revolutionized astronomy long before they could vote.

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Thoreau on Writing and the Splendors of Mystery in an Age of Knowledge

BrainPickings.org - Wed, 07/12/2017 - 02:00
“Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed.”

A century before Einstein bequeathed his famous dictum that “imagination is more important than knowledge” and Richard Feynman delivered his iconic flower-monologue about knowledge and mystery, not a scientist but a Transcendentalist philosopher-poet, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), examined the relationship between scientific knowledge and the imagination in a diary entry found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

In December of 1851 — only half a century after an amateur scientist classified the clouds with Goethe’s help — thirty-four-year-old Thoreau writes:

I witness a beauty in the form or coloring of the clouds which addresses itself to my imagination, for which you account scientifically to my understanding, but do not so account to my imagination. It is what it suggests and is the symbol of that I care for, and if, by any trick of science, you rob it of its symbolicalness, you do me no service and explain nothing. I, standing twenty miles off, see a crimson cloud in the horizon. You tell me it is a mass of vapor which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red, but that is nothing to the purpose, for this red vision excites me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow, and I have new and indescribable fancies, and you have not touched the secret of that influence. If there is not something mystical in your explanation, something unexplainable to the understanding, some elements of mystery, it is quite insufficient. If there is nothing in it which speaks to my imagination, what boots it? What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding, but robs the imagination? … That is simply the way in which it speaks to the understanding, and that is the account which the understanding gives of it; but that is not the way it speaks to the imagination, and that is not the account which the imagination gives of it. Just as inadequate to a pure mechanic would be a poet’s account of a steam-engine.

If we knew all things thus mechanically merely, should we know anything really?

A decade later, Thoreau would revisit these questions in his ardent case for “the diffusion of useful ignorance,” but now he turns them toward his own art: writing. Nearly a century and a half before Polish poet Wisława Szymborska asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know,’” Thoreau considers the vital role of not-knowing in the creative process of the writer:

It would be a truer discipline for the writer to take the least film of thought that floats in the twilight sky of his mind for his theme, about which he has scarcely one idea (that would be teaching his ideas how to shoot), faintest intimations, shadowiest subjects, make a lecture on this, by assiduity and attention get perchance two views of the same, increase a little the stock of knowledge, clear a new field instead of manuring the old; instead of making a lecture out of such obvious truths, hackneyed to the minds of all thinkers. We seek too soon to ally the perceptions of the mind to the experience of the hand, to prove our gossamer truths practical, to show their connection with our every-day life (better show their distance from our every-day life), to relate them to the cider-mill and the banking institution. Ah, give me pure mind, pure thought! Let me not be in haste to detect the universal law; let me see more clearly a particular instance of it! … Dissolve one nebula, and so destroy the nebular system and hypothesis. Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed. By perseverance you get two views of the same rare truth.

Complement this particular portion of the abidingly insightful Journal of Henry David Thoreau with trailblazing environmental scientist Rachel Carson on writing about science with a sense of wonder and biochemist Erwin Chargaff on the poetics of curiosity and the crucial difference between understanding and explanation, then revisit Thoreau on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.

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A Bioluminescent Wonder: Rachel Carson on the Art of Illuminating Nature Beyond Scientific Fact

BrainPickings.org - Tue, 07/11/2017 - 01:00
A transcendent account of “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.”

Years before Vladimir Nabokov proclaimed that “there is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) arrived at the immensely fertile intersection of science and wonder, through which she would later catalyze the modern environmental movement with her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring.

Although Carson had already mastered this then-novel aesthetic of scientific fact conveyed through poetic prose in her pioneering 1937 essay “Undersea,” it was a transcendent personal experience that sealed her conviction in the power of this approach in enchanting the popular imagination — an experience she relayed to her dearest friend and beloved in one of the resplendent letters collected in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library).

Rachel Carson

Writing in early August of 1956, Carson recounts a remarkable encounter with nature marked by an almost numinous quality — a bioluminescent wonderland that reveals the magnificent interconnectedness of nature:

We are now having the spring tides of the new moon, you know, and they have traced their advance well over my beach the past several nights… There had been lots of swell and surf and noise all day, so it was most exciting down there toward midnight — all my rocks crowned with foam, and long white crests running from my beach to [the neighbor’s]. To get the full wildness, we turned off our flashlights — and then the real excitement began.. The surf was full of diamonds and emeralds, and was throwing them on the wet sand by the dozens. Dorothy, dear — it was the night we were there all over, but with everything intensified; a wilder accompaniment of noise and movement, and a great deal more phosphorescence. The individual sparks were so large — we’d see them glowing in the sand, or sometimes, caught in the in-and-out play of water, just riding back and forth. And several times I was able to scoop one up in my hand in shells and gravel, and think surely it was big enough to see — but no such luck.

Now here is where my story becomes different. Once, glancing up, I said to Marjie [Carson’s niece] jokingly, “Look — one of them has taken to the air!” A firefly was going by, his lamp blinking. We thought nothing special of it, but in a few minutes one of us said, “There’s that firefly again.” The next time he really got a reaction from us, for he was flying so low over the water that his light cast a long surface reflection, like a little headlight. Then the truth dawned on me. He “thought” the flashes in the water were other fireflies, signaling to him in the age-old manner of fireflies! Sure enough, he was soon in trouble and we saw his light flashing urgently as he was rolled around in the wet sand — no question this time which was insect and which the unidentified little sea will-o-the-wisps!

You can guess the rest: I waded in and rescued him (the will-o-the-wisps had already had me in icy water to my knees so a new wetting didn’t matter) and put him in Roger’s [Carson’s son] bucket to dry his wings. When we came up we brought him as far as the porch — out of reach of temptation, we hoped.

A century after astronomer Maria Mitchell asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Carson — a scientist who studies marine ecosystems with unremitting rigor — contemplates the almost sacred nature of the spectacle before her:

It was one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves… Imagine putting that in scientific language!

A year later, as she is beginning to work on what would become her stunning manifesto for the sense of wonder, Carson writes in another letter to Dorothy:

I consider my contributions to scientific fact far less important than my attempts to awaken an emotional response to the world of nature. So the “wonder” book, and “Remembrances of Earth” I should consider more important than any mere reporting of scientific fact.

It is this marriage of science and wonder that Carson would bring to the writing of Silent Spring a few years later, and it is the power of that dual perspective that would awaken the modern conscience into commencing the environmental movement.

Complement this particular portion of the immeasurably beautiful Always, Rachel — which contains Carson’s touching deathbed farewell to her beloved — with nineteen-year-old Sylvia Plath on the transcendence of nature and physicist Alan Lightman on its spiritual awe, then revisit Carson’s prescient protest against the government’s assault on science and nature.

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How to Live with Death

BrainPickings.org - Mon, 07/10/2017 - 01:00
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on how Darwin and Freud reframed our mortality as an organizing principle of human life.

Our lifelong struggle to learn how to live is inseparable from two facts only: that of our mortality and that of our dread of it, dread with an edge of denial. Half a millennium ago — a swath of time strewn with the lives and deaths of everyone who came before us — Montaigne captured this paradox in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Centuries later, John Updike — a mind closer to our own time but now swept by mortality to the same nonexistence as Montaigne — echoed the sentiment when he wrote: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead, so why… be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”

How to live with what lies behind that perennial “why” is what British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips examines in Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories (public library) — a rather unusual and insightful reflection on mortality, suffering, and the redemptions of living through the dual lens of the lives of two cultural titans who have shaped the modern understanding of life from very different but, as Phillips demonstrates, powerfully complementary angles: Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.

Phillips, a keen observer of our inner contradictions, writes:

For Freud, as for Darwin, there is not just the right amount of suffering in any conventionally moral sense of right: for who could ever condone suffering? But there is a necessary amount. Our instincts, at once the source of our suffering and of our satisfaction, ensure the survival of the species and the death of the individual.

The amount of suffering in the world is not something added on; it is integral to the world, of a piece with our life in nature. This is one of the things that Freud and Darwin take for granted. But it is one thing not to believe in redemption — in saving graces, or supernatural solutions — and quite another not to believe in justice. So the question that haunts their writing is: how does one take justice seriously if one takes nature seriously?

Illustration from Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a remarkable Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss

Darwin, to be sure, had his own profound confrontation with suffering in his beloved daughter Annie’s death just as he was beginning to tell the story of life itself. After two generational revolutions of the cycle of life, Freud made our relationship to death a centerpiece of understanding our trials of living. With an eye to these parallel legacies, Phillips writes:

If death was at once final and unavoidable, it was also a kind of positive or negative ideal; it was either what we most desired, or what, for the time being, had to be avoided at all costs. For both Darwin and Freud, in other words, death was an organizing principle; as though people were the animals that were haunted by their own and other people’s absences… Modern lives, unconsoled by religious belief, could be consumed by the experience of loss.

So what else could a life be now but a grief-stricken project, a desperate attempt to make grief itself somehow redemptive, a source of secular wisdom? Now that all modern therapies are forms of bereavement counselling, it is important that we don’t lose our sense of the larger history of our grief. It was not life after death that Darwin and Freud speculated about, but life with death: its personal and trans-generational history.

[…]

Redemption — being saved from something or other — has been such an addictive idea because there must always be a question, somewhere in our minds, about what we might gain from descriptions and experiences of loss. And the fact of our own death, of course, is always going to be a paradoxical kind of loss (at once ours and not ours). But the enigma of loss — looked at from the individual’s and, as it were, from nature’s point of view — was what haunted Darwin and Freud. As though we can’t stop speaking the language of regret; as though our lives are tailed by disappointment and grief, and this in itself is a mystery. After all, nothing else in nature seems quite so grief-stricken, or impressed by its own dismay.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death

Well before twentieth-century physics illuminated the impartiality of the universe, Darwin and Freud planted the seed for rendering the notion of suffering — that supreme species of disappointment at the collision between human desires and reality — irrelevant against the vast backdrop of nature, inherently indifferent to our hopes and fears. Phillips writes:

Darwin and Freud showed us the ways in which it was misleading to think of nature as being on our side. Not because nature was base or sinful, but because nature didn’t take sides, only we did. Nature, in this new version, was neither for us nor against us, because nature (unlike God, or the gods) was not that kind of thing. Some of us may flourish, but there was nothing now that could promise, or underwrite, or predict, a successful life. Indeed, what it was that made a life good, what it was about our lives that we should value, had become bewildering. The traditional aims of survival and happiness, redescribed by Darwin and Freud, were now to be pursued in a natural setting. And nature seemed to have laws but not intentions, or a sense of responsibility; it seemed to go its own unruly, sometimes discernibly law-bound, way despite us (if nature was gendered as a mother, she was difficult to entrust ourselves to; and if we could love a mother like this, what kind of creatures were we?). And though we were evidently simply pails of nature — nature through and through — what nature seemed to be like could be quite at odds with what or who we thought we were like.

Half a century after Loren Eiseley’s exquisite meditation on what it means for nature to be “natural,” Phillips adds:

Nature, apparently organized but not designed, did not have what we could call a mind of its own, something akin to human intelligence. Nor does nature have a project for us; it cannot tell us what to do, only we can. It doesn’t bear us in mind because it doesn’t have a mind… And what we called our minds were natural products, of a piece with our bodies. So we couldn’t try to be more or less natural — closer to nature, or keeping our distance from it — because we were of nature.

[…]

If, once, we could think of ourselves as (sinful) animals aspiring to be more God-like, now we can wonder what, as animals without sin (though more than capable of doing harm), we might aspire to.

Complement Darwin’s Worms with Meghan O’Rourke on learning to live with death, Seneca on the key to resilience in the face of loss, and this unusual Danish picture-book about love and grief, then revisit Phillips on how to break free from self-criticism, why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in love, and how to live with being too much for ourselves.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Love and Truthfulness

BrainPickings.org - Fri, 07/07/2017 - 02:00
“You must prepare yourself to forbear and to forgive — will you?”

For two people to be honest with each other about what is most difficult, even when truthfulness comes with a razing edge of sorrow, is a hard-earned privilege measured by the magnitude of their love for one another. In thinking through this recently — or, rather, living through it — I was reminded of Adrienne Rich’s beautiful sentiment about how relationships refine our truths: “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”

That delicate and violent process is what unfolded between the poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) and Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) — two of the most celebrated and influential writers of the nineteenth century — during their electrifying courtship, carried out in secret. During it, Barrett penned the sonnet whose memorable opening line has permeated culture so profoundly in the century and a half since as to now border on triteness: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

Having first fallen in love with each other’s poetry, the two had many reasons for reservation about transmuting mutual admiration into romantic involvement, beyond the usual insecurities, self-doubts, and fears of deficiency that take root in the hearts of prospective lovers. Barrett, bedeviled by acute spinal pain and ill health since childhood, had spent seven years writing in a darkened room, nearly immobile. When the two poets finally met in person, she was approaching forty — well into spinsterhood by the era’s standards. Browning, six years her junior and less famous, considered himself “no longer in the first freshness of life” and had for a number of years prior “made up [his] mind to the impossibility of loving any woman.”

And yet.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Thomas Buchanan Read (1852)

In one of their early flirtations, collected in The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook), Barrett makes a stunning invitation to unmitigated honesty as the sole gateway to love — stunning in its bold defiance of the era’s mores of formality in epistolary etiquette, in the fact that Barrett calls herself a “man” in the letter, and in the courage it takes for any human being, in any era, to invite the difficult truths that pave the way for authentic connection.

Barrett writes in February of 1845:

Don’t let us have any constraint, any ceremony! Don’t be civil to me when you feel rude, — nor loquacious when you incline to silence, — nor yielding in the manners when you are perverse in the mind… And let us rest from the bowing and the courtesying, you and I, on each side. You will find me an honest man on the whole, if rather hasty and prejudging, which is a different thing from prejudice at the worst. And we have great sympathies in common, and I am inclined to look up to you in many things, and to learn as much of everything as you will teach me. On the other hand you must prepare yourself to forbear and to forgive — will you? While I throw off the ceremony, I hold the faster to the kindness.

For months, Barrett tussled violently with the hazards of surrendering to love, oscillating between allowing Browning to approach with the unconditional love he was offering and pushing him away for his own sake — she implored him not to get involved with “a confirmed invalid through months and years… liable to relapses and stand on precarious ground to the end of [her] life.” But the invitation of love prevailed. In September, she returns to truthfulness as the ground base of connection and writes:

Believe that I am grateful to you — how grateful, cannot be shown in words nor even in tears … grateful enough to be truthful in all ways.

Barrett and Browning wed exactly a year later, eloping to Italy and incurring the wrath of Elizabeth’s father, who disowned her. For the remaining fifteen years of her life, the Brownings’ marriage drew nothing short of awe from a great many of their friends, who remarked in their private letters and journals upon this relationship marked by uncommon reciprocity of devotion, respect, admiration, and adoration. The pioneering sculptor Harriet Hosmer, for whom the Brownings became second parents during her formative time in Italy, would later describe Robert as “the most devoted husband the world has ever seen” and would remember that the couple “lived in a world of their own, happiest when alone therein.”

Complement this particular portion of the wholly resplendent Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with Alice Walker on what her father taught her about the love-expanding power of telling the truth, then revisit other stirring love letters by Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, and James Thurber.

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Frida Kahlo on the Meanings of the Colors

BrainPickings.org - Thu, 07/06/2017 - 01:00
From the color of madness and mystery to that of distance and tenderness.

More than a century after Goethe’s theoretical inquiry into the emotional hues of color, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) contemplated the question from a far more intuitive place in a fragment from The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) — the treasure trove that gave us the visionary Mexican painter’s DIY paint recipe, her ferocious political convictions, and her stunning handwritten love letters to Diego Rivera.

Early in her journal, the young Kahlo inscribes a lyrical stream-of-consciousness meditation on the symbolism of different colors inspired by an assortment of colored pencils at her desk. Picking them up one by one, each “sharpened to the point of infinity,” she writes out the symbolic association of a color with the respective pencil onto the notebook page.

Page from Frida Kahlo’s diary

I’ll try out the pencils
sharpened to the point of infinity
which always sees ahead:

Green — good warm light

Magenta — Aztec. old TLAPALI
   blood of prickly pear, the
   brightest and oldest

[Brown —] color of mole, of leaves becoming
   earth

[Yellow —] madness sickness fear
   part of the sun and of happiness

[Blue —] electricity and purity love

[Black —] nothing is black — really nothing

[Olive —] leaves, sadness, science, the whole
   of Germany is this color

[Yellow —] more madness and mystery
   all the ghosts wear
   clothes of this color, or at
   least their underclothes

[Dark blue —] color of bad advertisements
and of good business

[Blue —]distance. Tenderness
   can also be this blue
   blood?

Nearly a century later, Rebecca Solnit would write her own lyrical meditation on blue as the color of distance and desire.

Complement The Diary of Frida Kahlo with the beloved artist on how love amplifies beauty, the beautiful letter she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe after the American painter was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, and this illustrated tribute to her life and legacy, then revisit Goethe’s graphically daring diagrams of color perception.

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Good Sense vs. Free Hope: Margaret Fuller on Reaping Wonder from Everyday Reality

BrainPickings.org - Wed, 07/05/2017 - 01:00
“The mind is not … a highway, but a temple, and its doors should not be carelessly left open.”

Two years before Transcendentalist grand dame Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) inspired the women’s suffrage movement and laid the foundation for modern feminism with her 1845 masterwork Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she published something very different in subject, though not in sensibility and spirit: Summer on the Lakes (public library | free ebook) — the record of her experiences and observations traveling westward from her native New England, among which are the most stunning literary portrait of Niagara Falls I’ve encountered and a sorrowful account of the fate of the displaced Native American tribes, with whom Fuller sympathized and spent time.

Upon returning home, Fuller persuaded the Harvard library to grant her research access to its book collection, the largest in the nation. No woman had been previously admitted for more than a tour.

When she completed the book, her first, she published it under the ungendered initials S.M. Fuller, fearing that her sex would compromise the book’s reception — a common practice among women writers of nonfiction that would stretch well into the twentieth century. (Almost a hundred years later, marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson published her own stunning debut as R.L. Carson a quarter century before she catalyzed the modern environmental movement under her full name.)

With its unusual combination of crisp journalistic observation and lyrical philosophical reflection, Fuller’s first book was an instant success, selling better and faster than the debut of her intimate friend and fellow Transcendentalist monarch Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists, our yearlong collaboration celebrating trailblazing women.

In one of the most profound passages in the book, Fuller examines the tension between physical reality and metaphysical thought by staging an allegorical dialogue between four perspectives she terms Old Church, Good Sense, Self-Poise, and — the one with which she herself identifies most closely — Free Hope.

Good Sense, modeled on Emerson, issues to Free Hope a blanket admonition against all mystical meanderings:

All around us lies what we neither understand nor use. Our capacities, our instincts for this our present sphere are but half developed. Let us confine ourselves to that till the lesson be learned; let us be completely natural, before we trouble ourselves with the supernatural.

But Free Hope responds by pointing out that transcendence is not a matter of mysticism but of attentiveness to the reality of life. That selfsame year, across the Atlantic, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was issuing a parallel admonition against the inability to pause and pay attention, which he indicted as our greatest source of unhappiness.

A century and a half before Annie Dillard’s case for the miraculous in the mundane and six decades before Hermann Hesse’s clarion call for learning to savor life’s everyday joys, Fuller writes:

We need only look on the miracle of every day, to sate ourselves with thought and admiration every day. But how are our faculties sharpened to do it? Precisely by apprehending the infinite results of every day.

Who sees the meaning of the flower uprooted in the ploughed field? The ploughman who does not look beyond its boundaries and does not raise his eyes from the ground? No — but the poet who sees that field in its relations with the universe, and looks oftener to the sky than on the ground. Only the dreamer shall understand realities, though, in truth, his dreaming must not be out of proportion to his waking!

Fuller calls this wresting of meaning from plain reality, of transcendent insight from mere fact, “poetic observation.” Its true practitioners, she argues, are not those lured by fanciful excursions into metaphysical delusion but those who practice critical thinking coupled with a receptivity to wonder — or what Carl Sagan would extol, a century and a half later, as the vital balance of skepticism and openness. She writes of these poetic observers:

[They] work in the true temper, patient and accurate in trial, not rushing to conclusions, feeling there is a mystery, not eager to call it by name, till they can know it as a reality: such may learn, such may teach.

[…]

The mind is not, I know, a highway, but a temple, and its doors should not be carelessly left open.

Complement this fragment of Fuller’s wholly delectable Summer on the Lakes with nineteen-year-old Sylvia Plath on finding transcendence in nature and Diane Ackerman’s secular prayer, then revisit Fuller’s paragon of constructive criticism to the young Thoreau.

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Kafka on the Power of Music and the Point of Making Art

BrainPickings.org - Mon, 07/03/2017 - 01:00
“The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason.”

“Without music life would be a mistake,” proclaimed Nietzsche, one of the legion of celebrated thinkers who have contemplated the unparalleled power of music. Two generations later, Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) — another writer of glooming genius and talent for illumination via strong dark pronouncements — turned to the subject in his itinerant dialogues with his teenage walking companion and ideological interlocutor Gustav Janouch, collected in Conversations with Kafka (public library), which also gave us the brooding author on Taoism, appearance versus reality, and love and the power of patience.

During a walk in the summer of 1922, the conversation turns to music — a subject the seventeen-year-old Gustav wished passionately to study, but his father forbade the pursuit. Kafka tells his young companion:

Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the subjective world.

In a subsequent conversation, when Gustav shares with his mentor a short story he has written titled The Music of Silence, Kafka elaborates on how music casts its spell on the soul:

Everything that lives is in flux. Everything that lives emits sound. But we only perceive a part of it. We do not hear the circulation of the blood, the growth and decay of our bodily tissue, the sound of our chemical processes. But our delicate organic cells, the fibres of brain and nerves and skin are impregnated with these inaudible sounds. They vibrate in response to their environment. This is the foundation of the power of music. We can set free these profound emotional vibrations. In order to do so, we employ musical instruments, in which the decisive factor is their own inner sound potential. That is to say: what is decisive is not the strength of the sound, or its tonal colour, but its hidden character, the intensity with which its musical power affects the nerves. [Music] must … elevate into human consciousness vibrations which are otherwise inaudible and unperceived… [bring] silence to life… uncover the hidden sound of silence.

In another conversation, he considers the parallels and differences between music and poetry — something Patti Smith would contemplate nearly a century later. Kafka tells Gustav:

Music creates new, subtler, more complicated, and therefore more dangerous pleasures… But poetry aims at clarifying the wilderness of pleasures, at intellectualizing, purifying, and therefore humanizing them. Music is a multiplication of sensuous life; poetry, on the other hand, disciplines and elevates it.

And yet Kafka is swift to recuse himself of authority on music:

Music for me is rather like the sea… I am overpowered, wonderstruck, enthralled, and yet afraid, so terribly afraid of its endlessness. I am in fact a bad sailor.

Still, for Kafka the magnitude of his overwhelm was perhaps the most direct measure of the intensity of his love. “I don’t want to know what you are wearing,” he once wrote in one of his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters, “it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life.”

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

When Gustav laments his father’s veto on music and wonders whether having a head of his own gives him the right to disobey his father’s wishes and pursue his passion, Kafka dilates the question into a larger meditation on why artists make art:

Using one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing it… Of course, I am not saying anything against your studying music. On the contrary! … The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason… There is passion behind every art. That is why you fight and suffer for your music… But in art that is always the way. One must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.

In another conversation, he revisits the subject and likens the sacrifices of art to those of religious devotion. In a sentiment that calls to mind Simone Weil’s abiding assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity [and,] taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer” — and what else is art if not generosity of the highest degree? — Kafka tells Gustav:

Prayer and art are passionate acts of will. One wants to transcend and enhance the will’s normal possibilities. Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. Prayer means casting oneself into the miraculous rainbow that stretches between becoming and dying, to be utterly consumed in it, in order to bring its infinite radiance to bed in the frail little cradle of one’s own existence.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly profound, almost prayerful Conversations with Kafka with Aldous Huxley on what gives music its transcendent power, then revisit Kafka on why we read and his remarkable letter to his abusive and narcissistic father.

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School Prayer: Diane Ackerman’s Poetic Invitation to Attentive Presence as a Means of Transcendence and Secular Spirituality

BrainPickings.org - Thu, 06/29/2017 - 05:00
A hymn to the numinous splendor of nature.

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil in contemplating gravity and grace. “Attention without feeling,” the poet Mary Oliver observed many decades later, “is only a report.” Indeed, what confers meaning upon our existence, what gives it an undertone of secular prayerfulness, is precisely this empathic beam of attention to all the world’s fullness, to all of its creatures.

An incantation for honing that attention is what the poet, essayist, science writer, and naturalist Diane Ackerman offers in a beautiful poem titled “School Prayer,” originally published in her poetry collection I Praise My Destroyer (public library) and later included in her prose inquiry into the evolutionary and existential purpose of deep play.

A great deal of Ackerman’s exquisite writing is devoted to celebrating science. (Carl Sagan, who was on her dissertation committee, was an ardent admirer of her work and once sent her radiant poems about the Solar System to Timothy Leary in prison.) With her poet’s heart and scientist’s mind, she approaches the question of spirituality from a strictly nonreligious standpoint, celebrating attention as the means for finding transcendence not in a supernatural “god” but in the divine splendor of nature. “I believe avidly in the separation of church and state,” she explains of her impetus for writing the poem. “I don’t want children forced to worship someone else’s god, but I do want them to develop a spiritual nature, and become concerned with higher values.”

Although cast as a child’s prayer, the poem is a powerful invitation to attentive presence and a beautiful daily practice of intention, whatever one’s age:

SCHOOL PRAYER

In the name of daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder
as an architect of peace.

In the name of the sun and its minors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons of the firefly
and the apple, I will honor all life

—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.

Complement with the great nature writer Henry Beston on how our relationship with the Earth reveals us to ourselves and physicist Alan Lightman on science and nonreligious spirituality, then revisit Ackerman’s glorious ode to our search for extraterrestrial life.

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You Are Not the Target: Laura Huxley on Course-Correcting the Paths of Love and Not-Love

BrainPickings.org - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 01:00
“In all its manifestations and however it is produced, not-love tends to beget not-love. The energy of love is needed to reconvert not-love into love.”

“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” And yet, again and again, we slide down the easier path of destruction, among and within ourselves, in our political and our personal lives.

The Italian-American writer, musician, filmmaker, and psychiatrist Laura Archera Huxley (November 2, 1911–December 13, 2007) frames these two parallel potentialities as the paths of love and not-love. In her 1963 book You Are Not the Target: A Practical Manual on How to Cope with a World of Bewildering Change and Uncertainty (public library), Huxley offers actionable course-correction toward the path of love, the wellspring of our constructive and creative potential, through a series of “recipes” — psychological practices with embodied elements of physical action — that address everything from processing pain to discerning one’s purpose to transmuting stress into creative energy. Drawing on her work as a psychological counselor, Huxley sets out to “quicken people toward realizing their creative potentialities in their own way in spite of all authorities, dogmas, tranquilizers, credit cards, and pace-of-mind-by-mail,” animated by the conviction that the most essential aspect of our creative potential is “to make good use of ourselves and what we are here and now, at each successive moment.”

Her husband, Aldous Huxley, writes in the foreword to the book:

These recipes work. I have tried some of them on myself and found them remarkably effective.

Laura Huxley (Photograph: John Engstead)

In her opening chapter, Huxley frames the central premise of her approach:

At one time or another the more fortunate among us make three startling discoveries.

Discovery number one: Each one of us has, in varying degree, the power to make others feel better or worse.

Discovery number two: Making others feel better is much more fun than making them feel worse.

Discovery number three: Making others feel better generally makes us feel better.

More than half a century after Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Huxley considers the ethic of love at the heart of some of our humankind’s most influential philosophical, moral, and political movements:

Total love has been recommended for centuries as the total panacea: obviously true, obviously unattainable. Theoretically we all know that total love is the solution to all our problems, but in practice most of us behave most of the time as if this truth has never been discovered.

Whenever love is outweighed by not-love the organism is in trouble. Not-love may be brought about by the wrong inflection in a voice today, or by a nutritional shortage which began years ago. It may be the result of a sexual relationship with a companion whose chemistry does not blend with ours, or with one whose chemical affinity is harmonious with ours but whose mental and emotional being is inharmonious.

Not-love may be due to a loss in the stock market, to the non-arrival of an expected letter, to weariness and fatigue at the end of yet another day of dreary routine. Not-love may be the beaming smile with which a salesman must meet an important client, or a hostess an unwanted guest. It may stem from a serious loss or from some obscure endocrine reaction to climatic or atmospheric conditions. It may be due to too much of something or too little of something. Not-love may be the result of fanatical belief or secret doubt about the deity, church, party, ideology that we have chosen or have somehow been manipulated into choosing. Not-love may spring from a sound or a color, from a form or a smell. It may be a painful ingrown toe-nail or the release of the atomic bomb.

In all its manifestations and however it is produced, not-love tends to beget not-love. The energy of love is needed to reconvert not-love into love.

Writing just a few years after Harry Harlow’s controversial studies of baby rhesus monkeys demonstrated the atrocious psychophysiological effects of love-deprivation and after Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that “along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate,” Huxley adds:

Disguised in a thousand forms, hidden under an infinite variety of masks, love starvation is even more rampant than food starvation. It invades all classes and all peoples. It occurs in all climates, on every social and economic level. It seems to occur in all forms of life.

[…]

In a family, love starvation begets love starvation in one generation after another until a rebel in that family breaks the malevolent chain. If you find yourself in such a family, BE THAT REBEL!

Complement this particular portion of You Are Not the Target, throughout the rest of which Huxley offers a set of psychological and physiological tools designed to “help a world desperately needing love and desperately afflicted with the infectious disease of not-love,” with Albert Camus on what it really means to be a rebel, the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love, then revisit Aldous Huxley on how to get out of your own way.

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The Muskrat and the Meaning of Life: Loren Eiseley on Reclaiming Our Sense of the Miraculous in a Mechanical Age

BrainPickings.org - Thu, 06/22/2017 - 12:02
“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

In his beautiful 1948 manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning to be nourished by nature, Henry Beston lamented: “What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity.” And yet his admonition fell on ears increasingly unhearing as the decades rolled on with their so-called progress. The poet Jane Hirshfield captured this in her stirring anthem against the silencing of nature: “The silence spoke loudly of silence, / and the rivers kept speaking, / of rivers, of boulders and air.”

How to undeafen ourselves to the song of reality and redeem our humanity from alienation is what the great anthropologist, philosopher of science, poet, and natural history writer Loren Eiseley (September 3, 1907–July 9, 1977) explores with tremendous insight in a portion of his 1960 book The Firmament of Time (public library), which gave us Eiseley’s perceptive and poetic exploration of the relationship between nature and human nature.

Loren Eiseley (Photograph: Bernie Cleff)

Recounting a revelatory experience he had under a New England boat dock, amid the roar of motor boats and the bustle of rampant tourism, Eiseley writes:

As I sat there one sunny morning when the water was peculiarly translucent, I saw a dark shadow moving swiftly over the bottom. It was the first sign of life I had seen in this lake, whose shores seemed to yield little but washed-in beer cans. By and by the gliding shadow ceased to scurry from stone to stone over the bottom. Unexpectedly, it headed almost directly for me. A furry nose with gray whiskers broke the surface. Below the whiskers green water foliage trailed out in an inverted V as long as his body. A muskrat still lived in the lake. He was bringing in his breakfast.

I sat very still in the strips of sunlight under the pier. To my surprise the muskrat came almost to my feet with his little breakfast of greens. He was young, and it rapidly became obvious to me that he was laboring under an illusion of his own, and that he thought animals and men were still living in the Garden of Eden. He gave me a friendly glance from time to time as he nibbled his greens. Once, even, he went out into the lake again and returned to my feet with more greens. He had not, it seemed, heard very much about men. I shuddered. Only the evening before I had heard a man describe with triumphant enthusiasm how he had killed a rat in the garden because the creature had dared to nibble his petunias. He had even showed me the murder weapon, a sharp-edged brick.

Muskrat (Photograph: Tom Koerner/USFWS)

With an eye to the assault on nature we call civilization — that perilous human impulse driven by what Bertrand Russell termed “power-knowledge,” as distinct from “love-knowledge” — Eiseley writes:

On this pleasant shore a war existed and would go on until nothing remained but man. Yet this creature with the gray, appealing face wanted very little: a strip of shore to coast up and down, sunlight and moonlight, some weeds from the deep water. He was an edge-of-the-world dweller, caught between a vanishing forest and a deep lake pre-empted by unpredictable machines full of chopping blades. He eyed me nearsightedly, a green leaf poised in his mouth. Plainly he had come with some poorly instructed memory about the lion and the lamb.

“You had better run away now,” I said softly, making no movement in the shafts of light. “You are in the wrong universe and must not make this mistake again. I am really a very terrible and cunning beast. I can throw stones.” With this I dropped a little pebble at his feet.

He looked at me half blindly, with eyes much better adjusted to the wavering shadows of his lake bottom than to sight in the open air. He made almost as if to take the pebble up into his forepaws. Then a thought seemed to cross his mind — a thought perhaps telepathically received, as Freud once hinted, in the dark world below and before man, a whisper of ancient disaster heard in the depths of a burrow. Perhaps after all this was not Eden. His nose twitched carefully; he edged toward the water.

As he vanished in an oncoming wave, there went with him a natural world, distinct from the world of girls and motorboats, distinct from the world of the professor holding to reality by some great snowshoe effort in his study. My muskrat’s shoreline universe was edged with the dark wall of hills on one side and the waspish drone of motors farther out, but it was a world of sunlight he had taken down into the water weeds. It hovered there, waiting for my disappearance. I walked away, obscurely pleased that darkness had not gained on life by any act of mine. In so many worlds, I thought, how natural is “natural” — and is there anything we can call a natural world at all?

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

Eiseley considers how this miraculous encounter with the “natural” world illuminates the nature of life itself:

Whatever may be the power behind those dancing motes to which the physicist has penetrated, it makes the light of the muskrat’s world as it makes the world of the great poet. It makes, in fact, all of the innumerable and private worlds which exist in the heads of men. There is a sense in which we can say that the planet, with its strange freight of life, is always just passing from the unnatural to the natural, from that Unseen which man has always reverenced to the small reality of the day. If all life were to be swept from the world, leaving only its chemical constituents, no visitor from another star would be able to establish the reality of such a phantom. The dust would lie without visible protest, as it does now in the moon’s airless craters, or in the road before our door.

Yet this is the same dust which, dead, quiescent and unmoving, when taken up in the process known as life, hears music and responds to it, weeps bitterly over time and loss, or is oppressed by the looming future that is, on any materialist terms, the veriest shadow of nothing.

Winking at his work as a field scientists — a self-described “man who has spent a great deal of his life on his knees, though not in prayer” — Eiseley reflects on what such encounters with the miraculous in nature reveal about the real object of science and the ultimate meaning of human life:

Since, as we have seen, the laws of nature have a way of being altered from one generation of scientists to the next, a little taste for the miraculous in this broad sense will do us no harm. We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.

The Firmament of Time remains a transformative read in its entirety. Complement this excerpt with Eiseley on the inner light that makes us human, then revisit the story of Alexander von Humboldt and the invention of nature.

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Legendary Cosmologist Martin Rees on Science, Religion, and the Future of Post-Human Intelligence

BrainPickings.org - Mon, 06/19/2017 - 02:00
“Fundamental physics shows how hard it is for us to grasp even the simplest things in the world. That makes you quite skeptical whenever someone declares he has the key to some deeper reality.”

“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed in contemplating science, religion, and our conquest of truth at the end of the nineteenth century. “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed,” Carl Sagan wrote a century later in his exquisite meditation on science and spirituality. And yet the longing for stable answers and thorough understanding — or, as Hannah Arendt memorably framed it, the propensity for asking unanswerable questions — might be one of the hallmarks of our species. After all, for as long as modern science has existed, scientists have attempted to answer such unanswerable questions by trying to either reconcile science and religion, like Galileo did in defending his theories against the Inquisition and Ada Lovelace did in considering the interconnectedness of the universe, or at least to relegate them to different realms of inquiry.

Adding to the canon of these meditations is the celebrated English cosmologist and astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees — the last European court astronomer in his position as Astronomer Royal to the House of Windsor and science adviser to the Queen of England.

Sir Martin Rees

In We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence (public library) — Austrian physicist, essayist, and science journalist Stefan Klein’s fantastic compendium of interviews, which also gave us Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg on simplicity, complexity, and the unity of the universe — Rees reflects on his rather unusual entry point into the question of science and spirituality:

I was brought up as a member of the Church of England and simply follow the customs of my tribe. The church is part of my culture; I like the rituals and the music. If I had grown up in Iraq, I would go to a mosque… It seems to me that people who attack religion don’t really understand it. Science and religion can coexist peacefully — although I don’t think they have much to say to each other. What I would like best would be for scientists not even to use the word “God.” … Fundamental physics shows how hard it is for us to grasp even the simplest things in the world. That makes you quite skeptical whenever someone declares he has the key to some deeper reality… I know that we don’t yet even understand the hydrogen atom — so how could I believe in dogmas? I’m a practicing Christian, but not a believing one.

The central problem of religious dogma, of course, is that the mythology of “God” offers a single cohesive story that contends to explain all of “Creation” — a theory that claims its truthfulness not by empirical evidence but by insistent assertion. In a sentiment that calls to mind Sagan’s abiding wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness, Rees illustrates how the scientist regards a theory:

I find it irrational to become attached to one theory. I prefer to let different ideas compete like horses in a race and watch which one wins.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza for Song of Two Worlds, physicist Alan Lightman’s epic poem about science and the unknown

When asked whether he believes that scientists make more intelligent decisions as citizens, Rees responds:

[Scientists] bring a special perspective to things. For example, as an astrophysicist, I’m used to thinking in terms of extremely long periods of time. For many people, the year 2050 is distant enough to seem unimaginably far away. I, however, am constantly aware that we’re the result of four billion years of evolution — and that the future of the earth will last at least as long. When you always have in mind how many generations might follow us, you take a different attitude toward many questions of the present. You realize how much is at stake.

With an eye to the progress and peril that human civilization has wrought, Rees considers the prospective evolutionary future of a post-human intelligence:

We humans of the present are certainly not the summit of Creation. Species more intelligent than us will inhabit the earth. They might even appear quite soon. These days evolution is no longer driven by slow natural development, as Darwin described it, but by human culture. So a post-human intelligence might be made by us ourselves. And I hope that our successors have a better understanding of the world.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly invigorating We Are All Stardust — which includes conversations with such titans of science as primatologist Jane Goodall, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and geographer Jared Diamond — with Freeman Dyson on the unanswerable questions that give meaning to the universe, Simone de Beauvoir on the spiritual rewards of atheism, and Alan Lightman’s poetic ode to science and the unknown.

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The Stars: A Mythopoetic Masterpiece Serenading the Night Sky Through Myths and Stories from Around the World

BrainPickings.org - Thu, 06/15/2017 - 02:00
“Light gives light because it is its nature.”

“I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly… I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive,” Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, pondered in her most extensive interview. More than a century earlier, trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — Rubin’s formative role model — contemplated the same question after attending a lecture on beauty by Emerson: Mitchell, too, found the splendor of the cosmos inseparable from its allure as an object of scientific investigation, each enhancing rather than distracting or detracting from the other. The great physicist Richard Feynman extolled this interplay in his memorable Ode to a Flower, in which he insisted that “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower,” and Marina Abramović touched on it in her manifesto for art and life, which asserts that “an artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.”

Indeed, for as long as we humans have gazed up into the night sky, our imagination has been captivated equally by aesthetic awe and scientific curiosity — something reflected in our earliest sky myths, the Medieval wonder-sighting of comets, and our 4,000-year history of visualizing the universe.

That dual enchantment is what artist Vija Celmins and writer Eliot Weinberger bring to life in the limited-edition MoMA book The Stars (public library) — an uncommonly poetic ode to the resplendence of the night sky.

Reminiscent of the poet Mark Strand’s 89 meditations on the clouds, Weinberger’s text is a sort of florilegium composed of lyrical descriptions of the stars drawing on various myths, folk tales, or anthropological sources from different eras and cultures. What emerges is a quintilingual mythopoetic masterpiece, written in English and translated in Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, and Maori, accompanied by three stunning celestial etchings by Celmins, each months in the making.

Etching by Vija Celmins for The Stars – a negative image of the night sky

The whimsical text begins:

The stars: what are they?

They are chunks of ice reflecting the sun;
   they are lights afloat on the waters beyond the transparent dome;
      they are nails nailed to the sky;
they are holes in the great curtain between us and the sea of light;
they are holes in the hard shell that protects us from the inferno beyond
  they are the daughters of the sun;
        they are the messengers of the gods;
they are shaped like wheels and are condensations of air with flames
 roaring through the spaces between the spokes;
               they sit in little chairs;
      they are strewn across the sky;
         they run errands for lovers…

Double gatefold of Vija Celmins’s negative image of the night sky

all stars move and shine in order to be
   most fully what they are — light
   gives light because it is its nature…

Complement The Stars with Adrienne Rich’s sublime poem “Planetarium,” Henry Beston on how the beauty of the night sky nourishes the human spirit, and the forgotten woman who pioneered the art of astropoetics in the nineteenth century.

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