This is the brainpickings.org weekly digest by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor on how books save lives, Nietzsche’s brilliant thought experiment illustrating the key to existential contentment — you can catch up right here. (ALSO: Don’t miss the annual review of the best of Brain Pickings 2018.) And if you are enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – this year, I spent innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
The Universe as an Infinite Storm of Beauty: John Muir on the Transcendent Interconnectedness of Nature
“I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his lovely prose poem about evolution. “The fact that we are connected through space and time,” evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis observed of the interconnectedness of the universe, “shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.”
A century before Feynman and Margulis, the great Scottish-American naturalist and pioneering environmental philosopher John Muir (April 21, 1838–December 24, 1914) channeled this elemental fact of existence with uncommon poetic might in John Muir: Nature Writings (public library) — a timeless treasure I revisited in composing The Universe in Verse.
Recounting the epiphany he had while hiking Yosemite’s Cathedral Peak for the first time in the summer of his thirtieth year — an epiphany strikingly similar to the one Virginia Woolf had at the moment she understood what it means to be an artist — Muir writes:
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains — beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.
Later that summer, as he makes his way to Tuolumne Meadow in eastern Yosemite, Muir is reanimated with this awareness of the exquisite, poetic interconnectedness of nature, which transcends individual mortality. In a sentiment evocative of Rachel Carson’s lyrical assertion that “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Muir writes:
One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature — inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.
More and more, in a place like this, we feel ourselves part of wild Nature, kin to everything.
A year earlier, during his famous thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir recorded his observations and meditations in a notebook inscribed John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe. In one of the entries from this notebook, the twenty-nine-year-old Muir counters the human hubris of anthropocentricity in a sentiment far ahead of his time and, in many ways, ahead of our own as we grapple with our responsibility to the natural world. More than a century before Carl Sagan reminded us that we, like all creatures, are “made of starstuff,” Muir humbles us into our proper place in the cosmic order:
The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge… The fearfully good, the orthodox, of this laborious patchwork of modern civilization cry “Heresy” on every one whose sympathies reach a single hair’s breadth beyond the boundary epidermis of our own species. Not content with taking all of earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kind of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned.
Long before Maya Angelou reminded us that we are creatures “traveling through casual space, past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,” Muir adds:
This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.
However disquieting and corrosive to the human ego such awareness may be, Muir argues that we can never be conscientious citizens of the universe unless we accept this fundamental cosmic reality. In our chronic civilizational denial of it, we are denying nature itself — we are denying, in consequence, our own humanity. A century before the inception of the modern environmental movement, he writes:
No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged.
I have never yet happened upon a trace of evidence that seemed to show that any one animal was ever made for another as much as it was made for itself. Not that Nature manifests any such thing as selfish isolation. In the making of every animal the presence of every other animal has been recognized. Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, then more and more remotely for all the world and worlds.
This revelatory sense of interconnectedness comes over Muir again a decade later, as he journeys to British Columbia on a steamer in the spring of 1879, experiencing for the first time the otherworldly wonder and might of the open ocean. A century after William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand, Muir writes:
The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
More than a century later, Muir’s complete Nature Writings remain a transcendent read. Complement this portion with Loren Eiseley on the relationship between nature and human nature and Terry Tempest Williams — a modern-day spiritual heir of Muir’s — on the wilderness as an antidote to the war within ourselves, the revisit Muir’s British contemporary Richard Jefferies on how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the world.
Freedom and Creative Vitality in a Market Society: Ursula K. Le Guin on Saving Books from Profiteering and Commodification
“To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil,”Leo Tolstoy confessed with uncompromising self-awareness in reflecting on his youthful vice of writing for the wrong reasons — as a young man, he had treated the making of literature as a means to a material end, a bargaining chip traded for admiration and profit with other literary profiteers who were just as “self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is.” Around the same time, across the Atlantic, the young William James made the difficult decision of choosing purpose over profit — a decision that would eventually establish him as the founding father of American psychology — and observed the crux of the tradeoff: “After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.” Of course, artists must eat — but at what cost does their livelihood come, weighed on whose scale?
Nearly a century and half after James and Tolstoy’s moral struggle with the competing forces of culture and commerce — a struggle that has intensified infinitely with the rise of the modern market system — another titan of literature and seer of truth addressed these elemental questions of creative culture with uncommon lucidity and luminosity of sentiment.
On November 19, 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) took the podium to receive her second National Book Award with a short, stunning acceptance speech, later included in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writers Week (public library) — the splendid collection that gave us Le Guin on the artist’s task in meaning-making and her operating instructions for life.
Le Guin writes:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.
Le Guin was a seer in the largest sense — her gaze bent past our culture’s horizons of peril and possibility visible to most, and she saw the early warning sings of a darkening reality. A decade after she first began admonishing against the commodification of art, she points to the creation of cultural artifacts motivated not by artistic merit but by marketability as one of the most perilous traps of our times:
Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.
Le Guin ends her admonition on a hopeful and empowering note — a clarion call for resistance, reminding us that any broken system is fixable, and that the fixing falls on our own participatory hands. More than half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt insisted in her dying hour that “we do make our history [and] we are making it now — today — by the choices that shape our course,” Le Guin exhorts:
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.
Le Guin’s unassailable belief in literature as a force of freedom and her fierce advocacy for public libraries were a large part of our inspiration for donating all proceeds from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — which contains her last published piece — to the public library system. Seeing her deliver the speech live, with quietly impassioned conviction and incandescent dignity, only amplifies the urgency and bittersweet hopefulness of her message, which stands as a pillar of her legacy:
Complement the thoroughly scrumptious Words Are My Matter with Le Guin on poetry and science, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, getting to the other side of suffering, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, and her classic unsexing of gender.
“Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen,” the great children’s book author Ruth Krauss — a philosopher, really — wrote in her last and loveliest collaboration with the young Maurice Sendak in 1960. At the time of her first collaboration with Sendak twelve years earlier, just after the word “workaholic” was coined, the German philosopher Josef Pieper was composing Leisure, the Basis of Culture — his timeless and increasingly timely manifesto for reclaiming our human dignity in a culture of busyness. “Leisure,” Pieper wrote, “is not the same as the absence of activity… or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.”
A generation earlier, with a seer’s capacity to peer past the horizon of the present condition and anticipate a sweeping cultural current before it has flooded in, and with a sage’s ability to provide the psychic buoy for surviving the current’s perilous rapids, Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) addressed the looming cult of workaholism in a prescient 1932 essay titled In Praise of Idleness (public library).
A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.
With his characteristic wisdom punctuated by wry wit, he examines what work actually means:
Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e., of advertising.
Russell points to landowners as a historical example of a class whose idleness was only made possible by the toil of others. For the vast majority of our species’ history, up until the Industrial Revolution, the average person spent nearly every waking hour working hard to earn the basic necessities of survival. Any marginal surplus, he notes, was swiftly appropriated by those in power — the warriors, the monarchs, the priests. Since the Industrial Revolution, other power systems — from big business to dictatorships — have simply supplanted the warriors, monarchs, and priests. Russell considers how the exploitive legacy of pre-industrial society has corrupted the modern social fabric and warped our value system:
A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.
Writing nearly a century after Kierkegaard extolled the existential boon of idleness, Russell considers how this manipulated mentality has hypnotized us into worshiping work as virtue and scorning leisure as laziness, as weakness, as folly, rather than recognizing it as the raw material of social justice and the locus of our power:
The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian slave owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in making a permanent contribution to civilization which would have been impossible under a just economic system. Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labors of the many. But their labors were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.
Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Russell notes that WWI — which was dubbed “the war to end all wars” by a world willfully blind to the fact that violence begets more violence, unwitting that this world war would pave the way for the next — furthered our civilization conflation of duty with work and work with virtue, lulling us into the modern trance of busyness. More than half a century before Annie Dillard observed that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Russell traces the ledger of our existential spending back to war’s false promise of freedom:
The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of work had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.
Pointing out that this equivalence originates in the same morality — or, rather, immorality — that produced the slave state, he exposes the core cultural falsehood it has effected, which stands as a monumental obstruction to equality and social justice in contemporary society:
The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.
Born in an era when urban workingmen had just acquired the right to vote in Great Britain, Russell draws on his own childhood for a stark illustration of this belief and its far-reaching tentacles of socioeconomic oppression:
I remember hearing an old Duchess say: “What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.” People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists, and is the source of much of our economic confusion.
That sentiment, Russell reminds us again and again, is ahistorical. Advances in science, technology, and the very mechanics of society have made it no longer necessary for the average person to endure fifteen-hour workdays in order to obtain basic sustenance, as adults — and often children — had to in the early nineteenth century. But while the allocation of our time in relation to need has changed immensely, our attitudes about how that time is spent hardly have. He writes:
Every human being, of necessity, consumes, in the course of his life, a certain amount of the produce of human labor.
The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
But while reinstating the dignity of leisure — or what Russell calls idleness — is a necessary condition for recalibrating our life-satisfaction to more adequately reflect the contemporary realities of work and need, it is not a sufficient one. Exacerbating our already warped relationship with work is the muddling of needs and wants at the heart of capitalist materialism — something Russell would address nearly two decades later in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, listing acquisitiveness as the first of the four desires driving human behavior. He considers the radical shift that would take place if we were to stop regarding the virtue of work as an end in itself and begin seeing it as a means to a state of being in which work is no longer needed, reinstating leisure and comfort — that is, a contented sense of enoughness — as the proper existential end:
What will happen when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?
In the West, we have various ways of dealing with this problem. We have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all. Owing to the absence of any central control over production, we produce hosts of things that are not wanted. We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labor by making the others overwork. When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war; we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks. By a combination of all these devices we manage, though with difficulty, to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual work must be the lot of the average man.
Our society, Russell argues, is driven by “continually fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity.” He challenges the inanity of this proposition:
The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. We have been misled in this matter by two causes. One is the necessity of keeping the poor contented, which has led the rich, for thousands of years, to preach the dignity of labor, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect. The other is the new pleasure in mechanism, which makes us delight in the astonishingly clever changes that we can produce on the earth’s surface. Neither of these motives makes any great appeal to the actual worker. If you ask him what he thinks the best part of his life, he is not likely to say: “I enjoy manual work because it makes me feel that I am fulfilling man’s noblest task, and because I like to think how much man can transform his planet. It is true that my body demands periods of rest, which I have to fill in as best I may, but I am never so happy as when the morning comes and I can return to the toil from which my contentment springs.” I have never heard workingmen say this sort of thing. They consider work, as it should be considered, a necessary means to a livelihood, and it is from their leisure hours that they derive whatever happiness they may enjoy.
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Decades before Diane Ackerman made her exquisite case for the evolutionary and existential value of play, Russell considers how the cult of productivity has demolished one of life’s pillars of satisfaction. Noting that modern people — true of the moderns of 1932, even truer of today’s — enjoy a little leisure but wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they had to work only four hours a day, he observes:
In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for lightheartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.
The seedbed of this soul-shriveling belief is the notion — a driving force of consumerism — that the only worthwhile activities are those that bring material profit. A formidable logician, Russell exposes the self-unraveling nature of this argument:
Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good, but keyholes are bad. Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profit-making is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production, and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.
Another result, Russell argues, is a kind of split between positive idleness, which ought to be the nourishing end of work, and negative idleness, which ends up being the effect of work under the spell of consumerism and its consequent socioeconomic inequality. He writes:
The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.
Art by Ofra Amit for a letter by Mara Faye Lethem from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
With an eye to our civilization’s triumphs and failures of self-actualization, Russell points out that, historically, there has been a small leisure class enjoying a great many privileges without a basis in social justice, profiting on the backs of a large working class toiling for survival. While this rendered the oppressive leisure class morally condemnable, it resulted in the vast majority of art and science — “the whole of what we call civilization.” He writes:
Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.
The method of a hereditary leisure class without duties was, however, extraordinarily wasteful. None of the members of the class had been taught to be industrious, and the class as a whole was not exceptionally intelligent. The class might produce one Darwin, but against him had to be set tens of thousands of country gentlemen who never thought of anything more intelligent than fox-hunting and punishing poachers.
Russell’s most compelling point is the most counterintuitive — the idea that reclaiming leisure is not a reinforcement of elitism but the antidote to elitism itself and a form of resistance to oppression, for it would require dismantling the power structures of modern society and undoing the spell they have cast on us to keep the poor poor and the rich rich. To correctly calibrate modern life around a sense of enough — that is, around meeting the need for comfort rather than satisfying the endless want for consumerist acquisitiveness — would be to lay the groundwork for social justice. In such a society, Russell argues, no one would have to work more than four hours out of twenty-four — a proposition even more countercultural today than it was in his era. He paints the landscape of possibility:
In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational potboilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and the capacity.
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least 1 per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.