This is a special edition of the brainpickings.org weekly digest by Maria Popova, to commemorate one of the great poets and great spiritual geniuses of our time. If you missed last week’s edition — Mary Oliver: “The most regretful people… are those… who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” — you can read it 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.
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” the young Nietzsche wrote as he contemplated what it takes to find oneself. Somehow, this man of stark contradiction, cycling between nihilistic despondency and electric buoyancy along the rim of madness, has managed to inspire some of humanity’s most surefooted spirits — among them, the great German poet, novelist, painter, and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962), who drew from Nietzsche’s philosophy the most humanistic ideas, then magnified them with his own transcendent humanity.
Some of Hesse’s most emboldening ideas about our human responsibility to ourselves and the world unfold in his “Letter to a Young German,” written to a dispirited youth in 1919 and later included in his 1946 anthology If the War Goes On… (public library), published the year he received the Nobel Prize — the same stirring piece that gave us Hesse on hope, the difficult art of taking responsibility, and the wisdom of the inner voice.
Decades before E.E. Cummings asserted that “to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” Hesse writes:
You must unlearn the habit of being someone else or nothing at all, of imitating the voices of others and mistaking the faces of others for your own.
One thing is given to man which makes him into a god, which reminds him that he is a god: to know destiny.
When destiny comes to a man from outside, it lays him low, just as an arrow lays a deer low. When destiny comes to a man from within, from his innermost being, it makes him strong, it makes him into a god… A man who has recognized his destiny never tries to change it. The endeavor to change destiny is a childish pursuit that makes men quarrel and kill one another… All sorrow, poison, and death are alien, imposed destiny. But every true act, everything that is good and joyful and fruitful on earth, is lived destiny, destiny that has become self.
Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Hesse exhorts the young to treat their suffering with respect and curiosity, and adds:
Might your bitter pain not be the voice of destiny, might that voice not become sweet once you understand it?
Action and suffering, which together make up our lives, are a whole; they are one. A child suffers its begetting, it suffers its birth, its weaning; it suffers here and suffers there until in the end it suffers death. But all the good in a man, for which he is praised or loved, is merely good suffering, the right kind, the living kind of suffering, a suffering to the full. The ability to suffer well is more than half of life — indeed, it is all life. Birth is suffering, growth is suffering, the seed suffers the earth, the root suffers the rain, the bud suffers its flowering.
In the same way, my friends, man suffers destiny. Destiny is earth, it is rain and growth. Destiny hurts.
Long before Simone Weil contemplated how to make use of our suffering, Hesse holds up hardship as “the forge of destiny” and adds:
It is hard to learn to suffer. Women succeed more often and more nobly than men. Learn from them! Learn to listen when the voice of life speaks! Learn to look when the sun of destiny plays with your shadows! Learn to respect life! Learn to respect yourselves! From suffering springs strength…
Writing fifteen years after he made his exquisite case for breaking the trance of busyness, Hesse returns to the sandbox of selfhood — solitude:
True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer.
Solitude is the path over which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself. Solitude is the path that men most fear. A path fraught with terrors, where snakes and toads lie in wait… Without solitude there is no suffering, without solitude there is no heroism. But the solitude I have in mind is not the solitude of the blithe poets or of the theater, where the fountain bubbles so sweetly at the mouth of the hermit’s cave.
Photograph by Maria Popova
Learning to be nourished by solitude rather than defeated by it, Hesse argues, is a prerequisite for taking charge of our destiny:
Most men, the herd, have never tasted solitude. They leave father and mother, but only to crawl to a wife and quietly succumb to new warmth and new ties. They are never alone, they never commune with themselves. And when a solitary man crosses their path, they fear him and hate him like the plague; they fling stones at him and find no peace until they are far away from him. The air around him smells of stars, of cold stellar spaces; he lacks the soft warm fragrance of the home and hatchery.
A man must be indifferent to the possibility of falling, if he wants to taste of solitude and to face up to his own destiny. It is easier and sweeter to walk with a people, with a multitude — even through misery. It is easier and more comforting to devote oneself to the “tasks” of the day, the tasks meted out by the collectivity.
In a sentiment the poet May Sarton would echo in her stunning ode to solitude two decades later, Hesse adds:
Solitude is not chosen, any more than destiny is chosen. Solitude comes to us if we have within us the magic stone that attracts destiny.
Photograph by Maria Popova
Two millennia after Seneca admonished that “all your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Hesse exults:
Blessed be he who has found his solitude, not the solitude pictured in painting or poetry, but his own, unique, predestined solitude. Blessed be he who knows how to suffer! Blessed be he who bears the magic stone in his heart. To him comes destiny, from him comes authentic action.
In consonance with Seamus Heaney’s lyrical insight that “the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true… to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge,” Hesse addresses the young:
You were made to be yourselves. You were made to enrich the world with a sound, a tone, a shadow.
In each one of you there is a hidden being, still in the deep sleep of childhood. Bring it to life! In each one of you there is a call, a will, an impulse of nature, an impulse toward the future, the new, the higher. Let it mature, let it resound, nurture it! Your future is not this or that; it is not money or power, it is not wisdom or success at your trade — your future, your hard dangerous path is this: to mature and to find God in yourselves.
A century later, the entire piece remains a spectacular and deeply insightful read, as does the whole of Hesse’s If the War Goes On…. Complement this particular fragment with Ursula K. Le Guin on suffering and the other side of pain, Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one long period of solitude in life, then revisit Hesse on the discipline of savoring life’s little joys, why books will survive all future technology, the three types of readers, and what trees teach us about belonging and life.
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In the prelude to Figuring — a book at the heart of which are the complex, unclassifiable personal relationships animating and haunting historical figures whose public work has shaped our world — I lamented that we mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves.
Poet and philosopher David Whyte examines these distorting yet necessary containers of concepts in one of the lovely short essays in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a book I have long cherished.
Under the word “NAMING,” Whyte considers the difficult art of giving love the breathing room to be exactly what it is and not what we hope, expect, or demand it to be by preconception, tightness of heart, or adherence to societal convention.
David Whyte (Photograph: Nicol Ragland)
Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.
We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.
To sit with a shape-shifting, form-breaking love is a maddening endeavor that rattles the baseboards of our being with its earthquakes of uncertainty and ambiguity, its uncontrollable force and direction. Only the rare giants of confidence — giants like Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, in their beautiful love beyond label — manage to savor the sweetness of such unclassifiable, unnameable love rather than grow embittered at its nonconformity to standard templates of attachment and affection.
Art by Olivier Tallec from Jerome by Heart — an illustrated celebration of love beyond label
The realest love, Whyte suggests, is one we get to know from the inside out — a love that defines itself in the act of loving, rather than contracting and conforming to a pre-definition:
The act of loving itself, always becomes a path of humble apprenticeship, not only in following its difficult way and discovering its different forms of humility and beautiful abasement but strangely, through its fierce introduction to all its many astonishing and different forms, where we are asked continually and against our will, to give in so many different ways, without knowing exactly, or in what way, when or how, the mysterious gift will be returned.
While naming may confer dignity upon the named, names and labels are containers. They file concepts and constructs — often messy and always more tessellated, more replete with mystery than their linguistic package — into neat semantic cabinets. But language cups only with loose fingers what it is trying to contain and classify as nuance and complexity drip past the words. We contain in order to control, and whenever we control, we relinquish the beautiful, terrifying mystery of being.
We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened to us or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.
Consolations, which also gave us Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means and the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, is a revelatory, recalibratory read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Carl Sagan on how to live with the unknown, Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and Annie Dillard on living with mystery, then revisit Whyte’s beautiful ode to working together in a divided world.
“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller proclaimed as she transfigured the cultural and political face of the 19th century. Her contemporary and admirer Walt Whitman considered music the profoundest expression of nature, while Nietzsche bellowed across the Atlantic that “without music life would be a mistake.” But something curious and unnerving happens when, in the age of artificial intelligence, mathematics reaches its human-made algorithmic extensions into the realm of music — into the art Aldous Huxley believed grants us singular access to the “blessedness lying at the heart of things” and philosopher Susanne Langer considered our foremost “laboratory for feeling and time.” When music becomes a computational enterprise, do we attain more combinatorial truth or incur a grave existential mistake?
That is what musician and feeling-artisan Nick Cave addresses with great thoughtfulness and poetic sensitivity in answering a question from a Slovenian fan named Peter, posed on Cave’s blog:
Considering human imagination the last piece of wilderness, do you think AI will ever be able to write a good song?
Nick Cave in Belgium, 1986 (Photograph by Yves Lorson)
In Yuval Noah Harari’s new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he writes that Artificial Intelligence, with its limitless potential and connectedness, will ultimately render many humans redundant in the work place. This sounds entirely feasible. However, he goes on to say that AI will be able to write better songs than humans can. He says, and excuse my simplistic summation, that we listen to songs to make us feel certain things and that in the future AI will simply be able to map the individual mind and create songs tailored exclusively to our own particular mental algorithms, that can make us feel, with far more intensity and precision, whatever it is we want to feel. If we are feeling sad and want to feel happy we simply listen to our bespoke AI happy song and the job will be done.
But, I am not sure that this is all songs do. Of course, we go to songs to make us feel something — happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever — but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.
It is perfectly conceivable that AI could produce a song as good as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for example, and that it ticked all the boxes required to make us feel what a song like that should make us feel — in this case, excited and rebellious, let’s say. It is also feasible that AI could produce a song that makes us feel these same feelings, but more intensely than any human songwriter could do.
But, I don’t feel that when we listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it is only the song that we are listening to. It feels to me, that what we are actually listening to is a withdrawn and alienated young man’s journey out of the small American town of Aberdeen — a young man who by any measure was a walking bundle of dysfunction and human limitation — a young man who had the temerity to howl his particular pain into a microphone and in doing so, by way of the heavens, reach into the hearts of a generation. We are also listening to Iggy Pop walk across his audience’s hands and smear himself in peanut butter whilst singing 1970. We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.
And if an AI were to ever sign a letter to a human being who cherishes its music with “Love, Nick,” would that not be a mere simulacrum of the human experience the word love connotes and of the sense of self with which we imbue our own names? Alan Turing laid the foundation for these perplexities with the central question of his famous Turing test — “Can machines think?” — but it is impossible to consider the implications for music without building upon Turing’s foundation to ask, “Can machines feel?” Cave’s insightful point comes down to the most compelling and as-yet poorly understood aspect of human consciousness — the subjective interiority of experience known as qualia. Nina Simone knew this when she sang I wish you could know what it means to be me in her iconic 1967 civil rights anthem, which might well be the supreme anthem of qualia and the paradox of AI. Franz Kafka knew it when he told his young walking companion that “music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the subjective world.”
We don’t yet know, and we might never know, how to algorithmically map, dissect, project, and replicate what it feels like to have a particular subjective experience — we only know how to feel it. This knowledge is non-transferrable with the current tools of science. It is most closely relayed to another consciousness through the language and poetics of art, which Ursula K. Le Guin well knew is our finest, sharpest “tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” And if Susan Sontag was right, as I feel she was, in insisting that music is “the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” then music would be the art least susceptible to machine creation.
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm