welcome to this week’s edition of the brainpickings.org newsletterby Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s digest — Jane Goodall’s lovely letter to children about how reading shaped her life, philosopher Maurice Blanchot on writing and what it really means to see — you can read it here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe
I wrote Figuring (public library) to explore the interplay between chance and choice, the human search for meaning in an unfeeling universe governed by equal parts precision and randomness, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves, and our restless impulse to uncover the deepest truths of nature, even at the price of our convenient existential delusions of self-importance. (More about the book here.) These are vast, thicklyinterwoven themes, difficult to distill in a single sentiment, so I chose two dramatically different yet complementary epigraphs to open the book — one drawn from the trailblazing 18th-century philosopher and woman of letters Germaine de Staël’s treatise on the happiness of individuals and societies, and the other from one of our civilization’s most lucid and luminous poets laureate of the human spirit: W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973).
The Auden stanza comes from his stunning poem “The More Loving One,” originally published in his 1960 book Homage to Clio (public library) — a collection of shorter poems about history, a concept Auden defines in his own epigraph for the book:
Between those happenings that prefigure it
And those that happen in its anamnesis
Occurs the Event, but that no human wit
Can recognize until all happening ceases.
History, in other words, is not the objective chronicle of events but the subjective recognition of happenings sighted in the rearview mirror of being. (This is a question I explore throughout Figuring, in the prelude to which I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.) Auden saw history — this selective set of remembrances constructed by human intention and choice — as both counterpart and antipode to nature, in which events unfold free of intent, governed by chance and the impartial physical laws of the universe. Curiously, “The More Loving One” appears among Auden’s poems about history, but it deals with nature and the disorienting necessity of learning to love a universe insentient to our hopes and fears, unconcerned with our individual fates — perhaps the least requited love there is, as well as the largest. It is an elegy, in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for our ambivalent relationship with this elemental truth and an homage to the supreme triumph of the human heart — the willingness to love that which does not and cannot love us back.
In this recording from the Academy of American Poets’ sixteenth annual Poetry & the Creative Mind, astrophysicist and author Janna Levin reads Auden’s sublime poem, with a lovely prefatory reflection on the bittersweet seductions and consolations of our unrequited love for the universe.
THE MORE LOVING ONE
by W.H. Auden
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
Complement with Levin’s beautiful readings of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ode to time, then revisit Auden on writing, true and false enchantment, and the political power of art. For a different side to the poetics of asymmetrical yet profoundly beautiful love, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, excerpted from Figuring.
Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence
“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she drew on her intimate enchantment with the Highlands in her masterpiece The Living Mountain. Having grown up at the foot of Mount Vitosha and spent swaths of my childhood in the Rila mountains of Bulgaria, I too have known the mind-sculpting power of mountains and felt the embers of that knowingness reignited by Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library).
Written shortly after I was born, this uncommonly beautiful book-length essay by the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925), illustrated with 34 of her black-and-white sketches of the mountain, explores the themes that would animate Adnan through her nineties: time, self, impermanence, the nature of the universe, the spiritual dimensions of art, our belonging to and with the rest of the vast interwoven miracle we call nature.
Born in Beirut and trained in Paris — where she would return to spend much of her later life with her partner of more than forty years, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal — Adnan lived and taught in Northern California for more than a quarter century. There, she fell in love with Mount Tamalpais — the first vertebrae of the mountainous backboneof the Americas that stretches all the way to Tierra del Fuego. In its towering presence, she found herself “left with the sort of wonder that the sense of eternity always carries with it,” with a “feeling of latent prophesy.” The mountain became her abiding muse, which she celebrated and serenadedin a flood of paintings and poetic reverberations. Under Adnan’s gaze — generous, penetrating, benedictory — the mountain becomes both metaphor and not-metaphor, both object of reverent curiosity and sovereign subject unbeholden to human interpretation. Hers is a way of looking that embodies Ursula K. Le Guin’s distinction between objectifying and subjectifying the universe. Adnan writes:
Like a chorus, the warm breeze had come all the way from Athens and Baghdad, to the Bay, by the Pacific Route, its longest journey. It is the energy of these winds that I used, when I came to these shores, obsessed, followed by my home-made furies, errynies, and such potent creatures. And I fell in love with the immense blue eyes of the Pacific: I saw is red algae, its blood-colored cliffs, its pulsating breath. The ocean led me to the mountain.
Once I was asked in front of a television camera: “Who is the most important person you ever met?” and I remember answering: “A mountain.” I thus discovered that Tamalpais was at the very center of my being.
Half a century after philosopher Martin Buber considered the tree as a lesson in the difficult art of seeing essence rather than objectifying, Adnan considers the mountain’s essence:
This living with a mountain and with people moving with all their senses open, like many radars, is a journey… melancholy at times: you perceive noise and dirt, poverty, and the loneliness of those who are blind to so may things… but miraculous most of the way. Somehow what I perceived most is Tamalpais I am “making” the mountain as people make a painting.
It is an animal risen from the sea. A sea-creature landed, earth-bound, earth-oriented, maddened by its solidity.
The world around has the darkness of battle-ships, leafless trees are spearbearers, armor bearers, swords and pikes, the mountain looks at us with tears coming down its slopes.
O impermanence! What a lovely word and a sad feeling. What a fight with termination, with lives that fall into death like cliffs.
O Sundays which are like vessels in a storm, with nothing before and nothing after!
Out of the actuality of the mountain, Adnan draws an inner reality, rising too like a summit of self-transcendence:
I am at the window and Tamalpais looks back at me. I am in pain and it is not. But we are equals tonight.
I am amazed, but, more so, I am fulfilled. I am transported outside my ordinary self and into the world as it could be when no one watches.
But more than anything, Adnan finds in the mountain a vital counterpointto the hubrises of the self. A supreme equalizer of being, it stands as an antipode to our habitual anthropocentrism and self-involvement, humbling us — in the proper sense of humility, with its Latin root in humus, “of the earth” — into recognizing that we are each just one creature among many, a tiny constellation of stardust whose ephemeralexistence is no more significant than any other. Adnan writes:
The Pacific often sings a soft funeral march. It was most appropriate that they found a man hanging by a tree near the top of Tamalpais. It was not horrible. It was just one of the many events that happen up there following the death of birds or the growth of plants.
Again and again, she returns to this transcendent dance of the ephemeral and the eternal, played out in the life of the mountain as in the life of art:
A bird ran into the glass door of my deck and died. I rushed with paper and a pencil to make a drawing and realized I couldn’t draw death. The record player was playing a Koranic prayer recorded in Tunisia. The lamenting voice of the Prophet became a funeral song for the silenced animal. I came in and saw my Ray Bradbury book opened on these lines:
Robins will wear their feathery fire
whistling their whims on a low fence-wire
and not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done…
Through the long night of the species we go on, somehow blindly, and we give a name to our need for a breakthrough: we call it the Angel, or call it Art, or call it the Mountain.
The singular power of the mountain both beckons us into absolute presence and catapults us into an awareness of time far beyond our ephemerality — a state of being predicated on a wholeheartedembrace of our mortality. A century and a half after Kierkegaard asserted that a human being is “a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal,” Adnan writes:
When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.
Between the sun and the moon, the restless desire to live and the restless desire to die, the mountain holds the balance.
From the daily rhythms and simple seasonality of the mountain, Adnan wrests insights of great subtlety, poignancy, and prescience:
It had snowed. Tamalpais was white as it rarely is. White is the color of the terror int his century: the great white mushroom, the white and radiating clouds, the White on White painting by Malevich, and that whiteness, most fearful, in the eyes of men.
Recounting a hike up a steep trail with a few other members of the Perception Workshop — a collective of artists gathering “in peaceful parties with the seriousness of children at play” — Adnan reflects on what brought them together and took them to Tamalpais, seeking to discover the mountain and themselves:
We had with us no rite of passage. We had gone through no initiation, as we went into childhood and into adolescence with no warning. This is why we come to the mountain. We have no other elevation.
We slept under trees but in fact within the mountain’s vast sadness and we awoke very new.
The night freed us from our obsession with reason. It told us that we were a bundle of electric wires plugged into everything that came along. It was enough to be alive and around. The same was true of everything else.
Artists, she observes, have a deeper and more immediate grasp of this underlying interconnectedness of life. (Half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf had furnished the finest articulation of this awareness in herexquisite account of the epiphany in which she finally understood what it really means to be an artist: “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”) Adnan writes:
Painters have a knowledge which goes beyond words. They are where musicians are. When someone blows the saxophone the sky is made of copper. When you make a watercolor you know how it feels to be the sea lying early in the day in the proximity of light.
Painters have always experienced the oneness of things. They are aware that there is interference and intervention between the world and ourselves.
I write what I see, paint what I am.
In a testament to the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s insistencethat painting trains the mind’s eye to see more clearly and live with a deeper sense of presence, Adnan seeks to understand the intense and abiding draw of the mountain as a subject matter for her painting:
I know by experience, by now, that no subject matter, after a while, remains just a subject matter, but becomes a matter of life and death, our sanity resolved by visual means. Sanity is our power of perception kept focused. And it is an open-ended endeavor.
A visual expression belongs to an order of understanding which bypasses word-language. We have in us autonomous languages for autonomous perceptions. We should not waste time in trying ordinary understanding. We should not worry, either. There is no rest in any kind of perception. The fluidity of the mind is of the same family as the fluidity of being. Sometimes they coincide sharply. We call that a revelation. When it involves a privileged “object,” like a particular mountain, we call it an illumination.
She ends by considering the mountain’s supreme gift to her and her fellow artists — a gift of awareness, risen from the deepest stratum of being:
In this unending universe Tamalpais is a miraculousthing, the miracle of matter itself: something we can single out, the pyramid of our own identity. We are, because it is stable and it is ever changing. Our identity is the series of the mountain’s becomings, our peace is its stubborn existence.
Complement the slim, sublimely beautiful Journey to Mount Tamalpais with Nan Shepherd on the mountain as a lens on our relationship with nature and Simone Weil on the mountain as a metaphor for the purest and most fertile form of thought, then revisit Adnan — writing three decades after she left the mountain, though it never left her — on memory, the self, and the universe.
“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilkewrote in contemplating the most difficult and rewarding existential art: befriending our own finitude. I have been sitting with Rilke, awash in the tidal waves of sorrow and love, in the wake of losing my beloved friend Emily Levine(October 23, 1944–February 3, 2019) — philosopher, comedian, universe-builder, beautiful soul — who made me fall in love with poetry long ago and without whom there would be no Universe in Verse and no Figuring. (Emily rightfully occupies the first line of the book’s acknowledgements.)
Ever since her terminal diagnosis in 2016, and up until just three weeks before her death, I have been taking Emily for what we came to call our “poetry retreats” — brief periodic respites by the ocean, where we would spend unhurried time in the company of a few other beloved women, reading poetry, cooking, conversing, and just being — with our joys, with our sorrows, with one another. Emily — the most erudite and intellectually voracious person I have ever known — introduced us to classics, many of which she knew by heart: Whitman, Eliot, Yeats, Plath, Rilke. But there was one contemporary poem she especially loved and read for us often: “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, from her exquisite and exquisitelytitled 1998 poetry collection Bite Every Sorrow (public library).
Now that Emily has returned her stardust to the universe she so cherished, and all the words seem too small to fill the void, poetry stands as the only mode of remembrance that can give shape and space to the amorphouslargeness of feeling that is grief. In this sweetly lo-fi recording from one of our gatherings, punctuated by the sound of the ocean and the rustle of page-turning, Emily reads the poem that she, in the deepest sense, lived out and modeled for the rest of us with her largehearted life.
YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.
Complement with Emily’s splendid reading of “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, who often graced our poetry retreats with her Buddhist benediction of a presence, then revisit Mary Oliver — one of Emily’s favorite poets, whom she outlived by seventeen days — on the measure of a life well lived and how to live with maximal aliveness.