“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
— Harrington Emerson
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
— Professor Falken in the 1983 Movie War Games
welcome to this week’s edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s digest — remembering a dear friend, the story behind one of the loveliest, profoundest poems ever written, what a mountain teaches about time and transcendence — you can read ithere. 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.
Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny
“To create today is to create dangerously,” Albert Camus wrote in the late 1950s as he contemplated the role of the artist as a voice of resistance. “In our age,” W.H. Auden observed around the same time across the Atlantic, “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” This unmercifulreality of human culture has shocked and staggered every artist who has endeavored to effect progress and lift her society up with the fulcrum of her art, but it is a fundamental fact of every age and every society. Half a century after Camus and Auden, Chinua Achebe distilled its discomfiting essence in his forgotten conversation with James Baldwin:
Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.
Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — a rare philosopherwith a poet’s pen, and one of the most incisive minds of the past century — explores the role of art as a force of resistance to tyranny and vehicle of cultural change in an arresting address she delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the spring of 1972, later included in the altogether revelatory posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).
Two decades after the Soviet communist government forced Boris Pasternak to relinquish his Nobel Prize in Literature, Murdoch writes:
Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystifywhile art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth, he formulates ideas which would otherwise remain vague and focuses attention upon facts which can then no longer be ignored. The tyrant persecutes the artist by silencing him or by attempting to degrade or buy him. This has always been so.
In consonance with Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Murdoch adds:
At regular intervals in history the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the maelstrom of vicious opprobriumhurled at E.E. Cummings for his visionary defiance of tradition, which revolutionized literature, Murdoch considers how art often catalyzesideological and cultural revolutions by first revolutionizing the art-form itself:
A motive for change in art has always been the artist’s own sense of truth. Artists constantly react against their tradition, finding it pompous and starchy and out of touch… Traditional art is seen as far too grand, and is then seen as a half-truth.
Murdoch counts among the “multifarious enemies of art” not only the deliberate assaults of political agendas and ideologies, but the half-conscious lacerations of our technology — that prosthetic extension of human intention, the unforeseen consequences and byproducts of which invariably eclipse its original intended uses. In a passage of sunderingpertinence to our present political pseudo-reality, reinforced by the gorgeof incessant newsfeeds, she writes:
A technological society, quite automatically and without any malign intent, upsets the artist by taking over and transforming the idea of craft, and by endlessly reproducing objects which are not art objects but sometimes resemble them. Technology steals the artist’s public by inventing sub-artistic forms of entertainment and by offering a great counterinterest and a rival way of grasping the world.
Today technology further disturbs the artist and his client not only by actually threatening the world, but by making its wretchednessapparent upon the television screen. The desire to attack art, to neglect it or to harness it or to transform it out of recognition, is a natural and in a way respectable reaction to this display.
In a lovely parallel to Kurt Gödel’s landmark incompleteness theorem, demonstrating the existence of certain mathematical truths which mathematical logical simply cannot prove, Murdoch extolsincompleteness as the hallmark of art — not its weakness but its supreme strength:
Great art, especially literature, but the other arts too, carries a built-in self-critical recognition of its incompleteness. It accepts and celebrates jumble, and the bafflement of the mind by the world. The incomplete pseudo-object, the work of art, is a lucid commentary upon itself… Art makes a place for precision in the midst of chaos by inventing a language in which contingent details can be lovingly noticed and obvious truths stated with simple authority. The incompleteness of the pseudo-object need not affect the lucidity of the mode of talk which it bodies forth; in fact, the two aspects of the matter ideally support each other. In this sense all good art is its own intimate critic, celebrating in simple and truthful utterance the broken nature of its formal complexity. All good tragedy is anti-tragedy. King Lear. Learwants to enact the false tragic, the solemn, the complete. Shakespeare forces him to enact the true tragic, the absurd, the incomplete.
Great art, then,… inspires truthfulness and humility.
Much as the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay had ranked an art other than her own as the greatest — “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” she exulted in one of literature’s most splendid passages about the power of music — Murdoch concedes the superior power of art at the expense of her own primary vocation:
Great art is able to display and discuss the central area of our reality, our actual consciousness, in a more exact way than science or even philosophy can.
A decade and a half before Toni Morrison delivered her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power of language and a quarter century before Susan Sontag’s poignant address on “the conscience of words,”Murdoch writes:
There is no doubt which art is the most practically important for our survival and our salvation, and that is literature. Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood, of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence. We became spiritual animals when we became verbal animals. Thefundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit.
In a sentiment of grave poignancy amid our dispiriting and decivilizing atmosphere of “alternative facts,” Murdoch adds:
The quality of a civilisation depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth, and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.
Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.
With an eye to C.P. Snow’s famed 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures” — a watershed case for the necessity of desegregating science and the humanities, of bridging investigation with imaginative experience — Murdoch exhorts:
We must not be tempted to leave lucidity and exactness to the scientist. Whenever we write we ought to write as well as we can… in order to defend our language and render subtle and clear that stuff which is the deepest texture of our spirit.
There are not two cultures. There is only one culture and words are its basis; words are where we live as human beings and as moral and spiritual agents.
Her closing words are part manifesto and part benediction — a meta-testament to the mobilizing, spiritualizing power of great writing:
Both art and philosophy constantly re-create themselves by returning to the deep and obvious and ordinary things of human existence and making there a place for cool speech and wit and serious unforced reflection. Long may this central area remain to us, the homeland of freedom and of art. The great artist, like the great saint, calms us by a kind of unassuming simple lucidity, he speaks with the voice that we hear in Homer and in Shakespeare and in the Gospels. This is the human language of which, whenever we write, as artists or as word-users of any other kind, we should endeavour to be worthy.
Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on storytelling and the key to great writing — is a timelessly incisive read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Toni Morrison onthe power of language, then revisit Murdoch on causality, chance, and how love gives meaning to our existence and her almost unbearably beautifullove letters.
The summer when nineteen-year-old Emily Dickinson met the love of her life — the orphanedmathematician-in-training Susan Gilbert, who would come to be the poet’s greatest muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World” — another intense, label-defying love was igniting in the heart of another literary titan-to-be some fifty miles westward. That other love unfolds alongside Dickinson’s in Figuring — a book I wrote to explore, among other existential perplexities, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves. (This essay is adapted from the book.)
On August 5, 1850, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne at a literary gathering in the Berkshires. Hawthorne was forty-six. The achingly shy, brooding writer, once celebrated as “handsomer than Lord Byron,” had risen to celebrity a decade earlier, much thanks to a glowing endorsement by Margaret Fuller. Melville — whose debut novel had rendered him a literary star in his twenties — had just turned thirty-one.
A potent intellectual infatuation ignited between the two men — one that, at least for Melville, seems to have grown from the cerebral to the corporeal. Within days, the young author reviewed Hawthorne’s short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse in Literary World under the impersonal byline “a Virginian Spending July in Vermont.” No claim of this intentional ambiguity was true — Melville was a New Yorker, the month was August, and he was spending it in Massachusetts.
The review, nearing seven thousand words, was nothing less than an editorial serenade. “A man of a deep and noble nature has seized me in this seclusion… His wild, witch voice rings through me,” Melville wrote of reading Hawthorne’s stories in a remote farmhouse nestled in the summer foliage of the New England countryside. “The soft ravishmentsof the man spun me round in a web of dreams.” Melville couldn’t have known that his allusions to witchcraft, intended as compliment, had disquieting connotations for Hawthorne. Born Nathaniel Hathorne, he had added a w to the family name in order to distance himself from his ancestor John Hathorne — a leading judge involved in the Salem witch trials, who, unlike the other culpable judges, never repented of his role in the murders. Unwitting of the dark family history, Melville found himself under “this Hawthorne’s spell” — a spell cast first by his writing, then by the constellation of personal qualities from which the writing radiated. Who hasn’t fallen in love with an author in the pages of a beautiful book? And if that author, when befriended in the real world, proves to be endowedwith the splendor of personhood that the writing intimates, who could resist falling in love with the whole person? Melville presaged as much:
No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind… There is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet. Or, love and humor are only the eyes, through which such an intellect views this world. The great beauty in such a mind is but the product of its strength.
After comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, he writes:
In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunningglimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, — even though it be covertly, and by snatches.
“I am Posterity speaking by proxy,” Melville bellows from the page, “when I declare — that the American, who up to the present day, has evinced, in Literature, the largest brain with the largest heart, that man is Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In an aside on the process of composing his review, he notes that twenty-four hours into writing, he found himself “charged more and more with love and admiration of Hawthorne.” Quoting an especially beguiling line of Hawthorne’s, he insists that “such touches… can not proceed from any common heart.” No, they bespeak “such a depth of tenderness, such a boundless sympathy with all forms of being, such an omnipresent love” that they render their author singular in his generation — as singular as the place he would come to occupy in Melville’s heart.
Fervid correspondence and frequent visits followed over the next few months. Only ten of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne survive, but their houses were just six miles apart and they saw each other quite often — “discussing the Universe with a bottle of brandy & cigars,” as Melville put it in one invitation, and talking deep into the night about “time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters,” as Hawthorne recounted in his diary. Punctuating the invisible log of all that was written but destroyed is all that was spoken but unwritten, all that was felt but unspoken.
Melville’s ardor was most acute during the period of writing Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. Printed immediately after the title page was “In Token of My Admiration for his Genius, This Book is Inscribed to Nathanial [sic] Hawthorne.”
One November evening over dinner, a restlessly excited Herman presented Nathaniel with a lovingly inscribed copy of the novel whose now-legendary protagonist sails from Nantucket into the existentialunknown. I can picture the brooding Hawthorne turning the leaf and suppressing a beam of delight upon discovering the printed dedication. In the following century, Virginia Woolf would perform a similar gesture with her groundbreaking, gender-bending novel Orlando, inspired by her lover Vita Sackville-West and later described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita would receive a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specially for her in Niger leather and stamped with her initials on the spine.
But after the elated private presentation, a very different public fate awaited Moby-Dick. Its 1851 publication was met with a damning review in New York’s Literary World, which set the tone for its American reception and precipitated its decades-long plunge into obscurity. The reviewer’s chief complaint was that the novel “violated and defaced” “the most sacred associations of life”—an indictment aimed at the homoeroticism of Melville’s choice to depict Ishmael and Queequeg as sharing a “marriage bed” in which they awaken with their arms around each other.
Ten days later, Hawthorne lamented the obtuseness of the review and praised Moby-Dick as Melville’s best work yet. Touched to the point of delirium by this “exultation-breeding letter,” Melville hastened to reply:
Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.
Aware of how his intemperate fervor might incinerate his relationship with the cooler-tempered Hawthorne, Melville reasons with himself for a moment, then chooses to abandon reason:
My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning.
After signing, he adds a feverish postscript:
I can’t stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of [magicians], I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand — a million — billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question — they are One.
The intensity proved too concussing for Hawthorne — he pulled away from the divine magnet. Melville seems to have presaged the eclipse of their relationship in the review in which the magnetism had begun:
It is that blackness in Hawthorne… that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark.
As Hawthorne retreated into his cool darkness, Melville suffered with the singular anguish of unreturned ardor—anguish that stayed with him for the remaining four decades of his life, for he eulogized it in one of his last poems, “Monody,” penned in his final year:
To have known him, to have loved him,
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!
By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.
Meanwhile, the gaps of the invisible and the unspoken are filled with posterity’s questions about specifics that vibrate with the universal: What happened between Melville and Hawthorne in the unrecorded hours? Why did Nathaniel ultimately repel the divine magnet of Herman’s love? Most probably, we’ll never know. Possibly, they themselves never fully did. It is almost banal to say, yet it needs to be said: No one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. One thing is certain: The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.
After Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Neil Gaiman’s Stunning Poem Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Legacy of Culture-Shifting Courage
“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her piercing and prescient 1914 anthem against silence. Half a century later, these words would come to embolden one of the most revolutionary voices humanity has produced — a scientist who changed culture by writing like a poet. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologistand poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her beloved, quoting the line as she was readying to speak inconvenient truth to power — at great personal cost — in catalyzing the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring.
This stunning notion that a long-dead poet can inspire a scientist to transform an entire society inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse— the annual celebration of science through poetry, which I host each spring at Brooklyn’s wondrous nonprofit cultural institute Pioneer Works and which in turn inspired my book Figuring, where Carson is a central figure and the interleaving of art, science, love, and cultural change a central theme.
Crowning the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse, dedicated to Carson and her far-reaching legacy, was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion to celebrate this visionary of uncommon courage and persistence — the rare gift of one genius honoring another, delivered by a third: Reading the poem was Amanda Palmer, herself an artist of radical courage and an ardent champion of poetry. Please enjoy:
for Rachel Carson
Seasons on seasons. The spring is signaled by birdsong
coyotes screech and yammer in the moonlight
and the first flowers open. I saw two owls today
in the daylight, on silent wings.
They landed as one and watched me sleepily.
Oh who? they called. Or how, or how who?
Then they leaned into the trunk
into the sun that shone through the tight-curled buds,
and vanished into dappled shadows
never waiting for an answer.
Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk
and grows until it has reached its height
all of us begin in darkness. Some of us reach maturity. A few
become old: we went over time’s waterfall and lived,
Time barely cares. We are a pool of knowledge and advice
the wisdom of the tribe, but we have stumbled,
fallen face-first into our new uncomfortable roles.
Remembering, as if it happened to someone else,
the race to breed,
or to succeed, the aching need that drove our thoughts
and shaped each deed,
those days are through.
We do not need to grow, we’re done,
Who speaks? And why?
She was killed by her breasts, by tumours in them:
A clump of cells that would not listen to orders to disband
no chemical suggestions that they were big enough
that, sometimes, it’s a fine thing just to die, were heeded.
And the trees are leafless and black against the sky
and the bats in fatal whiteface sleep and rot
and the jellyfish drift and pulse through the warming waters
and everything changes. And some things are truly lost.
Wild in the weeds, the breeze scatters the seeds,
and it lifts the wings of the pine processionary moth,
and bears the green glint of the emerald borer,
Now the elms go the way of the chestnut trees.
Becoming memories and dusty furniture.
The ash trees go the way of the elms.
And somebody has to say that we
never need to grow forever. That
we, like the trees, can reach our full growth,
and mature, in wisdom and in time,
that we can be enough of us. That there
can be room for other breeds and kinds and lives.
Who’ll whisper it:
that tumours kill their hosts,
and then themselves?
We’re done. We grew. Enough.
All the gods on the hilltops
and all the gods on the waves
the gods that became seals
the voices on the winds
the quiet places, where if we are silent
we can listen, we can learn.
Who speaks? And why?
Someone could ask the questions, too.
Who knew? What’s true?
And how? Or who?
How could it work?
What happens then?
Are consequences consequent?
The answers come from the world itself
The songs are silent,
and the spring is long in coming.
There’s a voice that rumbles beneath us
and after the end the voice still reaches us
Like a bird that cries in hunger
or a song that pleads for a different future.
Because all of us dream of a different future.
And somebody needs to listen.
To pause. To hold.
To inhale, and find the moment
before the exhale, when everything is in balance
and nothing moves. In balance: here’s life, here’s death,
and this is eternity holding its breath.
After the world has ended
After the silent spring
Into the waiting silence
another song begins.
Nothing is ever over
life breathes life in its turn
Sometimes the people listen
Sometimes the people learn
Who speaks? And why?
Complement with “The Mushroom Hunters” — Gaiman’s magnificent feminist science poem composed for the inaugural Universe in Verse, which received the Rhysling Award for poetry — then revisit other highlights from the first two years of the show: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, poet Marie Howereading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and musician Rosanne Cash’s reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.
For another tribute to Carson from the show, put on some good headphones and watch Amanda Palmer’s stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” — that iconic and bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement, inspired by the legacy of Silent Spring. For more about Carson and how her unusual private life fomented her epoch-making cultural contribution, she occupies the final and most significant portion of Figuring.