welcome to this week’s edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s digest — Patti Smith on creativity and William Blake, the stunning natural history illustrations of 18th-century artist Sarah Stone, Jill Lepore on history — you can catch up right 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.
Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist
To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she revolutionizing the art of her time.
This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”
In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?
That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.
Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:
by W.S. Merwin
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:
I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.
Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advicefrom some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.
“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer,” physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Niels Bohr observed while contemplating the nature of reality five years after he received the Nobel Prize, adding: “But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”
Bohr, who introduced the notion of complementarity, went on to influence generations of thinkers, including a number of Nobel laureates. Among them was the Swiss-Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (April 25, 1900–December 15, 1958) — another pioneering figure of particle physics and quantum mechanics. Invested in the conquest of truth at the deepest strata of nature, Pauli took up this question of reality as a physical and metaphysical object of inquiry in a rather improbable arena: his friendship with the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose entire body of work was centered on the conviction that “man cannot stand a meaningless life.”
Pauli’s longtime correspondence and collaboration with Jung occupies a small but significant portion of Figuring(public library) — an exploration of the tessellated facets of our search for meaning, from which this essay is adapted. Their unlikely friendship, which precipitated the invention of synchronicity, bridged the world of science and the world of spirit, entwining the irrepressible human impulses for finding truth and making meaning — a kind of non-Euclidean intersection of our parallel searches for understanding the reality within and the reality without.
Long before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his exclusion principle — the tenet of quantum physics stating that multiple identical particles within a single quantum system cannot occupy the same quantum state at the same time — and around the time he theorized the neutrino, Pauli was thrust into existential tumult. His mother, to whom he was very close, died by suicide. His tempestuous marriage ended in divorce within a year — a year during which he drowned his unhappiness in alcohol. Caught in the web of drinking and despair, Pauli reached out to Jung for help.
Jung, already deeply influenced by Einstein’s ideas about space and time, was intrigued by his brilliant and troubled correspondent. What began as an intense series of dream analyses unfolded, over the course of the remaining twenty-two years of Pauli’s life, into an exploration of fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality through the dual lens of physics and psychology — a testament to Einstein’s assertion that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Each used the tools of his expertise to shift the shoreline between the known and the unknown, and together they found common ground in the analogy between the atom, with its nucleus and orbiting electrons, and the self, with its central conscious ego and its ambient unconscious.
While there is a long and lamentable history of science — physics in particular — being hijacked for mystical and New Age ideologies, two things make Jung and Pauli’s collaboration notable. First, the analogies between physics and alchemical symbolism were drawn not only by a serious scientist, but by one who would soon receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Second, the warping of science into pseudoscience and mysticism tends to happen when scientific principles are transposed onto nonscientific domains with a false direct equivalence. Pauli, by contrast, was deliberate in staying at the level of analogy — that is, of conceptual parallels furnishing metaphors for abstract thought that can advance ideas in each of the two disciplines, but with very different concrete application.
Jung had borrowed the word “archetype” from Kepler, drawing on the astronomer’s alchemical symbolism. More than three centuries after Kepler’s alchemy, Pauli’s exclusion principle became the basic organizing principle for the periodic table. The alchemists had been right all along, in a way — they had just been working on the wrong scale: Only at the atomic level can one element become another, in radioactivity and nuclear fission. Even the atom itself had to transcend the problem of scale: The Greek philosopher Democritus theorized atoms in 400 BC, but he couldn’t prove or disprove their existence empirically — a hundred thousand times smaller than anything the naked eye could see, the atom remained invisible. It wasn’t for another twenty-three centuries that we were able to override the problem of scale by the prosthetic extension of our vision, the microscope.
What had originally attracted Pauli to the famous psychiatrist was Jung’s work on symbols and archetypes — a Keplerian obsession that in turn obsessed Pauli, who devoted various essays and lectures to how Kepler’s alchemy and archetypal ideas influenced the visionary astronomer’s science. In physics, he saw numerous analogies to alchemy: In symmetry, he found the archetypal structure of matter and in elementary particles, the substratum of reality that the alchemists had sought; in the spectrograph, which allowed scientists for the first time to study the chemical composition of stars, an analogue of the alchemist’s oven; in probability, which he defined as “the actual correspondence between the expected result… and the empirically measured frequencies,” the mathematical analogue of archetypal numerology.
But Pauli recognized that the dawn of quantum physics, in which he himself was a leading sun, introduced a new necessity to reconcile different facets of reality. Nearly a century after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — a leading figure in Figuring — asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,”Pauli reflected in one of his Kepler lectures:
It would be most satisfactory of all if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality. To us [modern scientists], unlike Kepler and Fludd, the only acceptable point of view appears to be one that recognizes both sides of reality — the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical — as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.
In my own view it is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.
Four decades before the revered physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term black hole, made his influential assertion that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,”Pauli wrote to Jung:
Modern [particle physics] turns the observer once again into a little lord of creation in his microcosm, with the ability (at least partially) of freedom of choice and fundamentally uncontrollable effects on that which is being observed. But if these phenomena are dependent on how (with what experimental system) they are observed, then is it not possible that they are also phenomena (extra corpus) that depend on who observes them (i.e., on the nature of the psyche of the observer)? And if natural science, in pursuit of the ideal of determinism since Newton, has finally arrived at the stage of the fundamental “perhaps” of the statistical character of natural laws… then should there not be enough room for all those oddities that ultimately rob the distinction between “physics” and “psyche” of all its meaning?
And yet Pauli was careful to recognize that “although [particle physics] allows for an acausal form of observation, it actually has no use for the concept of ‘meaning’” — that is, meaning is not a fundamental function of reality but an interpretation superimposed by the human observer.
Complement with Carl Sagan on science and spiritualityand Einstein’s historic conversation with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, then revisit other excerpts from Figuring: Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’sstunning reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.
“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the trailblazing psychologist Donald Winnicott observed in his landmark manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Inseparable from the psychological role of mothering is the biological reality of motherhood — a biology almost alien in its otherworldly strangeness as a cell becomes a being, with a heart and a mind and a whole life ahead.
That glorious strangeness is what Paola Quintavallecelebrates in Crescendo (public library) — an uncommon picture-poem about the science of pregnancy, evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s lovely insistence that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe.”
Unfolding across lyrical watercolors by Italian artist Alessandro Sanna — who painted the wordless masterpieces Pinocchio: The Origin Story and The River — the story follows the growth of an almost-being inside a mother’s womb over the nine months of gestation. As small as a sesame seed, it soon sprouts the buds that will blossom into arms and legs, grows its first organ — the heart — and develops its first senses, smell and sound.
By the third month, the fetus gets its fur coat, known as lanugo, and the first fragments of its miniature skeleton begin to form. By month four, fingerprints are being carved onto its tiny digits.
Visual metaphors drawing on the lives of other beings — a bird, a horse, a flower, a school of fish — populate Sanna’s watercolor score of Quintavalle’s spare, poetic chronicle of becoming, their geometry cleverly mirroring the curvature of the mother’s belly that frames the story.
What strikes me is that each of us has undergone this absolutely astonishing process, with no conscious memory of it at all, and yet somehow we don’t walk around in perpetual astonishment that this is how we came to be. Perhaps we should. I am reminded of the great poet and philosopher of science Lewis Thomas’s words: “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”
Couple Crescendo with Argentine artist, author, and singer Isol’s lovely picture-book about the mysterious and mystifying creature that emerges from birth, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s bold open letter to the BBC about the choice to become a mother as a working artist, and pioneering investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens’s playful, profound 1925 meditation on fatherhood.