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Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss
Love and death come to us on common terms — unbidden and total, impervious to protest, naked of pretension. They also come to us entwined: Every love is a franchise of grief, for to love anything is to accept its loss — by a dissipation of ardor or of atoms, the atoms constellating the beloved or the atoms constellating us and the consciousness that does the loving, certain to one day go the way of every other consciousness and every other love that ever was and ever will be.
In some deep sense, this inevitability of loss is precisely what makes love so ecstatic — a concentrated experience of aliveness consecrated by its own perishability.
Walt Whitman touched on this with his tender, unflinching hand when he asked, “What indeed is beautiful, except Death and Love?”; when he observed that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” He meant, I think, the luckiness of having lived at all, for death is only possible where life, improbable against the austere odds of the universe, once existed.
That inescapable interplay is what poet Mark Doty explores throughout his incandescent book What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (public library) — part biography, part memoir, part lyric meditation on life, love, and their consanguinity with death.
Noting how deeply Whitman — the self-anointed poet of the body and poet of the soul — “understood that the particular is always perishing, and therefore all the more to be cherished,” Doty considers the body as an instrument of temporality and cherishment, through which the song of life sings itself and binds us to the chorus of all other bodies:
Begin with the body: water, vapor, air. You’re the shore on which an ocean of air is constantly breaking, in waves of breath. “Inside” and “outside” of lungs, permeable boundary of skin, eyes, ears, nose, holes in the body for substance passing in and out, no stable and fixed entity that is you, but a moving set of points through which pass water, air, light, food, parts of the bodies of others: their breath, tongues, genitals, hands.
The world enters us and departs, just as language and image and idea are imprinted upon our consciousness, considered, forgotten, passed on, released.
This perishable, permeable body, with its ceaseless entropic flow, lies at the heart of the paradox of desire — that electric impulse felt in the Body and felt in the Soul, furnishing our most palpable evidence that the two are one. “Behold,” Whitman wrote, “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.” And so desire becomes a sacrament to the interleaving of love and death, temporal by definition and necessity, its temporality the wellspring of its delirium.
Awake to this fundament of feeling, Doty challenges the damaging Romantic ideal of interminable desire within any given love — a concept by nature self-negating, dishonoring the very thing that gives desire its electric charge:
Even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death; otherwise the endlessness, the lack of limit or of boundary, finally drains things of their tension, removes all edges… The same body that strains toward freedom and escape also has outer edges, also exists in time, and it’s that doubling that makes the body the sexy and troubling thing it is. O taste and see. Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?
The longing of the ephemeral body is the Borgesian mirror in which the eternal longing of the soul is endlessly reflected and reflected back, flickering with the bittersweet beauty of our mortal destiny, with the transcendent urgency of life and love. Doty writes:
You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once. The ecstatic body’s a place to feel timelessness and to hear, ear held close to the chest of another, the wind that blows in there, hurrying us ahead and away, and to understand that this awareness does not put an end to longing but lends to it a shadow that is, in the late hour, beautiful.
With an eye to Whitman’s central credo, staked on the poet’s ethos that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” and that we are therefore not separate selves but contiguous territories of aliveness made all the more alive and more contiguous by love, Doty writes:
When the Self dissolves into a world of separate selves and death becomes real, love becomes a pact with grief; what is gained then is the inescapably poignant fact of individuality. There will never be another you, and I love the stubborn particularity of you because you will disappear.
Complement these fragments of Doty’s irreducibly splendid What Is the Grass with Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss and Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and the consecrating power of grief, then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living.
We move through a storied world as living stories. Every human life is an autogenerated tale of meaning — we string the chance-events of our lives into a sensical and coherent narrative of who and what we are, then make that narrative the psychological pillar of our identity. Every civilization is a macrocosm of the narrative — we string together our collective selective memory into what we call history, using storytelling as a survival mechanism for its injustices. Along the way, we hum a handful of impressions — a tiny fraction of all knowable truth, sieved by the merciless discriminator of our attention and warped by our personal and cultural histories — into a melody of comprehension that we mistake for the symphony of reality.
Great storytelling plays with this elemental human tendency without preying on it. Paradoxically, great storytelling makes us better able not to mistake our compositions for reality, better able to inhabit the silent uncertain spaces between the low notes of knowledge and the shrill tones of opinion, better able to feel, which is always infinitely more difficult and infinitely more rewarding than to know.
That is what George Saunders explores throughout A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library) — his wondrous investigation of what makes a good story (which is, by virtue of Saunders being helplessly himself, a wondrous investigation of what makes a good life) through a close and contemplative reading of seven classic Russian short stories, examined as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art — namely, to ask the big questions.” Questions like what truth is and why we love. Questions like how to live and how to make meaning inside the solitary confinement of our mortality. Questions like:
How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
Noting that “all coherent intellectual work begins with a genuine reaction,” Saunders frames the central question of his investigation: what we feel and when we feel it, in a story or in the macrocosm of a story that is a life — a framing that calls to mind philosopher Susanne Langer’s notion of music as “a laboratory for feeling in time,” for all great storytelling, as Maurice Sendak observed, is a work of musicality, and all that fills the brief interlude between birth and death is, in anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s lovely phrasing, the work of “composing a life.” In this sense, a story is instrument for feeling — something Saunders places at the heart of his creative theorem:
What a story is “about” is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.
Considering this consonance between storytelling and life, these parallels between how we move through the fictional world of a story and how we move through the real world, Saunders writes:
To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time… The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.
With an eye to how a story makes its meaning — small structural pulses appearing in sequence, at speed, to give rise to a set of expectations and resolutions — he writes:
A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time.
We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy. Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.
The true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.
This transfer of energy, this transmutation of understanding, is, of course, the mystique and mechanism by which all art moves us — a story, a song, a poem, a painting. Learning to be present with it, to notice the pulses that move the mind into thought and feeling, refines our ability to attend not only to art but to the world — for, as neuroscientist Christof Koch readily reminds us, “consciousness is the central fact of your life.” Saunders writes:
A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were… We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it. And that part of the mind is the one that reading and writing refine into sharpness.
A story is able to reach that honest part of the mind and move it only by dignifying the reading mind as such. A generation before Saunders, E.B. White — one of the most singular and splendid storytellers of all time, and one of the most beloved children’s book authors — insisted that in order to write well for any reader, but especially for that most alert and honest-minded of readers, the child, “you have to write up, not down.” (This I consider also the key to great science-storytelling, and especially to the rare intersection of the two.) Defining a story as “an ongoing communication between two minds,” Saunders observes:
A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer.
Performing an artistic anatomy of Chekhov’s spare and stunning story “The Darling,” Saunders examines how a writer makes this conversation compelling and offers his most direct instruction for storytelling:
Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.
What is escalation, anyway? How does a story produce the illusion of escalation? … One answer: refuse to repeat beats. Once a story has moved forward, through some fundamental change in the character’s condition, we don’t get to enact that change again. And we don’t get to stay there elaborating on that state.
Escalation is also what gives a story the undertone of causality — that satisfying feeling of things making sense, because a thing has been caused by some prior thing. All causality provides an answer, pacifying and stimulating, to the most primal question of every child, the child still living in each of us: But why?
Examining the art of escalation through the lens of his definition of a story as “a process for the transfer of energy,” Saunders returns to the rhythmic dynamism driving all great storytelling:
In a good story, the writer makes energy in a beat, then transfers this energy cleanly to the next one (the energy is “conserved”). She does this by being aware of the nature of the energy she’s made. In a bad story (or an early draft), the writer doesn’t fully understand the nature of the energy she’s made, and ignores or misuses it, and it dissipates.
The preferred, most efficient, highest-order form of energy transfer (the premier way for a scene to advance the story in a non-trivial way) is for a beat to cause the next beat, especially if that next beat is felt as essential, i.e., as an escalation: a meaningful alteration in the terms of the story.
Coupling the importance of causality with his credo that the storytelling process is a matter of “intuition plus iteration,” Saunders echoes James Baldwin’s bellowing admonition to writers that “beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance,” and reflects:
I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.
First, a willingness to revise.
Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.
Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary. It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B, the stuff of vaudeville, of Hollywood. But it’s the hardest thing to learn. It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us. But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality. For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked,” “The house exploded,” “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next.
This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning.
Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a superpower that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.
Read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, read the seven Russian treasures of storytelling in it and Saunders’s sensitive disassembly of their machinery of magic, then revisit Chekhov’s six rules for a compelling story, Susan Sontag on storytelling and how to be a good human being, and the pioneering cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.
“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she was changing the fabric of the time. Exactly one hundred years after her untimely death, another tragic hero of another century, whose mind would shape the epochs to come, united these twin truths in a single, rapturous force-field of possibility on the pages of a programming manual containing the first instructions for how to compose music on a computer — a foundational marriage of technos and tenderness.
While the world saw early computers as oversized calculators, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) was asking whether a computer could make you fall in love with it. Only those rare artists of the possible can look at something on the cusp of becoming and see what it can be, not as an incremental evolution of the extant and the familiar but as a leap toward the unexampled and the unimagined.
Out of Turing’s uncommon orientation to possibility arose one his most profound and undersung contributions to the modern world: the birth of digital music. Envisioning the computer’s potential as a musical instrument, Turing became the first to compose a computer program for playing notes — the greatest contribution to the universal language since Pythagoras first radicalized music with mathematics.
After the end of the war — the war he helped end by cracking the Nazis’ Enigma machine and saving inestimable lives by terminating what might have been an interminable war — Turing had moved to Manchester to begin programming his colossal computer, affectionately known as Baby. From the start, he conceived of it not as a calculating device but as a universal machine capable, with sufficient imagination encoded in its native language, of approximating the capabilities of the human mind.
In 1951, if you were to walk into Turing’s Manchester Mark I computer — for it was a room-sized poem of metal and mind, stacked on post office racks — you would find a loudspeaker hooked to the colossus, emitting a shrill electronic beep whenever the machine ran aground and needed attention. Turing realized that with some imaginative code, this “hooter” could be programmed to sound notes on the musical scale, then become music.
The computer’s ‘hoot instruction’ (which he named/V, pronounced ‘slash vee’) worked like this. There was an electronic clock in the computer that synchronized all the operations. This clock beat steadily, like a silent metronome, at a rate of over 4,000 noiseless ticks per second. Executing the hoot instruction a single time made one of these ticks come alive with sound (emitted at the loudspeaker), but the sound lasted only for as long as the tick, a tiny fraction of a second. Turing described the sound as ‘something between a tap, a click, and a thump’. Executing the hoot instruction over and over again resulted in this brief sound being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, and so on.
The magic by which these ticks became music was a function not of the capabilities of Turing’s machine but of the incapacities of the human mind — the mind that is both instrument and computer; the mind that, for all of its astonishing complexity, still has processing limits.
The perceptual limitation of the eye-brain processor makes us perceive a hummingbird’s wings as an infinity-shaped blur of motion — a misperception that rendered the hummingbird’s flight a thing of magic for millennia, until the invention of the camera and the stroboscope in the 1830s revealed tiny wings moving at sixty distinct beats per second. So too the perceptual limitation of the ear-brain processor blurs the clicks of the hoot command, when repeated rapidly thousands of times per second, into the illusion of a continuous note.
There is poetry in Turing’s insight, poetry and cultural defiance, evocative of the protestation Ada Lovelace had issued a century earlier as she composed the world’s first computer program: “Invert the order!” she had demanded of the cultural hierarchy that ranked, and still ranks, science below poetry and philosophy in poetic and philosophic potential. But it was another young man of countercultural vision who took Turing’s insight and turned it into actual music.
Christopher Strachey (November 16, 1916–May 18, 1975) was thirty-five when he walked into Turing’s Manchester lab. A passionate pianist trained as a mathematician and physicist, he had grown up in Bloomsbury, surrounded by visionaries like Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, and had gone to King’s College, where he met Turing before the war. Like Turing, Strachey was a young gay man living in a culture of condoned bigotry and criminalized love — a culture still haunted by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who a mere generation earlier had died for loving whom he loved. In this atmosphere of persecution, Strachey had suffered a severe mental breakdown during his third year at King’s College and had barely graduated. He must have found consolation in code, with its dual gift of programmable predictability and absolute freedom of imagination, for he devoured Turing’s programming manual as soon as it was published, then showed up at his lab, invigorated by the potential of turning binary code into the fluid splendor of music.
Turing, in turn, was intrigued by Strachey’s passionate enthusiasm and by the twenty pages of code he had brought with him — fortyfold the longest program to have run on a computer by that point. Turing sat the code-composer down at the colossal machine one evening and left. When he returned in the morning, Strachey’s program was already running and blasted, out of the bewildered blue, a tinny rendition of “God Save the King” — Britain’s national anthem.
Turing, ecstatic and laconic, pronounced: “Good show.”
When the BBC heard of the pioneering creation, they dispatched a broadcast unit equipped with a portable acetate disc cutter to record the music and stream it into the world’s ear. Turing and Strachey played three pieces for them — “God Save the King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
Sixty-five years later, audio archivists performed a feat of digital detective virtuosity to restore this landmark recording of the world’s first computer music, pitch-warped beyond recognition by time and acetate erosion:
It is a travesty of history that while “God Save the King” was unspooling from the national airwaves in 1951, the King was authorizing orders to criminally prosecute Alan Turing for the natural octave of his love — that elemental symphony of aliveness. A year after the recording was made, after being subjected to chemical castration by the government, this hero of state died vilified by church and country.
Sixty years later, on the other side of the digital epoch Turing had sparked, he would receive posthumous pardon from that King’s daughter, coronated in the final year of Turing’s life; the British government would issue a formal apology for the unpardonable murder of one of humanity’s most visionary and sensitive-souled minds, upon whose ashes the modern world is built.
There is no god to save the Queen, to save the kweens, to save any of us and all of us from ourselves — only love and truth, be they manifested in music or in mathematics. Auden, who had escaped the same persecution by little more than luck, knew this when he wrote that “we must love one another or die,” before making making his disillusion postwar revision to “we must love one another and die”; Virginia Woolf knew this when she wrote, while Turing was saving humanity from itself at Bletchley Park, that “there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”