This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — David Byrne’s cheerful illustrated history of the future, Arthur Rackham’s haunting century-old art for Irish fairy tales, how Emmy Noether revolutionized the mathematics of reality, and a soulful animated poem — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.
“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller wrote in her short, stunning poem about what gives meaning to our mortal lives.
To become precious — that is the work of love, the task of love, the great reward of love. The recompense of death. The human miracle that makes the transience of life not only bearable but beautiful.
It is heartbreaking enough that we do lose everything that exists, everything and everyone we love, until we lose life itself — for we are a function of a universe in which it cannot be otherwise. But it is our singular human-made heartbreak that we often cope with our terror of loss — that deepest awareness of our own mortality — by losing sight of just how precious we are to each other, squandering in less-than-love the chance-miracle of our time alive together, only to recover our vision when entropy has taken its toll, when it is too late. We write poems and pop songs about our self-made tragedy — “The art of losing isn’t hard to master“; “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” — and we go on living it.
Eight centuries before Mueller lived and died, an impassioned invitation to transcend our self-made tragedy took shape in another short, stunning poem by another poet of uncommon contact with the deepest strata of life-truth: Rumi (September 30, 1207–December 17, 1273), who believed that you must “gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being.” Rumi, ancient and eternal. Magnetic in his eloquent devotion and his soulful intelligence. Majestic in his whirling silk robe and his defiant disdain for his culture’s worship of status. Volcanic with poetry.
In his sixty-six years, Rumi composed nearly sixty-six thousand verses, animated by an ecstatic devotion to living more fully and loving more deeply. Having mastered the mathematical musicality of the quatrain, he became a virtuoso of the ghazal with its series of couplets, each invoking a different poetic image, each crowned with the same refrain — a kind of kinetic sculpture of surprise, rapturous with rhythm.
Reflecting on the creative challenge of invoking the poetic truth of one epoch and culture into another, she writes:
The languages of Farsi and English possess quite different poetic resources and habits. In English, it is impossible to reproduce the rich interplay of sound and rhyme (internal as well as terminal) and the wordplay that characterize and even drive Rumi’s poems. Meanwhile, the tropes, abstractions, and hyperbole that are so abundant in Persian poetry contrast with the spareness and concreteness characteristic of poetry in English, especially in the modern tradition. I have sought to honor the demands of contemporary American poetry and conjure its music while, I hope, carrying over the whirling movement and leaping progression of thought and imagery in Rumi’s poetry… I have chosen poems that seem to me beautiful, meaningful, and central to Rumi’s vision, poems that I felt I could successfully translate and that speak to our times.
What emerges is a testament to the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lovely of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”
Here is Haleh Liza Gafori reading for us her translation of Rumi’s lens-clearing invitation to step beyond our self-made tragedy and into the deepest, perhaps the only, truth of life:
LET’S LOVE EACH OTHERby Rumi (translated by Haleh Liza Gafori)
Let’s love each other,let’s cherish each other, my friend, before we lose each other.
You’ll long for me when I’m gone.You’ll make a truce with me. So why put me on trial while I’m alive?
Why adore the dead but battle the living?
You’ll kiss the headstone of my grave.Look, I’m lying here still as a corpse, dead as a stone. Kiss my face instead!
Complement this fragment of Gold with James Baldwin on how separation illuminates the power of love and Thich Nhat Hanh on the art of deep listening — a practice also central to Rumi’s life — as the root of loving relationship, then revisit poet Jane Hirshfield’s timeless hymn to love and loss.
Against the Gods: Iris Murdoch on Truth, the Meaning of Goodness, and How Attention Unmasks the Universe
When Nietzsche weighed our human notion of truth, he regarded it as “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.” This is true of truth in the human world, and this is where science and society differ. The disparity is the reason why the scientific perspective can offer such gladsome calibration and consolation for our human struggles.
In the world of science, we endeavor to uncover fundamental laws and elemental truths indifferent to our opinions of them — those selfsame truths and laws that made us and govern the electrical impulses coursing through our cortices at 100 meters per second to forge the thought-patterns of opinion. But in the human world where we live, we swirl in the movable host of human relations and rationalizations, vaguely aware that there is no universal truth and therefore no universal good, because every utopia is built on some else’s back. We devise frameworks for righting our relations, which we call morality, but in our helpless confusion about what goodness is, we too readily mistake certainty for truth and self-righteousness for truth, then lash one another with our certitudes and rightneousnesses, mistaking the lashing for the light of morality.
When our species was younger and more frightened of reality, myths and religions have provided the comfort of easy causalities and easy moralities to salve the confusions of complexity. But as the epoch of scientific discovery began disproving some of those sacred certainties — first ejecting us from the placid plane of the flat Earth, then from our self-soothing centrality in the Solar System, then from our grandiose exceptionalism in the order of living things, then from our galactic exceptionalism — the moral certitudes about goodness also came unloosed, for they too were built upon the same self-righteous foundation as the old delusions about the geometry of the universe and the immutability of life-forms.
The dazzling-minded Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) took up these questions in her play Above the Gods — one of two Platonic dialogues she wrote in the 1980s, later included in the posthumous Murdoch anthology Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which remains one of the finest works of writing and thinking I have encountered.
Set in Athens in the late fifth century B.C. and structured as a conversation between a sixty-something Socrates, a twenty-something Plato, and four fictional Greek youths, the dialogue tussles with the question of whether the age of science has knelled the death toll of religion and, if so, where this leaves our search for truth and our longing for goodness — that elemental hunger for the ultimate meaning of reality, for our responsibility to reality.
When Murdoch’s Socrates observes that a distinction between religion and morality is yet to be made, without which the central question of reality and truth cannot be answered, an impassioned Plato responds:
Religion isn’t just a feeling, it isn’t just a hypothesis, it’s not like something we happen not to know, a God who might perhaps be there isn’t a God, it’s got to be necessary, it’s got to be certain, it’s got to be proved by the whole of life, it’s got to be the magnetic centre of everything.
And yet this more-than-feeling aims at something beyond religion, beyond even explicit knowledge, at the center of which is the idea — the existence — of goodness:
In a way, goodness and truth seem to come out of the depths of the soul, and when we really know something we feel we’ve always known it. Yet also it’s terribly distant, farther than any star… beyond the world, not in the clouds or in heaven, but a light that shows the world, this world, as it really is… In spite of all wickedness, and in all misery, we are certain that there really is goodness and that it matters absolutely.
Goodness, in Murdoch’s lovely conception, emerges as both object and background, both knower and known. This renders moot the objectifying question, voiced by one of Plato’s sparring partners — a young Sophist — of where goodness resides in relation to reality: either outside us, existing in something like a god, or within us, as an internal image we refer to. Observing that it is both inside and outside, Murdoch’s Plato responds:
Of course Good doesn’t exist like chairs and tables, it’s not… either outside or inside. It’s in our whole way of living, it’s fundamental like truth. If we have the idea of value we necessarily have the idea of perfection as something real… People know that good is real and absolute, not optional and relative, all their life proves it. And when they choose false goods they really know they’re false. We can think everything else away out of life, but not value, that’s in the very ground of things.
The question of goodness permeates Murdoch’s entire body of work, but she plumbs this particular aspect of it — its bearing on truth and morality, lensed through Plato — in greater depth in an essay titled On “God” and “Good,” also included in Existentialists and Mystics. With an eye to the relationship between the good and “the real which is the proper object of love, and of knowledge which is freedom,” she considers what it takes for us to purify our attention in order to take in reality on its own terms, unalloyed with our attachments and ideas.
What it takes, she suggests, is “something analogous to prayer, though it is something difficult to describe, and which the higher subtleties of the self can often falsify” — not some “quasi-religious meditative technique,” but “something which belongs to the moral life of the ordinary person.” Half a century after the existentialist and mystic Simone Weil liberated this raw mindfulness from the strict captivity of religion with her lovely observation that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” for it “presupposes faith and love,” Murdoch writes:
The idea of contemplation is hard to understand and maintain in a world increasingly without sacraments and ritual and in which philosophy has (in many respects rightly) destroyed the old substantial conception of the self. A sacrament provides an external visible place for an internal invisible act of the spirit.
Beholding beauty in nature and in art, Murdoch argues, can serve as a sort of sacrament for the spirit — the experience provides (in one of her loveliest phrases, and one of the loveliest concepts ever committed to words) “an occasion for unselfing.” But this experience, she cautions, is not easily extended into matters of people and actions — the matters morality aims to negotiate — “since clarity of thought and purity of attention become harder and more ambiguous when the object of attention is something moral. With an eye to Plato and his conception of beauty as the visible dimension of goodness, which is inherently invisible, she writes:
It is here that it seems to me to be important to retain the idea of Good as a central point of reflection, and here too we may see the significance of its indefinable and non-representable character. Good, not will, is transcendent. Will is the natural energy of the psyche which is sometimes employable for a worthy purpose. Good is the focus of attention when an intent to be virtuous co-exists (as perhaps it almost always does) with some unclarity of vision.
She invokes Plato’s famous allegory of the cave — humanity’s first great thought experiment about the nature of consciousness and its blind spots, in which the prisoners of unreality mistake the flickering shadows cast by the fire on the cave wall for the light of reality; but then, once set free by goodness and knowledge (and here is another exquisite formulation of Murdoch’s) “the moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.”
Shining the sunbeam of her own intellect on Plato’s blind spot to reveal the deepest meaning of morality, she writes:
Plato pictured the good man as eventually able to look at the sun. I have never been sure what to make of this part of the myth. While it seems proper to represent the Good as a centre or focus of attention, yet it cannot quite be thought of as a “visible” one in that it cannot be experienced or represented or defined. We can certainly know more or less where the sun is; it is not so easy to imagine what it would be like to look at it. Perhaps indeed only the good man knows what this is like; or perhaps to look at the sun is to be gloriously dazzled and to see nothing. What does seem to make perfect sense in the Platonic myth is the idea of the Good as the source of light which reveals to us all things as they really are. All just vision, even in the strictest problems of the intellect, and a fortiori when suffering or wickedness have to be perceived, is a moral matter.
In consonance with her famous assertion that “love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real” — a realization that is both the basis of morality and the motive force of science — she adds:
The same virtues, in the end the same virtue (love), are required throughout, and fantasy (self) can prevent us from seeing a blade of grass just as it can prevent us from seeing another person. An increasing awareness of “goods” and the attempt (usually only partially successful) to attend to them purely, without self, brings with it an increasing awareness of the unity and interdependence of the moral world. One-seeking intelligence is the image of ‘faith’. Consider what it is like to increase one’s understanding of a great work of art.
Complement these fragments from the wholly indispensable Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on what love really means, art as a force of resistance, and the key to great storytelling — with philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who, is in many ways, Murdoch’s intellectual heir) on what it means to be a good human being and physicist Alan Lightman on our search for the meaning beyond reality’s truths.
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote as he contemplated the meaning of life in one of humanity’s greatest works of philosophy disguised as a children’s book.
The challenge, of course, is that what is essential — about the totality of life, as about every littlest thing in it — is not easily visible, largely because nothing is actually reducible, or should be reduced, to an essence: to a single point of truth, a particular attribute or quality that makes it what it is.
And yet we have betrayed the complexity of life with our longing for the shorthand of essences at least since Ancient Greece. The crucible of democracy was also the crucible of its antipode in essentialism — the idea that everything has an innate potentiality, which predetermines (and therefore limits) its possible development, and that, no matter what external forces are exerted on it, this innate essence remains immutable.
Even the deep-fathoming, far-seeing Aristotle fell under the spell of essentialism and, bamboozled by its dangerous implications, came to believe that women belonged lower on the social ladder than men because their essential nature was to be subordinate and slaves were enslaved because their essential nature was lacking a certain faculty of reason necessary for freedom.
All prejudice is at bottom essentialism: Some animals are more equal than others because it is their essential nature to be oppressor or oppressed; all entitlement is at bottom essentialism: I am owed something just by virtue of being me.
Essentialism is the human animal’s faulty coping mechanism for the fact that the world and everything in it is multifaceted and mutable, often dizzyingly so — something Chinua Achebe captured in his astute observation that “there is no one way to anything,” because nothing is one thing only, to be grasped by only one dimension and to serve only one possible purpose.
While Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince was making his otherworldly way into our mutable and multifarious world, Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) was taking up the question of what is essential from a very different angle in The Important Book (public library) — a minimalist, subversively conceptual, maximally delightful inquiry into the essence of a thing.
Published two years after Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon and illustrated by the prolific Leonard Weisgard (December 13, 1916–January 14, 2000) — who had reimagined Alice in Wonderland that same year and who would go on to illustrate Brown’s final books before her untimely death a couple of years later — the book unfolds as a spare, poetic catalogue of everyday things (spoons and daisies, the rain and the snow, the grass and the sky), each occupying a single spread, each following the same conceptual formula:
The important thing about X is Y.X is also A, B, and C. But the important thing about it is Y.
Brown — a woman of uncommon genius and nonconformity — begins with things that seem obvious, even banal. But her singular sensibility quickly becomes apparent: In telling us that the most important thing about the grass is its greenness, she lists among its other attributes the uncommon perception, stated as a common fact, that the grass is “tender,” imbuing so indifferent a life-form with so essentially human a quality. Instantly your mind bursts with scenes of lovers kissing in the grass and children playing in the grass — a single word-choice, and suddenly a universe of feeling.
About the snow — which is, most importantly, white — she observes with the same matter-of-factly nonchalance the poetic truth that it has “the shape of tiny stars.”
She moves through the most essential things about other common objects and phenomena: a spoon, an apple, the wind. But as the book progresses, there arises the strange and lovely awareness that you are being guided through the ordinary world by an extraordinary mind who sees the commonest things in uncommon ways.
By the time Brown arrives at the sky, she chooses as its most important attribute not the standard attributes — its blueness, its airy expanse — but that “it is always there.”
It must have been a comfort to her, to write these words in 1949, as her longtime lover Blanche — a poet and playwright, who wrote under the masculine pen name Michael Strange — was dying of leukemia.
Brown ends the book with the ultimate question of essences, which has puzzled philosophers since the ship of Theseus in Aristotle’s day: what makes you you — a constellation of atoms made of the selfsame stardust as every other person, yet singular, irreducible, unrepeated in any past configuration of matter and unrepeatable in any future.
Whatever changes you might undergo in your growth and becoming, Brown intimates, the important thing about you remains the same:
But to me (being the particular person I am) the loveliest and most important thing about The Important Book, radiating the essence of Brown’s personhood, is what appears on the back flap in place of the standard author and artist “about” text:
The important thing aboutTHE IMPORTANT BOOK is that you let your child tell you what is important about the sun and the moon and the wind and the rain and a bug and a bee and a chair and a table and a pencil and a bear and a rainbow and a cat (if he wants to) For the important thing about THE IMPORTANT BOOK is that the book goes on long after it is closed.