In this sixteenth year of The Marginalian, which draws primarily on the timeless wonders and wisdoms of the past, here are sixteen books of the immediate present that left on me a mark on par with those immortals — books that shimmer with the eternal and the universal, books bound to go on nourishing generations to come, books that offer succor for the elemental challenge of how to live a harmonious, fulfilling, and wonder-smitten life.
As usual, think of the selection not as a hierarchy but as a bookshelf, organized by an internal logic native to the home and the mind in which the bookshelf is suspended.
JOHN HIGGS: WILLIAM BLAKE VS. THE WORLD
In the middle of a London August in 1827, a small group of mourners gathered on a hill in the fields just north of the city limits at Bunhill Fields, named for “bone hill,” longtime burial ground for the disgraceful dead. There, in what was now a dissenters’ cemetery, the English Poor Laws had ensured a pauper’s funeral for the man who had died five days earlier in his squalid home and was now being lowered into an unmarked grave. The man whose “Songs of Innocence” would light the creative spark in the young Maurice Sendak’s imagination a century-some later. The man Patti Smith would celebrate as “the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation” — a guiding sun in the human cosmos of creativity.
Those who knew William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) cherished his overwhelming kindness, his capacity for delight even during his frequent and fathomless depressions, his “expression of great sweetness, but bordering on weakness — except when his features are animated by expression, and then he has an air of inspiration about him.” He was remembered for the strange, koan-like things he said about Jesus (He is the only God. And so am I and so are you.), about the prosperous artists who held his poverty as proof of his failure (I possess my visions and peace. They have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage.), about the nature of creativity (The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.)
Unseen by his own world, he saw deep into the worlds to come, channeling his visions through anything at hand. It was not the medium that mattered, but its pliancy as he bent it to his vision of the mystery that is itself the message — the message we call art: He was a painter, a poet, a philosopher without meaning to, an early prophet of panpsychism, a mystic who lived not to solve the mystery but to revel in it, to encode it in verses and etch it onto copper plates and stain it onto canvases and seed it into souls for centuries to come.
As an artist, he was resolutely his own standard, his own guiding sun. Like Beethoven, with whom he shared a death-year and the stubborn unwillingness to compromise on the artistic vision he experienced as life, Blake was determined to make what he wanted to make and to make it on his own terms — in a world unready for the art and unfriendly to the terms.
There is no greater act of creative courage than this.
And so, centuries before the technologies existed to enable the proof, William Blake became the first living conjecture of the 1,000 True Fans theory. He knew what we all eventually realize, if we are awake and courageous enough: that the best way — and the only effective way — to complain about the way things are is to make new and better things, untested and unexampled things, things that spring from the gravity of creative conviction and drag the status quo like a tide toward some new horizon.
ED YONG: AN IMMENSE WORLD
Without color, life would be a mistake. I mean this both existentially and evolutionarily: Color is not only our primary sensorium of beauty — that aesthetic rapture without which life would be a desert of the soul — but color is how we came to exist in the first place. Our perception of color, like our entire perceptual experience, is part of our creaturely inheritance and bounded by it — experience that differs wildly from that of other species, and even varies vastly within our own species. In that limitation lies a glorious invitation to fathom the fundaments of our humanity and step beyond ourselves into other sensoria more dazzling than our consciousness is even equipped to imagine.
That is the invitation Ed Yong — one of the most insightful science writers of our time, and one of the most soulful — extends in An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (public library), appropriately titled after a verse by William Blake:
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
A quarter millennium of science after Blake — a quarter millennium of magnifying delight through the lens of knowledge — Yong writes:
Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality’s fullness. Each is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world.
With an eye to the Umwelt — that lovely German word for the sensory bubble each creature inhabits, both limiting and defining its perceptual reality — he adds:
Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.
Nothing can sense everything, and nothing needs to. That is why Umwelten exist at all. It is also why the act of contemplating the Umwelt of another creature is so deeply human and so utterly profound. Our senses filter in what we need. We must choose to learn about the rest.
We are insentient to myriad realities readily available to our fellow creatures — the temperature currents by which a fly, Blake’s supreme existentialist, navigates the air; the ultrasonic calls with which hummingbirds hover between science and magic; the magnetic fields by which nightingales migrate. With the perspectival felicity that science singularly confers, Yong writes:
The Umwelt concept can feel constrictive because it implies that every creature is trapped within the house of its senses. But to me, the idea is wonderfully expansive. It tells us that all is not as it seems and that everything we experience is but a filtered version of everything that we could experience. It reminds us that there is light in darkness, noise in silence, richness in nothingness. It hints at flickers of the unfamiliar in the familiar, of the extraordinary in the everyday, of magnificence in mundanity… When we pay attention to other animals, our own world expands and deepens.
Read more here.
SOPHIE BLACKALL: THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless meditation on living with presence. “Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s,” Seneca exhorted two millennia earlier as he offered the Stoic balance sheet for time spent, saved, and wasted, reminding us that “nothing is ours, except time.”
Time is all we have because time is what we are — which is why the undoing of time, of time’s promise of itself, is the undoing of our very selves.
In the dismorrowed undoing of 2020 — as Zadie Smith was calibrating the limitations of Stoic philosophy in a world suddenly time-warped by a global quarantine, suddenly sobered to the perennial uncertainty of the future — loss beyond the collective heartache besieged the miniature world of my sunny-spirited, largehearted friend and Caldecott-winning children’s book maker Sophie Blackall. She coped the way all artists cope, complained the way all makers complain: by making something of beauty and substance, something that begins as a quickening of self-salvation in one’s own heart and ripples out to touch, to salve, maybe even to save others — which might be both the broadest and the most precise definition of art.
One morning under the hot shower, Sophie began making a mental list of things to look forward to — a lovely gesture of taking tomorrow’s outstretched hand in that handshake of trust and resolve we call optimism.
As the list grew and she began drawing each item on it, she noticed how many were things that needn’t wait for some uncertain future — unfussy gladnesses readily available in the now, any now. A century after Hermann Hesse extolled “the little joys” as the most important habit for fully present living, Sophie’s list became not an emblem of expectancy but an invitation to presence — not a deferral of life but a celebration of it, of the myriad marvels that come alive as soon as we become just a little more attentive, a little more appreciative, a little more animated by our own elemental nature as “atoms with consciousness” and “matter with curiosity.”
Sophie began sharing the illustrated meditations on her Instagram (which is itself a rare island of unremitting delight and generosity amid the stream of hollow selfing we call social media) — each part record of personal gladness, part creative prompt. Delight begets delight — people began sending her their responses to these prompts: unbidden kindnesses done for neighbors, unexpected hobbies taken up, and oh so many sweet strange faces drawn on eggs.
A slipstream of tomorrows hence, her list became Things to Look Forward to: 52 Large and Small Joys for Today and Every Day (public library) — a felicitous catalogue partway between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, every page of it radiant with the warmth and wonder that make life worth living and mark everything Sophie makes.
You can relish a rainbow and a cup of tea, sunrise and a flock of birds, a cemetery walk and a friend’s newborn, the first blush of wildflowers in a patch of dirt and the looping rapture of an old favorite song. You can’t tidy up the White House, but you can tidy up that neglected messy corner of your home; you can’t mend a world, but you can mend the hole in the polka-dot pocket of your favorite coat. They are not the same thing, but they are part of the same thing, which is all there is — life living itself through us, moment by moment, one broken beautiful thing at a time.
Read and see more here.
SUSAN CAIN: BITTERSWEET
“Oh, there must be a little bit of air, a little bit of happiness… to let the form be felt… but let the whole be sombre,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother as he exulted in the beauty of sorrow — not in that wallowing way some have of making an identity of their suffering, not in the way our culture has of fetishizing the tortured genius myth, but in the way of Whitman, who saw the plain equivalence between feeling deeply all of life’s hues and so touching its beauty more deeply, the contact we call art: Those who reach “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights,” Whitman knew, are also apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” He had “a theory that no artist or work of the very first class may be or can be without them”; his own life was living proof of that theory. Two millennia before him, Aristotle too had wondered why an undertone of melancholy seems to reverberate across the personalities of the most fertile minds, the greatest leaders, and the finest artists.
I too have wondered this while falling in love with the people I live with — Rachel Carson, with her uncommon grasp of the beauty inside the tragedy of transience; Rockwell Kent, who went to the remotest wilderness to discover loneliness as a catalyst of creativity; Beethoven, who turned a lifetime of sorrow into universal joy; Lincoln, who made of his melancholy a source of poetry and power; and Emily Dickinson, who turned the interleaving of love and loss into an eternal garden of delight.
I suspect that beneath it all is not an acceptance of but the longing for an acceptance of the elemental interplay between darkness and light, beauty and sorrow, mortality and meaning — the longing we transmute into meaning, that great act of creation.
Virginia Woolf called this the “shock-receiving capacity” necessary for being an artist — the willingness to see the totality of life, in all its syncopations of grief and gladness, of beauty and brutality, and feel the shock of it all, and make of that shock something that shimmers with meaning. Susan Cain calls it “the bittersweet” — “a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world.” Whitman and Woolf, Carson and Kent, Lincoln and Dickinson were all paragons of the bittersweet.
First awakened to it by a curiosity about her own disproportionate love of music in a minor key, Cain realized that “the music was just a gateway to a deeper realm, where you notice that the world is sacred and mysterious, enchanted even” — a realm we can enter through music or a walk in an old-growth forest, through poetry or prayer. She began seeing echoes of this nebulous yet surprisingly common capacity for noticing in the lives of artists and thinkers she admired — Beethoven and Buckminster Fuller, Rumi and Alexander the Great, but none more exemplary than the creative patron saint of her life: Leonard Cohen.
So she gave that flavor of the spirit a name, then set out to understand it by following a procession of researchers who study its kaleidoscopic facets across neurobiology, psychology, social science.
The bittersweet is… an authentic and elevating response to the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful world. Most of all, bittersweetness shows us how to respond to pain: by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art, the way the musicians do, or healing, or innovation, or anything else that nourishes the soul. If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, neglect. But if we realize that all humans know — or will know — loss and suffering, we can turn toward each other.
There is in this notion an echo of Oscar Wilde’s stirring prison letter, in which he resolved to turn his suffering into transcendence; an echo of Beethoven’s resolve to “take fate by the throat” once he began losing his hearing; an echo of Marina Abramovič, who turned a harrowing childhood into raw material for art.
At the heart of it all is an inspired inquiry into “transforming pain into creativity, transcendence, and love,” posed with sensitivity to the realities and varieties of pain we live with, not all of them easily mutable into a poem or a painting or a song.
Read more here.
HERMANN HESSE: TREES
“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) wrote in what remains one of humanity’s most beautiful love letters to trees, “no longer wants to be a tree. He* wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”
But this century-old classic, part meditation and part manifesto, is far from Hesse’s only contribution to the reliquary of our species’ tender kinship with trees — those “slim sentinels” watching over our existence, recalibrating our sense of time, fomenting our richest metaphors and our finest poems, speaking deeply to every deep-thinking, deep-feeling person and enchanting every noticer (which is the other word for artist). Trees strew Hesse’s novels and essays, his letters and diaries, his poems and paintings — all that survives of a life so clearly and mirthfully animated by them, from his Black Forest childhood to the Swiss mountain village of his old age.
After the heroism of editing the first-ever complete edition of Hesse’s writings writings, scholar Volker Michels has culled the finest sylvan musings from this immense body of work and curated thirty of Hesse’s own drawings to illustrate them in the slender gem of a book Trees: An Anthology of Writings and Paintings (public library).
Read some of it, and see some his paintings, here.
In his sixty-six years, Rumi (September 30, 1207–December 17, 1273) composed nearly sixty-six thousand verses, animated by an ecstatic devotion to living more fully, loving more deeply, and moving through the world with the knowledge that you must “gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being.” He rises from the page ancient and eternal. Magnetic in his eloquent reverence and his soulful intelligence. Majestic in his whirling silk robe and his defiant disdain for his culture’s worship of status. Volcanic with poetry.
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 notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”
Hear Haleh Liza Gafori read one of the finest poems in the book here.
RACHEL CARSON: THE SEA TRILOGY
In the entire sweep of our species history, no one has written more beautifully — or more truthfully — about the sea than the poetic marine biologist and ecology patron saint Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964). Her three masterpieces about the water world — Under the Sea-Wind (which began as her groundbreaking essay Undersea), The Sea Around Us (which occasioned her superb National Book Award acceptance speech), and The Edge of the Sea (which gave us her exquisite meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life) — are now collected in a single Library of America volume: Rachel Carson: The Sea Trilogy (public library), introduced by Carson’s modern-day counterpart and kindred spirit Sandra Steingraber.
Animating all three is Carson’s singular lyrical prose about the native poetry of nature:
Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of the barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature within finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf? And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us — a reason that demands its presence by the trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.
KATHRYN SCHULZ: LOST & FOUND
“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb early work on love and loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”
It is a handsome observation, an elemental truth we might glimpse — and be saved by glimpsing — in those rare moments of pure presence that dissolve all too quickly into what Borges knew to be true of human nature: that time is the substance we are made of.
As creatures made of time, we live in the present and the past and the future all at once, continually shaken by all the fears and hopes, all the anxieties and anticipations, that are the price we pay for our majestic hippocampus — that crowning glory of a consciousness capable of referencing its memories and experiences in the past, capable of projecting its goals and desire into the future, capable of the bleakest despair and of the brightest dreams.
This might be, as Elizabeth Gilbert observed in the wake of losing the love of her life, why love and loss have something elemental in common — each is “a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” one that “comes and goes on its own schedule… does not obey your plans, or your wishes [and] will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to.”
Out of this arises a basic equation we accept as a function of life, as an echo of the fundamental laws. We accept it unwittingly, or wittingly but unwillingly, but it is an entropic given indifferent to our assent: We love, then we lose. We lose our loved ones — to death or the dissolution of mutuality — or we lose ourselves. (This is also why flowers move us so.)
But if we are lucky enough, if we are are stubborn enough, we love and we lose and then the loss opens us up to more love — different love, because each love is unrepeatable and irreplaceable — on the other side of grief; love unimaginable from the barren landmass of loss, love without which, once found, the world comes to feel unimaginable.
Because these are the two most all-consuming and all-pervading of human experiences, the labels in which we try to classify and contain them are bound to be too small — as with love, so with loss. (This is what Joan Didion captured in her classic observation that “grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”)
All of this, with all of its subtleties, comes alive on the pages of Lost & Found (public library) by Kathryn Schulz — part personal memoir, part existential inquiry into the two great universals of human life.
Read more here.
DAVID BYRNE: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD (IN DINGBATS)
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” Keats wrote in the closing lines of his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in the spring of 1819, in the spring of modern science. Humanity was coming abloom with new knowledge of reality as astronomy was supplanting the superstitions of astrology and chemistry was rising form the primordial waters of alchemy. Ten years earlier, when Keats was a teenager, Dalton had at last confirmed the existence of the atom — the great dream Democritus had dreamt civilizations earlier; the dream Aristotle, drunk on power and certitude, had squashed with his theory of the four elements. A beautiful truth buried in a Grecian urn and laid to rest, roused two thousand years later by the kiss of chemistry.
The story of our species is punctuated with a thousand analogous atoms of experience. Truth is beauty in the workings of the world, but in the workings of humanity, truth is often sleeping beauty. Even on the miniature timescale of our own lifetimes — these grunts in the story of the world — it can take us years or decades of hindsighted reflection to arrive at the truth of our experience, any experience, and all the more so the greater its complexity and its toll on us.
Two hundred springtimes after Keats, David Byrne explores this facet of the human condition in his felicitously uncategorizable book A History of the World (in Dingbats) (public library) — a playful yet poignant meditation, in words and drawings, on the human truths unveiled as the world came unworlded by the global pandemic that became the great shared experience of our lifetimes.
Radiating from the pages, delightfully designed and typeset by Alex Kalman, is Byrne’s buoyant vision for the new world, a world of magnified mutuality and widespread poetry of possibility; a vision for life not merely restored to how it used to be but reset, recalibrated, revitalized — life that is a little bit more alive.
See more here.
ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: THE EXTENDED MIND
“Our minds are all threaded together,” the young Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary at the dawn of the twentieth century, “and all the world is mind.” Meanwhile in Spain, the middle-aged Santiago Ramón y Cajal was birthing a new science that would both greatly expand our knowledge of the brain and greatly contract our understanding of the mind. Over the following half-century, in its noble effort to render comprehensible what William James so poetically termed the “blooming and buzzing confusion” of consciousness, neuroscience would become both a great leap forward and a great leap back. Again and again, its illuminating but incomplete findings would be aggrandized and oversimplified into a sort of neo-phrenology that incarcerates some of our most expansive human experiences and capacities — love and grief, intelligence and imagination — in particular brain regions with particular neural firing patterns.
A century later and half a millennium after Descartes cleaved Western consciousness into its disembodied dualism, we are only just beginning to reckon with the growing understanding that consciousness is a full-body phenomenon, perhaps even a beyond-body phenomenon.
In The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (public library), Annie Murphy Paul explores the most thrilling frontiers of this growing understanding, fusing a century of scientific studies with millennia of first-hand experience from the lives and letters of great artists, scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Challenging our cultural inheritance of thinking that thinking takes place only inside the brain, she illuminates the myriad ways in which we “use the world to think” — from the sensemaking language of gestures that we acquire as babies long before we can speak concepts to the singular fuel that time in nature provides for the brain’s most powerful associative network.
Paul distills this recalibration of understanding:
Thinking outside the brain means skillfully engaging entities external to our heads — the feelings and movements of our bodies, the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and the minds of the other people around us — drawing them into our own mental processes. By reaching beyond the brain to recruit these “extra-neural” resources, we are able to focus more intently, comprehend more deeply, and create more imaginatively — to entertain ideas that would be literally unthinkable by the brain alone.
Read more here.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: WHY DESIGN MATTERS
If we are not at least a little abashed by the people we used to be, the voyage of life has halted in the windless bay of complacency. This renders the interview a curious cultural artifact by design — a consensual homily of future abashment, etching into the common record who we were at a particular point in life, in a particular state of being, with all the temporary totality of thoughts and feelings that we so often mistake for final destinations of personhood. An interview petrifies us in time, then lives on forever, the thoughts of bygone selves quoted back to us across the eons of our personal evolution — a strange and discomposing taxidermy diorama of life that is no longer living.
But a great interview does something else, too. A great touches the nucleus of being and potential, untouched by the forces of time and change.
One January afternoon several selves ago, I entered the corrugated black walls of a snug recording studio at the School of Visual Arts to sit at a microphone across from a woman dressed entirely and impeccably in black — a woman all stranger, all sunshine. I didn’t expect that, over the next hour, the warmth of her generous curiosity and her sensitive attention would melt away my ordinary reticence about discussing the life beneath the work. I didn’t expect that, over the next decade, we would become creative kindred spirits, then friends, then longtime romantic partners, and finally dear lifelong friends and frequent collaborators.
Over the years, I have witnessed Debbie interview a kaleidoscope of visionaries — artists, writers, designers, scientists, musicians, philosophers, poets. Every time, guests leave the studio with that distinctive glow of feeling deeply understood and appreciated, a little bit more in touch with ourselves beyond our selves, reminded of who and what we are in the hull of our being, in that place from which we make everything we make as we go on making ourselves. In the nearly two decades since the birth of Design Matters — born in that primordial epoch before podcasts, when Debbie actually had to pay for the radio waves transmitting these conversations — she has interviewed more than 450 creative people about the arc of their lives. Roxane Gay — once her interview subject, now her wife — describes the resulting totality as “a gloriously interesting and ongoing conversation about what it means to live well, overcome trauma, face rejection, learn to love and be loved, and thrive both personally and professionally.”
The best parts of the best interviews from this immense body of work are now gathered in Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People (public library). Pulsating through them are a handful of common themes — the elementary particles of which any creative life, any life of passion and purpose, any fully human life is built — none looming larger than the relationship between vulnerability and belonging, which constellates our entire cosmos of being: what we make, how we love, why we long for the things we long for, in love and in work.
Read some of the highlights here.
NICK CAVE: FAITH, HOPE AND CARNAGE
It is the fundamental truth of our human experience.
All cynicism is a denial of it.
All hope is a tribute to it.
I have no time for cynicism. It feels hugely misplaced at this time.
I remain cautiously optimistic. I think if we can move beyond the anxiety and dread and despair, there is a promise of something shifting not just culturally, but spiritually, too. I feel that potential in the air, or maybe a sort of subterranean undertow of concern and connectivity, a radical and collective move towards a more empathetic and enhanced existence… It does seem possible — even against the criminal incompetence of our governments, the planet’s ailing health, the divisiveness that exists everywhere, the shocking lack of mercy and forgiveness, where so many people seem to harbour such an irreparable animosity towards the world and each other — even still, I have hope. Collective grief can bring extraordinary change, a kind of conversion of the spirit, and with it a great opportunity. We can seize this opportunity, or we can squander it and let it pass us by. I hope it is the former. I feel there is a readiness for that, despite what we are led to believe.
Having long reckoned with the relationship between cynicism and hope, I often say that cynics — who are the people most deserving of our pity — are just brokenhearted optimists. There is both a lovely confluence and a lovely inversion of these ideas in Nick Cave’s assertion that “hope is optimism with a broken heart,” which seems to me more like an aphoristic spear nobly thrown at our perpetual tangle of semantics in trying to differentiate between optimism and hope than a genuine and useful definition. But, of course, we each arrive at these notions so trapped in our own frames of reference, so saturated with our subjective experience, that no two portraits of a mental state or emotional orientation could ever possibly be precisely alike.
What is certain is that no matter what we call this openhearted yearning for betterment, pulsating beneath it is the infinite vulnerability of remaining unmet — all daring is forever haunted by the specter of crushing disappointment, and there is nothing more daring than a reach from the real to the ideal.
And yet this yearning springs from our most fundamental nature. Living with it and living up to it is the highest homage we can pay, and must pay, to the unbidden gift of life.
With an eye to “the necessary and urgent need to love life and one another, despite the casual cruelty of the world,” Cave observes:
In a way my work has become an explicit rejection of cynicism and negativity. I simply have no time for it. I mean that quite literally, and from a personal perspective. No time for censure or relentless condemnation. No time for the whole cycle of perpetual blame. Others can do that sort of thing. I haven’t the stomach for it, or the time. Life is too damn short, in my opinion, not to be awed.
In my own experience, nothing seeds cynicism more readily than the withholding of forgiveness — forgiveness of others, of the world, of Father Chance and Mother Circumstance; above all, of oneself. Self-forgiveness is indeed the most potent antidote to cynicism I know.
Cave shines a sidewise gleam on the same intimation. Half a century after the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm made his countercultural case for why self-love is the foundation of a sane society, he turns to art as the supreme instrument of self-forgiveness:
We all have regrets and most of us know that those regrets, as excruciating as they can be, are the things that help us lead improved lives. Or, rather, there are certain regrets that, as they emerge, can accompany us on the incremental bettering of our lives. Regrets are forever floating to the surface… They require our attention. You have to do something with them. One way is to seek forgiveness by making what might be called living amends, by using whatever gifts you may have in order to help rehabilitate the world.
For many of us, our creative contribution — our art, to use the term in Baldwin’s broadest sense — is the gift we offer to rehabilitate the world and, in the process, rehabilitate ourselves. Cave reflects on his own experience of making music while living with the incomprehensible loss of his teenage son and its attendant vortex of self-blame:
Art does have the ability to save us, in so many different ways. It can act as a point of salvation, because it has the potential to put beauty back into the world. And that in itself is a way of making amends, of reconciling us with the world. Art has the power to redress the balance of things, of our wrongs, of our sins… By “sins,” I mean those acts that are an offence to God or, if you would prefer, the “good in us” — that live within us, and that if we pay them no heed, harden and become part of our character. They are forms of suffering that can weigh us down terribly and separate us from the world. I have found that the goodness of the work can go some way towards mitigating them.
PABLO NERUDA: BOOK OF QUESTIONS
“To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb meditation on the life of the mind, would mean to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”
But our questions, besides having the power to civilize us, also have the power — perhaps even more needed today — to rewild us.
Often, our deepest questions are our simplest ones, and our wildest questions — the most maddeningly unanswerable ones — are our most resaning, most redolent with meaning. This is why children’s questions are so often portals to the profoundest answers.
Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) channeled 320 such questions — questions earthly and cosmic about art and life, dreams and death, nature and human nature; magical-realist questions that could have been asked by a child or a sage — into his final work of poetry, originally published months before his sudden death.
His Book of Questions (public library) now comes alive in a stunning bilingual picture-book, illustrated by Chilean artist Paloma Valdivia, whose father grew up in the same coastal region that shaped Neruda’s boyhood and whose grandmother was friends with Neruda’s sister.
Of Neruda’s original questions — each of them unanswerable, all of them worth asking, crackling with some vital spark of playfulness or poignancy — seventy come ablaze amid the vibrant illustrations and fold-out delights, radiant with the colors and textures of Latin American tapestry.
Read and see more here.
BILL HAYES: SWEAT
“And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” wondered Whitman two years before he wrote a manual on “manly health and training” and two decades before he recovered from his paralytic stroke with a rigorous exercise regimen in the gymnasium of the wilderness.
But this natural equivalence, as obvious as it was to Whitman and as evident as the neurophysiology of consciousness is making it in our own epoch — was opaque, even obscene, for much of human history.
The world’s first known book on exercise was written almost exactly two millennia ago, sometime in the 220s, by the Greek philosopher and teacher Flavius Philostratus, then in his fifties. In On Gymnastics, he argued that athletic training is an art and “a form of wisdom,” on par with the other arts, no less beautiful or substantive than poetry or music. His treatise was in part an act of resistance to the wave of oppression and erasure sweeping in with the new regime of Roman rule and the advent of Christianity, which was beginning to eradicate the ancient Greek culture of Olympic Games and casual athletics, of public bathhouses and gymnasia.
Under Christian doctrine, the body was too sinful an instrument to be afforded public celebration or private homilies. The cerebral solemnity of the cathedral replaced the joyful physicality of the gymnasium, where crowds had once gathered as much to tone their bodies as to hone their minds on Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy lectures. (The one place where Christianity and ancient Greek culture converged was that women were not permitted to compete in the Olympic Games or enter the gymnasium — even though the athletic Plato, outlining the laws of civilization in his last and longest dialogue, decreed that “women, both young and old, should exercise… together with the men” — and, to this day, women are not permitted to sing in the Vatican choir or hold major leadership positions in the Catholic Church.)
And so it is that the notion of exercise fell out of the popular imagination for a millennium. The word itself did not enter the English language until the fourteenth century, when it was originally used in the context of animal farming and husbandry, meaning “to remove restraint.” Like the etymological evolution of “to lose,” “to exercise” came to encompass other contexts beyond the literal and the physical: one could exercise restraint, or altruism, or caution. But not one’s body — not yet.
And then, in the sixteenth century, while roaming the ruins of Greek and Roman gymnasia, an Italian physician named Girolamo Mercuriale (September 30, 1530–November 8, 1606) took it upon himself “to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished.” Far ahead of his time on both the scale of a lifetime and the scale of civilization, Mercuriale was only twenty-two when, writing a treatise on parenting, he made a passionate case against the prevalent use of wet nurses, insisting instead that breastfeeding by mothers made for healthier and happier children. His work inspired the world’s first formal proposal for physical education in school curricula, made by the English educator on whom Shakespeare modeled the schoolmaster in Love’s Labor Lost.
But Mercuriale’s most lasting legacy was the 1573 book De Arte Gymnastica, or The Art of Exercise. (Incidentally, in my native Bulgarian, the academic term for gym class translates verbatim to “physical art.”) On its pages — writing in an elaborate form of medieval Latin that only a handful of scholars can translate today — Mercuriale resolved:
I have taken as my province to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished… Why no one else has taken this on, I dare not say. I know only that this is a task of both maximum utility and enormous labor.
If there is one person in the modern world who can reinvigorate Mercuriale’s enormous unfinished labor and bridge the physical, the philosophical, and the poetic — bridge Whitman and Warhol, Plato and Peloton, Kafka and Curie, Tennessee Williams and Serena Williams; bridge the “immediate bodily now” of exercise with “the wisdom of the past that had faded from living memory” — it is Bill Hayes. And so he does, in Sweat: A History of Exercise (public library) — an expedition, both existential and historical, spanning two thousand years and three continents, exploring “how the arts of exercise were invented, lost, and rediscovered,” raising questions about what distinguishes exercise from practice, labor, or sports; about whether, like art forms and literary genres and languages, there are “certain forms of exercise that are similarly endangered or have already gone extinct — unrecorded, undescribed”; questions like:
Do you choose your form of exercise, or does it choose you?
Read more here.
NATALIE HODGES: UNCOMMON MEASURE
In her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key, the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer defined music as “a laboratory for feeling and time.” But perhaps it is the opposite, too — music may be the most beautiful experiment conducted in the laboratory of time.
In “the wordless beginning,” spacetime itself was crumpled and compacted into that spitball of everythingness we call the singularity. Even if sound could exist then — it did not, of course, because sound is made of matter — it would have existed all at once. Infinite numbers of every possible note would have been ringing at the same time — the antithesis of music. It is only because this single point of totality was stretched into a line that time was born and, suddenly, there was continuity. Suddenly, one moment became distinguishable from another — the strange gift of entropy, which makes it possible to have melody and rhythm, chords and harmonies.
Music — with all the mysterious power by which it “enters one’s ears and dives straight into one’s soul, one’s emotional center” — is made not of notes of sound but of atoms of time. And if music is made of time, and if time is the substance we ourselves are made of, then in some profound sense, we are made of music.
That — the physics and neuroscience of it, the poetry and unremitting wonder of it — is what the science-enchanted classical violinist Natalie Hodges explores in Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time (public library). She writes:
Music sculpts time. Indeed, it is a structuring of time, as a layered arrangement of audible temporal events. Rhythm is at the heart of that arrangement, on every scale: the cycling and patterning of repeated sound or movement and the “measured flow” that that repetition creates. The most fundamental rhythm is the beat itself, the pulse that occurs at regular intervals and thus dictates the tempo, keeps musical time. In music, a beat is no fixed thing — it can quicken into smaller intervals (accelerando) and stretch out into longer ones (decelerando), depending on the character of a given musical moment and the feeling or fancy of the performer — but it does remain periodic, predictable, inexorable. Even at the level of pitch, which is really the speed of a given sound wave’s oscillation, we are really hearing the rhythmic demarcation of time, a tiny heart whirring at a beat of x cycles per second.
Yet in every piece of music there are also higher temporal structures at play. Repetition begets pattern, and pattern engenders form, at every scale; thus musical form itself constitutes a macro-rhythm, a pattern of alternations that move the listener through time.
Our minds structure time through the detection of patterns and the predictive anticipation of recurring elements. But although this cognitive function unfolds unconsciously, it is not mechanistic, not robotic, but a vital pulse-beat of our humanity, vibrating with the neural harmonics of emotion, suffused with feeling — for all anticipation is a form of hope and all hope can be shattered or redeemed, taking our hearts along with it. Ever since Pythagoras revolutionized the mathematical structure of music by composing the world’s first algorithm, musicians have been deliberately breaking the buildup of patterns or triumphantly completing them in order to orchestrate an emotional response — the sorrow of unmet hope, the elated relief of its redemption.
With an eye to the basic chord progression, rooted in a tonic, and the satisfying resolution of a rondo, revolving around a circular theme, Hodges writes:
Such patterns, formal and harmonic, relate their components to one another in time. The ear can sense the harmonies to come based on the relative intensities of those that came before, or when thematic material will return by the buildup of a cadence at the end of a development section or variation. It is through this higher sense of rhythm, then, that a simple phrase or a complex form becomes a temporal object: time molded in order to manipulate emotion, putting you through the changes of the present only to bring you back to the past, locating you in a moment that is simultaneously familiar and wholly new.
In my native Bulgaria, the tonal tradition rests upon a pattern dramatically different from that of Western music and its twelve-tone scale. (This is why a Bulgarian folk song was encoded among the handful of sounds representing Earth on the Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager in humanity’s most poetic reach for making contact with the cosmos.) But while these underlying structures differ across cultures and epochs, music’s reliance on such patterns for its emotional effect is universal. Hodges observes:
The music of all cultures, each with its own unique rules to be followed and broken, both weaves and rends the tapestry of audible time. Our experience of musical temporality, like our experience of the day-to-day, consists of patterns of recurrence and, sooner or later, their violation.
Yet musical time differs from the quotidian passage of ordinary time, even as it exists within that passage. Or, at least, it manifests how susceptible time is to our conscious perception, as much as the other way around.
PÁDRAIG Ó TUAMA: POETRY UNBOUND
In the dawning hour of the pandemic, Irish poet and peace activist Pádraig Ó Tuama launched the soul-slaking podcast Poetry Unbound, part of the On Being Project. Two years and several million listeners later, it now has an equally soul-slaking book companion in Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World (public library) — a vitalizing exploration of and invitation into poetry as protest, poetry as sacrament, poetry as exorcism, poetry as an instrument of deepening the truths we can tell each other, the truths we can see in and for ourselves, poetry as a reminder that these truths are of dazzling multiplicity and simultaneity, often in creative tension with each other, a tension that expands and magnifies our being; poetry as “a lonely art, written by a person with a sense that more must be done.”
Emerging from these pages above all is poetry as prayerful attention to life, captured in the perfectly chosen epigraph from poet Christian Wiman:
In the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.
Echoing Emerson’s observation that “our music, our poetry, our language itself are not satisfactions, but suggestions,” Ó Tuama writes in the introduction:
A single moment can open a door to an experience that’s bigger than the single moment might imply. Sometimes that opening is a challenge, sometimes it’s a comfort, other times a question. Very occasionally it’s an answer.
A poem can be like a flame: helping us find our way, keeping us warm.
These moments come in many shapes, from poems of infinite variety. In one, a single word becomes “a solitary word, a word of arrival, a word of presence.” In another, the central image becomes “an exploration of what it means to be wished well by someone else.” Together, they become “a testament to the process of noticing” — something subtle and mighty that reveals “what can happen when we pay attention to our lives.”