Hello, Donna Fleischer! If you missed last week's edition – some of the wisest words to create and live by, Nietzsche on the power of music, Margo Jefferson on privilege, the loveliest vintage book I've seen in ages, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
"We are made immortal," Emerson wrote, "by the contemplation of beauty." Immortality may be too elusive a promise, but beauty does work us over with the piercing immediacy of concrete vitality: we come alive in beholding beauty, intensely immersed in the here and now. Beauty beckons us – from Bach to Blake to the dramatic limestone outcrop on a Basque beach that unravels a billion years our planet's story as a solitary spaceship in a vast and mysterious universe.
That's what the Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue explores in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (public library) – an enchanting meditation on how beauty lays its claim on the human spirit in such disparate realms as music, love, imperfection, death, and desire.
We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more. At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world. At death we will surrender again to the dark to become invisible. Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life; between them the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty.
This beauty and frailty, O'Donohue notes, have surrounded us since long before we developed the language in which to witness them, even before there was a "we" to do the witnessing – they are the very fabric of the universe, the eternal backdrop to the cosmic blink of human life:
The Greeks ... raised the eye beyond the horizon and recognized the heavenly patterns of the cosmos. There they glimpsed a vision of order which was to become the heart of their understanding of beauty. All the frailty and uncertainty was seen to be ultimately sheltered by the eternal beauty which presides over all the journeys between awakening and surrender, the visible and the invisible, the light and the darkness.
The human soul is hungry for beauty... When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances and sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.
Beauty's most primordial and primal manifestation, O'Donohue argues, is Eros – the immortal force that gathers momentum in the space between longing and love, distance and desire:
There is a lovely disarray that comes with attraction. When you find yourself deeply attracted to someone, you gradually begin to lose your grip on the frames that order your life. Indeed, much of your life becomes blurred as that countenance comes into clearer focus. A relentless magnet draws all your thoughts towards it. Wherever you are, you find yourself thinking about the one who has become the horizon of your longing. When you are together, time becomes unmercifully swift. It always ends too soon. No sooner have you parted than you are already imagining your next meeting, counting the hours. The magnetic draw of that presence renders you delightfully helpless. A stranger you never knew until recently has invaded your mind; every fibre of your being longs to be closer.
“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923
O'Donohue calls this "the vortex of Eros," a place where we grow "innocent and careless" – but for all its acuity of feeling, it comes in an endless array of flavors:
Eros can take many forms. Sometimes it can be slow, subtle and indirect, building quietly without anyone else even suspecting. Sometimes it can come at you.
It is always astonishing how love can strike. No context is love-proof, no convention or commitment impervious. Even a lifestyle which is perfectly insulated, where the personality is controlled, all the days ordered and all actions in sequence, can to its own dismay find that an unexpected spark has landed; it begins to smoulder until it is finally unquenchable. The force of Eros always brings disturbance; in the concealed terrain of the human heart Eros remains a light sleeper.
Illustration from An ABZ of Love a favorite of Kurt Vonnegut's
In a sentiment that brings to mind Mary Oliver on how differences bring lovers closer together, O'Donohue adds:
Huge differences may separate us, yet they are exactly what draw us to each other. It is as though forged together we form one presence, for each of us has half of a language that the other seeks. When we approach each other and become one, a new fluency comes alive. A lost world retrieves itself when our words build a new circle. While the call to each other is exciting and intoxicating in its bond of attraction, it is exceptionally complex and tender and, handled indelicately, can bring incredible pain. We can awaken in each other possibilities beyond our wildest dreams. The conversation of togetherness is a primal and indeed perennial conversation. Despite the thousands of years of human interaction, it all begins anew, as if for the first time, when two people fall in love. The force of their encounter makes a real clearance; through the power of Eros they discover the beauty in each other. Stretching the power of Eros they discover the beauty in each other. Stretching across the distance towards each other, they begin to awaken all the primal echoes where nothing can be presumed but almost everything can be expected.
But despite its enormous centripetal form, the beauty of Eros is a tapestry of uncertainties, woven of longing:
One could write a philosophy of beauty using the family of concepts which includes glimpse, glance, touch, taste and whisper, all of which suggest a special style of attention which is patient and reverent, content with a suggestion or a clue and then willing through its own imagination to fill out the invitation to beauty.
'Lee Miller and Friend' by Man Ray. Paris, 1930
The beauty of Eros culminates in the union of body and soul – of two bodies and two souls – when we make love:
The instinct, rhythm and radiance of the human body come alive vividly when we make love. We slip down into a more ancient penumbral rhythm where the wisdom of the body claims its own grace, ease and joy. The act of love is rich in symbolism and ambivalence. It arises on that temporary, total threshold between solitude and intimacy, skin and soul, feeling and thought, memory and future. When it is a real expression of love, it can become an act of great beauty which brings celebration, wonder, delight, closeness and shelter. The old notion of the soul being hidden somewhere deep within the body serves only to intensify the loneliness of the love act as the attempt of two solitudes to bridge their distance. However, when we understand that the body is in the soul, intimacy and union seem unavoidable because the soul as the radiance of the body is already entwined with the lover.
Complement O'Donohue's wholly enchanting Beauty: The Invisible Embrace with Emerson on cultivating the true hallmarks of beauty, Sarah Lewis and Anna Deavere Smith on the power of "aesthetic force," and Ursula K. Le Guin on what beauty really means – one of the finest essays ever written – then revisit O'Donohue on what the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara can teach us about friendship.
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"When you’re an artist," Amanda Palmer wrote in her magnificent manifesto for the creative life, "nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand." The craftsmanship of that wand, which is perhaps the most terrifying and thrilling task of the creative person in any domain of endeavor, is what Elizabeth Gilbert explores in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) – a lucid and luminous inquiry into the relationship between human beings and the mysteries of the creative experience, as defined by Gilbert's beautifully broad notion of "living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear." It's an expansive definition that cracks open the possibilities within any human life, whether you're a particle physicist or a postal worker or a poet – and the pursuit of possibility is very much at the heart of Gilbert's mission to empower us to enter into creative endeavor the way one enters into a monastic order: "as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence."
A generation earlier, Julia Cameron termed the spark of this creative transcendence "spiritual electricity," and a generation before that Rollo May explored the fears keeping us from attaining it. Gilbert, who has contemplated the complexities of creativity for a long time and with electrifying insight, calls its supreme manifestation "Big Magic":
This, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
Surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
The hunt to uncover those jewels – that’s creative living.
The courage to go on that hunt in the first place – that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.
The often surprising results of that hunt – that’s what I call Big Magic.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves
That notion of summoning the courage to bring forth one's hidden treasures is one Gilbert borrowed from Jack Gilbert – a brilliant poet to whom she is related not by genealogy but by creative kinship, graced with the astonishing coincidence of their last names and a university teaching position they both occupied a generation apart. She reflects on the poet's unusual creative ethos:
“We must risk delight,” he wrote. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged [his students] to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.
Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small – far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.
But this notion of bravery seeds a common confusion, which Gilbert takes care to dispel:
We all know that when courage dies, creativity dies with it. We all know that fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun. This is common knowledge; sometimes we just don’t know what to do about it.
Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction.
If your goal in life is to become fearless, then I believe you’re already on the wrong path, because the only truly fearless people I’ve ever met were straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds – and those aren’t good role models for anyone.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of 'Alice in Wonderland'
Bravery, Gilbert suggests, is the product of a certain kind of obstinacy in the face of fear – and that obstinacy, rather than one's occupation, is what defines the creative life:
While the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner – continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you – is a fine art, in and of itself.
To be sure, Gilbert – whose writing lives in the Venn diagram of Brené Brown, Dani Shapiro, Cheryl Strayed, and David Whyte – is a far cry from the self-help canon of authoritarian advice dictated by a detached expert. What makes her book so immensely helpful is precisely its lived and living nature. She writes:
The only reason I can speak so authoritatively about fear is that I know it so intimately. I know every inch of fear, from head to toe. I’ve been a frightened person my entire life. I was born terrified. I’m not exaggerating; you can ask anyone in my family, and they’ll confirm that, yes, I was an exceptionally freaked-out child. My earliest memories are of fear, as are pretty much all the memories that come after my earliest memories.
Growing up, I was afraid not only of all the commonly recognized and legitimate childhood dangers (the dark, strangers, the deep end of the swimming pool), but I was also afraid of an extensive list of completely benign things (snow, perfectly nice babysitters, cars, playgrounds, stairs, Sesame Street, the telephone, board games, the grocery store, sharp blades of grass, any new situation whatsoever, anything that dared to move, etc., etc., etc.).
I was a sensitive and easily traumatized creature who would fall into fits of weeping at any disturbance in her force field. My father, exasperated, used to call me Pitiful Pearl. We went to the Delaware shore one summer when I was eight years old, and the ocean upset me so much that I tried to get my parents to stop all the people on the beach from going into the surf.
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from Meanwhile
I can't help but see in this tragicomic anecdote a magnificent metaphor for the psychology of trolling. The impulse to attack others who have dared to put themselves and their art into the world springs from the same fear-seed. What is trolling, after all, if not a concentrated effort to stop others from going into the surf – not because trolls try to protect the rest of the world from the perils of bad art but because they seek to protect themselves from the fear that if they dare plunge into the surf, their own art might wash up ashore lifeless.
Kierkegaard knew this when he contemplated the psychology of trolling two centuries ago, and Neil Gaiman knew it when he delivered his spectacular speech on courage and the creative life. All of us know this on some primordial level when we contemplate the metaphorical surf, for every time we decide to swim we must also allow for the possibility of sinking, which seems decidedly less mortifying if there weren't other people swimming while we sink.
Gilbert considers the somewhat mysterious, somewhat perfectly sensical stimulus that eventually sent her on a life-path of plunging into the surf:
Over the years, I’ve often wondered what finally made me stop playing the role of Pitiful Pearl, almost overnight. Surely there were many factors involved in that evolution (the tough-mom factor, the growing-up factor), but mostly I think it was just this: I finally realized that my fear was boring.
Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. My fear was a song with only one note – only one word, actually – and that word was “STOP!” My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!”
I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. I figured out that everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!” True, the volume may vary from person to person, but the song itself never changes, because all of us humans were equipped with the same basic fear package when we were being knitted in our mothers’ wombs.
Far from a uniquely human faculty, this fear is there for a reason – an evolutionary mechanism that aided us in our survival, much like it has aided every living creature that made it to this point of evolutionary history. Gilbert writes:
If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.
Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a special edition of 'Alice in Wonderland'
And yet the human gift, Gilbert reminds us, is the willingness to march forward – in terror and transcendence, and often alone – even though we too flinch beneath the shadow of the unknown:
Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.
In the remainder of the wholly electrifying Big Magic, Gilbert goes on to explore the building blocks of the bravery that makes that wonderful privilege available to each of us. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on why creativity requires leaping into the unknown, Cheryl Strayed's no-nonsense advice on faith and humility, Brené Brown on creative resilience, and Anaïs Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creative endeavor.
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We never see the world exactly as it is – our entire experience of it is filtered through the screen of our longings and our fears, onto which project the interpretation we call reality. The nature of that flickering projection has captivated the human imagination at least since Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave. Philip K. Dick was both right and wrong when, in contemplating how to build a universe, he wrote that "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away." Reality, after all, is constructed through our very beliefs – not because we have a magical-thinking way of willing events and phenomena into manifesting, but because cognitive science has shown us that the way we direct our attention shapes our perception of what we call "reality."
That's what molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and Buddhist-raised astrophysicist Trinh Thuan explore in The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (public library) – an infinitely mind-bending conversation at the intersection of science and philosophy. The contemporary counterpart to Einstein's conversation with Tagore, it takes apart our most elemental assumptions about time, space, the origin of the universe and, above all, the nature of reality.
In considering the constructed nature of reality, Ricard quotes from a 1977 Berkeley lecture by David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992), in which the trailblazing theoretical physicist offered an exquisite formulation of the interplay between our beliefs and what we experience as reality:
Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.
Art by Wendy MacNaughton
No matter how complex our instruments may be, no matter how sophisticated and subtle our theories and calculations, it's still our consciousness that finally interprets our observations. And it does so according to its knowledge and conception of the event under consideration. It's impossible to separate the way consciousness works from the conclusions it makes about an observation. The various aspects that we make out in a phenomenon are determined not only by how we observe, but also by the concepts that we project onto the phenomenon in question.
Complement this fragment of the wholly fantastic The Quantum and the Lotus with Alan Watts on what reality really means and Simone Weil on science and our spiritual values, then revisit Ricard's conversation with his father, the great French philosopher Jean-François Revel, about the nature of the self.
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Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity's most lucid and luminous minds – an oracle of timeless wisdom on everything from what "the good life" really means to why "fruitful monotony" is essential for happiness to love, sex, and our moral superstitions. In 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for "his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought." On December 11 of that year, 78-year-old Russell took the podium in Stockholm to receive the grand accolade.
Later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) – which also gave us Pearl S. Buck, the youngest woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, on art, writing, and the nature of creativity – his acceptance speech is one of the finest packets of human thought ever delivered from a stage.
Russell begins by considering the central motive driving human behavior:
All human activity is prompted by desire. There is a wholly fallacious theory advanced by some earnest moralists to the effect that it is possible to resist desire in the interests of duty and moral principle. I say this is fallacious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be dutiful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.
Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this.
Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from Homer for Young Readers, 1965
Russell points to four such infinite desires – acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity, and love of power – and examines them in order:
Acquisitiveness – the wish to possess as much as possible of goods, or the title to goods – is a motive which, I suppose, has its origin in a combination of fear with the desire for necessaries. I once befriended two little girls from Estonia, who had narrowly escaped death from starvation in a famine. They lived in my family, and of course had plenty to eat. But they spent all their leisure visiting neighbouring farms and stealing potatoes, which they hoarded. Rockefeller, who in his infancy had experienced great poverty, spent his adult life in a similar manner.
However much you may acquire, you will always wish to acquire more; satiety is a dream which will always elude you.
In 1938, Henry Miller also articulated this fundamental driver in his brilliant meditation on how money became a human fixation. Decades later, modern psychologists would term this notion "the hedonic treadmill." But for Russell, this elemental driver is eclipsed by an even stronger one – our propensity for rivalry:
The world would be a happier place than it is if acquisitiveness were always stronger than rivalry. But in fact, a great many men will cheerfully face impoverishment if they can thereby secure complete ruin for their rivals. Hence the present level of taxation.
Rivalry, he argues, is in turn upstaged by human narcissism. In a sentiment doubly poignant in the context of today's social media, he observes:
Vanity is a motive of immense potency. Anyone who has much to do with children knows how they are constantly performing some antic, and saying "Look at me." "Look at me" is one of the most fundamental desires of the human heart. It can take innumerable forms, from buffoonery to the pursuit of posthumous fame.
It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the influence of vanity throughout the range of human life, from the child of three to the potentate at whose frown the world trembles.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann
But the most potent of the four impulses, Russell argues, is the love of power:
Love of power is closely akin to vanity, but it is not by any means the same thing. What vanity needs for its satisfaction is glory, and it is easy to have glory without power... Many people prefer glory to power, but on the whole these people have less effect upon the course of events than those who prefer power to glory... Power, like vanity, is insatiable. Nothing short of omnipotence could satisfy it completely. And as it is especially the vice of energetic men, the causal efficacy of love of power is out of all proportion to its frequency. It is, indeed, by far the strongest motive in the lives of important men.
Love of power is greatly increased by the experience of power, and this applies to petty power as well as to that of potentates.
Anyone who has ever agonized in the hands of a petty bureaucrat – something Hannah Arendt unforgettably censured as a special kind of violence – can attest to the veracity of this sentiment. Russell adds:
In any autocratic regime, the holders of power become increasingly tyrannical with experience of the delights that power can afford. Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure.
Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from Homer for Young Readers, 1965
But Russell, a thinker of exceptional sensitivity to nuance and to the dualities of which life is woven, cautions against dismissing the love of power as a wholesale negative driver – from the impulse to dominate the unknown, he points out, spring such desirables as the pursuit of knowledge and all scientific progress. He considers its fruitful manifestations:
It would be a complete mistake to decry love of power altogether as a motive. Whether you will be led by this motive to actions which are useful, or to actions which are pernicious, depends upon the social system, and upon your capacities. If your capacities are theoretical or technical, you will contribute to knowledge or technique, and, as a rule, your activity will be useful. If you are a politician you may be actuated by love of power, but as a rule this motive will join itself on to the desire to see some state of affairs realized which, for some reason, you prefer to the status quo.
Russell then turns to a set of secondary motives. Echoing his enduring ideas on the interplay of boredom and excitement in human life, he begins with the notion of love of excitement:
Human beings show their superiority to the brutes by their capacity for boredom, though I have sometimes thought, in examining the apes at the zoo, that they, perhaps, have the rudiments of this tiresome emotion. However that may be, experience shows that escape from boredom is one of the really powerful desires of almost all human beings.
Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli for Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical by Noémie Révah
He argues that this intoxicating love of excitement is only amplified by the sedentary nature of modern life, which has fractured the natural bond between body and mind. A century after Thoreau made his exquisite case against the sedentary lifestyle, Russell writes:
Our mental make-up is suited to a life of very severe physical labor. I used, when I was younger, to take my holidays walking. I would cover twenty-five miles a day, and when the evening came I had no need of anything to keep me from boredom, since the delight of sitting amply sufficed. But modern life cannot be conducted on these physically strenuous principles. A great deal of work is sedentary, and most manual work exercises only a few specialized muscles. When crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square to cheer to the echo an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed, they would not do so if they had all walked twenty-five miles that day. This cure for bellicosity is, however, impracticable, and if the human race is to survive – a thing which is, perhaps, undesirable – other means must be found for securing an innocent outlet for the unused physical energy that produces love of excitement... I have never heard of a war that proceeded from dance halls.
Civilized life has grown altogether too tame, and, if it is to be stable, it must provide harmless outlets for the impulses which our remote ancestors satisfied in hunting... I think every big town should contain artificial waterfalls that people could descend in very fragile canoes, and they should contain bathing pools full of mechanical sharks. Any person found advocating a preventive war should be condemned to two hours a day with these ingenious monsters. More seriously, pains should be taken to provide constructive outlets for the love of excitement. Nothing in the world is more exciting than a moment of sudden discovery or invention, and many more people are capable of experiencing such moments than is sometimes thought.
Complement Nobel Writers on Writing with more excellent Nobel Prize acceptance speeches – William Faulkner on the artist as a booster of the human heart, Ernest Hemingway on writing and solitude, Alice Munro on the secret to telling a great story, and Saul Bellow on how literature ennobles the human spirit – then revisit Russell on immortality and why science is the key to democracy.
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