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Hello, Peter Blue! If you missed last week's edition – why love hurts, Steinbeck on the crucible of creativity, Dostoyevsky on reason and emotion, Aldous Huxley on sincerity and our fear of the obvious – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in 1889. But although a great many beloved writers have extolled the power of music with varying degrees of Nietzsche’s bombast, no one has captured its singular enchantment more beautifully than Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963). In his mid-thirties — just before the publication of Brave New World catapulted him into literary celebrity and a quarter century before his insightful writings about art and artists and his transcendent experience with hallucinogenic drugs — Huxley came to contemplate the mysterious transcendence at the heart of this most spiritually resonant of the arts. His meditations were eventually published as the 1931 treasure Music at Night and Other Essays (public library).
In a magnificent essay titled “The Rest Is Silence” — which inspired the title of Alex Ross’s modern masterwork The Rest Is Noise — Huxley writes:
From pure sensation to the intuition of beauty, from pleasure and pain to love and the mystical ecstasy and death — all the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence.
After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
In a parenthetical observation that calls to mind Susan Sontag on the aesthetics of silence, Huxley adds:
Silence is an integral part of all good music. Compared with Beethoven’s or Mozart’s, the ceaseless torrent of Wagner’s music is very poor in silence. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it seems so much less significant than theirs. It “says” less because it is always speaking.
Huxley considers music’s singular capacity for expressing the inexpressible:
In a different mode, or another plane of being, music is the equivalent of some of man’s most significant and most inexpressible experiences. By mysterious analogy it evokes in the mind of the listener, sometimes the phantom of these experiences, sometimes even the experiences themselves in their full force of life — it is a question of intensity; the phantom is dim, the reality, near and burning. Music may call up either; it is chance or providence which decides. The intermittences of the heart are subject to no known law.
More than merely echoing our experience, Huxley argues, music enlarges it:
Listening to expressive music, we have, not of course the artist’s original experience (which is quite beyond us, for grapes do not grow on thistles), but the best experience in its kind of which our nature is capable — a better and completer experience than in fact we ever had before listening to the music.
But the most complete experience of all, the only one superior to music, is silence:
When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music. And if the music should also fail? Well, there was always silence to fall back on. For always, always and everywhere, the rest is silence.
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm
In a different piece from the same collection, the uncommonly breathtaking title essay “Music at Night,” Huxley revisits the subject of humanity’s most powerful medium of expression:
Moonless, this June night is all the more alive with stars. Its darkness is perfumed with faint gusts from the blossoming lime trees, with the smell of wetted earth and the invisible greenness of the vines. There is silence; but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly harps on the fact of its own deep perfection. Far away, the passage of a train is like a long caress, moving gently, with an inexorable gentleness, across the warm living body of the night.
Suddenly, by some miraculously appropriate confidence (for I had selected the record in the dark, without knowing what music the machine would play), suddenly the introduction to the Benedictus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis begins to trace patterns on the moonless sky.
The Benedictus. Blessed and blessing, this music is in some sort the equivalent of the night, of the deep and living darkness, into which, now in a single jet, now in a fine interweaving of melodies, now in pulsing and almost solid clots of harmonious sound, it pours itself, stanchlessly pours itself, like time, like the rising and falling, falling trajectories of a life. It is the equivalent of the night in another mode of being, as an essence is the equivalent of the flowers, from which it is distilled.
“Blessedness is within us all,” Patti Smith wrote in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, and it is the revelation of this blessedness that Huxley celebrates as music’s highest power:
There is, at least there sometimes seems to be, a certain blessedness lying at the heart of things, a mysterious blessedness, of whose existence occasional accidents or providences (for me, this night is one of them) make us obscurely, or it may be intensely, but always fleetingly, alas, always only for a few brief moments aware. In the Benedictus Beethoven gives expression to this awareness of blessedness. His music is the equivalent of this Mediterranean night, or rather of the blessedness at the heart of the night, of the blessedness as it would be if it could be sifted clear of irrelevance and accident, refined and separated out into its quintessential purity.
I think immediately of Saul Bellow’s spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which he asserted: “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” For Huxley, no art swings open the gates of reception more powerfully than music — but the language in which it communicates to us that hidden, genuine reality is untranslatable into our ordinary language:
Music “says” things about the world, but in specifically musical terms. Any attempt to reproduce these musical statements “in our own words” is necessarily doomed to failure. We cannot isolate the truth contained in a piece of music; for it is a beauty-truth and inseparable from its partner. The best we can do is to indicate in the most general terms the nature of the musical beauty-truth under consideration and to refer curious truth-seekers to the original. Thus, the introduction to the Benedictus in the Missa Solemnis is a statement about the blessedness that is at the heart of things. But this is about as far as “our words” will take us. If we were to start describing in our “own words” exactly what Beethoven felt about this blessedness, how he conceived it, what he thought its nature to be, we should very soon find ourselves writing lyrical nonsense… Only music, and only Beethoven’s music, and only this particular music of Beethoven, can tell us with any precision what Beethoven’s conception of the blessedness at the heart of things actually was. If we want to know, we must listen — on a still June night, by preference, with the breathing of the invisible sea for background to the music and the scent of lime trees drifting through the darkness, like some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense.
Although Music at Night and Other Essays belongs in the sad cemetery of life-giving books that have perished out of print, used copies are still findable and very much worth finding. Complement this particular portion with Henry Beston’s exquisite love letter to nighttime, then revisit Huxley on the two types of truth artists must reconcile, how we become who we are, and his little-known children’s book, then revisit other notable reflections on the power of music.
“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer,” the great French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) wrote in her diary toward the end of her long and illustrious life. That perfect fabric metaphor is not coincidental. Psychologists now know that metaphorical thinking is the birthplace of the imagination, “essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent,” and it begins in childhood as young minds transmute the namable things that surround them into fresh metaphors for the unnamable things that they experience inside.
Born into a family that restored tapestries for a living, Bourgeois wove the world of colorful textiles into her imagination and into the very work that would establish her as one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century. It was in this family trade that she came to see her beloved mother as a deft, patient spider repairing broken threads — the metaphor at the heart of the iconic large-scale spider sculptures for which Bourgeois is best known and which earned her the moniker Spiderwoman.
In Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (public library) — one of four marvelous children’s books about the life of ideas I recently reviewed for The New York Times and a crowning curio among the loveliest picture-books celebrating cultural icons — writer Amy Novesky and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault trace the thread of Bourgeois’s creative development from the formative years of her unusual childhood to the pinnacle of her success as an artist.
Novesky, who has previously authored a children’s book about Billie Holiday, tells the story of Bourgeois’s life in a wonderfully lyrical way. Arsenault — whom I have long considered one of the most gifted and unrepeatable artists of our time, the kind whose books will be cherished a century from now — carries the story with her soft yet vibrantly expressive illustrations.
Louise kept diaries of her days. And in a cloth tent pitched in the garden, she and her siblings would stay till the dark surprised them, the light from the house, and the sound of a Verdi opera, far away through the trees.
Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.
The ever-flowing blue strand of the river becomes the thread of continuity across Bourgeois’s life. It flows into the Siene and takes young Louise along to Paris, where she attends university studying mathematics and astronomy.
Bourgeois’s studies are severed by her mother’s sudden death, the devastation of which drives the young woman to abandon science and turn to the certain uncertainty of art. She cuts up all the fabric she owns — her dresses, her bed linens, her new husband’s handkerchiefs — and spends the remainder of her life making it and making herself whole again, putting it all together into cloth sculptures, colorful hand-sewn spirals, cloth drawings, cloth books, and many, many, many spiders.
With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby. She wove the river that raised her — maternal pinks, blues in watery hues. She wove a mother sewing in the sun, a girl falling asleep beneath the stars, and everything she’d ever loved.
When she was done, all of her spiders beside her, she held the river and let it rock her again.
Complement the unbelievably beautiful and poetic Cloth Lullaby, bound in a perfect blue fabric spine, with the picture-book biographies of Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly, then revisit Bourgeois’s insightful diary reflections on art, integrity, and the key to creative confidence.
“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the power and magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Hardly anyone in our time has been a greater amplifier of spirits than longtime journalist, On Being host, and patron saint of nuance Krista Tippett — a modern-day Simone Weil who has been fusing spiritual life and secular culture with remarkable virtuosity through her conversations with physicists and poets, neuroscientists and novelists, biologists and Benedictine monks, united by the quality of heart and mind that Einstein so beautifully termed “spiritual genius.”
In her interviews with the great spiritual geniuses of our time, Tippett has cultivated a rare space for reflection and redemption amid our reactionary culture — a space framed by her generous questions exploring the life of meaning. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (public library), Tippett distills more than a decade of these conversations across disciplines and denominations into a wellspring of wisdom on the most elemental questions of being human — questions about happiness, morality, justice, wellbeing, and love — reanimated with a fresh vitality of insight.
At the core of Tippett’s inquiry is the notion virtue — not in the limiting, prescriptive sense with which scripture has imbued it, but in the expansive, empowering sense of a psychological, emotional, and spiritual technology that allows us to first fully inhabit, then conscientiously close the gap between who we are and who we aspire to be.
She explores five primary fertilizers of virtue: words — the language we use to tell the stories we tell about who we are and how the world works; flesh — the body as the birthplace of every virtue, rooted in the idea that “how we inhabit our senses tests the mettle of our souls”; love — a word so overused that it has been emptied of meaning yet one that gives meaning to our existence, both in our most private selves and in the fabric of public life; faith — Tippett left a successful career as a political journalist in divided Berlin in the 1980s to study theology not in order to be ordained but in order to question power structures and examine the grounds of moral imagination through the spiritual wisdom of the ages; and hope — an orientation of the mind and spirit predicated not on the blinders of optimism but on a lucid lens on the possible furnished by an active, unflinching reach for it.
Tippett, who has spent more than a decade cross-pollinating spirituality, science, and the human spirit and was awarded the National Humanities Medal for it, considers the raw material of her work — the power of questions “as social art and civic tools”:
If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.
No section of the book is more redemptive and life-giving than that exploring love — perhaps because Tippett, rather atypically, examines these universal questions through the vulnerable lens of her own ordinarily guarded personal experience. (I’m reminded of Cheryl Strayed: “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”) She writes:
If we are stretching to live wiser and not just smarter, we will aspire to learn what love means, how it arises and deepens, how it withers and revives, what it looks like as a private good but also as a common good.
With an eye to Rilke’s immortal words — love, the poet wrote to his young friend, “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation” — Tippett observes:
Because it is the best of which we are capable, loving is also supremely exacting, not always but again and again. Love is something we only master in moments. It crosses the chasms between us, and likewise brings them into relief.
It was in the heartbreak of her own marriage — a youthful fairy-tale romance that ended, many years and two children later, in deep mutual loneliness — that Tippett came to know the inescapable dualities of love, this “merger of pleasure and risk and sacrifice,” this “dance of alternating vulnerabilities.” She writes:
The nuclear family is a recent invention and a death blow to love — an unprecedented demand on a couple to be everything to each other, the family a tiny echo chamber: history one layer deep. None of the great virtues … is meant to be carried in isolation.
When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion… After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.
Echoing Edith Wharton’s notion of the “unassailable serenity” of being at home in ourselves, Tippett reflects on the self-defeating perception of that hole:
This is the opposite of a healing story — it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn’s insight that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Tippett reflects on this newfound larger sense of love:
I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.
The intention to walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier.
But this adventure of expanding the understanding and practice of love plays out as much in our private lives as it does in our public lives. The poet Elizabeth Alexander — one of Tippett’s most enchanting conversation partners on On Being — captured this perfectly in her reading at Barack Obama’s inauguration, where she became only the fourth poet in history to read at an American presidential inauguration: “What if love,” Alexander asked, “is the mightiest word?” Tippett writes:
A poet can’t carry this question alone, nor can a politician.
Love, muscular and resilient, does not always seem reasonable, much less doable, in our most damaged and charged civic spaces.
Half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s increasingly timely clarion call for an “experiment in love,” Tippett winces at the modern media environment shaping our perception of reality by highlighting humanity at its most hateful. She writes:
Antiseptic language … puts our human dramas in political and economic boxes and holds us at arm’s length from the heart of the matter. Still, I feel more and more of us willingly seeing, choosing to care about the heart of the matter, holding the question of love … across all kinds of ingrained ideological, political, economic difference.
To grasp this heart of the matter, Tippett mines the wisdom of her vibrant and variedly insightful conversation partners over the years for metaphors that articulate the nature and nurture of love, both as a private experience and a public encounter. From an astrophysicist, she borrows dark matter as a metaphor — like the invisible cosmic stuff, love is a “force that permeates everything and yet remains essentially mysterious, something we have scarcely begun to understand and to mine.” A geophysicist studying plate tectonics reveals to her love’s necessary “capacity to accommodate fragility.” A moral philosopher points to the gestational period of love, for “change begins to happen in the human heart slowly, over time.”
Still, Tippett takes care to temper the romantic with the realistic. At the remarkably courageous intersection of her private experience and her public philosophy, she reflects on becoming estranged from her own father after a deeply traumatic relationship that stretched for decades, and writes:
It is a biological truth that safety is almost always a prerequisite for the best in us to emerge… Love doesn’t always work as we want it to, or look like something intimate and beautiful… Sometimes love, in public and in private, means stepping back.
We all live lives that are complicated and that at times, with infinite variation, feel overwhelming. But we know people in our immediate world who step beyond themselves, into care. If you know them up close, you know they are not saints or heroes — take note of that, and take comfort. Feel how when you extend a kindness, however simple, you are energized and not depleted. Scientists … are proving that acts of kindness and generosity are literally infectious, passing from stranger to stranger to stranger. Kindness is an everyday byproduct of all the great virtues, love most especially.
Becoming Wise is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality — a wellspring of nuance and dimension amid our Flatland of artificial polarities, touching on every significant aspect of human life with great gentleness and a firm grasp of human goodness. Complement this particular dimension with Thich Nhat Hahn — whose conversation with Tippett is a pinnacle of spiritual genius — on how to love and the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.
For more of Tippett’s own spiritual genius, including her remarkably courageous reflections on her struggle with depression, hear her magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:
We’ve all been trained and raised as advocates, so we go in with a position. There’s a place for that. But we need to be able to set that aside, because we need places where that’s not all we’re doing… So one thing about listening — generous listening — one really simple characteristic of it is that the generous listener is ready to be surprised. You go into [a conversation] with an assumption that you don’t know everything or understand everything, and you’re truly curious — which means you’re open to having whatever assumptions you do bring unsettled, and you’re going to be graceful about that and kind of curious about that when that happens.