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Rebecca Solnit on silence, Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on the creative fertility of not-knowing and how our certitudes keep us small, mathematician Lillian Lieber on infinity and free will, and more.

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WelcomeHello, Peter Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – the loveliest, most profound picture-book since The Little Prince, artist Agnes Martin on our greatest obstacle to happiness, philosopher Erich Fromm on the key to a sane society, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on How Our Certitudes Keep Us Small and the Generative Power of Not-Knowing

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion,” the great painter Richard Diebenkorn counseled in his ten rules for beginning creative projects. “One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going,” the artist Ann Hamilton wrote a generation later in her magnificent meditation on the generative power of not-knowing. “In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know.”

What is true of art is even truer of life, for a human life is the greatest work of art there is. (In my own life, looking back on my ten most important learnings from the first ten years of Brain Pickings, I placed the practice of the small, mighty phrase “I don’t know” at the very top.) But to live with the untrammeled openendedness of such fertile not-knowing is no easy task in a world where certitudes are hoarded as the bargaining chips for status and achievement — a world bedeviled, as Rebecca Solnit memorably put it, by “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate.”

That difficult feat of insurgency is what the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explored in 1996 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for capturing the transcendent fragility of the human experience in masterpieces like “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.”

In her acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006 (public library) — which also gave us the spectacular speech on the power of language Toni Morrison delivered after becoming the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize — Szymborska considers why artists are so reluctant to answer questions about what inspiration is and where it comes from:

It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.

Noting that she, too, tends to be rattled by the question, she offers her wieldiest answer:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In a sentiment of chilling prescience today, as we witness tyrants drunk on certainty drain the world of its essential inspiration, Szymborska considers the destructive counterpoint to this generative not-knowing:

All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Such surrender to not-knowing, Szymborska argues as she steps out into the cosmic perspective, is the seedbed of our capacity for astonishment, which in turn gives meaning to our existence:

The world — whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world — it is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

Twenty years before she received the Nobel Prize, Szymborska explored how our contracting compulsion for knowing can lead us astray in her sublime 1976 poem “Utopia,” found in her Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library):

UTOPIA

Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

Purely for the fun of it, I found myself drawing Szymborska’s poetic island in a map inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia:

Complement with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Szymborska on why we read, our cosmic solitude, how artists humanize our history, and the importance of being scared.

Rebecca Solnit on Breaking Silence as Our Mightiest Weapon Against Oppression

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — an incantation which fomented biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she catalyzed the environmental movement. “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished on the cusp of another cultural revolution in her influential 1984 treatise on transforming silence into redemptive action. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech shortly after Lorde’s landmark essay was published.

No silence is larger, both in age and in scope, nor more demanding of breaking, than the silencing of women’s voices — a millennia-old assault on the integrity of more than half of humankind.

Let me make one thing clear here: We — all of us, of any gender — may have different answers to the questions feminism raises. But if we refuse to engage with the questions themselves, we are culpable not only of cowardice but of complicity in humanity’s oldest cultural crime.

How to dismantle that complicity and transmute it into courage is what Rebecca Solnit explores in an extraordinary essay titled “Silence Is Broken,” found in The Mother of All Questions (public library) — a sweeping collection of essays Solnit describes as “a tour through carnage, a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.”

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit begins by mapping the terra cognita of silence:

Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.

Silence, of course, is crucially different from quietude, the latter being the absence of noise and the former the absence of voice. Silence is to quietude what isolation, that weapon of oppression, is to solitude, that wellspring of creative fertility. Defining silence as “what is imposed” and quietude as “what is sought,” Solnit contrasts the two:

The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink.

[…]

Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity.

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s memorable assertion that “words are events, they do things, change things,” Solnit celebrates our mightiest, perhaps our only, mechanism for breaking our silences:

Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit.

[…]

We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.

The New York City subway map reimagined with every stop named after a notable woman, from Nonstop Metropolis by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly Shapiro

Noting that “the history of silence is central to women’s history,” Solnit writes:

Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.

[…]

Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons. And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.

[…]

Even those who have been audible have often earned the privilege through strategic silences or the inability to hear certain voices, including their own. The struggle of liberation has been in part to create the conditions for the formerly silenced to speak and be heard.

Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over” in his abiding inquiry into freedom and how we imprison ourselves, Solnit considers how the redemptive reclaiming of systemically muted voices is reconfiguring our world:

If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.

[…]

Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the center; those who embody what is not heard or what violates those who rise on silence are cast out. By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.

Art by Jabari Asim from Preaching to the Chickens by E.B. Lewis, a children’s book about how the great civil rights leader John Lewis found his voice as a boy

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s incisive treatise on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Solnit argues that “silence is the universal condition of oppression” and considers the complex cultural matrix on which various sets of oppressive silences intersect:

The category women is a long boulevard that intersects with many other avenues, including class, race, poverty and wealth. Traveling this boulevard means crossing others, and it never means that the city of silence has only one street or one route through it that matters. It is now useful to question the categories of male and female, but it’s also useful to remember that misogyny is based on a devout belief in the reality of those categories (or is an attempt to reinforce them by demonstrating the proper role of each gender)… It was in opposition to slavery that American feminism arose, born at the intersection. Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to the World’s Antislavery Convention in London in 1840, one of many women abolitionists who traveled to participate, only to find that they could not be seated and could not speak. Even people who considered themselves champions of the oppressed could not see what was oppressive about an order so old it was perceived as natural. A controversy arose. Stanton wrote in her autobiography of the remarkable women gathered there, who were “all compelled to listen in silence to the masculine platitudes on women’s sphere.” She went home furious, and that fury at being silenced and shut out, and the insight that resulted, gave rise to the first women’s rights movement.

Indeed, the history of breaking silence is the history of insurgent solidarity with the silenced on behalf of those who have voice. Without the silence-shattering letter of solidarity which sixteen of the twentieth century’s most prominent white poets wrote after Amiri Baraka was brutalized by racial violence, he might have perished as another black man swallowed by the systemic injustice of the prison system instead of becoming one of the world’s most influential poets.

Solnit considers this essential human task of those who have voice in relation to those who are silenced:

Empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves. To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself and your humanity, to have protected yourself from some kind of vulnerability. Silencing, or refusing to hear, breaks this social contract of recognizing another’s humanity and our connectedness.

[…]

Our humanity is made out of stories or, in the absence of words and narratives, out of imagination: that which I did not literally feel, because it happened to you and not to me, I can imagine as though it were me, or care about it though it was not me. Thus we are connected, thus we are not separate. Those stories can be killed into silence, and the voices that might breed empathy silenced, discredited, censored, rendered unspeakable, unhearable. Discrimination is training in not identifying or empathizing with someone because they are different in some way, in believing the differences mean everything and common humanity nothing.

A supreme failure of empathy, Solnit suggests, is the refusal to speak up for those who are shamed or suppressed from speaking for themselves:

Individuals and societies serve power and the powerful by refusing to speak and bear witness.

Echoing Susan Sontag’s insistence that “courage is as contagious as fear,” Solnit adds:

Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth.

With her parallel willingness to name our human follies with robust lucidity and to welcome our highest potential with unsentimental optimism, Solnit considers our most fertile frontier of persistence and resistance to the silencing of our own voices and those around us:

Every day each of us invents the world and the self who meets that world, opens up or closes down space for others within that. Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.

Exactly half a century after the repentant poet Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote that “the task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us,” and that “we must grasp [it] with the tongs of our individual littleness [and] take the measure of it with what we are,” Solnit adds:

The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.

The Mother of All Questions is a sobering and mobilizing read in its slim, potent entirety. Complement it with Shankar Vedantam on the unconscious biases that bedevil even the best-intentioned of us, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, how maps can oppress and liberate, and walking as an act of rebellion.

Mathematician Lillian Lieber on Infinity, Art, Science, the Meaning of Freedom, and What It Takes to Be a Finite But Complete Human Being

“We’re all intrinsically of the same substance,” astrophysicist Janna Levin wrote in her exquisite inquiry into whether the universe is infinite or finite. “The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.” How, then, do we set aside this instinctual absurdity in order to grapple with the concept of infinity, which pushes our creaturely powers of comprehension past their limit so violently?

That’s what the mathematician and writer Lillian R. Lieber (July 26, 1886–July 11, 1986) set out to explore more than half a century earlier in the unusual and wonderful 1953 gem Infinity: Beyond the Beyond the Beyond (public library) — one of seventeen marvelous books she published in her hundred years, inviting the common reader into science with uncommon ingenuity and irresistible warmth. Emanating from Lieber’s discussion of infinity is a larger message about what it means, and what it takes, to be a finite but complete and balanced human being.

Lillian R. Lieber

Lieber belongs to the “enchanter” category of great writers and was among the first generation of women mathematicians to hold academic positions in her role chairing the Department of Mathematics at Long Island University. She had a peculiar style resembling poetry, though she insisted it was not free verse but, rather, a deliberate way of breaking lines in order to speed up reading and intensify comprehension. (Curiously, I find her style to have precisely the opposite effect, which is why I’ve enjoyed it so tremendously — it does what poetry does, which is slow down the spinning world and dilate the pupil of attention so that the infinite becomes comprehensible.)

Populating her books is the character of T.C. Mits, “the Celebrated Man-in-the-Street,” and his mate, Wits, “the Woman-in-the-Street.” Accompanying Lieber’s writing are original line drawings by her own mate, the illustrator Hugh Gray Lieber.

Lieber’s work was so influential in elevating the popular science genre that even Albert Einstein himself heartily praised her book on relativity, yet many of her books have fallen out of print — no doubt because the depth, complexity, and visionary insurgency of her style don’t conform to the morass of formulaic mediocrity passing for popular science writing today.

Lieber frames the premise of Infinity in the charming opening verse — or, as she insisted, decidedly not-verse — of the second chapter:

Of course you know that
the Infinite
is a subject which
has always been of the deepest interest
to all people —
to the religious,
to poets,
to philosophers,
to mathematicians,
as well as to
T.C. Mits
(The Celebrated Man-in-the-Street)
and to his mate,
Wits
(the Woman-in-the-Street).
And it probably interests you,
or you would not be reading this book.

But it is in the first chapter, titled “Our Good Friend, Sam,” that Lieber’s genius for science, metaphor, and wordplay shines most brilliantly as she takes on everything from the symbiotic relationship between art and science to free will to the vital difference between common sense and truth to the evils of antisemitism and all exclusionary ideologies. (It is self-evident to point out that Lieber, a Jewish woman writing shortly after WWII in a climate of acute antisemitism and sexism, was, like any artist, bringing all of herself to her art.)

Lieber writes:

For those who have not met SAM before,
I wish to summarize
VERY BRIEFLY
what his old acquaintances
may already know,
and then to tell to all of you
MORE about him.
In the first place,
the name “SAM”
was first derived from
Science, Art, Mathematics;
but I now find
the following interpretation
much more helpful:
the “S” stands for
OUR CONTACT WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD;
please note that
I do NOT say
that “S” represents “facts” or “reality”,
for
the only knowledge we can have of
the outside world
is through our own senses or
“extended” senses —
like microscopes and telescopes et al
which help us to see better,
or radios, etc., which
help us to hear sounds
which we would otherwise
not be aware of at all,
and so on and so on.

But of course
there may be
many, many more things
in the world
which we do not yet perceive
either directly through our senses
or with the aid of
our wonderful inventions.
And so it would be
Quite arrogant
to speak as if we knew
what the outside world “really” is.
That is why I wish to give to “S”
the more modest interpretation
and emphasize that
it represents merely
that PART of the OUTSIDE world
which we are able to contact, —
and therefore even “S” has
a “human” element in it.

Next:
the “A” in SAM represents
our INTUITION,
our emotions, —
loves, hates, fears, etc. —
and of course is also
a “human” element.

And the “M” represents
our ability to draw inferences,
and hence includes
mathematics, logic, “common sense”,
and other ways in which
we mentally derive the “consequences”
before they hit us.
So the “M” too is
a “human” element.

Thus SAM is entirely human
though not an individual human being.

Furthermore,
a Scientist utilizes the SAM within him,
for he must make
“observations” (“S”),
he must use his “intuition” (“A”)
to help him formulate
a good set of basic postUlates,
from which his “reasoning powers” (“M”)
will then help him to
derive conclusions
which in turn must again be
“tested” (“S” again!) to see
if they are “correct”.

Perhaps you are thinking that
SAM and the Scientist
are really one and the same,
and that all I am doing is
to recommend that we all become
Scientists!
But you will soon see that
this is not the case at all.
For,
in the first place,
it too often happens, —
alas and alack! —
that when a Scientist is
not actually engaged in doing
his scientific work,
he may “slip” and not use
his “S”, his “A”, and his “M”,
so carefully,
will bear watching,
like the rest of us.

In a sentiment which physicist and poet Alan Lightman would come to echo decades later in his beautiful meditation on the creative sympathies of art and science, Lieber adds:

So, you see,
being a SAMite and being a Scientist
are NOT one and the same.

Besides,
a SAMite may not be a Scientist at all,
but an Artist!
For an Artist, too, must use
his “S” in order to “observe” the world,
his “A” (“intuition”) to sense
some basic ways to translate his
“observations”,
and his “M”
to derive his “results” in the form of
drawings, music, and so on.
Thus an Artist, too,
WHEN AT HIS BEST,
is a SAMite.

Perhaps Lieber’s most interesting, layered, and timelessly relevant discussion is of the concept of freedom, its misconceptions and mutations, and its implication for our private, public, and political lives:

Now consider a person
who is SOMETIMES or OFTEN like this:
SaM.
He is evidently relying very heavily on
his “intuition”, his “hunches”, his “emotions”,
hardly checking to see whether
the “observations” of the outside world (“S”)
and his own reasoning powers (“M”)
show his “hunch” to be correct or not!
And so,
precious as our “intuition” may be,
it can go terribly “haywire”
if not checked and double-checked
by “S” and “M”.
Thus, a person who
habitually behaves like this
is allowing his “S” and “M” to
become practically atrophied,
and is the wild, “over-emotional” type,
who is not only a nuisance to have around,
but is hurting himself and
not allowing himself to become
adjusted to the world he lives in.
Such a person,
with an exaggerated “A”,
and atrophied “S” and “M”,
has a feeling of “freedom”,
of not being held down by “S” and “M”
(“facts” and “reason”) ;
but, as you can easily see
this makes for Anarchy,
for a lack of “self-control” —
and can lead
to fatty degeneration from
feeling “free” to eat all he wants;
to the D.T.’s from
feeling “free” to drink all he wants;
to accidents because
he feels “free” to drive as fast as he wants
and to “hog” the road;
to a sadistic lack of
consideration for others
by feeling “free” to
kick them in the teeth for “nuttin'”;
to antisocial “black market” practices
from a similar feeling of “freedom”,
giving “free” reign to the “A”
without the necessary consideration of “facts” (“S”) and “reason” (“M”).
Needless to say this is a
PATHOLOGICAL FREEDOM
as against
a NORMAL, HEALTHY FREEDOM of
the well-balanced SAM
which is so necessary in society
in which EACH individual
must be guided by the SAM within himself
in order to avoid conflict with
the SAM in someone else.
This is something that
a bully does not understand —
that if he acts like a pathological sAm,
he induces sAmite-ism in others,
as in mob violence;
this is indeed a horrible “ism”
that can destroy a society as well as
individuals in it.

Lieber proceeds to build on this taxonomy of psychological imbalances, reminiscent of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal ‘s taxonomy of the “diseases of the will.” She turns to the next imbalance — the person blinded by isolated facts, unable to integrate them into an understanding of the big picture:

Similarly,
there is the Sam type:
he may be called the “tourist” type —
running around seeing this and that
but without the “imagination” (“A”)
or the reasoning power (“M”)
to put his observations together
with either heart (“A”) or mind (“M”),
but is concerned only with
ISOLATED BITS OF INFORMATION:
he is like the man who,
seeing a crowd had gathered,
wanted to know what happened.
and, when someone told him
“Ein Mann hat sich dem Kopf zerbrochen”
(It happened to be in Germany),
corrected the speaker’s grammar
and said “DEN Kopf!”
He knew his bit of grammar,
but what an inadequate reaction
under the circumstances.
don’t you think?

Next comes the flawed rationalizer, who misuses the tools of logic against reason:

And there is also the saM type —
one who can reason (“M”)
but starts with perhaps
some postulate (“A”) favoring murder.
Such a man would make
a wonderfully “rational”
homicidal maniac or crook
who could plan you a murder
calmly and rationally enough
to surprise any who are not familiar with
this sAM type of pathological case.

Lieber returns to the core purpose of her SAM metaphor and its relationship to the central question of the book:

Thus SAM gives us a way of
examining our own behavior
and that of others,
taking into account the “facts” (“S”),
and using imagination and sympathy (“A”)
in a rational way (“M”).

Are you perhaps thinking,
“Well, this may be interesting,
but
why all this talk about SAM,
when you are writing a book about
Infinity?”
To which the answer is:
The yearning for Infinity,
for Immortality,
is an “intuitive” yearning (“A”):
we look for support for it
in the physical world (“S”),
we try to reason about it (“M”), —
but only when we turn
the full light of SAM upon it
are we able to make
genuine progress in considering
Infinity.

In a brilliant and necessary caveat reminiscent of mathematician Kurt Gödel’s world-changing incompleteness theorems, which unsettled some of our most elemental assumptions by demonstrating the limits of logic turned unto itself, Lieber adds:

There is only one more point
I must make here:
Namely, that
even being a well-balanced
SAMite —
and not a pathological anti-SAMite
like SAM, etc. etc. —
is NECESSARY but NOT SUFFICIENT.
You will probably agree that
it is further necessary
to have our SAM up-to-date.
For he is a GROWING boy,
and what was good enough for him in 1800
is utterly inadequate in 1953;
and unless the “S” is up-to-date
and the postulates (“A”)
and reasoning (“M”)
are appropriately MODERN,
we cannot make proper
ADJUSTMENT in the world TODAY.
And ADJUSTMENT is what we must have.
For adjustment means
SURVIVAL,
and that is a MINIMUM demand —
for, without survival
we need not bother to study anything
we just won’t be here to tell the tale.

In a passage of piercing pertinence today, as we watch various oppressive ideologies and tyrannical regimes engulf the globe, Lieber concludes by returning to the subject of freedom, its malformations, and its redemptions:

And so let me summarize
by saying that the
ANTI-SAMITES
hurt not only themselves,
by getting “ulcers”, nervous breakdowns,
drinking excessively, etc. etc.,
but hurt others also,
for from their ranks are recruited
those who advocate war and destruction,
the homicidal maniacs, the greedy crooks,
the gamblers, the drunken drivers,
the liars, et al.

[…]

Just a word more about
FREEDOM —
you have seen above
the pathological idea of freedom,
but when you consider this important concept
from SAM’s WEll-BALANCED viewpoint,
you will see that,
from this point of view,
the “feeling” of freedom (“A”),
being supported on one side by “S”
(the “facts” of the outside world),
and on the other by “M”
(“sweet reasonableness”) —
is definitely NOT the
ANARCHICAL freedom of SAM,
but is a sort of
CONTROLLED FREEDOM —
controlled by facts and reason
and is therefore SELF-controlled
(by the SAM within us)
and hence implies
VOLUNTARY COOPERATION rather than FORCE.
Thus anyone who demands
“freedom unlimited” as his right,
is a pathological SAM,
a destructive creature;
whereas,
in mathematics
you will find the
CONTROLLED FREEDOM of SAM
and you will feel refreshed to see
how genuine progress can be made
with this kind of freedom.

Infinity: Beyond the Beyond the Beyond is a thoroughly magnificent read in its totality. Pair it with the lovely children’s book Infinity and Me, then complement this particular fragment with Simone de Beauvoir, writing shortly before Lieber, on art, science, and freedom, and James Baldwin, writing shortly thereafter, on freedom and how we imprison ourselves.

HT Natalie Wolchover

BP

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