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Hello, Peter Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Hermann Hesse on why we read and always will, John Cage's love letters, artist Lia Halloran's beautiful cyanotype tribute to women in astronomy, Anne Lamott on the life-expanding power of great teachers, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
There is a kind of loneliness that lodges itself in the psyche and never fully leaves, a loneliness most anguishing not in solitude but in companionship and amid the crowd. If solitude fertilizes the imagination, loneliness vacuums it of vitality and sands the baseboards of the spirit with the scratchy restlessness of longing — for connection, for communion, for escape. And yet it is out of this restlessness that so many great works of art are born.
“We have all known the long loneliness,” Dorothy Day wrote, but some — artists, perhaps — know it more intimately than others and few artists have articulated this knowledge with more stunning and stirring lucidity than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). Loneliness permeates A Writer’s Diary (public library) — that abiding source of Woolf’s wisdom on such varied dimensions of existence as the paradoxes of aging, the elasticity of time, the key to lasting relationships, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary. In fact, it is precisely the transmutation of loneliness into connection to with the universal human experience that lends Woolf’s writing its timeless penetrative power.
Virginia Woolf (Photography: George Charles Beresford)
In the late summer of 1928, a month before the publication of Orlando subverted stereotypes and revolutionized culture, 44-year-old Woolf found herself grappling once more with the yin-yang of loneliness and creation. In a diary entry penned at Monk’s House — the countryside cottage she and her husband had bought in Sussex a decade earlier, where she crafted some of her most beloved works — she writes:
Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary … of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.
Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf
The following fall, thirteen days before the publication of A Room of One’s Own — that ultimate paean to the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality — Woolf revisits the subject in her diary, contemplating the strange ways in which we deny or confer validity upon our loneliness. Loneliness, after all, is an interior chill independent of externalities and often thrives precisely when our circumstances appear most enviable to the outside world — a warping of reality that is itself intensely, almost unbearably real. Woolf writes:
These October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence. What I mean by this last word I don’t quite know, since I have never stopped “seeing” people… No, it’s not physical silence; it’s some inner loneliness.
And yet for Woolf, this lonely silence is inseparable from the creative impulse. Half a century before Adrienne Rich asserted that “the impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Woolf illustrates this nuanced feeling with a lived example:
I was walking up Bedford Place is it — the straight street with all the boarding houses this afternoon — and I said to myself spontaneously, something like this. How I suffer. And no one knows how I suffer, walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby [Woolf’s brother] died — alone; fighting something alone. But then I had the devil to fight, and now nothing. And when I come indoors it is all so silent — I am not carrying a great rush of wheels in my head — yet I am writing… And it is autumn; and the lights are going up… and this celebrity business is quite chronic — and I am richer than I have ever been — and bought a pair of earrings today — and for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine. On the whole, I do not much mind; because what I like is to flash and dash from side to side, goaded on by what I call reality. If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains — of unrest or rest or happiness or discomfort — I should float down into acquiescence. Here is something to fight; and when I wake early I say to myself Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world… Anything is possible. And this curious steed, life, is genuine. Does any of this convey what I want to say? But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all.
A Writer’s Diary remains one of the most psychologically insightful and beautifully crafted packets of human thought and feeling ever bound between two covers. Complement this particular portion with Sara Maitland on how to be alone without being lonely and David Whyte on the transfiguration of aloneness, then revisit Woolf on why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind and her electrifying account of the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.
Hermann Hesse called trees “the most penetrating of preachers.” Three centuries earlier, a forgotten English gardener asserted that they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”
Perhaps because trees are the oldest living things in the world, they have permeated our ancient mythology and our scientific sensemaking. More than a beautiful metaphor for life and death, trees have even saved our lives and, in inspired moments, we have saved theirs.
In Strange Trees and the Stories Behind Them (public library), French author Bernadette Pourquié and illustrator Cécile Gambini choreograph an illustrated tour of the world’s greatest arboreal wonders, from species that have witnessed the dinosaurs roam this Earth to exotic marvels like Brazil’s “Walking Tree” (Red Mangrove) and the Philippines’ “Rainbow Tree” (Mindanao gum tree) to underappreciated procurers of human delights, such as the sapodilla tree that gives us chewing gum and the cocoa tree without which there would be no chocolate.
Rainbow Tree (Mindanao gum tree)
Ghost Tree (Davida)
Walking Tree (red mangrove)
Chewing Gum Tree (sapodilla)
Bottle Tree (Brachychiton rupestris)
Alongside each imaginative illustration, partway between botany and fairy tale, is a one-page autobiography of the respective tree, describing its natural and cultural habitat in a short first-person story fusing curious science facts, history, and local customs.
Chocolate Tree (cacao tree)
Don’t worry about getting bonked on the bean with a pod: cocoa trees don’t lose their seed pods, even when ripe. They dry up, unless, of course, a hungry parrot happens by.
I hope you didn’t forget your adventurer’s cooking kit: a club, a banana tree leaf, an oven, some rocks, and a healthy dose of patience.
Smash three pods with your club and save one hundred seeds to make about four ounces of chocolate. Let them ferment for a week, and a white pulp will seep out. Next, let them dry on a banana tree leaf for two weeks, stirring them frequently: you’ll get brown cocoa “beans.” Now break open their shells, wash them, and roast them for twenty to thirty minutes at 215 to 285 degrees Fahrenheit. Then crush them over heat with rocks. Now you have “cocoa paste,” from which you can make chocolate.
Complement the wonderful Strange Trees with this photographic tour of the world’s oldest living trees, the heartening story of how Marianne Moore saved a majestic elm with a poem, and the philosophical and uncommonly poetic Japanese pop-up book Little Tree.
Illustrations courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
In 1990, a promising law student and writer not yet thirty was elected as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. His editorial work for the journal impressed the publishers of the The New York Times imprint into offering him a book deal and so began his quest to capture “the fissures of race … as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — that mark our modern life.”
That young man was Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) and that manuscript became his lucid and lyrical memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library).
A beautiful writer with an unmistakable voice, Obama reflects on the extremes of ambition and self-doubt familiar to writers, all the more amplified by youth:
Like most first-time authors, I was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication — hope that the book might succeed beyond my youthful dreams, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying. The reality fell somewhere in between.
It wasn’t until Obama had ascended in the political realm, more than a decade later, that his potent and poetic writing garnered the attention which its creative merit warrants. (I am reminded here of Hermann Hesse’s wonderfully prescient wisdom on publishing: “That stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.”) But his mother, Stanley Ann — one of the most captivating presences in the book — didn’t live to savor her son’s success. She had died of cancer, “with a brutal swiftness,” a few months after the book’s publication.
Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack
And yet it was she who had taught Obama about what would become the greatest guiding force of his life — the power of love, not only in the impersonally interpersonal political sense of building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “experiment in love,” but in its most personal manifestation between two human beings who have chosen each other as partners in every dimension of life, the trying and the triumphant, and continue to choose each other every day of their lives.
In one of the most moving passages in the book, Obama tells the story of how his parents got together — an anecdote his mother once relayed, which illustrates the wonderfully imperfect yet unconditional nature of real love. He writes:
She sighed, running her hands through her hair. “We were so young, you know. I was younger than you are now. He was only a few years older than that…”
She stopped and laughed to herself. “Did I ever tell you that he was late for our first date? He asked me to meet him in front of the university library at one. When I got there he hadn’t arrived, but I figured I’d give him a few minutes. It was a nice day, so I laid out on one of the benches, and before I knew it I had fallen asleep. Well, an hour later — an hour! — he shows up with a couple of his friends. I woke up and the three of them were standing over me, and I heard your father saying, serious as can be, ‘You see, gentlemen. I told you that she was a fine girl, and that she would wait for me.’”
Embedded in the story is a broader meditation on time, the universality of the human experience, and what we each most long for as we surrender, often with enormous resistance and at the price of great discomfort, to love:
My mother laughed once more, and once again I saw her as the child she had been. Except this time I saw something else: In her smiling, slightly puzzled face, I saw what all children must see at some point if they are to grow up — their parents’ lives revealed to them as separate and apart, reaching out beyond the point of their union or the birth of a child, lives unfurling back to grandparents, great-grandparents, an infinite number of chance meetings, misunderstandings, projected hopes, limited circumstances. My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives. The innocence she carried that day, waiting for my father, had been tinged with misconceptions, her own needs. But it was a guileless need, one without self-consciousness, and perhaps that’s how any love begins, impulses and cloudy images that allow us to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, are finally transformed into something firmer. What I heard from my mother that day, speaking about my father, was … the love of someone who knows your life in the round, a love that will survive disappointment. She saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she had tried to help the child who never knew him see him in the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.
Obama began writing this memoir the summer he met the love of his own life, 25-year-old Michelle Robinson. The two were married three years later and he soon came to echo what his mother’s story had taught him about love in articulating his own experience of that supreme human gift. In 1996, when Obama was still unsure of whether he would pursue a political career or become a writer, photographer Mariana Cook — who would later come to photograph some of the world’s greatest human rights leaders — visited Barack and Michelle Obama in their Chicago home as part of a project exploring coupledom in America.
Barack and Michelle Obama, 1996 (Photograph: Mariana Cook)
Cook conducted a short interview with the future President and First Lady, in which 35-year-old Obama reflects on the mystery and magnetism of his love for his wife:
Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she’s walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her.
Echoing Virginia Woolf’s abiding wisdom on the “moments of vision” that make relationships last, he adds:
What sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.
Dreams from My Father is a tremendously beautiful and insightful read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Tom Stoppard’s perfect definition of love, Frida Kahlo on how love amplifies the beauty of the other, and Anna Dostoyevsky on the secret to a happy marriage, then revisit philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.
As a teenager, long before he became a pioneering biochemist, Erwin Chargaff (August 11, 1905–June 20, 2002) learned English from two women who ran a small school in his native Vienna. This fortuitous skill would later save his life. The year of his thirtieth birthday, Chargaff was offered a research position at Columbia University in New York, which he was able to take largely because he spoke English. “I was afraid of going to a country that was younger than most of Vienna’s toilets,” he would later recount. But there was something far more sinister to fear — the confluence of chance and choice that landed Chargaff in America spared him from the grim fate that befell his loved ones in Europe. His mother and sister — his only remaining family after his father’s untimely death — were among the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis.
As he witnessed from afar the inhumanity that made his homeland “tumble into the deepest abyss ever to engulf a civilized people,” Chargaff sought solace and meaning outside the human realm and immersed himself in science. He went on to discover base-pairing — a principle instrumental in identifying the double helix structure of DNA and thus a centerpiece of our understanding of genetics.
But Chargaff was also an extraordinary writer — not only an eloquent explainer and champion of science, but a lyrical memoirist and an incisive, erudite philosophical thinker. A master of what could best be described as biopoetics, he writes with infectious wonderment and tenderness about nature and human nature, about knowledge and mystery, about the electrifying joy of slicing through the darkness of being with the luminous saber of curiosity.
His 1978 autobiography, Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature (public library), is one of the finest books I’ve ever read, on par with Oliver Sacks’s On the Move. In reflecting on his own life, Chargaff speaks not only to what it means to be a scientist and how science in its highest form is done, but also to what it means to be human and what it takes to persevere on our most perennial quest — to understand reality and make sense of our place in it.
The discovery of this uncommonly wonderful book is a supreme testament to my longtime assertion, only half-facetious, that literature is the original internet: A passing mention in an interview with trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin in a forgotten book “hyperlinked” me to the autobiography of the great mathematician Mark Kac, in which he extols Chargaff’s as the gold standard for a scientist’s autobiography. The praise is more than merited, and anything said about the book here or anywhere is bound to belie its true splendor, which comes alive only with reading. The pages of this small, enormous book radiate layered and beautifully articulated wisdom on the many strands of life — psychology, philosophy, politics — absolutely inseparable, yet artificially segregated, from science.
From the fortunate and far-seeing platform of seven decades of life, Chargaff writes:
I came to biochemistry through chemistry; I came to chemistry … partly through the youthfully romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditius, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.
Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd
Nearly half a century before physicist Sean Carroll coined his beautiful notion of poetic naturalism, Chargaff considers the historical development of our quest to know reality:
It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature — or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists — has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, “for closer inspection,” from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.
In the same era that Buckminster Fuller made his case for the genius of generalists, Chargaff speaks to the immense yet endangered value of a robust and indiscriminate curiosity in grasping the big picture:
Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled.
Writing a few years after Hannah Arendt’s timeless meditation on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning, Chargaff considers the cause and the consequence of this artificial fragmentation of curiosity:
It is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is also being forgotten… These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature. Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored. It is true, when one’s reason runs a fever, one believes, as in a dream, that this understanding can be grasped; but when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with are litanies of shallowness.
Illustration from a 1967 children’s adaptation of Micromégas, Voltaire’s timeless parable about the redemptive power of critical thinking
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Susanne Langer’s ideas on how our question shape our answers and direct our orientation of mind, Chargaff adds:
In our time, so-called laws of nature are being fabricated on the assembly line. But how often is the regularity of these “laws of nature” only the reflection of the regularity of the method employed in their formation! … Science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification.
He considers how science is done (in the era’s gendered language on which Ursula K. Le Guin has made the finest, sharpest comment there is):
For a scientific concept to be formulated successfully, a concerted interaction of many requisites must occur. First of all, the right [person] must ask himself the right question. This may well be a random event that occurs much more often than we are aware… Less fortuitously, this [person] must find an audience, i.e., he must be able to publish and to find readers; and this may not have been so easy even in the bucolic days of the last century. But, most importantly, the times must be ripe for both question and answer.
Echoing Saul Bellow’s assertion that “only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world” and reminding us, half a century after Bertrand Russell did, of the value of critical thinking in accepting interpretations of reality, Chargaff writes:
If art represents the highest form of reality that man — or at least modern secular man — is capable of attaining, the many instances in which great creations were rejected initially, and often with incredible malice, show how reluctant we are to grasp reality. We accept only what has been predigested for us by the so-called tastemakers; but this is then a spurious reality.
“Beams of Light Through Glass,” one of Berenice Abbott’s vintage science-inspired photographs of natural phenomena
Considering the different ways in which art, science, and spirituality explain reality, Chargaff cautions against the blinders with which specialization obscures the full scope of reality:
Our understanding of the world is built up of innumerable layers. Each layer is worth exploring, as long as we do not forget that it is one of many. Knowing all there is to be known about one layer — a most unlikely event — would not teach us much about the rest. The integration of the enormous number of bits of information and the resulting vision of nature take place in our minds; but the human mind is easily deceived and confused, and the vision of nature changes every few generations. It is, in fact, the intensity of the vision that counts more heavily than its completeness or its correctness. I doubt that there is such a thing as a correct view of nature, unless the rules of the game are stated clearly. Undoubtedly, there will later be other games and other rules.
With a concerned eye toward the discouragement of curiosity-driven research by the institutions of modern science — a concern that has only swelled in urgency in the decades since — Chargaff writes:
When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published — and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print — I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goal-directed attitude had prevailed.
Decades before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser made his elegant case for how to accommodate mystery in the conquest of knowledge, Chargaff considers the true measure of science:
It would seem to me that man cannot live without mysteries. One could say, the great biologists worked in the very light of darkness.
What is success in science? Illuminated darkness is not light. We find ourselves in the cavern of limitless possibilities. Take a flashlight with you, and you may find you are only in a lumber room. If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it. Uncertainty is the salt of life.
Chargaff reflects on how the allure of uncertainty animated his own foray into science:
What I remember of my beginnings is the truly lyrical shudder with which I contemplated nature. I am not sure that I even knew what I meant by nature. It was the blood and the bones of the universe, its dawn and dusk, flowering and decay, firmament and graveyard. The alterations of the spiritual and the material tides, the oscillations between future and past, the mysterious fates of everlasting stone and short-lived fly: they filled me with admiration and reverence. Nature, it seemed to me, was almost the entire non-I, the entire non-small-boy… A small boy begins by being unable to explain the explainable, but when he grows old he often looks away from what cannot be explained. I am grateful that fate has preserved me from this form of blindness. Surrounded by a surfeit of solved riddles, I am still struck by how little we understand.
Illustration from The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina, a picture-book biography of the pioneering Persian polymath
In a sentiment of supreme pertinence to our present struggle to wrest wisdom from the age of information, Chargaff echoes Thoreau’s insistence on the value of not-knowing and adds:
I would not go so far as to claim that knowledge and wisdom are mutually exclusive; but they are far from being communicating vessels, and the level of one has no bearing on that of the other. More people have gained wisdom from unknowledge, which is not the same as ignorance, than from knowledge.
Returning to his formative years, he considers once again the different paths to wisdom, those different modes of illuminating reality:
Should I not have thought of becoming a painter or a poet? But I was entirely ungifted for the first and not courageous enough for the second… I was a monad searching for a destiny that did not exist… What I had at the time — and it has never left me — was a dream of reality that we could only touch tangentially, an awe of the numinous of nature whose power rested in its very unattainability. It was a feeling for the necessity of darkness in the life of man. In the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicts the creation of man, God’s finger and that of Adam are separated by a short space. That distance I called eternity; and there, I felt, I was sent to travel.
That this may be a voyage without a destination was no concern of mine … Only the road counted, not the goal… When I floated into science, a naive young man could still imagine that he was devoting himself to the study of nature… For me nature has still remained a synonym for the highest form of reality.
Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas
Radiating from his recollection is a sublime definition of what makes a scientist:
The feeling that there is always more than he can find, that he is only pulling shreds out of an unfathomable continuum, forms part of my definition of scientist.
It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If he has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense, invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist. The blacker the night, the brighter the light.
Heraclitean Fire is a book so magnificent as to make it almost criminal that commercial forces have swept it out of print. Perhaps a publisher who prioritizes cultural stewardship over such forces will take mercy on this forgotten treasure and bring it back to life.