Harriet Hosmer on Art and Ambition: The World’s First Successful Woman Sculptor on What It Takes to Be a Great Artist


“If one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount… the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement. The only remedy I know is patience with perseverance, and these are always sure, with a real honest love for art, to produce something.”


Harriet Hosmer on Art and Ambition: The World’s First Successful Woman Sculptor on What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

A steamboat is puffing up the Mississippi River, approaching a bluff towering above the shore, not far from where a steamboat pilot named Samuel Clemens would pick up his pen name Mark Twain a decade later. Bored and brazen, the young men aboard boast that they can reach the top of the bluff. One scoffs that if women weren’t such poor climbers, the ladies in the party could join them.

Harriet Hosmer thrusts her hands into her pockets and a mischievous smile lifts her chin as she proposes a foot race, wagering that she can reach the summit before any of the boys. A spectator to the scene would later remember her as “a gay, romping, athletic schoolgirl.” The captain, amused, banks the boat, and off they all go. Harriet — Hatty to those who love her — slices through changing altitudinal zones of vegetation up the five hundred feet of elevation above the river, dashing through the virgin pine forest, charging through the bramble, and scrambling up the jagged rock to triumph first atop the summit, waving a victorious handkerchief.

The captain, with amusement transmuted into astonishment, christens the bluff Mount Hosmer — a name it bears to this day.

This is not Harriet Hosmer’s first triumph against expectation and convention, and it is far from her last.

Harriet Hosmer

At twenty-one, she has given herself the Mississippi River adventure as a small summer reward for having completed her anatomical studies — a centerpiece of her plan, as confident and single of purpose as her climbing wager, to become a sculptor. Packed in her trunk is a diploma from the medical school of St. Louis University. The year is 1851. An American university attended by men is not to officially begin admitting women for decades to come.

Harriet Hosmer (October 9, 1830–February 21, 1908) — one of the key figures in Figuring (public library), from which this essay is adapted — would go on to become the world’s first successful female sculptor and one of the most celebrated sculptors since ancient Greece, a neoalchemist who invents a process for transmuting cheap limestone into precious marble, a Pygmalion of her own destiny. She would break new ground for women, claim a place for American art in the Old World pantheon, model for artists a life of self-made prosperity and uncompromising creative vision, and furnish queer culture with a bold new vocabulary of being.

“Hosmer and Her Men” – a photograph Hosmer and her workmen, which she originally commissioned and titled with the intention of giving it away to friends as a joke.

The autumn after her Mississippi River adventure, as she was growing disillusioned with America’s rampant commercialism so dispiriting to artists and troubled by her culture’s limited opportunities for women, Hosmer met the expatriate Charlotte Cushman — the most prominent American actress of her time — who was visiting Boston as part of her farewell tour of the United States before settling permanently in Italy. Enchanted by Cushman’s tales of Rome, with its thriving creative world and its lively community of expats and queer artists, Hosmer made another radical decision that would shape her life: She would move to Rome to apprentice with one of the great masters.

Four weeks before her departure, she wrote in a letter to her early patron, father of her beloved — Cornelia Carr — and a father figure to Hatty herself:

You do not know how thoroughly dissatisfied I am with my present mode of life. I ought to be accomplishing thrice as much as now, and feel that I am soul-bound and thought-bound in this land of dollars and cents. I take it there is inspiration in the very atmosphere of Italy, and that there, one intuitively becomes artistic in thought. Could the government of this country and its glorious privileges be united with the splendors of art in Italy, that union would produce terrestrial perfection… My motto is going to be, “Live well, do well, and all will be well.”

Just before her twenty-second birthday, Harriet packed the diploma of her anatomical studies and two daguerreotypes of her first acclaimed statue, inspired by a Tennyson poem and modeled on Cornelia — a bust of Hesper, the evening star from Greek mythology — and sailed for Europe with her father, who was to help her settle in. Upon her arrival, Hosmer pursued what she considered “the dearest wish” of her heart: studying with the great English sculptor John Gibson — the unofficial king of Rome’s expatriate artist community, himself trained by the pioneering neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.

Gibson had many applicants, but had accepted none when another sculptor approached him on Hosmer’s behalf and showed him the daguerreotype of Hesper. Gibson’s oft-cited response might be the ornament of early florid biographies, or it might be the simple fact of the occasion: “Send the young lady to me, — whatever I can teach her, she shall learn.” Whatever Gibson said, what he did remains indisputable: He took on Harriet as his sole student, gave her the room in his studio where Canova had previously worked, and immersed her in attentive mentorship, extolling to anyone who would listen her “vast degree of native genius.” He gave her books, casts, and engravings to study and assigned her sculptures to copy in perfecting her craft. Hosmer took to it all with indefatigable enthusiasm and work ethic. She wrote to Cornelia’s father:

One must have great patience in matters of art, it is so very difficult, and excellence in it is only the result of long time… Oh, if one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount, the amount of different kinds of study necessary, before he can see the path even beginning to open before him, the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement. The only remedy I know is patience with perseverance, and these are always sure, with a real honest love for art, to produce something.

Rome became Hosmer’s sandbox of self-invention. It offered the strange alchemy by which we transmute our former selves — barely recognizable in their different bodies and different minds holding different ideas, values, and beliefs — into the fleeting constellation of what we so confidently claim as a solid self at this particular moment. The chain of umbilical cords by which one self gives birth to another again and again at once fetters us to our past and liberates us into a novel future. That chain is invisible, except for the rare moments when we feel it tug on the confident present self with its formidable weight. With an eye to her teenage days near Boston, Hosmer wrote to Cornelia:

My life is so unlike what it was then. I think and feel so differently it seems to me I must have left my former body and found another… These changes make me feel twenty years older.

Meanwhile, her perseverance and devotion paid off. After a year of study with Gibson, she was ready to create her first original sculpture since Hesper — another bust of a woman drawn from ancient Greek mythology, loaded with meaning and layered with questions about women’s status, rights, and fate in a male-dominated society: Medusa.

According to the version of the Greek legend Hosmer chose, the beautiful Medusa was raped by the sea god Poseidon — a crime committed in the temple of Athena, for which the goddess of wisdom decided to dispense punishment. But in a subtle reminder that the writers of these myths were men, the jealous Athena, rather than punishing the rapist, punished Medusa for having attracted Poseidon’s attention — she transformed the lovely maiden into a gorgon so hideous that men turned to stone at the sight of her. In an era when statutory rape was almost impossible to prosecute in Hosmer’s homeland, where wives had no legal right to refuse sex to their husbands and legions of white men were raping black women with complete legal and societal impunity, her depiction of Medusa was a bold and prescient choice commenting on the gruesome deficiencies of a justice system that had failed to protect women since antiquity and a society in which victim-blaming has endured to the present day.

Harriet Hosmer: Medusa (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Medusa was a popular subject with the great masters, but she was customarily rendered in her monstrous form following Athena’s punishment. Hosmer chose to capture the moment of transfiguration — her bust, completed in 1854, depicts a proud and beautiful woman just as her hair is beginning to turn into serpents. She cast Medusa’s hair from a real snake captured in the wilderness outside Rome. But she didn’t have the heart to kill the serpent, so she anesthetized it with chloroform, made a cast by keeping it in plaster for three and a half hours, then released it back into the wild. Hosmer’s Medusa — her choice of subject matter, her atypical depiction, her treatment of the live serpent — embodies the complex relationship between agency, victimhood, and mercy made tangible.

The same year, Hosmer created another original sculpture animated by a similar subject: a bust of Daphne, the beautiful nymph who ran from Apollo’s lust and, in the final moment before being overtaken, was transformed into a laurel tree by her merciful father, the river god Ladon. Here was another woman who had to relinquish her womanhood and her very humanity in order to avoid the assailing ardor of unwanted male attention. In Hosmer’s marmoreal rendering, a Hesper-like Daphne glances downward with a subtle smile as a laurel branch curves beneath her bare breasts.

Harriet Hosmer’s bust of Daphne (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Her sculptures garnered acclaim unprecedented not only for someone so young and so female, but for any artist breaking new ground. Newspapers hailed her busts of Daphne and Medusa as “convincing proof of her genius and success.” The famed English actress Fanny Kemble wrote of Hosmer, whom she had befriended back in Massachusetts:

I think she will distinguish herself greatly, for she not only is gifted with an unusual artistic capacity, but she has energy, perseverance, and industry; attributes often wanting where genius exists…

Meanwhile, Gibson took care to vaccinate her against the inevitable dark side of success — the petty jealousies that always follow genius like a swarm of flies trailing behind an elephant. He gave the young artist advice she encoded into the marrow of her being:

There are many obstacles in the path to fame, but to surmount them, to produce fine works, we must have tranquillity of mind. Those who are envious cannot be happy, nor can the vicious. We must have internal peace, to give birth to beautiful ideas. I am glad that you feel impatient to begin your statue; that impatience is love, the love of the art. The more you feel it, the more is the soul inflamed with ambition, the ambition of excellence.

The statue she could hardly wait to begin would become her great masterpiece: Zenobia in Chains — an homage to another woman who has taken charge of her own destiny, and another poignant meditation on the relationship between victimhood and agency.

Zenobia was the third-century queen of the land that is now Syria — one of antiquity’s two famous female heads of state, far more politically ferocious than Cleopatra and ultimately far more tragic. Many centuries later, Margaret Fuller — who spent her own final and most fertile years in Rome — would write in her epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, perhaps with Zenobia in mind:

The presence of a woman on the throne always makes its mark. Life is lived before the eyes of men, by which their imaginations are stimulated as to the possibilities of Woman.

An erudite and intellectually ambitious woman who valued conquests of the mind as much as those of land, Zenobia cultivated a welcome atmosphere for scholars in her court and espoused equality within her dominion, where people of various ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds mingled. In the year 270, Zenobia led an invasion of the Roman Empire. She conquered the majority of the Roman East and annexed Egypt. Over the next two years, she continued extending her empire, which nonetheless remained under the nominal jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor, until she eventually declared complete secession. In the ensuing revolution, the Roman army prevailed after a bloody fight, capturing Zenobia and exiling her to Rome. Playing with the line between homage and refutation, Hosmer’s Zenobia presented an aesthetic parallel and a conceptual mirror image to the celebrated sculptor Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave, which depicted a feeble young nude about to be sold at auction. Powers’s choice to eroticize and glamorize subjugation is particularly perplexing, given that the sculptor himself was part Native American. His blockbuster statue was not without critics. Chief among them were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose poem “The Greek Slave” offered a counterpoint to Powers’s depiction of resigned passivity in the face of oppression, and John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who published a cartoon in the famed satirical magazine Puck, depicting a black woman on an auction block in the posture of the Powers statue under the caption “The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Powers’ Greek Slave.”

Unlike Powers’s helpless nude, Hosmer’s larger-than-life Zenobia — “of a size with which I might be compared as a mouse to a camel,” she wrote to Cornelia — depicts the captive queen, still in her regal robe and crown, as she is being paraded in the streets of Rome. One strong hand is holding up the chain hanging between her shackled wrists, as though willfully refraining from snapping the link and breaking free. Gazing down from her seven-foot stature, Zenobia’s intelligent face radiates complete composure — an unassailable dignity despite defeat, bolstered by the knowledge that she has fought for her values to the hilt.

Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains. Photograph by Skip Moss.

Hosmer deliberately subverted other popular depictions of the ancient queen. Five years earlier, just after his intense romance with Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne had woven into his novel The Blithedale Romance a character named Zenobia — an opinionated woman of brilliance and beauty, bedeviled by excessive pride, modeled on Margaret Fuller — a thankless portrayal of the woman who had launched his literary career with her own generous pen. His Zenobia eventually elects her own ruin and drowns herself. A more historically literal interpretation had appeared in another novel published when Hosmer was a child, the year her mother died. In it, the queen is eventually stripped of dignity and reduced to “Zenobia in ruins.”

Hosmer’s Zenobia, while in chains, was a woman of inextinguishable strength and moral triumph. A widely circulated praiseful review of the statue quoted Hosmer: “I have tried to make her too proud to exhibit passion or emotion of any kind; not subdued though a prisoner; but calm, grand, and strong within herself.” She had worked on her masterpiece for nearly three years. (“Nobody asks you how long you have been on a thing but fools,” Gibson had told her at the outset of her career, “and you don’t care what they think.”) But the success of the statue became a focal point of the professional jealousies that had been orbiting Hosmer’s rising star. An anonymous article in a London paper alleged that Zenobia was created by Harriet’s workmen and not by the sculptor herself. Another article insinuated that Gibson had sculpted it and let his pupil claim the credit. Hosmer didn’t hesitate to sue for libel. Corrections were printed. In the course of the lawsuit, it was revealed that the author of the malicious rumor was Joseph Mozier — another expatriate American sculptor, who had long harbored jealousy for the far more successful Hosmer and who had been particularly riled by her recent winning of the commission for a major monument to Thomas Hart Benton, the nation’s longest-serving senator.

“Harriet Hosmer at Work,” with her statue of Thomas Hart Benton.

Later, Hosmer — a prolific lifelong writer of satirical verses — would make light of the incident in a lengthy poem titled “The Doleful Ditty of the Roman Caffe Greco,” which includes these lines spoken by one of the pompous male patrons of the famed artists’ café:

’Tis time, my friends, we cogitate,
And make some desperate stand.
Or else our sister artists here
Will drive us from the land.

It does seem hard that we at last
Have rivals in the clay,
When for so many happy years
We had it all our way.

This dignity of self-possession against the status quo would always animate Hosmer’s work and the personal values from which she mined her marble. During one of her visits to America, campaigning for a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, she went to hear a sermon by Phebe Ann Hanaford — one of the nation’s first women ministers. Moved, Hosmer wrote to Hanaford, whom she saw as a spiritual artist:

I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up to be laughed at, if necessary. That is the bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning, but I regard these pills as tonics quite essential to one’s mental salvation.

Harriet Hosmer, studio portrait.

More of Hosmer’s unusual and trailblazing life — her visionary art, her beautiful and countercultural loves, her courage to be her own self in a culture that continually tyrannized with a single correct way of being and loving — unfolds in Figuring. Every woman artist born in the epochs since, every creative person who has carved out a purposeful life amid a culture where they are in any way “other,” every queer person who is comfortably out or benefits from living in a culture where there is hardly anything left to be “in,” is indebted to Harriet Hosmer — the bedrock of our being is marbled with the ancestral genes of hers.


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Giovanni's Room may be about white men, but prejudice is central to the story


James Baldwin’s story of David’s careless affair depends on discrimination just as much as the ‘negro problem’ novel his publisher wanted

When Knopf rejected Giovanni’s Room in 1956, the publisher told James Baldwin it was because he wasn’t “writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before”. While posterity has shown just how wrong they were to try to restrict Baldwin’s vision, they were also mistaken – for Baldwin was, in fact, writing about the same things.

Giovanni’s Room documents the experience of people who have faced prejudice, lived with the shame of being cast out of society, and whose very nature has put them in danger. You don’t need to know much about Baldwin to see how this book wasn’t a great departure. In the eyes of Knopf, his previous book, Go Tell It on the Mountain had focused on “the negro problem”; his new novel about white homosexuals, therefore, would ruin his reputation. But how America dealt with racism was connected to how it dealt with sexuality, in Baldwin’s mind: “The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined, you know. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality.”

Related: Giovanni’s Room shows the fearful side of dauntless James Baldwin

Continue reading…



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The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy


An incantation to “join the imperfect universe at peace with the disorder that orders.”


The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy

“We must be less than death to be lessened by it — for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves,” Emily Dickinson wrote of what she so stunningly termed “the drift called the infinite.” And yet we are, of course, less than death — we are inherently revocable, for death is the sole inevitability of life. For Dickinson, the irrevocability of human life was to be found in the living — in the truth and beauty we cast ourselves upon, in the loves we love. Amid a culture of extreme piousness, she rejected traditional religion and was only a child when she came to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. Soon, she would write in her love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” In a poem, she would proclaim that “Faith is Doubt.” A century before Simone de Beauvoir asserted that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly,” Dickinson intuited that religion’s claims of immortality don’t comport with the nature of existence, which inclines always and without exception toward nonexistence — a fact as true on the scale of the individual as it is on the scale of the species and the Solar System and even the universe itself: In another four billion years — just about as long as our planet has so far existed — our sun will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every poem we ever made — an entropic spectacle devoid of why.

Art by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

A century after Dickinson drifted into the infinite, another poet — perhaps more improbable, yet all the more insightful for his particular strain of improbability — suspended this eternal subject between poetic truth and scientific fact. In a poem titled “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics,” the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann — one of those rare working scientists who are also literary artists — addresses the human longing for permanence, and religion’s illusory assurances thereof, in a universe we know to be governed by impermanence and entropy.

Published in Hoffmann’s book Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — that unusual cross-genre, cross-disciplinary beauty featuring art by Vivian Torrence and a preface by Carl Sagan — the poem came alive at the second annual Universe in Verse in this charming and touching reading by musician and friend-of-science Sean Ono Lennon:

THE DEVIL TEACHES THERMODYNAMICS
by Roald Hoffmann

My second law, your second law, ordains
that local order, structures in space
and time, be crafted in ever-so-losing
contention with proximal disorder in
this neat but getting messier universe.
And we, in the intricate machinery of our
healthy bodies and life-support systems,
in the written and televised word do declare
the majesty of the zoning ordinances
of this Law. But oh so smart, we think
that we are not things, like weeds,
or rust, or plain boulders, and so
invent a reason for an eternal subsidy
of our perfection, or at least perfectibility,
give it the names of God or the immortal
soul. And while we allow the dissipations
that cannot be hid, like death, and — in literary
stances — even the end of love, we make
the others just plain evil: anger, lust,
pride — the whole lot of pimples of the spirit.
Diseases need vectors, so the old call
goes out for me. But the kicker is that the struts
of God’s stave church, those nice seven,
they’re such a tense and compressed support
group that when they get through you’re really
ready to let off some magma. Faith serves up
passing certitude to weak minds, recruits for
the cults, and too much of her is going to play
hell with that other grand invention
of yours, the social contract. Boring
Prudence hangs around with conservatives,
and Love, love you say! Love one, leave
out the others. Love them all, none will love
you. I tell you, friends, love is the greatest
entropy-increasing device invented by God.
Love is my law’s sweet man. And for God
himself, well, his oneness seems too
much for natural man to love, so he comes
up with Northern Irelands and Lebanons…

The argument to be made is not
for your run-of-the-mill degeneracy, my
stereotype. No, I want us to awake,
join the imperfect universe at peace with
the disorder that orders. For the cold
death sets in slowly, and there is time,
so much time, for the stars’ light to scatter
off the eddies of chance, into our minds,
there to build ever more perfect loves,
invisible cities, our own constellations.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse — the show I host each spring at Pioneer Works, celebrating science and reason through poetry and beauty — savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.


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Love and Saint Augustine: Hannah Arendt on the Relationship Between Desire, Fear, Time, Anxiety, and Happiness


“Fearlessness is what love seeks… Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… It is only by calling past and future into the present of remembrance and expectation that time exists at all. Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”


Love and Saint Augustine: Hannah Arendt on the Relationship Between Desire, Fear, Time, Anxiety, and Happiness

“Love, but be careful what you love,” the Roman African philosopher Saint Augustine wrote in the final years of the fourth century. We are, in some deep sense, what we love — we become it as much as it becomes us, beckoned from our myriad conscious and unconscious longings, despairs, and patterned desires. And yet there is something profoundly paradoxical about such an appeal to reason in the notion that we can exercise prudence in matters of love — to have loved is to have known the straitjacket of irrationality that slips over even the most willful mind when the heart takes over with its delicious carelessness.

How to heed Augustine’s caution, not by subjugating but by better understanding our experience of love, is what Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) explores in her least known but in many ways most beautiful work, Love and Saint Augustine (public library) — Arendt’s first book-length manuscript and the last to be published in English, posthumously salvaged from her papers by political scientist Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and philosopher Judith Chelius Stark.

Hannah Arendt (photograph by Fred Stein, 1944); Saint Augustine (painting by Gerard Seghers, circa 1600-1650.)

For half a century after she wrote it as her doctoral thesis in 1929 — a time when this apostle of reason, who would become one of the twentieth century’s keenest and most coolly analytical minds, was composing her fiery love letters to Martin Heidegger — Arendt obsessively revised and annotated the manuscript. Against Augustine’s whetstone, she came to hone her core philosophical ideas — chiefly the troublesome disconnect she saw between philosophy and politics as evidenced by the rise of ideologies like totalitarianism, the origins of which she so memorably and incisively examined. It was from Augustine that she borrowed the phrase amor mundi — “love of the world” — which would become a defining feature of her philosophy. Occupied by questions of why we succumb to and normalize evil, Arendt identified as the root of tyranny the act of making other human beings irrelevant. Again and again, she returned to Augustine for the antidote: love.

But while this ancient notion of neighborly love, which would come to inspire Martin Luther King, was central to Arendt’s philosophical concern and her interest in Augustine, its political significance is inseparable from the deepest wellspring of love: the personal. For all of the political and philosophical wisdom she draws from it, Augustine’s Confessions is animated by his experience of personal love — that eternal force that governs the Sun and the Moon and the stars of our interior lives, reflected and codified in our cultural and social structures.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

With an eye to Augustine’s conception of love as “a kind of craving” — the Latin appetitus, from which the word appetite is derived — and his assertion that “to love is indeed nothing else than to crave something for its own sake,” Arendt considers this directional desire propelling love:

Every craving is tied to a definite object, and it takes this object to spark the craving itself, thus providing an aim for it. Craving is determined by the definitely given thing it seeks, just as a movement is set by the goal toward which it moves. For, as Augustine writes, love is “a kind of motion, and all motion is toward something.” What determines the motion of desire is always previously given. Our craving aims at a world we know; it does not discover anything new. The thing we know and desire is a “good,” otherwise we would not seek it for its own sake. All the goods we desire in our questing love are independent objects, unrelated to other objects. Each of them represents nothing but its isolated goodness. The distinctive trait of this good that we desire is that we do not have it. Once we have the object our desire ends, unless we are threatened with its loss. In that case the desire to have turns into a fear of losing. As a quest for the particular good rather than for things at random, desire is a combination of “aiming at” and “referring back to.” It refers back to the individual who knows the world’s good and evil and seeks to live happily. It is because we know happiness that we want to be happy, and since nothing is more certain than our wanting to be happy, our notion of happiness guides us in determining the respective goods that then became objects of our desires. Craving, or love, is a human being’s possibility of gaining possession of the good that will make him happy, that is, of gaining possession of what is most his own.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss.

That is why a generous and unpossessive love — a love undiminished by the failure to attain the good for which it craves — can seem like a feat nothing short of superhuman. (“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me,” Arendt’s good friend and great admirer W.H. Auden wrote in his sublime ode to that superhuman triumph of the heart.) But a love predicated on possession, Arendt cautions, inevitably turns into fear — the fear of losing what was gained. Two millennia after Epictetus offered his cure for heartbreak in the acceptance that all things are perishable and therefore even love ought to be held with the loose fingers of nonattachment, Arendt — who notes Augustine’s debt to the Stoics — writes:

So long as we desire temporal things, we are constantly under this threat, and our fear of losing always corresponds to our desire to have. Temporal goods originate and perish independently of man, who is tied to them by his desire. Constantly bound by craving and fear to a future full of uncertainties, we strip each present moment of its calm, its intrinsic import, which we are unable to enjoy. And so, the future destroys the present.

Half a century after Tolstoy admonished that “future love does not exist [for] love is a present activity only,” Arendt adds:

The present is not determined by the future as such… but by certain events which we hope for or fear from the future, and which we accordingly crave and pursue, or shun and avoid. Happiness consists in possession, in having and holding our good, and even more in being sure of not losing it. Sorrow consists in having lost our good and in enduring this loss. However, for Augustine the happiness of having is not contrasted by sorrow but by fear of losing. The trouble with human happiness is that it is constantly beset by fear. It is not the lack of possessing but the safety of possession that is at stake.

Death, of course, is the ultimate loss — of love as well as life — and therefore the ultimate object of our future-oriented dread. And yet this escape from presence via the portal of anxiety — perhaps the commonest malady to which human beings are susceptible — is itself a living death. Arendt writes:

In their fear of death, those living fear life itself, a life that is doomed to die… The mode in which life knows and perceives itself is worry. Thus the object of fear comes to be fear itself. Even if we should assume that there is nothing to fear, that death is no evil, the fact of fear (that all living things shun death) remains.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Against this background of negative space, Arendt casts the shape of love’s ultimate object according to Augustine:

Fearlessness is what love seeks. Love as craving is determined by its goal, and this goal is freedom from fear.

In a sentiment that illuminates the central mechanism by which frustration fuels (temporary) satisfaction in romantic love, she adds:

A love that seeks anything safe and disposable on earth is constantly frustrated, because everything is doomed to die. In this frustration love turns about and its object becomes a negation, so that nothing is to be desired except freedom from fear. Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future.

If presence — the removal of expectancy — is a prerequisite for a true experience of love, then time is the elemental infrastructure of love. Nearly half a century later, in becoming the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures in the 85-year history of the series, Arendt would make this notion of time as the locus of our thinking ego a centerpiece of her landmark lecture, The Life of the Mind. Now, quoting from Augustine’s writings, she considers the paradox of love beyond time for creatures as temporal as we are:

Even if things should last, human life does not. We lose it daily. As we live the years pass through us and they wear us out into nothingness. It seems that only the present is real, for “things past and things to come are not”; but how can the present (which I cannot measure) be real since it has no “space”? Life is always either no more or not yet. Like time, life “comes from what is not yet, passes through what is without space, and disappears into what is no longer.” Can life be said to exist at all? Still the fact is that man does measure time. Perhaps man possesses a “space” where time can be conserved long enough to be measured, and would not this “space,” which man carries with himself, transcend both life and time?

Time exists only insofar as it can be measured, and the yardstick by which we measure it is space.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

For Augustine, she notes, memory is the space in which time is measured and cached:

Memory, the storehouse of time, is the presence of the “no more” (iam non) as expectation is the presence of the “not yet” (nondum). Therefore, I do not measure what is no more, but something in my memory that remains fixed in it. It is only by calling past and future into the present of remembrance and expectation that time exists at all. Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.

One of the major themes I explore in Figuring is this question of the temporality of even our lushest experiences. “The union of two natures for a time is so great,” Margaret Fuller — one of my key figures — wrote. Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only “for a time”? The time scales are elastic, contract- ing and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity. Fuller’s exclamation upon seeing the paintings of Correggio for the first time, overcome with beauty she had not known before, radiates a larger truth about the human heart: “Sweet soul of love! I should weary of you, too; but it was glorious that day.”

Jupiter and Io, Correggio, circa 1530

Arendt locates this fundamental fact of the heart in Augustine’s writings. A century after Kierkegaard asserted that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity,” she observes:

The Now is what measures time backwards and forwards, because the Now, strictly speaking, is not time but outside time. In the Now, past and future meet. For a fleeting moment they are simultaneous so that they can be stored up by memory, which remembers things past and holds the expectation of things to come. For a fleeting moment (the temporal Now) it is as though time stands still, and it is this Now that becomes Augustine’s model of eternity.

Augustine himself captures this transcendent temporality:

Who will hold [the heart], and fix it so that it may stand still for a little while and catch for a moment the splendor of eternity which stands still forever, and compare this with temporal moments that never stand still, and see that it is incomparable… but that all this while in the eternal, nothing passes but the whole is present.

Arendt hones in on the heart of the paradox:

What prevents man from “living” in the timeless present is life itself, which never “stands still.” The good for which love craves lies beyond all mere desires. If it were merely a question of desiring, all desires would end in fear. And since whatever confronts life from the outside as the object of its craving is sought for life’s sake (a life we are going to lose), the ultimate object of all desires is life itself. Life is the good we ought to seek, namely true life.

She returns to desire, which simultaneously takes us out of life and plunges us into it:

Desire mediates between subject and object, and it annihilates the distance between them by transforming the subject into a lover and the object into the beloved. For the lover is never isolated from what he loves; he belongs to it… Since man is not self-sufficient and therefore always desires something outside himself, the question of who he is can only be resolved by the object of his desire and not, as the Stoics thought, by the suppression of the impulse of desire itself: “Such is each as is his love” [Augustine wrote]. Strictly speaking, he who does not love and desire at all is a nobody.

[…]

Man as such, his essence, cannot be defined because he always desires to belong to something outside himself and changes accordingly… If he could be said to have an essential nature at all, it would be lack of self-sufficiency. Hence, he is driven to break out of his isolation by means of love… for happiness, which is the reversal of isolation, more is required than mere belonging. Happiness is achieved only when the beloved becomes a permanently inherent element of one’s own being.

It is stunning to trace the line of these ideas across Arendt’s life of the mind. Decades after her doctoral days, she would compose her influential treatise on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression — totalitarianism, in other words, is not only the denial of love but an assault on the essence of human beings.

In the remainder of Love and Saint Augustine, Arendt goes on to examine Augustine’s hierarchy of love, the psychological structure of craving, the perils of anticipation, and the building blocks of that “love of the world” so vital to a harmonious life and a harmonious society. Couple it with Elizabeth Barrett Browning on happiness as a moral obligation, then revisit Arendt on action and the pursuit of happiness, lying in politics, the power of being an outsider, and the difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition.


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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Now spring is bringing back its ice-melting warmth here in the UK and xenium1 has been doing some cleaning and reconnecting with an old friend, George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying:

Dusting and rearranging the books on my shelves was what brought me once more to pick up my favourite book of all time – Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I’m not sure if this will be the thirteenth or fourteenth reading of the tattered old Penguin paperback. Anti-hero Comstock & posh friend Ravelston are like old friends now and it’s always a pleasure to “meet up” with them again. I first read it when I was a little younger than Gordon is in the book and, like him, felt “rather moth-eaten” even back then. I’m still not sure, come the end, if I feel happy for him or not, but sure as hell always enjoy the journey on the way there. The only problem for me is that it’s quite a short novel & such an easy read that, each time I read it, I have to ration my time with it so as to extend the pleasure for as long as possible…

The plot is straight forward: Four gang members are instructed to travel from LA to Wisconsin in order to murder a witness who is to give evidence against their boss. However, using prose that is terse and bullet hard, Beverly creates a novel that is more than a tale of gangsters on a road trip but that explores an America that is alien to its inhabitants. I really enjoyed this book, becoming increasingly involved in the story of the protagonist, East, a young man starting to discover the person that he wants to be and the life that he wants to live. The sort of look that, once finished, you want to dive back in and read again.

Wow, this was a stunning book and one I wholeheartedly enjoyed. Set in Nigeria in 2066 (with flashbacks over the main characters life) it shows a world which has had an alien life form crash to earth in London. This alien life form released fungal spores into the atmosphere which in turn has changed some humans to be ‘sensitives’ and can ‘read’ the resultant xenosphere. Rosewater is a town which has grown up around an alien dome. It’s very well written, pacy and has engaging characters and concepts. Highly recommended and I can’t wait for the next book to be released next month.

I’ve stayed away from most of Martin Amis, too much unrelieved intensity for my taste, but this was great – a raucous, hilarious novel set at the busy intersection of low-life criminality and tabloid voyeurism, the language buzzing throughout, and the last pages loaded with meaning. What a rip.

The highlight of my reading in the last few days has been the final instalment in his West Country trilogy, Tim Pears’s The Redeemed . In all three novels there are wonderful, memorable scenes; the images Pears creates of rural England in the early part of the century are powerfully evocative and a reminder that life could be tough and brutal, as well as the beauty in the nature that is described so well.
Having looked forward to this for a year now, and enjoyed it greatly, the only regret I have is that it may have been better to read them one after the other directly.

Miller is a born storyteller and like Mary Renault before her, really transports you back to the ancient world. This is a fresh, feminist version of the story, from Circe’s viewpoint, and even though I know the basic outline of the story and where it is going, I’m gripped.

As its his first book (albeit only translated into English a couple of years ago), he’s included a really interesting introduction giving a bit of a summary of how he got into writing, and what his writing process is (or at least what it was in the early stages of his career).

What I found fascinating about this is he quickly found his writing style to be too expressive-almost as if he had too much to say-so he switched to writing in English due to his more limited vocabulary, before then translating it back into Japanese.

A lovely big article by Margaret Drabble on Anthony Burgess.

“It is an excellent piece of writing.” An 1845 review of Narrative Of The Life OF Frederick Douglass.

Pat Barker on the art of fiction in the Paris Review.

Michael Hofmann on UK politics. Depressing, but so eloquently depressing.

The art of the twist ending. (Hat tip to Swelter)

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7 Things to Try When Writing Is Hard


7 things to try when writing is hardSome writers might look at that title and respond incredulously: “When isn’t writing hard?” But as I’m sure all writers everywhere can attest, there are times when writing is hard in the normal sense and times when it’s hard hard.

Often, the difficulty lies simply in the unwieldy story—and the need for an ever-evolving understanding and ability in order to manage it. According to my estimate, as much as 75% of what is referenced as “writer’s block” is really just “plot block.” Something in the storyform is out of balance and/or the story’s problem is temporarily outpacing the author’s skill level. With enough persistence, these plot blocks give way sooner than later—and usually with the reward of either a better story or, at least, a greater awareness in the writer.

But then there are the difficulties that fall under the heading of that other 25%. This is when the writing is hard in ways that aren’t so easy to bull our way through.

These are often deeper issues, arising from our life beyond the page. They might include illness (our own or someone else’s), exhaustion, stress, fear or other unresolved emotions, burnout, or any other number of things. Sometimes the cause seems to be something as simple (and vague) as a mood.

And it’s infuriating. Unlike with plot blocks, solving the problem isn’t always as simple as finding the right mental thread to pull. Sometimes, it’s a matter of putting things other than writing first for a while (and coming to peace with that). Other times, it’s a matter of using the writing difficulties to help us work through what’s really causing the block.

Writing Is Hard Right Now: My Story

Until recently, I’d never experienced that second type of writer’s block. Plot block, sure. But I’ve spent my creative life building a skill set that helps me efficiently and effectively deal with that. (Indeed, it’s not really an exaggeration to say “avoiding plot block” is the entire reason I write this blog!)

But real live life-induced writer’s block? Not so much.

However, as I mentioned in the podcast intro a couple weeks ago, I now find myself somewhat bemused to be experiencing a definite (if not quite definitive) case of writer’s block. I am objectively aware it’s not the end of the world. There’s a part of me that is genuinely rolling my eyes at and passing the coffee to the other part of me that is getting really grumpy. And as I say, it’s not definitive; I’m still writing; there are still words.

It’s just that the writing is hard right now. Harder than I ever remember it being. It’s hard in a different way.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandPart of this surprises me, since I’ve been incredibly eager to start the outline for the third book in my Dreamlander trilogy. But on the other hand, it makes sense. I moved last year, so I’m in a new place, figuring out a new routine. There’s also some heavy family stuff that knocked me for a loop when it first arose a few weeks ago. Also thrown in there were several layers of personal growth that decided to peak all at the same time.

And… then there’s the story itself. This is my first attempt at a series, so even though this book will be my eleventh rodeo, it’s still brand new ground. This is the first time I’ve ever had to tie off a multi-book story arc in a single volume. I started Book 3’s outline with the realization that I’d generously bequeathed myself dozens of little plot blocks—ideas I’d set up in Book 2 with vague ideas of their payoff in Book 3, but not enough info (yet) about how to get there.

Types of Writer's Block

Anyway, altogether it’s made for a potent mix that is allowing me the opportunity to learn new things about myself as a writer and a person. Some of those lessons are the tactics that have inspired this post—tactics that have already helped me move forward positively both in working on my story and working past the difficulties.

7 Things You Can Try When Writing Is Hard

For me, realizing I am most definitely not the first author to experience the whole “writing is hard” thing has helped me draw on the compassionate (and incredibly tough) wisdom of the many authors whose legacies permeate my life.

Today, I want to, in turn, reach out to those of you who may currently be finding that your writing is hard (whether normal hard or hard hard). Here are a few practicable steps I hope will give you comfort and/or help you start moving toward a solution for your own unique writing challenges.

1. Just Admit the Writing Is Hard

In my experience as a writing mentor, I find writers tend to have two different kinds of relationships with writer’s block. The first kind uses writing difficulties as a comfy excuse to embrace the drama:

“Woe is me! I simply can’t write! I have WRITER’S BLOCK!!!”

The second approach, however, denies there’s any problem at all:

“I can’t have writer’s block! I never get writer’s block!! I don’t believe in writer’s block!!!”

That was me for a while there. And then it was like:

“Wow, I have writer’s block…”

My first step was accepting that the difficulties I was facing on the page weren’t just plot blocks, but something bigger. That knowledge then provided me what is always the foundational key to problem-solving: correctly identifying the problem.

How did I know I was facing down something bigger than just your normal, ordinary, everyday, garden-variety plot block? Because the normal solutions to plot block (asking plot questions and looking for the right “thread” to pull) weren’t getting me anywhere. I was scribbling furiously; I just wasn’t advancing.

2. Identify the Cause

I suppose it’s possible serious writer’s block could be caused by a single issue (e.g., the death of a loved one). But for most of us, it’s a condition arising out of a unique cocktail of convergences. For me, the catalyst was a shaken-not-stirred mix of diverse ingredients that included everything from January ennui to unprecedented storytelling challenges to exhaustion/recovery from a big move last year to stressful current events—and more.

Most of these things, I had no control over and little to no recourse for “fixing.” Winter’s gonna end when winter’s gonna end. My emotional processing of life events is gonna take as long as it’s gonna take. Other people are gonna do what other people are gonna do.

After accepting that, I dialed in on the causes I could do something about. First, I figured out what I believed were my main problems:

a) Having a hard time sticking with a daily writing routine.

b) Struggling with ideas that just weren’t flowing.

From there, I started implementing strategies to see if I could unblock the dam.

3. Take Care of Yourself Before You Take Care of Your Writing

A truth that has become increasingly clear to me is that art and life are synergistic. If I’m not taking care of myself on basic personal levels—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually—then my creative pursuits will necessarily suffer. In the artistic life, discipline extends far beyond the desk.

Since I knew many of the reasons for my writer’s block had nothing to do with the actual writing, my initial strategies also had little to do with writing. For starters, I completely restructured my daily schedule in recognition of the fact that I’m slowest in the mornings, with my motivation consistently climbing throughout the day.

Another thing I did was set my phone to “Do Not Disturb.” This allowed me to check it in between projects, rather than taking the risk that my focus and energy would be disrupted in the middle of flow.

4. Trust the Process

So there I was, sitting with pen in hand, scribbling along, face scrunched in determination—and it’s just not working. No matter what question I asked myself, I couldn’t find the right answer. No matter what idea I tried to chase, it never seemed to be the one that set my imagination on fire.

While this was happening, the one thought that kept me grounded was: Trust the process.

I would take a deep breath and return to the basics that, by now, are second nature. On my iPad, I would open up Helping Writers Become Authors and review my own posts—every one of them inspired by some challenge I had faced on a previous story. I would remember the specific steps I needed to take:

None of these things “cured” my writer’s block. But like familiar road signs popping into view on a snowy night, they kept me grounded, reminding me I knew where I was going because I’d been here before.

The process never fails me. If I stick with it, it will see me through.

5. Go Back to Basics: Daydreaming and Dreamzoning

Even though my writing process is built around intensive causal outlining, I don’t “make up stories.” I will sit down and brainstorm things that need to happen to move a story from Point A to Point B, but I never “create” the A and the B. They come me—spontaneous gifts from my subconscious imagination.

And that, I realized, was one of the reasons I just couldn’t move forward with this outline. I didn’t have enough “As” and “Bs” yet. I knew the bare bones of what needed to happen. But I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t feel it.

From Where You Dream Robert Olen ButlerSo I went back to basics. For me, the hotline to my imagination is what I call “dreamzoning(a term I got from Robert Olen Butler’s excellent From Where You Dream). Basically, this is just intensified daydreaming. I’ll put on an appropriate playlist in the background, use something mindless but moving as a visual focal point (firelight is perfect, though a lava lamp isn’t bad either), and then just sit back and watch the show. I realized the other night that, really, it’s an almost meditative exercise. I’m trying to zone out of my surroundings and go deep into my head, dreaming vivid visual dreams fraught with emotional consequence.

All I get are snippets, flashes, photographs, and sometimes slow-mo movies. But these are the seedlings of my stories. If I gather enough, the story will write itself. Buh-bye, writer’s block. And in the meantime, spending my writing sessions chilling with a candle and some tunes is both productive and seriously low-stress.

6. Find the Right (Guilt-Free) Routine

Ironically, writer’s block often seems to come with a fair-sized dose of guilt. We can’t write, and yet we self-flagellate because we should be writing.

Depending on the root cause making our writing so hard for the moment, the best choice might be giving ourselves permission to not write for a while (as I am—more or less—by allowing myself to focus solely on “dreamzoning” for a while). Other times, just tweaking a writing routine or schedule can do wonders.

Once I realized that outside drama and other factors were wreaking havoc with my ability to stay focused during a morning or afternoon writing session, I switched things around. I moved my writing session to the evening, when my energy is always most reliable. This gave me the ability to once again consistently show up for writing time—which removed the useless poison of guilt from my already complicated cocktail of problematic catalysts.

7. Inhale Information and Inspiration

Often, writer’s block is simply the result of an empty well. As I discovered in #5, above, if I have no inspiration, how can I honestly expect myself to have anything to write about?

This goes for more than just imaginative bursts. It also goes for information—of all sorts. Any story is ultimately a reconstruction of things the writer has either experienced or learned. If you find yourself with nothing to write about, it could be as simple as that: you have nothing to write about.

Start filling your well. If you haven’t been reading faithfully, start a daily routine. If you’ve been reading the same type of thing for years, try something new. Get out. Do new things. Watch new movies. Listen to new songs. Go to a museum. Fill your inner eye with wonders.

And read about writing. My success last year with a host of amazing writing-related books has prompted me to make sure I read something powerful and inspiring about writing, or art in general, every single day.

***

Writing is hard for everyone. Some days are harder for some of us than for others. But the wheel keeps on rolling, and we all get our turn sooner than later. I feel certain that when it is time for me to return to the page, after a couple weeks of dreamzoning, I will find most of my challenges fulfilled. If not, I know further solutions will await me as long as I seek them with patience and discipline. In the meantime, I offer my encouragement to those of you who might be experiencing a similar trial, and I am thankful we get to walk together on this road—in all its many terrains and weathers!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s the first thing you do when your writing is hard? Tell me in the comments!


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

The post 7 Things to Try When Writing Is Hard appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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Poem of the week: Where’s the Poker? by Christopher Smart


This fable about errant servant Susan is much less concerned with pointing a moral than enjoying the comedy

Where’s the Poker?

The poker lost, poor Susan storm’d,
And all the rites of rage perform’d;
As scolding, crying, swearing, sweating,
Abusing, fidgetting, and fretting.
“Nothing but villany, and thieving;
Good heavens! what a world we live in!
If I don’t find it in the morning,
I’ll surely give my master warning.
He’d better far shut up his doors,
Than keep such good for nothing whores;
For wheresoe’er their trade they drive,
We vartuous bodies cannot thrive.”
Well may poor Susan grunt and groan;
Misfortunes never come alone,
But tread each other’s heels in throngs,
For the next day she lost the tongs;
The salt box, cullender, and pot
Soon shar’d the same untimely lot.
In vain she vails and wages spent
On new ones – for the new ones went.
There’d been (she swore) some dev’l or witch in,
To rob or plunder all the kitchen.
One night she to her chamber crept
(Where for a month she had not slept;
Her master being, to her seeming,
A better play fellow than dreaming).
Curse on the author of these wrongs,
In her own bed she found the tongs,
(Hang Thomas for an idle joker!)
And there (good lack!) she found the poker,
With the salt box, pepper box, and kettle,
With all the culinary metal. –
Be warn’d, ye fair, by Susan’s crosses:
Keep chaste and guard yourselves from losses;
For if young girls delight in kissing,
No wonder, that the poker’s missing.

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Storystorm 2019 Grand Prize Winners


Thank you for your patience, Storystormers!

Let’s not waste any time! Here are your Grand Prize winners and the agents with whom they have been paired:

Brenda Miller → Holly McGhee
Tanya Shock → Ammi-Joan Paquette
Krista Harrington → Ammi-Joan Paquette (Joan is taking two winners)
Amy Bradshaw → Tricia Lawrence
Stephen Cravak → Erin Murphy
Debra Katz → Liza Royce Agency
Sarah Hoppe → Linda Epstein
Helen Ishmurzin → Victoria Selvaggio

Congratulations! I will be contacting you via email shortly.

Many thanks to Urania Smith of KidLitNation who helped pull the winner’s names. 

If you’re a writer of color, please check out KidLitNation for support and resources!

More daily prize winners to come soon!



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The Year of the Whale: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to Our Planet’s Largest-Brained Creature


“Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.”


The Year of the Whale: A Lyrical Illustrated Serenade to Our Planet’s Largest-Brained Creature

“The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick as he was falling in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he would dedicate the novel, “and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”

A century later, marine biologist and author Victor B. Scheffer (November 27, 1906–September 20, 2011) would make that white colossus of wonder the subject of his short, lyrical book The Year of the Whale (public library) — a forgotten gem I discovered through one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, in which author, historian, and anthropologist of science Laurel Braitman recounts the formative influence of Scheffer’s quiet masterwork, bequeathed to her by her father.

With an eye to the ancient enchantment of this unusual and inadequately understood creature, Scheffer writes in the prologue:

The sperm whale has held for mankind a special, mystical meaning from the time of Moby-Dick down to today. Moving through a dim, dark, cool, watery world of its own, the whale is timeless and ancient; part of our common heritage and yet remote, awful, prowling the ocean floor a half-mile down, under the guidance of powers and senses we are only beginning to grasp.

Published in 1969, the book emanates Rachel Carson’s influence. Three decades earlier, Carson had pioneered a new way of writing about the natural world with her masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had long ago called “the world below the brine,” a world more mysterious then than the Moon. Carson invited the human reader to fathom the most enigmatic recesses of Earth from the perspective of nonhuman creatures. Nothing like this had ever been before. She eventually expanded the essay into the stunning book Under the Sea-Wind, exploring each of the three main areas of marine life through the eyes and senses of a particular, personified creature in order to avoid the human bias of popular books about the ocean, always written from the perspective of a human observer — a fisherman, a deep-sea diver, a shore wanderer.

Carson modeled not only this novel perspectival lens on the natural world, but also a new aesthetic of science as a literary subject. She would soon become the most esteemed and influential science writer in the country. “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” she would assert in her 1951 National Book Award acceptance speech. “And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

It is with this dual Carsonian influence of a nonhuman perspective lyrically conveyed that Scheffer approaches his inquiry into the world of this enormous and enigmatic mammal. Alongside beguiling illustrations by artist Leonard Everett Fisher, winner of the Pulitzer Art Prize, he tells the story of a mother whale and her baby, Little Calf. Fittingly, he chooses as the book’s epigraph Henry Beston’s poetic insistence that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”

Scheffer limns the moment of birth, itself a miracle of nature as this fourteen-foot baby that weighs one ton takes its first breath of weightless air:

It is early September when for the first time the Little Calf sees light — a blue-green, dancing light. He slips easily from his mother’s body beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean two hundred miles west of Mexico, on the Tropic of Cancer. He trembles, for the water is cold and he has lain for sixteen months in a warm chamber at ninety-six degrees. He gasps for air as his mother nudges him anxiously to the surface with her broad snout. He breathes rapidly and desperately for a while, puffing with each breath a small cloud of vapor down the autumn breeze.

Already at birth, Little Calf has overcome immense peril. Together with sea cows and hippopotamuses, whales are the only mammals born underwater. Unlike a human baby, a whale is born tail first, backing into the outer world. Its enormous, awkward head — a head that would grow to hold Earth’s largest brain, fivefold the size of a human’s — follows the comma of its tadpole-shaped body, narrowly escaping the noose of the five-foot umbilical cord.

Scheffer writes:

As mother and calf roll in the wash the cord snaps. The baby opens a pink mouth with knobby, toothless gums and seems suddenly to smile, for the upturned corners of his mouth break into a satisfied smirk. This is illusion, of course; the smile of a whale is a built-in feature with which it is endowed at birth and retains throughout life.

[…]

Little Calf… is far more advanced in body development than any newborn human child. He is wide-eyed, alert, and fully able to swim. Every whale of every kind is in fact precocious at brith; it has to be, for within brief moments it finds itself awash in the grown-up world — no nest, no den, no shelter except the dark shadow of the mother floating beside it.

By the following summer, this precocious baby has begun mastering life in the open ocean. Scheffer describes the beautiful dance between Little Calf’s fledgling independence and the deep bond with his mother:

In the year of the whale there are days when nothing is new. One such a day in July the air is filled with a monotonous hissing of sound as one rain squall pursues another across the dappled sea. The Little Calf swims beneath his mother’s body in a dark shadow illuminated at the edges by a blue-gray light from above. Subconsciously he tries to match the rhythmic undulating sameness of her body, for the beating impulses of her flesh and the suffocating water have been one great throbbing part of his life from its beginning. In trying to keep pace, he sometimes falls behind and must sprint for a dozen strokes to re-enter the comforting zone of the shadow.

[…]

As the year ends, the form of the Little Calf leaves a thin track on the flat immensity, a swirling punctuation, a blend of liquid and life. A cool wind moves. The red light gleams on the wave at his brow. Then the sun sinks below the sea, and the tiny whale is gone.

Following Little Calf month by month, as different constellations come to populate the season’s skies, Scheffer goes on to explore the courtship of whales, the fascinating science of their underwater communication, their ferocious protectiveness of one another, the courageous battles they wage against the unforgiving ocean, the dynamics of a whale “family” — a loose social group of thirty or so individuals — and various other aspects of lives so wildly and wondrously different from our own, yet so strangely kindred, evocative of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s lovely observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom… far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Underlying Little Calf’s story are the subtle but palpable pulses of an environmental conscience, wistfully aware — even in 1969 — that unless we radically reform our civilizational regard for the natural world, this remarkable creature may vanish forever. Scheffer opens the first chapter with the cautionary words of former United States Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall — one of Carson’s most spirited champions and a fierce conservation advocate himself:

This decade may go down in history as marking the end of life for the largest animal ever to inhabit this earth. If so, it will be another morbid monument to man’s short-sighted exploitation of the world’s wildlife bounty.

Complement The Year of the Whale with this poetic stop-motion animation about the afterlife of the whale, the illustrated story of Mocha-Dick — the real-life sperm whale who inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick — and this lovely picture-book about the blue whale, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery — one of the most lyrical science writers of our own time — on how to be a good creature.


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