Spring with Emily Dickinson


“Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try…”


Something strange blankets the city and the soul in the first days of spring. The weary, the rushed, even the dispossessed surrender to a certain nonspecific gladness. They smile at you, you smile at them — under the blessing rays of the vernal sun, we are somehow reminded of what we humans were always meant to be to each other and to this stunning, irreplaceable planet we share with innumerable other creatures. In attending to nature at its best and most buoyant, we suddenly attune to the best of our own nature. This, perhaps, is why the modern environmental conscience was jolted awake by the terrifying notion of a silent spring, bereft of birdsong and bloom.

That vernal exhilaration is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), poet laureate of nature, celebrates in a letter to her brother Austin, composed in the spring of her twenty-third year, just as she was falling in love with the love of her life, whom Austin would soon marry. (This beautiful, harrowing tangle of heartstrings occupies a large portion of Figuring.)

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. The only authenticated photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

On a May Saturday in 1853, Emily writes to Austin:

Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try… You thought last Saturday beautiful — yet to this golden day, ’twas but one single gem, to whole handfuls of jewels.

Enraptured by nature, Dickinson spent her days in a sunny bedroom wallpapered with botanical patterns, in a house surrounded by flowerbeds and blooming trees. I wonder if she saw the magnolias the way I do, taken with their bittersweet beauty — for a week or so a year, their blossoms stun with a splendor that vanishes always too soon, as if to remind us that everything we love eventually perishes and yet this perishability is not reason for sorrow but reason to love all the harder.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

This eternal dance of love and loss animated Dickinson since the earliest age. Most of the flower specimens in the astonishing herbarium of her girlhood — an elegy for time and the mortality of beauty at the intersection of poetry and science — were collected in the spring, then meticulously pressed and arranged onto the pages of this curious catalogue of imagined immortality and bulwark against impermanence. This inescapable interplay between beauty and perishability, which lends life so much of its sweetness, is at the heart of Dickinson’s vast body of work — nowhere more intensely than in this poem devoted to spring, composed in the autumn of her life:

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay —

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Complement with Dickinson on making sense of loss and her ode to resilience, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s stirring poem paying tribute to the ecological and cultural legacy of Silent Spring.


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A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on the Existential Calculus of Saving, Spending, and Wasting Time


“Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time.”


A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on the Existential Calculus of Saving, Spending, and Wasting Time

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her abiding insistence on choosing presence over productivity. But how do we really spend our days? In our era, the average human lifetime will contain two years of boredom, six months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)

That equation, and how to balance it more favorably toward a life of substance and presence rather than one of waste and want, is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined at the end of his life in Letters from a Stoic (public library) — a collection of 124 letters he composed to his friend Lucilius, which also gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:

Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.

The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore… hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

Art by Ohara Hale from Be Still, Life

Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:

I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man… I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Complement this particular fragment of the timelessly rewarding Letters from a Stoic with Ursula K. Le Guin’s gorgeous ode to time, Bertrand Russell on the relationship between leisure and social justice, Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, and Emerson on how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, then revisit Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being and his Stoic key to peace of mind.


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Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us


“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”


Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“It is we who are passing when we say time passes,” the Nobel-winning French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted just before Einstein defeated him in the historic debate that revolutionized our understanding of time. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” his compatriot Gaston Bachelard wrote a decade later in contemplating our paradoxical temporal experience. Still, our most intimate relationship with time unfolds not in physics or philosophy but in storytelling — a miraculous technology of thought and feeling that allows us to both contain time and travel through it, to saturate the moment with absolute presence and to leap from it into other eras, places, and experiences.

That is what National Book Award laureate Jacqueline Woodson, one of our era’s most beloved writers of literature for young people, explores in her beautiful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Woodson writes:

Dear Young Reader,

In my memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, I write about “this perfect moment, called Now.” I am thinking about this as I lie beside my seven-year-old son, reading to him from a book I at first disliked but have grown to appreciate over the evenings of reading. Two floors up, my thirteen-year-old daughter is supposed to be doing homework but may be checking her Instagram or texting a friend or hopefully snuggled beneath her covers with her own book (The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — “Oh my God, Momm — I love this book SO MUCH!”).

It feels like such a short time ago it was her in the crook of my arm, wide-eyed and listening. I impulsively kiss the top of my son’s mohawked head (he wants us to let him dye it green — maybe we will — after all, you’re only seven once) and he looks up at me, brow furrowed.

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

“Because this moment won’t always be here,” I say.

“Mommy — just read… please.”

As the child of a single working mom, I didn’t have this moment. There were four of us and at the end of a long workday, my mother was exhausted. Sometimes, my older sister read out loud to all of us and those are some of my deepest memories. Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, The House On Pooh Corner, Harriet the Spy. While I never read any of those books to my own children — preferring to read from books where their young brown selves were/are represented on the page — my sister’s stories in my ear put me on a journey toward my own stories. I wanted to see myself in books, wanted to know that I existed… fully… out in the world.

The book I am reading to my son is about a troll who is despised in his small town, loves a girl who may or may not love him back. We’ve just found out the girl is the daughter of Little Red Riding Hood and now the story has my attention — a twist I didn’t see coming.

“I don’t know why the king is so mean,” my son says. “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?”

I refrain from kissing the top of his head again and try not to think that this moment of my youngest child beside me, the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here. This now is what matters, young reader. The moment we’re all living in is what counts — how will this moment, and the stories we’re living inside of change us… forever? The smell of my son’s hair, his laughter, his whispered “Oh man!” and now, him saying softly “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?” This is what reading does. This is what matters most. I smile and turn the page.

Sincerely,

Jacqueline Woodson

Complement with other wonderful letters from A Velocity of Being by Jane Goodall, Rebecca Solnit, Alain de Botton, and a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor.


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Zadie Smith Reads Frank O’Hara’s Love Poem to Time via an Old-Fashioned Telephone Line


A bittersweet serenade to the bidirectional pull of existence.


“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning ode to time in memoriam of Stephen Hawking. It is an elemental question that cuts to the heart of being human: Despite being creatures of time, or precisely because of it, we live suspended between two temporal antagonisms — the acute awareness, so pointedly articulated by Virginia Woolf, that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living” and the nostalgic longing for how we used to be and who we used to be when we used to be. Perhaps Meghan Daum captured the paradox most piercingly: “Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”

Nothing intensifies this sundering bidirectional pull of the arrow of time and the spear of nostalgia more than the hindsights of love — what was once a delirious present projecting into an imagined future of infinite bliss is now ambered into the bittersweet remembrance of a perished past.

That universal bittersweetness is what Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) explores in twelve perfect lines in his 1950 poem “Animals,” found in his Selected Poems (public library) and read here by Zadie Smith via an old-fashioned telephone line, part of Coudal’s lovely Poetry After the Beep series.

ANIMALS
by Frank O’Hara

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Couple with O’Hara himself reading his “Metaphysical Poem” in a rare 1964 recording, then revisit other great contemporary artists and writers reading great poets of yore: Meryl Streep reading Sylvia Plath, Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman reading Ursula K. Le Guin, Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton, and Patti Smith singing William Blake.


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How Eleanor Roosevelt Revolutionized Politics


“Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper.”


How Eleanor Roosevelt Revolutionized Politics

“This country,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she considered what makes a great leader, “needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”

Like all great seers of truth, for all her genius, Fuller was still a product of her time and place. Even as she was laying the groundwork for women’s political and civic empowerment, she chose “man” as the universal pronoun depicting the ideal leader — hers, after all, was still a time when every woman was a “man.” But how thrilled Fuller would have been to know that, exactly a century later, a leader would emerge to embody these very qualities — and she would be a woman.

eleanorroosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962) entered the White House on March 4, 1933, as the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the time she exited it twelve years later, she could be said to have effected more enduring social change than her husband. She had championed science as a centerpiece of a thriving democratic society, stood up for integrity and nonconformity, empowered individual citizens to take the reins of reform, and redefined the role of the First Lady not as a social decoration to the President but as a position of substantive leadership.

Roosevelt’s lasting impact on culture comes alive in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterful and surprisingly poetic history of the United States.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits a coal mine in Bellaire, Ohio, May 1935. (From These Truths by Jill Lepore.)

Lepore writes:

FDR’s election and the New Deal coalition also marked a turning point in another way, in the character and ambition of his wife, the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt. Born in New York in 1884, she’d been orphaned as a child. She married FDR, her fifth cousin, in 1905; they had six children. Nine years into their marriage, Franklin began an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, and when Eleanor found out, he refused to agree to a divorce, fearing it would end his career in politics. Eleanor turned her energies outward. During the war, she worked on international relief, and, after Franklin was struck with polio in 1921, she began speaking in public, heeding a call that brought so many women to the stage for the first time: she was sent to appear in her husband’s stead.

Eleanor Roosevelt became a major figure in American politics in her own right just at a time when women were entering political parties. It was out of frustration with the major parties’ evasions on equal rights that Alice Paul had founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916. Fearful that soon-to-be enfranchised female voters would form their own voting bloc, the Democratic and Republican Parties had then begun recruiting women. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) formed a Women’s Division in 1917, and the next year, the Republicans did the same, the party chairman pledging “to check any tendency toward the formation of a separate women’s party.” After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the League of Women Voters, steered women away from the National Woman’s Party and urged them to join one of the two major parties, advising, “The only way to get things in this country is to find them on the inside of the political party.” Few women answered that call more vigorously than Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a leader of the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Party while her husband campaigned and served as governor of the state. By 1928, she was one of the two most powerful women in American politics, head of the Women’s Division of the DNC.

Roosevelt rose to a role she never wanted, then rather than conforming to its existing template, she redefined it to suit her aptitudes and transfigured it into a platform for change — her kind of change, on her terms. Like Emily Dickinson, who revolutionized the written word and channeled infinities from the seventeen and a half square inches of her cherrywood writing desk, Roosevelt took the narrow parameters of her station and created from within them something unexampled and far-reaching. Lepore writes:

Eleanor Roosevelt, lean and rangy, wore floral dresses and tucked flowers in the brim of floppy hats perched on top of her wavy hair, but she had a spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper. She hadn’t wanted her husband to run for president, mainly because she had so little interest in becoming First Lady, a role that, with rare exception, had meant serving as a hostess at state dinners while demurring to the men when the talk turned to affairs of state. She made that role her own, deciding to use her position to advance causes she cared about: women’s rights and civil rights. She went on a national tour, wrote a regular newspaper column, and in December 1932 began delivering a series of thirteen nationwide radio broadcasts. While not a naturally gifted speaker, she earned an extraordinarily loyal following and became a radio celebrity. From the White House, she eventually delivered some three hundred broadcasts, about as many as FDR. Perhaps most significantly, she reached rural women, who had few ties to the national culture except by radio. “As I have talked to you,” she told her audience, “I have tried to realize that way up in the high mountain farms of Tennessee, on lonely ranches in the Texas plains, in thousands and thousands of homes, there are women listening to what I say.”

Eleanor Roosevelt not only brought women into politics and reinvented the role of the First Lady, she also tilted the Democratic Party toward the interests of women, a dramatic reversal. The GOP had courted the support of women since its founding in 1854; the Democratic Party had turned women away and dismissed their concerns. With Eleanor Roosevelt, that began to change. During years when women were choosing a party for the first time, more of them became Democrats than Republicans. Between 1934 and 1938, while the numbers of Republican women grew by 400 percent, the numbers of Democratic women grew by 700 percent.

In January 1933, she announced that she intended to write a book. “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who has been one of the most active women in the country since her husband was elected President, is going to write a 40,000-word book between now and the March inauguration,” the Boston Globe reported, incredulous. “Every word will be written by Mrs. Roosevelt herself.”

It’s Up to the Women came out that spring. Only women could lead the nation out of the Depression, she argued — by frugality, hard work, common sense, and civic participation. The “really new deal for the people,” Eleanor Roosevelt always said, had to do with the awakening of women.

Complement this fragment of Lepore’s rigorous and riveting These Truths with Adrienne Rich on the antidote to the white male capitalist model, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt’s breathtaking love letters to Lorena Hickok.


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Rachel Carson’s Bittersweet Farewell to the World: Timeless Advice to the Next Generations from the Woman Who Catalyzed the Environmental Movement


“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”


Rachel Carson’s Bittersweet Farewell to the World: Timeless Advice to the Next Generations from the Woman Who Catalyzed the Environmental Movement

In 1962, after pioneering a new aesthetic of poetic writing about science and the natural world, the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring — a courageous exposé of the pesticide industry, illuminating the profound interconnectedness of nature. It stunned and sobered humanity’s moral imagination, effecting a tidal wave of unprecedented citizen concern, with consequences reaching across popular culture and policy, leading to the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Carson had been following the science of pesticides and their grim effects on nature, meticulously glossed over by the agricultural and chemical industries, for more than a decade. Already the most esteemed science writer in the country, she used her voice and credibility to hold the government accountable for its abuses of power in the assault on nature. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” she wrote to her beloved. Fully aware that speaking out against the pesticide industry would subject her — as it invariably did — to ruthless attacks by corporate and government interests, she saw no moral choice but to defend what she held dearest by catalyzing a new kind of conscience.

Rachel Carson

Carson’s aim with Silent Spring was threefold — to transmute hard facts into literature that stands the test of time, to awaken a public hypnotized into docility to the perils of substances so mercilessly marketed as panaceas by chemical companies, and to challenge the government to rise to its neglected responsibility in regulating these perils. She admonished against the fragmentation, commodification, and downright erasure of truth in an era when narrow silos blind specialists to the interconnected whole and market forces sacrifice truth on the altar of revenue. When citizens protest and try to challenge those forces with incontestable evidence, they are “fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.” In a sentiment of striking resonance half a century later, Carson exhorted: “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts.” Above all, she countered the pathological short-termism of commercial interests with a sobering look at “consequences remote in time and place” as poisons permeate a delicate ecosystem in which no organism is separate from any other and no moment islanded in the river of time.

Photograph by Bill Reaves from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project (U.S. National Archives)

In June 1962, five days before the first installment of Silent Spring made its debut in The New Yorker, the terminally ill Carson summoned the remnants of her strength to take her very first cross-country jetliner flight and deliver a long-awaited commencement address at Scripps College in California, excerpted in Figuring (public library), from which this piece is adapted. She titled it “Of Man and the Stream of Time” — hers, after all, was an era when every woman, too, was “man.” It was a crystallization of Carson’s moral philosophy, a farewell to the world she so cherished, and her baton-passing of that cherishment to the next generation.

She told graduates:

Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars.

[…]

The stream of time moves forward and mankind moves with it. Your generation must come to terms with the environment. You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.

Therein lies our hope and our destiny.

Couple with Carson’s contemporary and admirer Lewis Thomas on our human potential and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, Neil Gaiman’s stunning tribute to her legacy, and the story of the writing of Silent Spring.

For more tastes of Figuring, savor Emily Dickinson’s love letters, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf and the fate of technology, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s beautiful reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.


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Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination


We are not “patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance” but “specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.”


Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in 1902, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

A year earlier, the Canadian psychiatrist and adventurer Maurice Bucke (March 18, 1837–February 19, 1902) published a stunning personal account and psychological study of a dazzling form of consciousness that lies just on the other side of that filmiest of screens, accessible to all. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (public library) went on to influence generations of thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, and Steve Jobs.

Maurice Bucke

By his own account, Bucke was “born of good middle class English stock,” but grew up almost entirely without education, working tirelessly on his parents’ farm in the backwoods of Canada — tending cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, working in the hay field, driving oxen and horses, and running various errands from the earliest age. He learned to read when he was still a small child and soon began devouring novels and poetry. He remembers that, like Emily Dickinson, he “never, even as a child, accepted the doctrines of the Christian church” — a disposition utterly countercultural in that era of extreme religiosity.

Although his mother died when he was very young and his father shortly thereafter, Bucke recalls being often overcome by “a sort of ecstasy of curiosity and hope.” (What a lovely phrase.) At sixteen, he left the farm “to live or die as might happen,” trekking from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Ohio to San Francisco, working on farms and railroads and steamboats, narrowly escaping death by illness, starvation, and battle on several occasions. In his twentieth year, he heard of the first major discovery of silver ore in America and joined a mining party, of which he was the only survivor, and barely: On his way to California, while crossing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, he suffered frostbite so severe that one foot and a few toes on the remaining foot had to be amputated.

When he finally made it to the Pacific Coast, Bucke used a moderate inheritance from his mother to give himself a proper college education. He devoured ideas from books as wide-ranging as On the Origin of Species and Shelley’s poems. After graduating, he taught himself French so that he could read Auguste Comte and German so that he could read Goethe. At thirty, he discovered and became instantly besotted with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he felt contained vaster truth and richer meaning than any book he had previously encountered. It was Whitman who catalyzed Bucke’s transcendent experience.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

More than a century before Michael Pollan insisted in his masterly inquiry into the science of psychedelics that “the Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Bucke suggests that it might be just a poem away. Writing in the third person, as was customary for “the writer” in the nineteenth century, he recounts his transformative illumination:

It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship. (“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” Patti Smith would write a century later.) In that instant, as “the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,” he experienced something he could never forget, which he called “cosmic consciousness” — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Bucke identifies three layers of consciousness, each built upon the lower: Simple Consciousness — a basic awareness, which most non-human animals also possess; Self-Consciousness, which render one aware not only of trees, rivers, and one’s own body, but also of oneself as “a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe,” capable of treating one’s own thoughts and feelings as objects of consciousness itself; and Cosmic Consciousness, which Bucke defines as an awareness of “the life and order of the universe.” In a passage of striking consonance with William James’s framework of transcendent experiences, he writes:

Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence — would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking and more important both to the individual and to the race than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.

In language that closely parallels the way people describe the effects of psychedelics, Bucke limns the nature and sequence of this revelatory experience:

Like a flash there is presented to [the person’s] consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise — is in very truth a living presence. He sees that instead of men being, as it were, patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance, they are in reality specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.

[…]

The person who passes through this experience will learn in the few minutes, or even moments, of its continuance more than in months or years of study, and he will learn much that no study ever taught or can teach. Especially does he obtain such a conception of THE WHOLE, or at least of an immense WHOLE, as dwarfs all conception, imagination or speculation, springing from and belonging to ordinary self consciousness, such a conception as makes the old attempts to mentally grasp the universe and its meaning petty and even ridiculous.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

A year before William James published his classic treatise on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences, Bucke — whom James references — outlines the characteristics of cosmic consciousness, at the heart of which he places the Eastern concept of “Brahmic Splendor,” also reflected in Dante’s transhumanized state in Paradisio.

  1. A sudden appearance, often accompanied by immersion in a cloud of haze or fire. “The instantaneousness of the illumination,” Bucke writes, “is one of its most striking features. It can be compared with nothing so well as with a dazzling flash of lightning in a dark night, bringing the landscape which had been hidden into clear view.” (A century later, physicist Freeman Dyson would describe one of his most significant scientific breakthroughs as “a flash of illumination.”)
  2. An ecstatic surge of emotion — “joy, assurance, triumph, ‘salvation’” — transcending “the pleasures and pains, loves and hates, joys and sorrows,peace and war, life and death, of self conscious man.”
  3. An intellectual illumination, arising from the emotional ecstasy, difficult to put into words. (William James also lists ineffability as the foremost feature of transcendent experiences.)
  4. Dissolution of the fear of death.
  5. Dissolution of the sense of sin or wrongness.
  6. A sense of immortality accompanying the moral elevation. “This is not an intellectual conviction, such as comes with the solution of a problem, nor is it an experience such as learning something unknown before,” Bucke writes. “It is far more simple and elementary.”

Of central importance in this experience of illumination, he argues, are the character — “intellectual, moral and physical” — and age of the person undergoing it. The illumination is truer and richer, Bucke suggest, when experienced at a later age:

Should we hear of a case of cosmic consciousness occurring at twenty, for instance, we should at first doubt the truth of the account, and if forced to believe it we should expect the man (if he lived) to prove himself, in some way, a veritable spiritual giant.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Drawing on the memoirs, biographies, and letters of historical figures, he goes on to compose a kind of ledger of such spiritual giants who have reported experiences indicative of cosmic consciousness, noting next to each person the age at which they underwent the illumination. Among them he lists:

  • Francis Bacon (30)
  • William Blake (31)
  • Blaise Pascal (31)
  • Honoré de Balzac (32)
  • Walt Whitman (34)
  • Gautama Buddha (35)
  • Edward Carpenter (37)
  • Baruch Spinoza (45)

Bucke sees the attainment of cosmic consciousness as a vital step in the spiritual and moral evolution of our species, but he takes care to emphasize that it “must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal — as anything more or less than a natural growth.” With electric exuberance, he channels his optimism, both prescient and bittersweet in the hindsight of history:

The immediate future of our race… is indescribably hopeful. There are at the present moment impending over us three revolutions, the least of which would dwarf the ordinary historic upheaval called by that name into absolute insignificance. They are: (1) The material,economic and social revolution which will depend upon and result from the establishment of aerial navigation. (2) The economic and social revolution which will abolish individual ownership and rid the earth at once of two immense evils — riches and poverty. And (3) The psychical revolution of which there is here question.

Either of the first two would (and will) radically change the conditions of, and greatly uplift, human life; but the third will do more for humanity than both of the former, were their importance multiplied by hundreds or even thousands.

The three operating (as they will) together will literally create a new heaven and a new earth. Old things will be done away and all will become new.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

The net result, Bucke envisions, will be nothing less than a revolution of the human soul. While human beings will remain resolutely spiritual, this revolution would be predicated on the dissolution of organized religion:

Religion will… not depend on tradition. It will not be believed and disbelieved. It will not be a part of life,belonging to certain hours, times, occasions. It will not be in sacred books nor in the mouths of priests. It will not dwell in churches and meetings and forms and days. Its life will not be in prayers,hymns nor discourses. It will not depend on special revelations, on the words of gods who came down to teach, nor on any bible or bibles. It will have no mission to save men from their sins or to secure them entrance to heaven. It will not teach a future immortality nor future glories, for immortality and all glory will exist in the here and now. The evidence of immortality will live in every heart as sight in every eye.

Complement Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness with Virginia Woolf’s ecstatic description of a psychedelic experience, physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic account of a secular transcendent experience, and neuroscientist Christof Koch on the central mystery of consciousness, then revisit Edward Carpenter, who inspired Bucke’s ideas, on love, pain, and growth.


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The Power of Antagonistic Cooperation: Albert Murray on Heroism and How Storytelling Redeems Our Broken Cultural Mythology


“It is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place.”


The Power of Antagonistic Cooperation: Albert Murray on Heroism and How Storytelling Redeems Our Broken Cultural Mythology

“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962 as he considered the creative process and the artist’s responsibility in society. “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch insisted a decade later in celebrating literature as a vehicle of truth and art as a force of resistance.

That singular power of literary art to cast a clarifying light on society’s most perilous breaking points is what the novelist, essayist, biographer, and jazz scholar Albert Murray (May 12, 1916–August 18, 2013) explores in a portion of his superb 1973 book The Hero and the Blues (public library), which I discovered through a passing mention in theoretical cosmologist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s marvelous The Jazz of Physics.

Albert Murray

Having lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the cataclysmic dawn of the Civil Rights movement, Murray writes:

In truth, it is literature, in the primordial sense, which establishes the context for social and political action in the first place. The writer who creates stories or narrates incidents which embody the essential nature of human existence in his time not only describes the circumstances of human actuality and the emotional texture of personal experience, but also suggests commitments and endeavors which he assumes will contribute most to man’s immediate welfare as well as to his ultimate fulfillment as a human being.

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the storyteller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man — perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

To examine the mechanics and ideals of cultural mythmaking is to inevitably consider what makes a hero. Half a century after Joseph Campbell outlined his classic eleven stages of the hero’s journey, Murray locates the heart of heroism in what he terms antagonistic cooperation — the necessary tension between trial and triumph as the outside world antagonizes the hero with adversity that in turn anneals the hero’s character and cultivates in him or her the inner strength necessary for surmounting the trial. In consonance with Nietzsche’s insistence that a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, Murray writes:

The image of the sword being forged is inseparable from the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation, a concept which is indispensable to any fundamental definition of heroic action, in fiction or otherwise. The fire in the forging process, like the dragon which the hero must always encounter, is of its very nature antagonistic, but it is also cooperative at the same time. For all its violence, it does not destroy the metal which becomes the sword. It functions precisely to strengthen and prepare it to hold its battle edge, even as the all but withering firedrake prepares the questing hero for subsequent trials and adventures. The function of the hammer and the anvil is to beat the sword into shape even as the most vicious challengers no less than the most cooperatively rugged sparring mates jab, clinch, and punch potential prize-fighters into championship condition.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century after Nietzsche defined heroism as the willingness “to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope,” Murray adds:

Heroism, which like the sword is nothing if not steadfast, is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles it overcomes. Thus difficulties and vicissitudes which beset the potential hero on all sides not only threaten his existence and jeopardize his prospects; they also, by bringing out the best in him, serve his purpose. They make it possible for him to make something of himself. Such is the nature of every confrontation in the context of heroic action.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Viktor Frankl’s impassioned conviction that idealism is our best realism, Murray makes and unmakes an essential disclaimer:

Such a conception of heroism is romantic, to be sure, but after all, given the range of possibilities in human nature and conduct, so is the notion of the nobility of man. And so inevitably, whether obvious or not, are the fundamental assumptions underlying every character, situation, gesture, and story line in literature. For without the completely romantic presuppositions behind such elemental values as honor, pride, love, freedom, integrity, human fulfillment, and the like, there can be no truly meaningful definition either of tragedy or of comedy. Nor without such idealistic preconceptions can there be anything to be realistic about, to protest about, or even to be cynical about.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Don Quixote

A century and a half after Emerson pioneered the American ideal of self-reliance as fundamental to a healthy society, Murray writes:

Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only the indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it is also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.

In a passage of striking timeliness amid our present cultural drama, Murray returns to the notion of antagonistic cooperation as a centerpiece of heroism, in literature and life:

The writer who deals with the experience of oppression in terms of the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation works in a context which includes the whole range of human motivation and possibility. Not only does such a writer regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards it as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance.

Complement this particular portion of the altogether fascinating The Hero and the Blues with Walter Lippmann’s formulation of what makes a hero in his stunning tribute to Amelia Earhart, then revisit John Steinbeck on heroism and human nature.


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Killed by Kindness: Virginia Woolf, the Art of Letters, the Birth and Death of Photography, and the Fate of Every New Technology


An elegy for the triumph of commodity over creativity.


Killed by Kindness: Virginia Woolf, the Art of Letters, the Birth and Death of Photography, and the Fate of Every New Technology

At its dawn, every technology — like every new love — is aglow with the exhilaration of endless possibility. Its dark sides and eventual demise are unfathomable to the wildly optimistic psyche of the besotted, and besotted we invariably are with each new medium that sweeps across the landscape of culture with the forceful promise of a revolution.

The polymath John Herschel, nephew of the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel and discoverer of Uranus, coined the word photography in 1839 in his correspondence with Henry Fox Talbot — a onetime aspiring artist turned amateur inventor. (The invention of photography and how the new technology revolutionized both art and science occupies Chapter 14 of Figuring, titled “Shadowing the Light of Immortality,” from which this essay is adapted.) For several years, Talbot had been experimenting with techniques for transmuting the impermanence of light and shadow into permanent prints on paper coated with receptive chemicals. But his images failed to last — exposed to natural light, the prints faded over time. Just as he finally perfected the process with help from Herschel, who had proposed using a sodium thiosulfate coating to make the images more permanent, Talbot got word that a French rival by the name of Louis Daguerre had devised an image-making process, which he had named after himself and was planning on presenting at a joint meeting of the Academy of Sciences and the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris on January 7.

Talbot realized that the revolution he had spent years planning was already afoot and might have another leader. He wrote to Herschel frantically in the last week of January that he must present his own findings before the Royal Society, for “no time ought to be lost, the Parisian invention having got the start of 3 weeks.” He scrambled to rally excitement for his “art of photogenic drawing.”

John Herschel. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867.

In a letter of February 28, 1839, Herschel objected to the term “photogeny” to describe Talbot’s new image-making process, noting that it “recalls Van Mons’s exploded theories of thermogen & photogen.” This associative defect, Herschel argued, is amplified by the word’s poetic deficiencies: “It also lends itself to no inflexions & is not analogous with Litho & Chalcography.” Instead, Herschel proposed “photography.” On March 12, he read before the Royal Society a paper titled “Note on the Art of Photography or the Application of the Chemical Rays of Light to the Purposes of Pictorial Representation” — the first public utterance of the word photography.

A quarter century later, an Indian-born Englishwoman by the name of Julia Margaret Cameron pioneered soft-focus photographic portraiture after receiving a camera as a fiftieth-birthday gift from her son. Cameron photographed some of the most prominent figures of her day, including Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Alice Liddell (the real-life girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland), and Herschel himself. In 1926, Virginia Woolf — whose mother was Cameron’s cousin and favorite photographic subject — published a posthumous volume of Cameron’s photographs under her own independent Hogarth Press imprint. She prefaced the monograph with a biographical sketch of her great-aunt, who had died before Woolf’s birth and whom she had gotten to know primarily through family anecdotes and letters.

Julia Jackson (later Julia Stephen, mother of Virginia Woolf). Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867.

Woolf, who cherished letters “the humane art,” writes:

The Victorian age killed the art of letter writing by kindness: it was only too easy to catch the post. A lady sitting down at her desk a hundred years before had not only certain ideals of logic and restraint before her, but the knowledge that a letter which cost so much money to send and excited so much interest to receive was worth time and trouble. With Ruskin and Carlyle in power, a penny post to stimulate, a gardener, a gardener’s boy, and a galloping donkey to catch up the overflow of inspiration, restraint was unnecessary and emotion more to a lady’s credit, perhaps, than common sense. Thus to dip into the private letters of the Victorian age is to be immersed in the joys and sorrows of enormous families, to share their whooping coughs and colds and misadventures, day by day, indeed hour by hour.

Woolf’s point applies not only to letter writing but to the very medium celebrated by the book in which her essay appears, and in fact to every technology that ever was and ever will be. She couldn’t have — or could she have? — envisioned what would become of photography as the technology became commonplace over the coming decades, much less what digital photography would bring. But her insight holds true — the easier it becomes to convey a message in a certain medium, the less selective we grow about what that message contains, and soon we are conveying the trifles and banalities of our day-to-day life, simply because it is effortless to fill the page (or feed, or screen, or whatever medium comes next). Letters about lunch items have been supplanted by Instagram photographs of lunch items, to which we apply the ready-made filters that have purported to supplant the artistry of light, shadow, and composition. The art of photography, too, is being killed by kindness.

Couple with Susan Sontag, writing decades before social media, on the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture and Sally Mann, writing nearly a century after Woolf, on the dark side of photography.

For more excerpts from Figuring, drink in Emily Dickinson’s stunning letters to her great love and lifelong muse, her editor’s advice on writing, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirit, and our search for meaning, the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, and Moby-Dick author Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his literary idol and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne.


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Arthur Rackham’s Stunning 1926 Illustrations for “The Tempest”


“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”


Arthur Rackham’s Stunning 1926 Illustrations for “The Tempest”

In 1898, over a garden wall, Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939) met the Irish portrait artist and sculptor Edyth Starkie, who encouraged the onetime insurance clerk turned insecure artist to pursue his creative passion. (She also married him.) She convinced him to exhibit his fantasy watercolors at the Royal Watercolor Society, where Rackham feared his they would be mocking-stock against the stern traditional work. Instead, they were lauded as visionary and innovative. More exhibitions followed, which led to commissions that allowed this quiet, introverted, serious-faced man to unleash his uncommon imagination upon the landscape of literature.

In 1907 — his fiftieth year, and four years after he married Edith — Rackham revolutionized book art and the business of publishing with his Alice in Wonderland illustrations by using his signature robust pen, India ink, and watercolor technique to render engravers unnecessary in the bookmaking process and to produce dreamy images that brought the Carroll classic to life in a thrilling new way. So began a career that would go on to influence generations of illustrators and book artists for more than a century to come. His obituary in The Times of London would mourn him as a preeminent artist who had earned “a special place in the hearts of children” — perhaps because he refused to treat children as emotionally infirm and understood the importance of being scared. His drawings — especially his unmistakable trees — emanate a reverence for the totality of life, the inseparability of beauty and brutality, of terror and transcendence.

Available as a print.
Available as a print.

In 1926, as the appetite for Rackham’s lavish books was declining in post-war Britain but increasing in America, he set his sights on one of the most timeless masterpieces of literature for grownups: Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, composed more than two centuries earlier. Rackham created twenty stunning ink-and-watercolor illustrations and twenty line drawings for a special limited edition, only 520 copies of which were printed, each signed and numbered by the artist — numbers 1 through 260 to be sold in Great Britain and Ireland, and the remaining half in the United States.

Couple with Rackham’s haunting illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm from the outset of his career, then devour other stunning illustrations from special editions of literary classics: sensual paintings for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass by Rackham’s gifted, forgotten compatriot and contemporary Margaret C. Cook, Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aubrey Beardsley’s gender-defying illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Harry Clarke’s haunting illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.


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