“The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” 30-year-old Nietzsche wrote in his treatise on how to find yourself. And yet in the century and a half since, a curious dissonance has begun to reverberate across culture: On the one hand, we have grown increasingly fixated on the self as the focal lens for interpreting the world — a fixation which Ian McEwan so brilliantly satirized and which has precipitated today’s tragic epidemic of militant identity politics; on the other hand, the rise of neuroscience has demonstrated again and again that the self we experience as so overwhelmingly real — the psychophysiological raft of experience through which we float along the river of life — is a sensory-perceptual byproduct of consciousness, completely illusory in its solidity.
Nearly half a century ago, the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905–September 15, 1989) cast a cautionary eye to the notion of “finding oneself” in Democracy and Poetry (public library) — his magnificent Jefferson Lecture about power, tenderness, and art’s role in a healthy society.
Decades before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s witty and wise observation that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Warren challenges the cultural trend of young people taking “time off” from school or work in order to “get away from it all” and find themselves. He writes:
In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Eater egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.
In consonance with my own deep belief in the ongoingness and fluidity of our becoming, Warren adds:
The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Academy of American Poets executive director Jennifer Benka’s beautiful observation that “poems are physical sites of discovery [and] sense-records of our humanity,” Warren considers the role of poetry as a locus of our evolving being:
How does poetry come into all this? By being an antidote, a sovereign antidote, for passivity. For the basic fact about poetry is that it demands participation, from the secret physical echo in muscle and nerve that identifies us with the medium, to the imaginative enactment that stirs the deepest recesses where life-will and values reside. Beyond that, it nourishes our life-will in the process of testing our values. And this is not to be taken as implying a utilitarian aesthetic. It is, rather, one way of describing our pleasure in poetry as an adventure in the celebration of life.
Complement this particular portion of Warren’s thoroughly transcendent Democracy and Poetry with Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.
Illustration from the vintage Danish primer An ABZ of Love
“The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,’” the poet Adrienne Rich memorably wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” But too often, we mistake for love feelings rooted in the pleasant untruths of delusion — about ourselves, or the other, or the possibility that exists between the two. Anyone who has ever been vitalized by the electricity of infatuation has also burned with disappointment as the fantasy of the idealized beloved has crumbled into the reality of a living and therefore flawed person. And yet one of the great paradoxes of the human heart is that we go on falling in love — or in what we think is love, or hope might be love — anyway.
Nearly two centuries before the French philosopher Alain Badiou examined the delicate psychoemotional machinery of why we fall and stay in love, his compatriot Stendhal set out to outline the dark side of life’s most radiant experience in his “crystallization” theory of the seven stages of infatuation and disillusionment. But infatuation, argues Alain de Botton in a portion of The Course of Love (public library), isn’t a maladaptive mutation of our love-faculty — rather, it is an essential feature of it.
De Botton writes:
Infatuations aren’t delusions. That way they have of holding their head may truly indicate someone confident, wry, and sensitive; they really may have the humor and intelligence implied by their eyes and the tenderness suggested by their mouth. The error of the infatuation is more subtle: a failure to keep in mind the central truth of human nature: that everyone — not merely our current partners, in whose multiple failings we are such experts — but everyone will have something substantially and maddeningly wrong with them when we spend more time around them, something so wrong as to make a mockery of those initially rapturous feelings.
The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better.
Though De Botton is being, of course, at least semi-facetious in this last sentiment, it does raise one inescapable question about the tradeoffs between normalcy and desirability, for in the desired stranger of our fantasies the abnormalities we witness are charming quirks, whereas in the partner of our reality they are flaws so alarming as to be feared fatal.
In this sense, there might be no “cure” for love, but there is one mighty defense against the pathology of continual disappointment that can plague our intimate relationships — an unbegrudging acceptance of imperfection and frequent low-level letdown between even the most well-intentioned of partners, which works much like a vaccine enlists a small dose of the weakened microbe in fortifying the larger organism against the disease.
What makes infatuation so intoxicating is precisely its imperviousness to disappointment, for it is rooted entirely in a chimera of the other, enshrined in the illusion of perfection. What makes love so rich and rewarding is the moving frontier of mutual discovery and understanding with each experience of disappointment, as we continually calibrate our flat fantasy of the idealized beloved to an ever-expanding reality of a dimensional person.
Complement the immensely and at times heartbreakingly insightful The Course of Love — which also gave us De Botton on what makes a good communicator and the paradox of sulking — with the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple, profound treatise on how to love, and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in romance.
ILLUSTRATION BY KATHERINE GUILLEN & ELEANOR DAVIS
What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind.
You’d be forgiven if, settling into the fall 2003 “Literature of the 16th Century” course at University of California, Berkeley, you found the unassuming 70-year-old man standing at the front of the lecture hall a bit eccentric. For one thing, the class syllabus, which was printed on the back of a rumpled flyer promoting bicycle safety, seemed to be preparing you for the fact that some readings may feel toilsome. “Don’t worry,” it read on the two weeks to be spent with a notoriously long allegorical poem; it’s “only drudgery if you’re reading it for school.” Phew!you thought, then, Wait a second… You might have wondered what you had gotten yourself into. Then again, if you had enrolled in Stephen Booth’s class, chances are that you already knew.
By this time, Booth had been teaching Shakespeare to Berkeley undergraduates for decades and had earned the adulation of thousands of students. A cynic might say that this was because he issued virtually no assignments. But that was because he wanted the work to be a labor of love. His goal was that students engage meaningfully with the readings rather than “going thoughtlessly, dutifully through institutionally approved motions” in search of a good grade.
Even if you’d taken a Shakespeare class from someone else, you’d be likely to encounter Booth. His prizewinning 1977 edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets accompanies the 154 poems with over 400 pages of virtuosic commentary exploring the ambiguity and polysemy of Shakespeare’s verse. It’s nearly as dazzling an artifact as the sonnets themselves, an achievement so extraordinary that Booth has continued to win acclaim for decades, despite what some might see as his best efforts to distance himself from the inner circle of academia.
Although Booth is now retired, his work couldn’t be more relevant. In the study of the human mind, old disciplinary boundaries have begun to dissolve and fruitful new relationships between the sciences and humanities have sprung up in their place. When it comes to the cognitive science of language, Booth may be the most prescient literary critic who ever put pen to paper. In his fieldwork in poetic experience, he unwittingly anticipated several language-processing phenomena that cognitive scientists have only recently begun to study. Booth’s work not only provides one of the most original and penetrating looks into the nature of Shakespeare’s genius, it has profound implications for understanding the processes that shape how we think.
Until the early decades of the 20th century, Shakespeare criticism fell primarily into two areas: textual, which grapples with the numerous variants of published works in order to produce an edition as close as possible to the original, and biographical. Scholarship took a more political turn beginning in the 1960s, providing new perspectives from various strains of feminist, Marxist, structuralist, and queer theory. Booth is resolutely dismissive of most of these modes of study. What he cares about is poetics. Specifically, how poetic language operates on and in audiences of a literary work.
Close reading, the school that flourished mid-century and with which Booth’s work is most nearly affiliated, has never gone completely out of style. But Booth’s approach is even more minute—microscopic reading, according to fellow Shakespeare scholar Russ McDonald. And as the microscope opens up new worlds, so does Booth’s critical lens. What makes him radically different from his predecessors is that he doesn’t try to resolve or collapse his readings into any single interpretation. That people are so hung up on interpretation, on meaning, Booth maintains, is “no more than habit.” Instead, he revels in the uncertainty caused by the myriad currents of phonetic, semantic, and ideational patterns at play…
“The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant animating force in my family story.
The anthology is now out as In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs (public library), featuring contributions from wonderful writers like Pico Iyer (“Yesterday”), Rosanne Cash (“No Reply”), Rick Moody (“The End”), Rebecca Mead (“Eleanor Rigby”), Roz Chast (“She Loves You”), Jane Smiley (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and Adam Gopnik (“Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Field”).
Here my essay, as it appears in the book.
by Maria Popova
My parents fell in love on a train. It was the middle of the Cold War and they were both traveling from their native Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where they were to attend different universities — my father, an introvert of formidable intelligence, was studying computer science; my mother, a poetry-writing (bordering-on-bossy) extrovert , library science.
An otherwise rational man, my father describes the train encounter as love at first sight. Upon arrival, he began courting my mother with such subtlety that it took her two years to realize she was being courted.
One spring morning, having finally begun to feel like a couple, they were walking across the lawn between the two dorms and decided it was time for them to have a whistle-call. At the time, Bulgarian couples customarily had whistle-calls — distinctive tunes they came up with, usually borrowed from the melody of a favorite song, by which they could find each other in a crowd or summon one another from across the street.
Partway between the primitive and the poetic, between the mating calls of mammals and the sonnets by which Romeo and Juliet beckoned one another, these signals were part of a couple’s shared language, a private code to be performed in public. Both sets of my grandparents had one. My mother’s parents, elementary schoolteachers in rural Bulgaria who tended to an orchard and the occasional farm animal, used a melody of unclear origin but aurally evocative of a Bulgarian folk song; my father’s parents, both civil engineers and city intellectuals, used a fragment from a Schumann waltz.
That spring morning, knowing that my mother was a Beatles fan, my father suggested “Yellow Submarine.” There was no deliberation, no getting mired in the paradox of choice — just an instinctive offering fetched from some mysterious mental library.
Eventually, my parents got pregnant, got married, had this child. They continued to summon each other, and eventually me, by whistling “Yellow Submarine.” Although I didn’t know at the time that it was originally written as a children’s song, it came to color my childhood. I had always wondered why, of all possible songs saturating their youth, my parents had chosen “Yellow Submarine” — a song released long before they met. My father wasn’t much of a Beatles fan himself, and yet that spring morning, he was able to open the cabinet of his semi-conscious memory, fetch a melody he had heard almost twenty years earlier, and effortlessly whistle it to his beloved. The familial whistle-call became a given in my childhood, like math homework and Beef Stroganoff Sundays, so it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that it occurred to me to inquire about how “Yellow Submarine” wove itself into the family fabric. The story of how that seemingly random song had implanted itself in my father’s mind is the archetypal story of how popular music, and perhaps all popular art, is metabolized in the body of culture. Once it has entered the crucible of consciousness, a song becomes subject to a peculiar alchemy — the particularities of the listener’s life at that particular moment transmute its objective meaning, if there ever was one at all, into a subjective impression. That impression is what we encode into memory, what we retrieve to whistle twenty years later. The artist’s original intent is melded with the listener’s personal context into an amorphous mass of inexpressible yet unforgettable unity — a dormant seed whose blossoming depends on the myriad factors fertilizing the surrounding soil. That the seed was planted at all may remain unheralded until the moment of its blossoming…
Robert Pirsig died on Monday, April 24, 2017, at his home in Maine. He was 88 and had been in poor health for some time.
In 1974, he published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an autobiographical account of the road trip he took with his 11-year-old son Chris from Minneapolis to San Francisco in the summer of 1968. It became an unexpected and almost immediate success, selling a million copies within a year and many more millions since.
The book also describes his experience, years earlier, of going clinically insane while trying to discover the meaning of life, eventually leaving him confined to a psychiatric hospital to receive electroconvulsive therapy. Yet a third strand of the novel develops the philosophy he explored during those difficult years—a metaphysics of what he calls “Quality”—in a series of informal narrative essays that form the bulk of most chapters.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not about traditional Zen, although Pirsig was clearly inspired by Zen Buddhism. His philosophical investigations began through teaching English composition to college students and asking himself the simple question of what made writing good. He started with this practical quandary:
Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others—but what’s the “betterness”? So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”
Pirsig describes a sort of enlightenment experience around this ineffable Quality koan of his, and he comes to equate his notion of Quality with the Buddha quite literally: “Quality is the Buddha,” he declares near the end. His writing on this point evokes a distinctly Zen flavor:
“To discover a metaphysical relationship of Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. And very unimportant . . . What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them.”
Pirsig adapted his famous—and now frequently imitated—title from Zen in the Art of Archery, a slim volume published by a German philosophy professor in the late 1940s that became one of the first works on Japanese Zen available in English. Although Pirsig’s own book makes few direct references to orthodox Zen practice, there are hints within that Pirsig knew much more than he let on. He makes a fleeting reference to “beginner’s mind,” that favorite phrase of San Francisco Zen Center’s founder Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In fact, Pirsig studied extensively with Suzuki’s friend Dainin Katagiri Roshi, helping him start the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, which still thrives in Minneapolis.
Pirsig developed a deeper and far more tragic connection to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979, when his son Chris was killed on the street just outside that building a week before his 23rd birthday. Chris had also suffered bouts of mental illness, but had moved to San Francisco and was living at the Center at the time, pursuing the formal practice of Zen that his father’s book largely avoided. Katagiri Roshi gave the address at Chris’s funeral. With the elder Pirsig’s passing last month, both passengers on that legendary motorcycle have now left us.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance likely remains the world’s best-selling book with the word “Zen” in the title. Pirsig himself offered a simple explanation for his work’s enduring appeal: “To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely,” he wrote early in his book. For certain newcomers to Zen and even some experienced practitioners, Pirsig’s long digressions on tightening bolts and changing spark plugs might just be the inspiration they need to understand life’s great mysteries…
image edited by Web Investigator
Drawing on intuition, Edgar Allan Poe offered some remarkably prescient ideas about the universe in his poem ‘Eureka’
Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne … I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious – for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.
‘A Descent into the Maelström’ (1841), Edgar Allan Poe
Nature’s power enthralled the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, and galvanised some of his most memorable works. He was particularly captivated by the natural world’s ghastly capacity for destruction. In the short story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’, for instance, a sea voyage turns into sheer mayhem when a fierce vortex hurls the vessel toward its briny doom, shattering it into splinters. As if he were a journalist reporting a maritime calamity, Poe describes each stage of the devastation in riveting detail. His amateur interest in science lends his tales a measure of credibility that makes them all the more horrific.
Despite his relatively brief life, from 1809 to 1849, Poe applied his style to an astounding range of genres, from supernatural horror to detective stories. Even among that diversity, though, one piece stands out. In his final major work, Eureka – A Prose Poem (1848), he took his fascination with nature beyond the human world and crafted a chronicle of the Universe itself. The unique subject matter required an inversion of his usual approach. Instead of imagining a breaking down of regularity into shards, as in many of his famous short stories, Poe envisioned a systematic building up of order from a unitary beginning – a genesis rather than an apocalypse. Moreover, he offered his account as an attempt at realistic truth rather than mere fiction. ‘My general proposition … is this,’ he wrote. ‘In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.’
Readers who first encounter Eureka are often surprised by its resemblance to the Big Bang model of cosmology, pioneered by the Belgian physicist and cleric Georges Lemaître in the 1920s, and later developed by the Russian-born cosmologist George Gamow and others. In the Big Bang narrative, the Universe started as a kind of dense, unitary ‘primeval atom’ (Lemaître’s term) that diversified as it expanded. The narrative of Eureka is similar enough that, taking it out of context, Poe seems uncannily prescient, almost a prophet of modern cosmology. Even though he had no access to the later theoretical insights and experimental evidence upon which the Big Bang is based, one might trace a narrative thread connecting Eureka’s ethereal speculations with the more solid scientific theory.
Poe identified a vital cosmos, pulsing with change, as dynamic as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and indeed maelströms. The Universe, painted with Poe’s vivid colours, became not just a backdrop to nature’s theatrics but a dramatis persona in its own right, much like the seven chambers in another of Poe’s stories, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), or the turbulent sea in ‘A Descent’. In bringing the cosmos to life, Poe mirrored the embrace of natural transformation in many of the writings of the Transcendentalists around this time, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson in his lecture ‘The Method of Nature’ (1841), which advised: ‘If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted.’ In a similar vein, Walt Whitman’s poem ‘A Song of the Open Road’ (1856) speaks of ‘wild seas… where winds blow, waves dash’.
Science today has embraced a dynamic Universe that alters from aeon to aeon (or even from second to second), but in the mid-19th century that view was rather radical. By then, Isaac Newton’s mechanistic laws of motion were well-established. At face value, they seemed to suggest a timeless Universe driven by deterministic rules to persist indefinitely. Running those laws backward into the past implied that the clockwork Universe would have always ticked, eliminating the need for Genesis. Eschewing Biblical teachings of a divine creation completely had proven too bold a step for Newton to take, however.
Lacking an obvious starting point, Newton had felt the need to insert one deus ex machina. In a letter to the English theologian Thomas Burnet, Newton envisioned how the early Universe was constructed:
One may suppose that all the planets about our sun were created together… That they all, and the sun too, had, at first, one common chaos. That this chaos, by the spirit of God moving upon it, became separated into several parcels, each parcel for a planet. That at the same time the matter of the sun also separated from the rest, and upon the separation began to shine before it was formed into that compact and well-defined body we now see it.
Newton had little reason to doubt the Biblical timeline that Earth and the cosmos were thousands of years old. In his day, fossil evidence for a distant past was just starting to be examined, and geological dating and astronomical observation had not yet revealed the true multi-billion-year timeline. The Irish archbishop James Ussher’s infamous 1654 proclamation that the Universe began on 22 October 4004 BCE was emblematic of the widespread misconceptions about a young Earth…