The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Life and Death and More Life: Leo Tolstoy on Science, Spirituality, and Our Search for Meaning

“A caterpillar sees itself shrivel up, but doesn’t see the butterfly which flies out of it.”

Life and Death and More Life: Leo Tolstoy on Science, Spirituality, and Our Search for Meaning

“How can a creature who will certainly die have an understanding of things that will exist forever?” asks the poetic physicist and scientific novelist Alan Lightman on the pages of his exquisite inquiry into the nature of existence. We can’t, of course — but out of those creaturely limits, out of our longing to transcend them, arises our eternal hunger for meaning, arises everything we might call art. Nick Cave intuited this in his lovely meditation on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence.

A century before Cave and Lightman, as he lay dying, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) — one of the vastest intelligences our species has produced, and one of the most deeply and therefore fallibly human — collided with this question on the pages of his final journals, included in the altogether revelatory Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy (public library).

Leo Tolstoy

Two decades after the uncommonly brilliant and prematurely death-bound Alice James wrote in her journal that “[dying] is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Tolstoy writes in his:

I’m beginning to get used to regarding death and dying not as the end of my task, but as the task itself.

One night, he dreams about “a clear, simple refutation of materialism comprehensible to all”; one morning, he wakes up filled with self-pity, feeling disgusted with himself. He rides the waves as they come. In the midwinter of his seventy-seventh year, having outlived the life expectancy of a Russian peasant twofold and having begun his life with a fierce search for purpose, he writes:

I woke up, and two things became especially and absolutely clear to me: (1) that I am a very worthless man. I say this absolutely sincerely, and (2) that it would be good for me to die, and that I would like to do so.

Along the way, he reckons with the meaning of life and with our making of meaning. In one of the most poignant entries from the journal, and in one of the most titanic acts of character a human being can perform, Tolstoy — a deeply spiritual man — scrutinizes his own blind spot as he considers the mutual blindnesses of science and spirituality, blinkered by the irreconcilable fact of our materiality and our hunger for meaning:

Normally people (myself included) who recognize the spiritual life as the basis of life deny the reality, the necessity, the importance of studying the physical life, which evidently cannot lead to any conclusive results. In just the same way, those who only recognize the physical life completely deny the spiritual life and all deductions based on it — deny, as they say, metaphysics. But it is now absolutely clear to me that both are wrong, and both forms of knowledge — the materialistic and the metaphysical — have their own great importance, if only one doesn’t wish to make inappropriate deductions from the one or the other. From materialistic knowledge based on the observation of external phenomena one can deduce scientific data, i.e. generalizations about phenomena, but one should not deduce any guiding principles for people’s lives, as the materialists — Darwinists for example — have often tried to do. From metaphysical knowledge based on inner consciousness one can and should deduce the laws of human life — how should we live? why are we living? — the very thing that all religious teachings do; but one should not deduce, as many people have tried to do, the laws of phenomena and generalizations about them.

Each of these two kinds of knowledge has its own purpose and its own field of activity.

One of a series of illustrations of how nature works from a nineteenth-century French physics textbook. (Available as a print.)

In another entry, which reads like the metaphysical counterpart to the science of entropy, Tolstoy confronts the crux of living and dying:

Life is continual creation, i.e. the formation of new, higher forms. When this formation comes to a stop in our view or even goes backwards, i.e. when existing forms are destroyed, this only means a new form is taking shape, invisible to us. We see what is outside us, but we don’t see what is within us, we only feel it (if we haven’t lost our consciousness, and don’t take what is visible and external to be the whole of our life). A caterpillar sees itself shrivel up, but doesn’t see the butterfly which flies out of it.

Complement with Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad’s soulful commencement address about monarch butterflies and the meaning of life and Alan Lightman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Einstein’s dialogue with the Indian poet Tagore about science and spirituality and Tolstoy on kindness and the measure of love.


The Unphotographable #3: Alaskan Paradise with Rockwell Kent

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — every Saturday, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.

Impoverished, creatively depleted, and dogged by self-doubt amid a world torn by its first global war and its first global flu pandemic, the painter, printmaker, and philosopher Rockwell Kent (June 21, 1882–March 13, 1971) set out for the Far North with his nine-year-old son, also named Rockwell. “We came to this new land, a boy and a man, entirely on a dreamer’s search; having had vision of a Northern Paradise, we came to find it,” he wrote — an austere paradise in which he hoped to find peace and clarity, and ended up finding himself, as an artist and as a human being.

In Wilderness (public library) — his magnificent journal of solitude and creativity — he paints the remote Alaskan paradise they arrived into:

What a scene! Twin lofty mountain masses flanked the entrance and from the back of these the land dipped downwards like a hammock swung between them, its lowest point behind the center of the crescent. A clean and smooth, dark-pebbled beach went all around the bay, the tide line marked with driftwood, gleaming, bleached bones of trees, fantastic roots and worn and shredded trunks. Above the beach a band of brilliant green and then the deep, black spaces of the forest.

Previously: The Unphotographable #2: The Alps with Mary Shelley.


Nick Cave on Songwriting, the Mystery of the Unconscious, and the Sweet Severity of Truth

“Metaphor can create a merciful sense of distance from the cruel idea, or the unspeakable truth, and allow it to exist within us as a kind of poetic radiance, as a work of art.”

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” the teenage Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem.

A poem — like a prayer, like a song — is a record of an inner reckoning that need not fully resolve, a dynamic contemplation that need not deliver a single static truth.Great poems, like great songs, call to us with profound resonance because they invite our own truths onto the landscape of their metaphors — always a little mysterious, a little malleable to the searching mind, yet sharp, clarifying, vivifying.

That is what great song lyrics do, and that is what Nick Cave explores in another wonderful issue of his journal in answering a fan’s question about the deliciously mysterious meaning behind a lyric from the final song on his album Ghosteen: “the kid drops his bucket and spade / and climbs into the sun” — a lyric I took as an allusion to Auden’s splendid poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (which begins the iconic line “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters” and paints the image of the boy Icarus falling from the sun as the world goes on “walking dully along”).

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, long attributed to the Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

But Nick offers a different, deeply poetic reflection on the lyric and, radiating from it, on the art of songwriting itself. In a sentiment evocative of Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech — “Only art penetrates… the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” — he writes:

I find that many of my favourite lyrics are those that I do not fully understand. They seem to exist in a world of their own — in a place of potentiality, adjacent to meaning. The words feel authentic or true, but remain mysterious, as if a greater truth lies just beyond our understanding. I see this, not just within a song, but within life itself, where awe and wonder live in the tension between what we understand and what we do not understand.

In a testament to how, as writers, we all clarify ourselves in the act of writing, he adds:

Sometimes, I write words that seem to vibrate with potential, even though I may not understand their exact meaning. That vibration is a promise. It promises that, in time, all will be revealed. I have learned to trust that intuition, because I know I am dealing with a metaphoric form that is essentially mystifying, and that a seemingly insignificant couple of lines have the capacity to reveal, in their smallness, in time, all of the world.

“The kid drops his bucket and spade/ And climbs into the sun” are such words. Two short lines that draw to an abrupt and brutal halt the main body of the epic song, “Hollywood.”

Acknowledges how these lyrics might resonate with others, he shines a subtle sidewise gleam on his own staggering experience of loss — the loss of one child, then another — as he reckons with their deeper, life-annealed resonance for him across the expanse of time and suffering, the expanse we all traverse as chance deals its impartial darknesses our way and we are left to make life livable by finding radiance, by making beauty:

[These lyrics] are a lovely image. However, looking at them now, these lines are perhaps not so obscure, and without wanting to take away their power by attaching my own meaning to them, their intent seems fairly clear. They mean, the child stopped what he was doing and died.

“The child stopped what he was doing and died” is also a beautiful line, perhaps a better line, but sometimes some truths are too severe to live on the page, or in a song, or in a heart. Hence, metaphor can create a merciful sense of distance from the cruel idea, or the unspeakable truth, and allow it to exist within us as a kind of poetic radiance, as a work of art.

Icarus / The Offering by Odilon Redon, circa 1890. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Nick’s reflections on creativity, originality, and how to find your voice and his hopeful remedy for despair, then revisit poet Jane Hirshfield on the magic and power of metaphor, Bob Dylan on songwriting and the unconscious, and Patti Smith on the crucial difference between writing poetry and songwriting.


Sappho and the Fevered Heart: Anne Carson on Jealousy

“…greener than grass I am and dead — or almost I seem to me.”

Sappho and the Fevered Heart: Anne Carson on Jealousy

Jealousy may be the most staggering scale discrepancy of the inner world — an enormous all-consuming emotion pinched into extreme smallness of spirit. It is also one of the most universal human experiences — homily on the elemental tragedy that the ever-open mouth of choice hungers for more than what chance grants us, so that we live desiring more than we have.

No one has voiced this hunger with more howling precision than Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) — the Tenth Muse, inventor of the personal lyric, and poet laureate of heartbreak — in one of the few surviving fragments of her poetry.

Death of Sappho by Miguel Carbonell Selva, 1881. (Available as a print.)

Because it touches on one of the most universal human themes, Fragment 31 is one of Sappho’s most translated fragments, which also means the most interpreted — for poetry in translation is an exponent of creation to begin with, but especially when translating the ancient tongue of a bygone civilization from a world alien to our own. At its best, such meta-creation lives up to the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lovely notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”

It is hardly surprising that some of humanity’s finest poets have wielded their original genius at Sappho’s Fragment 31. In the early 1820s, Byron translated it thus:

Equal to Jove that youth must be —
Greater than Jove he seems to me —
Who, free from Jealousy’s alarms,
Securely views thy matchless charms.
Ah! Lesbia! though ’tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.

A generation later, Tennyson tried his tenderer hand at it:

I watch thy grace; and in its place
My heart a charmed slumber keeps,
     While I muse upon thy face;
And a languid fire creeps
     Thro’ my veins to all my frame,
Dissolvingly and slowly: soon
     From thy rose-red lips my name
Floweth; and then, as in a swoon,
With dinning sound my ears are rife,
     My tremulous tongue faltereth,
     I lose my color, I lose my breath,
     I drink the cup of a costly death,
Brimm’d with delirious draughts of warmest life.
     I die with my delight, before
     I hear what I would hear from thee.

But the finest — for its literary splendor, its intellectual elegance, and its psychological insight — comes from a 2002 translation of Sappho’s fragments by the visionary Canadian poet, essayist, classicist, and translator Anne Carson:

He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
          to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
          is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
          fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
          I seem to me.

Carson’s translation of Fragment 31 began on the pages of her 1986 classic Eros the Bittersweet (public library). In it, she makes the discomposing observation that the poem embodies an internalized inheritance of Ancient Greek culture, which continues to haunt our modern lives: the conception of eros as lack, manifested in our tendency to define love by loss, or anticipatory loss, or the anterograde loss of what has never been had. (We need only look to Proust for the supreme confirmation.) “It is a notion that, once adopted, has a powerful effect on one’s habits and representations of love,” Carson observes, and the modern heart can’t but flinch with recognition.

Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate from artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1979.

Considering the extraordinary subtlety and force of Sappho’s conception of jealousy as the “triangulation of desire” between the three human agents in the poem — the girl, the object of her desire, and the poet looking in on the scene — she writes:

It is not a poem about the three of them as individuals, but about the geometrical figure formed by their perception of one another, and the gaps in that perception. It is an image of the distances between them. Thin lines of force coordinate the three of them. Along one line travels the girl’s voice and laughter to a man who listens closely. A second tangent connects the girl to the poet. Between the eye of the poet and the listening man crackles a third current. The figure is a triangle.

The triangle, Carson observes, is the platonic form of jealousy and Ancient Greece is its crucible:

The word “jealousy” comes from Greek zēlos meaning “zeal” or “fervent pursuit.” It is a hot and corrosive spiritual motion arising in fear and fed on resentment. The jealous lover fears that his beloved prefers someone else, and resents any relationship between the beloved and another. This is an emotion concerned with placement and displacement. The jealous lover covets a particular place in the beloved’s affection and is full of anxiety that another will take it.

One of Alice Austen’s pioneering nineteenth-century photographs of lesbian life.

For a more modern “image of the shifting pattern that is jealousy,” Carson points to an early-fifteenth-century Italian dance style called the bassa danza, “semidramatic and transparently expressive of psychological relationships.” In one of these dances, actually called “Jealousy,” three men and three women swirl in a sequence of partner changes, while one man continually takes the position of standing alone apart from the swirl. Carson wrests the metaphor from the dance:

Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves, for it is the instability of the emotional situation that preys upon a jealous lover’s mind.

Paradoxically, Sappho’s fragment illustrates the warp side of jealousy — the refusal to trade places. The poet, observing the besotted girl, is standing deliberately aside, unresentfully fascinated by but unwilling to take the place of the man whom the girl deifies. Carson writes:

Were she to change places with the man who listens closely, it seems likely she would be entirely destroyed. She does not covet the man’s place nor fear usurpation of her own. She directs no resentment at him. She is simply amazed at his intrepidity. This man’s role in the poetic structure reflects that of jealousy within Sappho’s feelings. Neither is named. It is the beloved’s beauty that affects Sappho; the man’s presence is somehow necessary to delineation of that emotional event.


We see clearly what shape desire has there: a three-point circuit is visible within Sappho’s mind… Sappho perceives desire by identifying it as a three-part structure… For, where eros is lack, its activation calls for three structural components — lover, beloved and that which comes between them.

From this emerges a revelatory revision of this universal emotion:

Jealousy is beside the point; the normal world of erotic responses is beside the point; praise is beside the point. It is a poem about the lover’s mind in the act of constructing desire for itself. Sappho’s subject is eros as it appears to her; she makes no claim beyond that. A single consciousness represents itself; one mental state is exposed to view.


The ideal is projected on a screen of the actual, in a kind of stereoscopy. The man sits like a god, the poet almost dies: two poles of response within the same desiring mind. Triangulation makes both present at once by a shift of distance, replacing erotic action with a ruse of heart and language. For in this dance the people do not move. Desire moves. Eros is a verb.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon, 1864. (Tate Britain.)

This, indeed, is the raw nature of jealousy — beneath the narrative, beyond the magma of feeling, it is a projection, a self-construction, a self-response that reveals more about our relationship to love itself, which springs from our relationship to ourselves, than about any object of desire. Like prayer, of which it is a mutant species, jealousy is a clarifying force for who we are and what we want; like prayer, this clarity is its true substance and object — and not the granting of some private wish, and not some outside agent bending reality to our will.

Complement with the story of how Pythagoras and Sappho radicalized music and revolutionized the world, then revisit the trailblazing eighteenth-century mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, celebrated as the Newton of France, on jealousy and the metaphysics of love.


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