Into the Heart of Life: Richard Powers on Living with Bewilderment at the Otherworldly Wonder of Our World
“That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.”
By Maria Popova
“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,” Rachel Carson, dying of cancer, told an orchard of human saplings in the commencement address she delivered in the late spring of 1962 — still the best recipe we have for how to save a world — as she was weathering a savage storm of attacks for having awakened the modern ecological conscience with her Silent Spring.
But somewhere along the way between her epoch and ours, as the world became more and more unsteady, humanity was sold on the expensive dream of living certain rather than bewildered, the dream of choosing — or being chosen for — the islanded certitudes of power over the open horizons of truth. The “dark ocean of space” lost its stardusted luster as we grew more and more unwilling to remain uncertain about the nature of reality and the open-endedness of the future.
While the Golden Record was voyaging into the cosmic expanse encoded with the best of us, the possibility of other worlds began falling out of favor as this one became too much to govern, to bear. We fixated on the here and now not like the lover who makes the beloved the single focal point of passionate devotion, but like the small, anxious step-child: fearful, clinging, uncertain of what love looks like.
But beneath the wetsuit of fear, we remained what we are: passionate primates longing for truth and beauty, forever digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”
Richard Powers addresses this binary pull on our nature in a wonderful autobiographical piece presented at Portland’s Literary Arts, folded into which is a kind of civilizational memoir — the biography of an idea that is corroding what is best of us, and the future history of its shimmering alternative.
Back when I was born, the world had only one moon. But by the time I turned five months old, it had twice as many. That was the year when my species… figured out how to escape gravity and send one of its most impressive artworks into permanent orbit.
It was quite a moment — the first time in four and a half billion years the planet had an entirely new type of object in the sky.
I grew up in a country racing into space. Sputnik made a special impression on my father, who had always dreamed of being a scientist but couldn’t hack the math. My dad believed, from my earliest days, that I would succeed where he had failed. That seemed right to me, too.
At the age of seven, at the attic bedroom of my family’s brick house on the north side of Chicago, I read the classic kids’ book he gave me: You Will Go to the Moon. Of all the wild stories I devoured back then — the one about befriending a wild raccoon, or the one about a bracelet falling inside a donut machine and being baked into the product — You Will Go to the Moon seemed by far the most plausible.
I was my father’s son, and I grew up committed to the new frontier: Easy travel to other planets — it all felt so imminent. Of course I would go to the Moon. We all would — the whole parade of human history pointed to it. My part in that outward journey was inevitable. In the meantime, I prepared myself, standing on the various scales at the Adler Planetarium to see how much I would weigh on Mercury, Jupiter, or Mars.
Space was where we would solve all the problems we never quite managed to square away here on this planet’s surface. My child’s pantheism merged with my father’s endless faith in human progress. By the time I turned nine, nothing was more obvious to me: Strange new worlds were within our reach, humankind would explore them forever, and they would be full of the most astonishing kinds of life.
Powers looks back on his childhood and how his generation was sold on the dream of the year 2000 as a “transformative threshold,” on the other wide of which lay “fusion-powered rockets” and “space colonies mounted in geosynchronous orbits” and contact with alien civilizations.
The math of it crushed him — he would be forty-three then, “too decrepit to go anywhere.” (A touching reminder that across cultures and generations, across the bruising artifice of adult divides, in the eternal sweetness of childhood we find out most indivisible humanity: A generation after Powers, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the nine-year-old me declared to my parents that I wanted my cord pulled at the senile age of thirty. My beloved only aunt, then thirty-nine, reasoned with me to consider disembarking Spaceship Life at forty. I still have a blink of time to weigh the evidence for and against.)
Powers recounts watching the grainy Moon landing on a black-and-white TV in Bangkok, where his father had taken a job — the enchantment of “the two buoyant people in bulky suits and helmets, bobbing around on a dusty plain, making footprints that would last forever,” before the program returned to the I Love Lucy episode dubbed into Thai, depositing him back to the planet he “still half-expected to leave forever someday.”
Looking back on the science fiction wonderland of his teenage years — the peaking art of “planetary romances,” drawing on Melville’s island romances from the previous century, which in turn built on Daniel Dafoe a century before that — Powers writes:
It never occurred to me, even when I moved back to the States at the age of fifteen, that I would die before human beings ever set foot again on any new or further place.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1975, humans had taken dominion over the Earth and subdued every inch of it. Going where no one had gone before was now impossible.
And yet something of the wanderlust which artist Rockwell Kent so poetically captured at the dawn of the century seemed part of what Powers calls “the legacy hardware” of the human brain. He couldn’t shake it. So he pressed it down:
Sometime between starting college as a Physics major and ejecting four and a half years later with a Master’s degree in Literature, I gave up space travel. In the interim, I had signed on to the idea — pretty much universal among my professors and fellow students in literature — that we humans were the only game in town, and there was no use pretending otherwise.
And so he came to scorn as crude or colonialist all stories that placed science above psychology, fact above feeling. “Real” literature, to his malleable and culture-sculpted mind, was the story of the social world. “The self-made mazes of the self.” Solipsism on the scale of the species.
With the abashed tenderness that is the best we can hope to muster for our younger selves — because, as Joan Didion reminds us, “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” — he reflects:
I put away science fiction, along with my other childish things, and I began writing stories of my own — stories that, without my realizing it, had assimilated the prevailing literary idea that human beings would never go anywhere new again; that we were here, in an empty universe, with only ourselves to contemplate.
This was not an entirely unfounded prevailing idea. In that era, even most astronomers had no grounds for believing they would live to see the discovery of another new planet — a time when “anything more than brief, poetic speculation about life beyond Earth was courting professional suicide.”
Everyone seemed to have forgotten that to live wonder-smitten by reality and the enchanted by the possible is not the stuff of science fiction but the core of our humanity. (Everyone except Jill Tarter and Frank Drake.)
When the unimaginable happened and NASA’s Kepler mission, spearheaded by my visionary friend Natalie Batalha, discovered Kepler-10b — the first potentially habitable planet outside our solar system — Powers was thirty-five and so devoted to his narrow band of literary fiction that he just about missed the news.
Abashed by this poverty of imagination — as much that of his young self as that of his young species — he writes:
I barely registered the landmark that life on Earth had just passed: A few self-replicating molecules, after four billion years of random walks shaped by nothing more than trial and error, had learned how to measure the infinitesimal dimming of light from trillions of miles away with enough precision to infer the transits of minuscule invisible planets passing in front of their obliterating stars — it was like detecting a fly walking across a streetlight in a distant city.
We did that — we Earthlings.
And then, just like that, a civilizational bloom of bold speculations followed — not merely about the existence of life, but about the wild and wondrous types of life that could exist in the frozen lakes of faraway moons or in the roiling mantles of drifting planets.
But Powers missed that, too — having “graduated from outer space,” he was living in the Absolute Here, occupied by Only Us. It took him years to catch up to reality.
By the 1990s — perhaps awakened by the Hubble Space Telescope’s epoch-making glimpse into the previously unfathomed frontiers of a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — he was yawning awake.
Our best advice to others is often not what we have already proven with our own lives, but what we ourselves most need to hear. Back then, when a young man asked him for his best advice on living, that is precisely what Powers offered:
Never forget what you were born knowing. That this fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is still in embryo. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet. Buy the plot some time.
But Powers himself was out of purchasing power. By the time he realized he was at the midpoint of his expected lifetime, he found himself gnawed by the same suspicion many of us face on our darkest days: that humanity had permanently maimed life on Earth, that “there was something inherently wrong with Homo sapiens, that we suffered from congenital defect — a built-in, incurable sadistic impulse toward domination that doomed us to failure along with 98% of Earth’s other experiments that had already gone extinct.”
It took decades to calibrate his despair with the elemental fact beneath the flinch:
Insanity wasn’t in our genes — we humans had gone off the rails because our culture had lost its source of external significance. We were so completely colonized by the belief that all meaning came down to economics and private consumption that it no longer even felt like a belief. We’d forgotten the fact that, in Gaylor Nelson’s great phrase, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, and not the other way around.”
Echoing Carson’s prescient 1953 admonition that our only real wealth lies in honoring “the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” he adds:
Our willingness to dismantle the greatest imaginable place in the universe for life results from the fact that very few of us live here — We had come to see the planet as a collection of exchangeable commodities reduced to their use value.
Somehow, in the mere century since Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology to name the relationship between organisms in the house of life, one inhabitant of the house decided, as Powers puts it, to “exploit all the planet’s ecosystems to its own ends” while presuming to reside “outside ecology altogether.”
At the time of his most acute exasperation with our species, Powers befriended the nine-year-old son of a colleague — a kid whom we would now call “neurodivergent,” a term far beyond the cultural horizon then. One day, midway through a conversation about the boy’s beloved Star Wars, somehow Mars came up — the planet’s fate, how it may have been home to life once but lost all of its water to become an arid red desert.
At first incredulous that such a thing could befall a world, the child paused a moment, then asked Powers whether such a thing could befall Earth.
It took twenty years, an existential breakdown that left him in “a constant state of pointlessness and dread,” a deadly pandemic, and a five-year love affair with the astonishing interconnected universe of old-growth forests until Powers could give the child — and himself, and the child he had once been, and the rest of despairing humanity — the real answer in his exquisite novel Bewilderment (public library).
Set sometime in the near future, when our search for life beyond the Solar System has come to its inevitable fruition, it tells the story of a thirty-nine-year-old astrobiologist and his neurodivergent, frightened, boundlessly courageous nine-year-old son, searching together for other worlds and instead discovering how to reworld ours with meaning.
Radiating from their quest is a luminous invitation to live up to our nature not as creatures consumed by “the black hole of the self,” as Powers so perfectly puts it in his talk, but as living empathy machines and portable cosmoses of possibility, whose planetary story is yet unwritten.
Fittingly, the novel opens with an epigraph from Carson’s The Sense of Wonder — her most personal piece of public writing, which had begun as an essay titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” inspired by the beloved grandnephew she adopted and raised after his mother’s death:
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
As the father searches for other worlds, he is savaged by despair at humanity’s catastrophic mismanagement of this one, haunted by the growing sense that we couldn’t possibly be good interplanetary emissaries until we have become good stewards of our own home planet. But each time he hits rock bottom, he bounces back up — as we all do, as we all must in order to go on living — with rekindled faith in what we are capable of. There are echos of Maya Angelou’s spaceborne poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” in his reflection on what we, despite our sacrificial destructions at the altar of the self, have achieved in our longing for those truths much larger and longer lasting than us:
A lineage of slow, weak, naked, awkward creatures… had lasted through several near-extinctions and held on long enough to discover that gravity bent light, everywhere in the universe. For no good reason and at insane expense, we’d built an instrument able to see the tiniest bend in starlight made by this small body, from scores of light-years away… We were… making it up as we went along, then proving it for all the universe to see.
Although the novel is set in the future, I would not call it science fiction, or fantasy, or even speculative fiction — it is merely an inspired, lucid glide along the clear vector of knowledge stretching between our past and our future. Again and again, we have assumed to have reached some limit of truth, some limit of the possible called life. Again and again, we have been wrong. Powers’s astrobiologist names an existential possibility that, by all mathematical probability, will become reality in our lifetimes:
Data flowed back from instruments flying all over the Solar System. The planets were wilder than anyone suspected. Moons of Jupiter and Saturn turned out to be hiding liquid oceans beneath their suspiciously smooth crusts. All the Earthly chauvinisms began to fall. We’d been reasoning from a sample of one. Life might not need surface water. It might not need water at all. It might not even need a surface.
I was living through one of the great revolutions in human thought. A few years before, most astronomers thought they’d never live to see the discovery of even a single planet outside the solar system. By the time I was halfway through graduate school, the eight or nine planets known to exist turned into dozens, then hundreds. At first they were mostly gas giants. Then Kepler was launched, and Earth was flooded with worlds, some not much larger than ours… People were looking at infinitesimal changes in the light of immensely distant stars — reductions in brightness of a few parts per million — and calculating the invisible bodies that dimmed them in transiting. Minuscule wobbles in the motion of massive suns — changes of less than one meter per second in the velocity of a star — were betraying the size and mass of invisible planets tugging on them. The precision of these measurements defied belief. It was like trying to use a ruler to measure a distance a hundred times smaller than the amount the ruler would expand from the heat of your hand.
We did that. We Earthlings.
And yet we also did this — this burning house, this sullied pale blue.
Echoing the largehearted Lewis Thomas and his forgiving assurance that we are “still new to the earth… a juvenile species, a child of a species… only tentatively set in place, error-prone, at risk of fumbling,” the astrobiologist looks at his son — a child filled with anger at his civilizational inheritance, filled with passion for righting it, uncertain where to begin or how much difference it would make — and reflects:
Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.
They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.
Over and over, Powers reckons with the question of why, given how life began in the first place — “One day two billion years ago, instead of one microbe eating the other, one took the other inside its membrane and they went into business together.” — we, supposed pinnacles of life, most privileged beneficiaries of this immense progression of symbiosis, have managed to turn on the rest of life so ungratefully, to grow so childish in mistaking Mother’s body for a resource and our responsibilities for rights. In one of his protagonist’s moments of shamed optimism, Powers produces the great indictment of our species:
That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.
Answering an audience question at his Literary Arts talk, Powers considers what it would take for us to make our tightrope way across the abyss toward the side of love:
For me, the wild is that condition of interbeing, of presence, that understands how beholden it is to place and everything else in that place. To be “bewildered” is to land back on Earth… to understand that there is no way of talking about us or our stories — where we’d been or where we’re going — without being a part of that interdependent wild community, of putting ourselves into the neighborhood — not as something above it, but just as one of the many, many agents that make place.
Novels, if they are any good, are not things one can write about — only things one can read, or write. Read Bewilderment. It is an excellent novel — one of those rare epochal works, of art and of truth, that both slake the soul of their time and outlive it.
Published June 26, 2022