The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Octavio Paz on Freedom

Octavio Paz on Freedom

“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,” James Baldwin admonished as he considered how we imprison ourselves, for he knew just how limited our freedom is and how illusory our choices. And yet we must move through the world with a feeling of freedom, necessary for our sense of agency, for making our existential helplessness bearable, for making our lives of consequence. More than that, freedom — the sense of it, no matter the fact of it — must be at the center of our being, if we are to be. Ursula K. Le Guin’s understood this when she insisted that freedom “must remain a quality of the mind or spirit not dependent on circumstances, a gift of grace.”

That is what Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores throughout The Double Flame (public library) — his uncommonly insightful inquiry into love as “a knot made of two intertwined freedoms,” at the center of which is his insistence that “there is an intimate, causal relation between love and freedom,” that freedom is the fundamental necessity of being.

And yet the entire premise is haunted by the abiding question of what place freedom can possibly have, as Paz himself recognizes, “in a universe governed by immutable laws” — the same disquieting question at the heart of the paradox of free will.

Art by Levi Walter Yaggy from his Geographical Portfolio, 1887. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Paz twists our existing assumptions into an ouroboros, intimating that the question itself is a prison of which we must break free in order to comprehend freedom:

Freedom is not an isolated concept nor can it be defined in isolation; it is permanently wedded to another concept without which it cannot exist — necessity. But necessity in turn is impossible without freedom: each exists only in opposition to the other. The Greek tragedians saw this with greater clarity than did the Greek philosophers. Since that time, theologians have not stopped arguing about predestination and free will.

Noting that modern scientists have returned to this concept, he considers Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking work on black holes and its consequent concept of the singularity, which Paz shorthands as “an exception, a place within space-time where the laws of the universe cease to apply.” Triangulating between what is, what can be, and what must be, he writes defiantly:

An unthinkable, inconsistent idea. It resembles Kant’s antinomies, which he regarded as insoluble. Nonetheless, black holes exist. In like manner, then, freedom exists. Knowing that we are setting forth a paradox, we may say that freedom is a dimension of necessity.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

That we are both a function of the universe and its functionary makes all the more vivid our elemental need to feel free, without which we cannot function as human beings. Paz puts it succinctly:

Without freedom, what we call a person does not exist.

Complement with Toni Morrison on the deepest meaning of freedom, Iris Murdoch on the its five layers, and Maya Angelou’s magnificent conversation with Bill Moyers about it, then revisit Einstein on free will and the power of the imagination.


After Love: Maxine Kumin’s Stunning Poem About Eros as a Portal to Unselfing

After Love: Maxine Kumin’s Stunning Poem About Eros as a Portal to Unselfing

It is one of the hardest things in life — discerning where we end and the rest of the world begins, negotiating the permeable boundary between self and other, all the while longing for its dissolution, longing to be set free from the prison of ourselves. That is why we cherish nature and art, those supreme instruments of unselfing, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase; that is why happiness, as Willa Cather so perfectly defined it, is so often the feeling of being “dissolved into something complete and great.”

Because our sense of self is rooted in the body, it is through the body that we most readily and rapturously break the boundary in the ecstatic dissolution we call eros.

That is what former U.S. Poet Laureate Maxine Kumin (June 6, 1925–February 6, 2014) explores in her subtle and stunning 1970 poem “After Love,” found in her indispensable Selected Poems (public library).

by Maxine Kumin

Afterward, the compromise.
Bodies resume their boundaries.

These legs, for instance, mine.
Your arms take you back in.

Spoons of our fingers, lips
admit their ownership.

The bedding yawns, a door
blows aimlessly ajar

and overhead, a plane
singsongs coming down.

Nothing is changed, except
there was a moment when

the wolf, the mongering wolf
who stands outside the self

lay lightly down, and slept.

Couple with Rilke on the relationship between love, sex, solitude, and creativity, then revisit Derek Walcott’s stunning kindred-titled poem exploring the uncoupling not of bodies but of souls — “Love After Love”


Ursula K. Le Guin on Change, Menopause as Rebirth, and the Civilizational Value of Elders

Ursula K. Le Guin on Change, Menopause as Rebirth, and the Civilizational Value of Elders

“God is Change,” Octavia Butler wrote, wresting the poetic truth from the scientific fact that entropy is the ruling law of the universe.

We know that “to every thing there is a season,” that everything changes, everything passes, transitions from one state to another, from one stage to another — and yet, in our irrational longing for permanence, we try and try to hedge against change, denounce it as deterioration, dread it as a prelude to death.

Nowhere is this dread more acute than in the changes incurred by the body, that crucible of the soul. And no one has offered a greater salve for it than Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) in one of the essays from her altogether indispensable 1989 collection Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library), which also gave us her reflections on writing and where ideas come from.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Living through one of the profoundest changes a human body-soul can undergo — menopause, long cottoned in the euphemism “change of life” — she writes:

The woman who is willing to make that change must become pregnant with herself, at last. She must bear herself, her third self, her old age, with travail and alone. Not many will help her with that birth.

Although biologically particular to female bodies, Le Guin goes on to observe, menopause is a lens on the universal experience of change and our civilizational bias against old age. With her characteristic largehearted, vast-minded, mischievous wisdom, she writes:

If a space ship came by from the friendly natives of the fourth planet of Altair, and the polite captain of the space ship said, “We have room for one passenger; will you spare us a single human being, so that we may converse at leisure during the long trip back to Altair and learn from an exemplary person the nature of the race?” — I suppose what most people would want to do is provide them with a fine, bright, brave young man, highly educated and in peak physical condition… There would surely be hundreds, thousands of volunteers, just such young men, all worthy. But I would not pick any of them. Nor would I pick any of the young women who would volunteer, some out of magnanimity and intellectual courage, others out of a profound conviction that Altair couldn’t possibly be any worse for a woman than Earth is.

What I would do is go down to the local Woolworth’s, or the local village marketplace, and pick an old woman, over sixty, from behind the costume jewelry counter or the betel-nut booth. Her hair would not be red or blonde or lustrous dark, her skin would not be dewy fresh, she would not have the secret of eternal youth. She might, however, show you a small snapshot of her grandson, who is working in Nairobi. She is a bit vague about where Nairobi is, but extremely proud of the grandson. She has worked hard at small, unimportant jobs all her life, jobs like cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, selling little objects of adornment or pleasure to other people.

Art by Carson Ellis from What Is Love

With an eye to our troubled cultural model of aging — something Le Guin would address several years later in her exquisite meditation on the art of growing older — she adds:

The trouble is, she will be very reluctant to volunteer. “What would an old woman like me do on Altair?” she’ll say. “You ought to send one of those scientist men, they can talk to those funny-looking green people. Maybe Dr. Kissinger should go. What about sending the Shaman?” It will be very hard to explain to her that we want her to go because only a person who has experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition — the essential quality of which is Change — can fairly represent humanity. “Me?” she’ll say, just a trifle slyly. “But I never did anything.”

But it won’t wash. She knows, though she won’t admit it, that Dr. Kissinger has not gone and will never go where she has gone, that the scientists and the shamans have not done what she has done. Into the space ship, Granny.

Complement with Simone de Beauvoir on how to grow old without letting life become a parody of itself, Bertrand Russell on the key to growing old contentedly, and Grace Paley’s almost unbearably wonderful instruction on the art of growing older, then revisit Le Guin on storytelling and the power of language, suffering and getting to the other side of pain, the magic of real human conversation, and the poetry of penguins.


I Touched the Sun: A Tender Illustrated Fable About How to Find and Bear Your Inner Light

I Touched the Sun: A Tender Illustrated Fable About How to Find and Bear Your Inner Light

“One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light,” James Baldwin wrote in one of his finest, least known essays.

In his exquisite memoir of the search for inner light, the blind resistance hero Jacques Lusseyran wrote in the same era: “Nothing in the world, not even what I saw inside myself with closed eyelids, was outside this great miracle of light.”

That search comes ablaze with uncommon tenderness in I Touched the Sun (public library) by musician and graphic novelist Leah Hayes — the story of a young boy’s quest to find and bear his own light.

One morning, warmed by the light of dawn, the boy awakes overcome by the desire to touch the sun.

His mother tells him it’s impossible — the sun is far too far. His father tells him it’s impossible — the sun is too hot to touch. His older brother, sipping soda by his bike, meets the quest with indifference.

And so the boy decides to go by himself.

He closes his eyes and launches into the sky. When he lands on the sun, he bends down to greet her and she embraces him hello with her great yellow arms.

We see the boy peeking from the sky onto a beach scene as the sun shows him where she works.

We see him admiring a bright flower as she shows him “what she’s made.”

She showed me things that took her years to grow…

…and things that only lasted seconds.

Carrying the story is the quiet conversation between the black-and-white simplicity of Hayes’s pencil and the incandescent richness of her crayons, emanating the candor of a child’s drawing and the refined subtlety of an artist’s lens on the world — a world of contrasts in the act of being made on the page, like a young life still unwritten, yet to be colored in with living.

Before the boy leaves, he asks the sun one simple, immense question: Where does her light come from?

From inside, she tells him, touching his heart.

Suddenly, a bright inner sun comes ablaze within him — the light he always carried, “not too hot, but just right,” now found.

The sun inside began to shine outward. It made me feel brilliant with light, like I could wake up the world with just my touch.

So illuminated, the boy feels ready to return home and embraces the sun goodbye before flying back down to Earth, where he finds his mother mesmerized by the stunning sunset aglow outside.

She doesn’t seem to notice anything has changed in him. Nor does his father as he carries the sleepy child up the stairs.

But looking out his bedroom window into the night sky, the boy knows, the boy feels that the light is always and already there.

Couple I Touched the Sun with Before I Grew Up — a soulful illustrated meditation on life and our search for light — then savor Mary Ruefle’s magnificent poem “Kiss of the Sun.”

And if you are still searching for your own light, take rapturous assurance from Nina Simone:

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova


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