The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

“The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.”

The Vital Difference Between Work and Labor: Lewis Hyde on Sustaining the Creative Spirit

It is a gladness to be able to call one’s daily work a labor of love, and to have that labor put food on the table the way any work does, dishwashing or dentistry. And yet such labors of diligence and devotion — the kind William Blake called “eternal work” — are somehow different, different and more vulnerable, for they enter the world in a singular spirit and are recompensed in a singular spirit, distinct from dentistry or dishwashing.

That spirit is the spirit of a gift — not the transaction of two commodities but the interchange of two mutual generosities, passing between people who share in the project of a life worth living.

A year before I was born, the poet Lewis Hyde taxonomized that vital and delicate distinction between work and labor in his eternally giving book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (public library) — a timeless inquiry into what it takes to harmonize “the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture.”

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Hyde writes:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. “Getting the program” in AA is a labor. It is likewise apt to speak of “mourning labor”: when a loved one dies, the soul undergoes a period of travail, a change that draws energy. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them… We wake up to discover the fruits of labor.

At the heart of the distinction is the recognition that those fruits are offered to the world not as a service or a transaction but as a gift — “the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.” The challenge arises when we try to reconcile the spiritual ecosystem of gifts with the material market economy within which they dwell — the economy of sustenance and solvency of which every modern person partakes just in the course of staying alive.

An epoch before Patreon and Kickstarter and Substack, Hyde issues a clarion call for honoring the gifts we receive:

If we really valued these gift labors, couldn’t we pay them well? Couldn’t we pay social workers as we pay doctors, pay poets as we do bankers, pay the cellist in the orchestra as we pay the advertising executive in the box seat? Yes, we could. We could — we should — reward gift labors where we value them. My point here is simply that where we do so we shall have to recognize that the pay they receive has not been “made” the way fortunes are made in the market, that it is a gift bestowed by the group. The costs and benefits of tasks whose procedures are adversarial and whose ends are easily quantified can be expressed through a market system. The costs and rewards of gift labors cannot.

Art by William Blake for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment that gladdens those of us who offer the fruits of our labors freely and are sustained by what is given freely in return, he adds:

The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation… The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.

The Gift remains a vitalizing read, all the more nourishing and necessary in our present culture that so commodifies creative labor and our market economy that so devalues those works of thought and tenderness that most help us live our lives: music, poetry, philosophy, art. Complement these fragments from it with some Hyde-fomented thoughts on music and the price of what we cherish, then revisit the story of how Van Gogh found his gift that revolutionized art and how Jeanne Villepreux-Power turned her gift into a breakthrough of science.

BP

Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does.”

Ways of Being: Rethinking Intelligence

“Intelligence supposes good will,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Sensitivity is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself.” Yet our efforts to define and measure intelligence have been pocked with insensitivity to nuance, to diversity, to the myriad possible ways of paying attention to the world. Within the human realm, there is the dark cultural history of IQ. Beyond the human realm, there is the growing abashed understanding that other forms of intelligence exist, capable of comprehending and navigating the world in ways wildly different from ours, no less successful and no less poetic. One measure of our own intelligence may be the degree of our openness to these other ways of being — the breadth of mind and generosity of spirit with which we recognize and regard otherness.

The science-reverent English artist James Bridle invites such a broadening of mind in Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (public library). He writes:

The tree of evolution bears many fruits and many flowers, and intelligence, rather than being found only in the highest branches, has in fact flowered everywhere.

[…]

There are many ways of “doing” intelligence: behaviourally, neurologically, physiologically and socially… Intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does; it is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act. We have already learned — from the gibbons, gorillas and macaques — that intelligence is relational: it matters how and where you do it, what form your body gives it, and with whom it connects. Intelligence is not something which exists just in the head — literally, in the case of the octopus, who does intelligence with its whole body. Intelligence is one among many ways of being in the world: it is an interface to it; it makes the world manifest.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, 1909. (Available as a print and as a cutting board, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Borrowing ecological philosopher David Abram’s notion of “the more-than-human world,” he adds:

Intelligence, then, is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized, in all the multiple forms that it takes. The task is to figure out how to become aware of it, to associate with it, to make it manifest. This process is itself one of entanglement, of opening ourselves to forms of communication and interaction with the totality of the more-than-human world, much deeper and more extensive than those which can be performed in the artificial constraints of the laboratory. It involves changing ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours, rather than altering the conditions of our non-human communicants.

[…]

To think of intelligence in this way is not to reduce its definition, but to enlarge it. Anthropocentric science has argued for centuries that redefining intelligence in this way is to make it meaningless, but this is not the case. To define intelligence simply as what humans do is the narrowest way we could possibly think about it — and it is ultimately to narrow ourselves, and lessen its possible meaning. Rather, by expanding our definition of intelligence, and the chorus of minds which manifest it, we might allow our own intelligence to flower into new forms and new emergent ways of being and relating. The admittance of general, universal, active intelligence is a necessary part of our vital re-entanglement with the more-than-human world.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the emergence of a new branch on the tree of life — a “mechanical kingdom” of our own making, comprising our machines governed by a “self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race” — Bridle offers an optimistic implication of this redefinition for the future of what we now call “artificial intelligence”:

If intelligence, rather than being an innate, restrictive set of behaviours, is in fact something which arises from interrelationships, from thinking and working together, there need be nothing artificial about it all. If all intelligence is ecological — that is, entangled, relational, and of the world — then artificial intelligence provides a very real way for us to come to terms with all the other intelligences which populate and manifest through the planet.

What if, instead of being the thing that separates us from the world and ultimately supplants us, artificial intelligence is another flowering, wholly its own invention, but one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a greater accommodation with the world? Rather than being a tool to further exploit the planet and one another, artificial intelligence is an opening to other minds, a chance to fully recognize a truth that has been hidden from us for so long. Everything is intelligent, and therefore — along with many other reasons — is worthy of our care and conscious attention.

Complement with Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, Ursula K. Le Guin on the poetry of penguins, and Marilyn Nelson’s spare, splendid poem about octopus intelligence, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of AI.

BP

What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

On remaining in loving contact with the intangible, immutable part of the self.

What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia

One of the hardest things in life is watching a loved one’s mind slowly syphoned by cognitive illness — that haunting ambiguous loss of the familiar body remaining, but the person slowly fading into otherness, their very consciousness frayed and reconstituted into that of a stranger.

How to go on loving this growing stranger is the supreme challenge of accompanying a precious human being through the most disorienting experience in life — the great open question pocked with guilt but pulsating with possibility.

The poet and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores how to step into that possibility with uncommon sensitivity and tenderness in one of the diary entries collected in the altogether magnificent The House by the Sea (public library).

May Sarton

Sarton was thirty-three when she met Judith Matlack, twelve years her senior. May and Judy fell in love — a love consecrated in Sarton’s almost unbearably beautiful poetry collection Honey in the Hive. When they separated thirteen years later, they remained not only friends but nothing less than family to each other.

Judy was not yet seventy when dementia began fraying her mind. Uncoupled and childless, she moved into a nursing home. Sarton visited regularly. Once she settled into her house by the sea in Maine, she often had Judy stay with her for several days at a time. During one of these visits, with Judy particularly disoriented, unable to hold a conversation, wandering into the neighbors’ yards, Sarton offers a passage of tender assurance:

Death comes by installments but sometimes the first installments can be very steep, perhaps much more painful to those around them than to the person. I do cherish her so; can one maintain the image of love when so much has gone?” I guess the answer to that question is, yes, because when one has lived with someone for years, as I did with Judy, something quite intangible is there, as though in the bloodstream, that no change in her changes.

Couple with Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most beautiful and redemptive life-advice you’ll ever receive — then revisit Sarton on how to live with tenderness in a harsh world.

BP

Turning Loss and Loneliness into Wonder: How the Victorian Visionary Marianne North Revolutionized Art and Science with Her Botanical Paintings

A vibrant foray into “a perfect world of wonders” fueled by the bittersweet dimension of life.

Marianne North (October 24, 1830–August 30, 1890) was twenty-six and had just lost her mother to a long tortuous illness when her father took her to an oasis of wonder in the heart of London — Kew Gardens, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth: a lush affirmation of life bustling with life-forms beyond the wildest imagination. In the majestic half-acre glass-and-iron palm house full of tropical plants, Marianne found a portal to another world. She fell under the spell of the exotic red Amherstia nobilis — “one of the grandest flowers in existence,” which made her “long to see the tropics,” she would recall a lifetime later, having obeyed the siren song of that longing and made of it a revolution.

Amherstia nobilis, Singapore, 1876. (© RBG Kew)

Over the next three decades, Marianne North would defy the central conventions of her era — an era in which women were expected to marry, were neither permitted nor practically able to travel alone, had access to no formal education in either art or science, and were excluded from scientific and artistic societies. She would go on to traverse the world, painting the living world she saw. Enduring storms and snakes, typhus and broken bones, unimaginable heat and long stretches without access to clean drinking water, she visited Egypt and South Africa, Borneo and Sicily, India and California, Chile and Australia, immortalizing nearly a thousand plants — plants the vast majority of our species had never seen and would never see with their own eyes, plants new to most botanists, and even some plants never before seen.

Marianne North in South Africa, 1883.
Nymphaea stellata, South Africa. (© RBG Kew)

She painted unlike any other botanical artist of her time. Rather than isolated specimens rendered in pencil or watercolor, her plants came alive in oil amid the integrated context of their native ecosystems. In an era before photography was a portable instrument of science, the precision of her paintings and their transportive power twined to make for a revolution in both botany and fine art. Enchanted by her work, Francis Galton and Charles Darwin came to see her as a peer and soon became close friends.

Night-flowering lily and ferns, Jamaica. (© RBG Kew)

Marianne’s first great creative love was not art but music — she trained to be a vocalist, but when her sonorous contralto voice broke and broke her dreams along with it, she found an alternate portal to beauty in painting, widened with wonder by her passion for plants. Her father, who never remarried, was the great champion and comrade of her calling. At their home in Hastings, he built three small greenhouses and populated them with exotic plants that sang to the young Marianne’s imagination as she tended to them alongside her father. “He was from first to last the one idol and friend of my life,” she would later recall, “and apart from him, I had little pleasure and no secrets.” She vowed never to leave his side.

After her sister married, father and daughter set out to travel Europe and the Middle East together, sharing a lively and generous curiosity in how other cultures live and what other lands are lush with. Taken with this “never-ending series of wonders,” Marianne captured what she saw in delicate and detailed watercolors.

In 1868, a new vista of the imagination burst open when Marianne, almost entirely self-taught, received her first lesson in oil painting from one of Australia’s most esteemed artists. She found it wildly addictive — “a vice, like dram-drinking, almost impossible to leave off once it gets possession of one.” It was also a revelation for botanical art, because oil preserves pigment perfectly, whereas the traditionally used watercolor fades and yellows with time.

Water lily (Nymphaea lotus), India. (© RBG Kew)

But only a year after this creative awakening, Marianne was struck by the greatest loss of her life — her father went to sleep and never again awoke. She was overcome by a profound existential loneliness, feeling as though she had been left entirely alone in the world. She would never cease grieving him. “I have no love to give you or anyone — it is all gone with him,” she would tell a suitor years later.

Just like her contemporary Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology while turning his personal tragedy into transcendent art for science, Marianne leaned on the only consolation she knew — nature’s steadfast beauty and the fragile, tenacious wonder of plants. She left Hastings forever and set out to visit all the lands that had enraptured her imagination ever since that long-ago visit to Kew Gardens with her father. She never married — wonder became her primary relationship.

Mount Fujiyama framed by wisteria, Japan. (© RBG Kew)

She traveled to America first, determined to capture its “natural abundant luxuriance,” and was awed by the redwoods of California, making an impassioned and prescient plea to save them from destruction. Epochs ahead of the modern environmental movement, a century before Rachel Carson cautioned that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Marianne North sorrowed to see the quarrying and chemicalizing of nature:

It broke one’s heart to think of man, the civiliser, wasting treasures in a few years to which savages and animals had done no harm for centuries.

On Christmas Eve 1871, she arrived in Jamaica — the portal into the tropics of her dreams. She found herself wonder-smitten by the majestic palms — some of Earth’s most ancient tree species, and some of the most otherworldly. She also found herself “alone and friendless.” But everywhere she went, Marianne seemed to attract kindness and sympathy with the sincerity of her pursuit — almost immediately “a young Cuban engineer appeared from the moon or elsewhere,” helped her with her boat, and shepherded her to her next destination, where she was met with more friendliness from strangers. Even so, her days were mostly solitary, but filled with wonder. “I was in a state of ecstasy and hardly knew what to paint first,” she wrote in her diaries, collected in Abundant Beauty: The Adventurous Travels of Marianne North, Botanical Artist (public library).

Cocoa tree (Theobroma Cacao), 1867. (© RBG Kew)

For a year, she lived in hut in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, painting incessantly amid “all these wonders seeming to taunt us mortals for trespassing on fairies’ grounds, and to tell us they were unapproachable.” Assaulted by armies of Earth’s most bloodthirsty ticks, she found them “worth bearing for the sake of the many wonders and enjoyments of the life I was leading in that quiet forest-nook” — a life that was for her “a series of wonders and endless beauties,” to be savored and celebrated in paint.

Old banyan trees, Java. (© RBG Kew)
Sacred lotus (Nelumbium speciosum), Java. (© RBG Kew)

In Java, she found “a perfect world of wonders.” Her passionate curiosity and amiable humor were always at her side:

The lycopodiums were in great beauty there, particularly those tinted with metallic blue or copper colour; and there were great
metallic arums with leaves two feet long, graceful trees over the streams with scarlet bark all hanging in tatters, and such huge black apes! One of these watched and followed us a long while, seeming to be as curious about us as we were about him. When we stopped he stopped, staring with all his might at us from behind some branch or tree-trunk; but I had the best of that game, for I possessed an opera-glass and he didn’t, so could not probably realise the whole of our white ugliness.

Everywhere she went, she walked for hours into the wilderness, often without companions. “Every day’s ramble showed me fresh wonders,” she wrote in what may be the single best summation of her life, and of any life well lived.

Marianne North by Julia Margaret Cameron.

When Marianne finally returned to England after many years of rambles, she wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker — the founding father of geographical botany, Darwin’s closest friend, and the longtime director of Kew Gardens — and offered to donate her paintings, by then numbering several hundred and featuring plants wholly alien to European eyes. Hooker heartily agreed and a dedicated gallery for her work was built at Kew Gardens, which Marianne herself funded and helped design.

With her health failing, Marianne began composing an account of her extraordinary life, entrusting the manuscript to Hooker, by then her oldest friend. It was posthumously published as Recollections of a Happy Life (public library | public domain).

Today, several exotic plant species bear her name — including Nepenthes northiana (the tropical pitcher plant that was her greatest botanical infatuation), Areca northiana (a palm), Crinum northianum (also known as Seashore Lily or Asiatic Poison Lily), Kniphofia northiae (the vibrant red-hot poker beloved by gardeners), and Chassalia northiana (a blue-berried tropical plant only named in 2021) — as well as the entire genus Northia, containing some of Earth’s most ravishing flowering plants and so named by Hooker himself.

To this day, the North Gallery at Kew Gardens remains the only permanent solo exhibition by a woman in Great Britain.

Nepenthes northiana — a pitcher plant native to Borneo. (© RBG Kew)

Complement with the stunning botanical paintings of the artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson, and this sensuous botanical art inspired by the scandalous scientific poetry of Darwin’s grandfather, which popularized the Linnaean classification system of nature, then savor the wondrous work of North’s marine counterpart — the scientific artist Else Bostelmann, who brought the submarine wonderland to human eyes.

HT Sheril Kirshenbaum

BP

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