The Marginalian
The Marginalian

William James on the Most Vital Understanding for Successful Relationships

“Neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer.”

William James on the Most Vital Understanding for Successful Relationships

To be human is to continually mistake our frames of reference for reality itself. We so readily forget that our vantage point is but a speck on the immense plane of possible perspectives. We so readily forget that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

The discipline of countering our reflex for self-righteousness is a triumph of existential maturity — one increasingly rare in a culture where most people would rather armor themselves with judgment than tremble with uncertainty, would rather be right than understand.

The pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) explores the making of that triumph in a pair of wonderful lectures — “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes Life Significant” — posthumously collected in the 1911 volume Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (public library | public domain).

William James

With an eye to “the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures,” James considers those rare moments when our habitual blinders fall away and we see a fuller picture of reality:

Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world… the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.

That new perspective includes the recognition that other people strive for happiness and meaning in ways other than our own, just as valid in the making of a life. James considers the value of this shift in understanding:

It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Observing “the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals,” observing “how soaked and shot-through life is with values and meanings which we fail to realize because of our external and insensible point of view,” observing how often and how readily we judge the outward choices of others while losing sight of the “inward significance” of those choices, James writes:

The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours. No one has insight into all the ideals. No one should presume to judge them off-hand. The pretension to dogmatize about them in each other is the root of most human injustices and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep.

Complement with Joan Didion on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality, then revisit William James on the psychology of attention, how our bodies affect our feelings, and the four features of transcendence.


Enchantment and the Courage of Joy: René Magritte on the Antidote to the Banality of Pessimism

“Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so.”

Enchantment and the Courage of Joy: René Magritte on the Antidote to the Banality of Pessimism

In a world pocked by cynicism and pummeled by devastating news, to find joy for oneself and spark it in others, to find hope for oneself and spark it in others, is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance. This is not a matter of denying reality — it is a matter of discovering a parallel reality where joy and hope are equally valid ways of being. To live there is to live enchanted with the underlying wonder of reality, beneath the frightful stories we tell ourselves and are told about it.

Having lost his mother to suicide, having lived through two World Wars, the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte (November 21, 1898–August 15, 1967) devoted his life and his art to creating such a parallel world of enchantment.

The Lovers II by René Magritte, 1928

In a 1947 interview included in his Selected Writings (public library) — the first release of Magritte’s manifestos, interviews, and other prose in English, thanks to the heroic efforts of scholar Kathleen Rooney — he reflects:

Experience of conflict and a load of suffering has taught me that what matters above all is to celebrate joy for the eyes and the mind. It is much easier to terrorize than to charm… I live in a very unpleasant world because of its routine ugliness. That’s why my painting is a battle, or rather a counter-offensive.

Magritte revisits the subject in his manifesto Surrealism in the Sunshine, indicting the cultural tyranny of pessimism and fear-mongering — a worldview we have been sold under the toxic premise that if we focus on the worst of reality, we are seeing it more clearly and would be prepared to protect ourselves from its devastations. A quarter century before the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm insisted that “pessimism [is] an alienated form of despair,” Magritte writes:

We think that if life is seen in a tragic light it is seen more clearly, and that we are then in touch with the mystery of existence. We even believe that we can reach objectivity thanks to this revelation. The greater the terror, the greater the objectivity.

This notion is the result of philosophies (materialist or idealist), that claim that the real world is knowable, that matter is of the same essence as mind, since the perfect mind would no longer be distinct from the matter it explains and would thus deny it. The man on the street is unknowingly in harmony with this idea: he thinks there is a mystery, he thinks he must live and suffer and that the very meaning of life is that it is a dream-nightmare.

In his art and the worldview from which it springs, Magritte presents an antidote to this warped thinking — a backdoor out of our elective suffering. An epoch before we began to understand the neurophysiology of enchantment, he echoes his contemporary Egon Schiele’s exhortation to “envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” and writes:

Our mental universe (which contains all we know, feel or are afraid of in the real world we live in) may be enchanting, happy, tragic, comic, etc.

We are capable of transforming it and giving it a charm which makes life more valuable. More valuable since life becomes more joyful, thanks to the extraordinary effort needed to create this charm.

Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so. It is an easy task, because people who are intellectually lazy are convinced that this miserable terror is “the truth”, that this terror is knowledge of the “extra-mental” world. This is an easy way out, resulting in a banal explanation of the world as terrifying.

Creating enchantment is an effective means of counteracting this depressing, banal habit.


We must go in search of enchantment.

Complement with Viktor Frankl on saying “yes” to life in spite of everything and Walt Whitman on optimism as a force of resistance, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on hope in dark times.


How the Octopus Came to Earth: Stunning 19th-Century French Chromolithographs of Cephalopods

The art-science that captured the wonder of some of “the most brilliant productions of Nature.”

While the French seamstress turned scientist Jeanne Villepreux-Power was solving the ancient mystery of the argonaut, her compatriot Jean Baptiste Vérany (1800–1865) — a pharmacist turned naturalist and founder of Nice’s Natural History Museum — set out to illuminate the wonders of cephalopods in descriptions and depictions of unprecedented beauty and fidelity to reality. Half a century before the stunningly illustrated Cephalopod Atlas brought the life-forms of the deep to the human imagination, Vérany published Mediterranean Mollusks: Observations, Descriptions, Figures, and Chromolithographs from Life — a consummately illustrated catalogue of creatures entirely alien to the era’s lay imagination, suddenly and vividly alive in full color.

Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.

When Vérany began working on his dream of bringing the underwater world to life on the page, chromolithography — a chemical process used for making multi-color prints — was still in its infancy in France. Determined to capture the living vibrancy of these creatures that had so enchanted him, he set out to teach himself the craft. Looking back on his long labors at mastering this art-science and applying it to his dream, he reflects:

Despite having no practice at lithography and no knowledge of chromolithography, I launched myself, with courage and confidence, into this enterprise… Thanks to trial and error and patience, I have often succeeded in depicting the softness and transparency that characterize these animals.

Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.

The German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term ecology, was introduced to the wonders of cephalopods by Vérany’s work and incorporated some of the art into his own studies of symmetry. Victor Hugo copied one of Vérany’s illustrations in ink for his 1866 novel Toilers of the Sea. The book itself became a catalyst for the study of octopus intelligence.

Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.

Radiating from the chromolithographs is Vérany’s shimmering passion for his subject. He was especially captivated by the red umbrella squid, Histioteuthis Bonelliana, which he saved from a fisherman’s net and placed in a tub to study and draw from life, wonder-smitten by its beauty. He recounts:

It was at this moment that I enjoyed the astonishing spectacle of the brilliant points whose forms so extraordinarily decorate the skin of this cephalopod; sometimes it was the brightness of the sapphire which dazzled me; sometimes it was the opaline of the topazes which made it more remarkable; other times these two rich colors confused their splendid rays. During the night, the opaline points projected a phosphorescent glare, making this mollusk one of the most brilliant productions of Nature.

Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.

Complement with Ernst Haeckel’s otherworldly drawings of jellyfish from the same era, then revisit Sy Montgomery on how the octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness.

via Public Domain Review


Some Thoughts about the Ocean and the Universe

How to bear the gravity of being.

Some Thoughts about the Ocean and the Universe

In many ancient creation myths, everything was born of a great cosmic ocean with no beginning and no end, lapping matter and spirit into life. In the cosmogony of classical physics, a partial differential equation known as the wave equation describes how water waves ripple the ocean, how seismic waves ripple rock, how gravitational waves ripple the fabric of spacetime. In quantum physics, a probability amplitude known as the wave function describes the behavior and properties of particles at the quantum scale. Virginia Woolf described the relationship between consciousness and creativity as “a wave in the mind.”

Waves lap at the bedrock of being, beyond the scale of atoms, beyond the scale of stars, to wash up something elemental about what this is and what we are.

This dialogue between the elemental and the existential comes alive in a splendid poem by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), composed as she was dying in the prime of life, included in her superb posthumous collection A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and read here by Amanda Palmer to the sound of “Optimist” by Zoë Keating:

by Rebecca Elson

If the ocean is like the universe
Then waves are stars.

If space is like the ocean,
Then matter is the waves,
Dictating the rise and fall
Of floating things.

If being is like ocean
We are waves,
Swelling, traveling, breaking
On some shore.

If ocean is like universe then waves
Are the dark wells of gravity
Where stars will grow.

All waves run shorewards
But there is no centre to the ocean
Where they all arise.

Couple with Rachel Carson on the ocean and the meaning of life, then revisit Elson’s poems “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” “Theories of Everything,” “Explaining Relativity,” and “Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter).”


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