The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Nathaniel Hawthorne on How to Look and Really See

“The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.”

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “Looked at, it vanishes.” This is true of any soul — our own, that of another, that of the world. It vanishes because whenever we look, we see not as reality is but as we are. We see the rest of nature — including each other — through eyes gauzed with preconception, our distracted vision blurred by the thousand thoughts that come alive before the mind’s eye at any given moment, more vivid than the living reality before us.

A lovely recipe for how to see the world more clearly comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) — perhaps a lesser novelist than Woolf, but a greater one than Melville in Melville’s own estimation, lovesick as he was, and a far greater observer of nature in his novels than all the journaling Transcendentalists combined. When Thoreau looked at nature, he saw only metaphor and parable; when Hawthorne looked, he saw nature on its own terms, letting it mirror back the fractal of itself that is human nature as the light of unfiltered awareness fell on it. In that respect, he was more a Buddhist than a Transcendentalist, more a scientist than a novelist, and always a poet of reality.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

In the high summer of 1851 — a year after The Scarlet Letter interrupted Hawthorne’s long obscurity to catapult the middle-aged author into celebrity — he took his five-year-old son Julian to the lake near the little red shanty they had rented in the Berkshires. Sitting at the water’s edge, Hawthorne wrote in a journal entry later included in Julian’s tender two-volume biography of his parents, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (public library | public domain):

The best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape, is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature unawares, and see her before she has time to change her aspect. The effect lasts but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.

Nebular by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Complement with James Baldwin on the revelation that taught him to truly see and Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, then revisit Hawthorne on the edges of consciousness and his stirring meditation on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning, composed while watching his young daughter interact with his dying mother.

BP

A Language for the Exhilaration of Being Alive: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Music and the Universe

“Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music… Intelligent life-forms have created a multitude of sounds that express their exhilaration at being alive.”

A Language for the Exhilaration of Being Alive: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Music and the Universe

“Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” Ronald Johnson wrote in his stunning 1980 prose poem about music and the mind. This may be why music so moves and rearranges and harmonizes us, why in it we become most fully ourselves — “atoms with consciousness,” axons with feeling. When music courses through us, we are reminded that the mind and the body are one, and that the body — like music, like feeling, like the universe itself — is made of matter and time. It may even be that music is the language of time, mathematics its alphabet; that Margaret Fuller was right when she insisted two centuries ago that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics”; that, as the cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander observed in our own century, “it is less about music being scientific and more about the universe being musical.”

That is what the poetic physicist Alan Lightman explores with great subtlety and splendor throughout his conceptual masterpiece Mr g: A Novel About the Creation (public library), which reads like one long prose poem and which also gave us the transcendent science of what actually happens when you die.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a symphony. (Available as a print.)

Through his protagonist — the young creator Mr. g, bored and unsure of himself (“unlimited possibilities bring unlimited indecision”) as he spins a baby universe out of the Void while his aunt and uncle watch on with approving, critical, and sage pronouncements — Alan envisions the realities, as theorized by our current science, of how the universe began, punctuating them with fundaments of our humanity, none more elemental than the soul-resonance of music:

Then there was music. The Void had always vibrated with the music of my thoughts, but before the existence of time the totality of sounds occurred simultaneously, as if a thousand thousand notes were played all at once. Now we could hear one note following another, cascades of sound, arpeggios and glissades. We could hear melodies. We could hear rhythms and metrical phrases gathering up time in lovely folds of sound. Duples and triples and offbeat syncopations. As we moved through the Void [we] were transfixed by the most exquisite sounds, the tender and melodic and rapturous oscillations of the Void.

As Mr. g proceeds with his rapturous experiment, most of the music he makes follows a Pythagorean scale, because “chords based on these scales were pleasing to hear,” but he also tinkers with asymmetrical and nonharmonic ratios, which “also produced beautiful music as long as two different notes were not sounded together.” (These, of course, are allusions to the Western and non-Western music traditions.) He writes:

In every place and in every moment, we were wrapped and engulfed in music. At times, the music poured forth in fierce heaving swells. At other times, it advanced in the softest little steps, delicate as a fleeting veil in the Void. Music clung to our beings as parcels of emptiness had in the past. Music went inside us. I had created music, but now music created; it lifted and remade and formed a completeness of being.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.)

In consonance with philosopher Susanne Langer’s lovely formulation of music as “our myth of the inner life,” he adds:

Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music… Intelligent life-forms have created a multitude of sounds that express their exhilaration at being alive.

At the 2022 Universe in Verse, I invited Alan — a passionate pianist himself — to reflect on the personal and universal power of music and its abiding relationship to physics before reading an excerpt from Robert Johnson’s epic poem:

When I sit down at the piano, I enter two different realms: one conscious and one unconscious. The conscious realm is one in which I think about the notes I’m going to play, and the timing and the rhythm and the intensity; and the unconscious is when I just let go and float with the sound. Music is an expression both of the orderly discipline of science and the unfettered flight of the human spirit.

Complement with violinist Natalie Hodges on the poetic science of feeling in sound and composer Caroline Shaw’s transcendent musical inspiriting of classic poetry, then revisit Alan Lightman on time and the antidote to our existential anxiety.

BP

From Living Tree Bridges to AI Systems: A Design Catalogue of Optimism and Resilience for a More Livable Future

“Design is the enzyme that helps people face and metabolize change.”

From Living Tree Bridges to AI Systems: A Design Catalogue of Optimism and Resilience for a More Livable Future

In the summer of 1948, Black Mountain College informed a class of students that the star architect whose class they had signed up to take had cancelled; he was to be replaced by a Harvard dropout who had never taught before.

What neither the students nor the college knew is that Buckminster Fuller was lucky to be alive at all. A quarter century earlier, when his business went into bankruptcy and his four-year-old daughter died of meningitis, he had almost taken his own life, surviving the hollowing meaninglessness only by finding meaning in a single devotion: to benefit humanity. He would come to think of himself as “Astronaut of Spaceship Earth”; the world could come to think of him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the twentieth century.

Buckminster Fuller at his Black Mountain College studio.

Amid the wreckage of the WWII aftermath, the geodesic dome he designed with his Black Mountain students provided shelter and self-sufficiency to people who had lost everything; it also provided a model for how design — that golden mean of passionate imagination and practical ingenuity — can transform lives by broadening the landscape of the possible, even amid the most impossible of circumstances.

Generations and world-crises later, Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn celebrate this spirit in Design Emergency: Building a Better Future (public library) — a labor of love that began as an Instagram feed of life-allaying solutions during the pandemic and bloomed into an atemporal celebration of human optimism, ingenuity, and passion at their most practical and most buoyant.

The Makoko Floating School in Nigeria — a prototype floating structure by the architecture firm NLÉ, built to serve the historic Lagos lagoon water community.

With the clarity that only a survivor’s hindsight confers upon history, it is easy to see how COVID-19 exposed ecological and economic collapse, social unrest over injustice and inequality — thorns in humanity’s safety and sanity predating the pandemic, many by centuries, but suddenly rendered sharper, larger, and more imminent by the magnifying lens of mortality and uncertainty. These projects — ranging from a simple hygiene PSA that helped New Zealand attain the lowest pandemic death rate in the world to the Great Green Wall belting Africa with biodiversity to artificial intelligence amending the blind spots of human bias to — bring a deeper level of clarity about what the future asks of us.

Thoughtfully curated to constellate a larger whole, they broaden the narrow mainstream understanding of design from handsome overpriced objects to systems, practices, ways of seeing, and life-magnifying solutions to the problem of living, often dreamt up and made real by people who do not think of themselves as designers. Punctuating them are interviews with some of these visionaries — architects and engineers, artists and astrophysicists — many of whom never anticipated to make the miniature revolutions they made.

Anatomy of an AI System by artist and investigative artificial intelligence cartographer Kate Crawford, decoding the ecosystem of an Amazon Echo.

Reflecting on how the onset of the pandemic illuminated the role of design as a life-force of resilience, Paola writes in her opening essay:

Life as most knew it changed overnight, and as is the case when change happens, design went into overdrive to reconceive all spheres of life. Any emergency is also a design emergency.

[…]

Design is the enzyme that helps people face and metabolize change, adapt to circumstances, overcome hardships, and leap beyond the crisis and forward toward a better future, both at the individual and at the collective level.

Emerging from the selections is a real-life analogue to David Byrne’s dreamy illustrated vision for the future — a catalogue of optimism and resilience, bridging the ecological and the economic, the futuristic and the historical, the social and the scientific.

Meghalaya’s living root bridges, known as iing kieng jri.

One of the loveliest examples comes from one of the wettest places on Earth and one of the most ancient cultures — the Jaintia Hills of the Meghalaya region of Northern India, where during the monsoon season severe rains transform the hills into hunchback islands rising from the flood.

To traverse this Venice of the rainforest, generations of local Khasi people have developed a system of astonishing living bridges, made by training the aerial roots of the native rubber fig tree (Ficus elastica) along the trunk of a betel nut palm tree (Areca catechu) laid across the ravine.

The living bridges are a valiant antidote to instant gratification: It takes a decade of tending before a bridge can support human weight at all. But within a generation, by a slow-blooming miracle of growth, gravity, and devotion, each bridge can carry as many as fifty people at once. With every passing year, with every new generation trained in training the trees, the bridge grows stronger and stronger, its lifespan stretching into centuries, far outliving the first human hands that twined the first rubber fig roots.

Satellite image of a stretch of the Great Green Wall of Africa running through Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, depicting the stark contrast between the revitalized vegetation and the desertification surrounding it.

In another example from the long history of design solutions to environmental challenges and emergencies, Alice Rawsthorn points to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Northeast Paris — a onetime dump and quarry atop a “bald mountain,” where the bodies of criminals were publicly displayed after execution and where the soil turned so toxic that no plant could survive.

Today — after thousands of workers toiled for two years in the 1860 to remove the rubble and reconstruct the landscape by digging out a five-acre lake around the hill, with a special railway built to transport new topsoil to the site — the park is a thriving wilderness lush with thousands of trees, grasses, and flowering plants swarmed by birds and pollinators, a haven beloved by locals as the “people’s park.”

Video still from a film by Italian investigative designer duo Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin for the research project and exhibition Cambio at the Serpentine in London in 2020, created by manipulating a LiDAR scan of an oak forest in Virginia — a new technology the timber industry is using to be able to log trees selectively.

Design Emergency: Building a Better Future is one of those invaluable records of what is best and brightest in us — the kind that restores your faith in humanity and rekindles your fiercest devotion to a more possible future. For a kindred counterpart from a different realm of resilience, complement it with poet Ross Gay’s life-magnifying catalogue of delights.

BP

Why Are We Not Better Than We Are: How Poetry Saves Lives

“…a stillness in which the germ of what is not yet palpable pauses and gathers to begin one more time.”

Why Are We Not Better Than We Are: How Poetry Saves Lives

“A life of patient suffering… is a better poem in itself than we can any of us write,” the young poet Anne Reeve Aldrich wrote to Emily Dickinson shortly before her untimely death. “It is only through the gates of suffering, either mental or physical, that we can pass into that tender sympathy with the griefs of all of mankind which it ought to be the ideal of every soul to attain.”

Suffering is the name we give to how we live with life’s imperfection, and with our own — which is so often the wellspring of our profoundest suffering. How we bear this imperfection, what we make of it, is our great living poem.

This awareness pulsates throughout the essay collection Serious Face (public library) by Jon Mooallem — one of the finest magazine journalists of our time, and one of the most original storytellers. He writes in the preface:

Twenty years years ago, I was working at a small literary magazine in New York City, screening the bulging slush pile of poetry submissions for anything that the editors might be interested in publishing. Please know that passing judgment on all these people’s poems made me queasy. I was twenty-two years old, not especially well-read, and my only previous full-time employment had been as a kosher butcher. I could only like what I liked. Also, I was extraordinarily sad. My father had died a year earlier, and the grief and bewilderment I’d kept tamped down were beginning to burble upward. I felt alone. I felt lost. And I was fixated on figuring out why everything was so hard, what I was doing wrong. Some evenings, I’d walk the fifty-eight blocks home from the office, excessively serious-faced, wrenching my mind around like a Rubik’s Cube, struggling to make it show a brighter color.

And then, from among the thousands of poems whose literary merit he was uncomfortably tasked with brokering, one stopped him up short: “Frost in the Fields” by Eric Trethewey, no longer alive; one particular line in it crowning the lyric of landscape:

Why are we not better than we are?

This would become the animating question of Jon’s life, as a writer and as a human being; a question that each of the essays whispers or bellows, none more poignantly than one titled by a kindred question: “Why These Instead of Others?” — his account, across the abyss of twenty years, of a trip to the remote reaches of Alaska he took with two of his college friends in the spring of life.

Moonlight, Winter by Rockwell Kent. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

An epoch after Rockwell Kent voyaged there to find the crux of creativity, the three young men arrived into a realm of remoteness so discomposing to their city consciousnesses as to appear entirely alien:

As the boat that delivered us vanished, the drone of its engine dampening into a murmur and then finally trailing off, it became unthinkably quiet on the beach, and the largeness and strangeness of our surroundings were suddenly apparent… It felt like those scenes of astronauts who, having finally rattled free of the earth’s atmosphere, slip into the stillness of space. Except we weren’t in space. We were on earth — finally, really on earth.

But this transcendent idyll was soon interrupted by the brute impartiality of nature — a boom, then a crash, then faster than the speed of reason, a colossal tree atop one of the three friends. (Incidentally, also named Jon.)

They managed to radio for help. After firing a flaccid flare, they began fearing they were undiscoverable in the uncharted wilderness far inland from their camp. All they knew was that they had to keep him conscious until help arrived, pinned as he was by the tree in an icy creek, hypothermia on top of all the internal bleeding that was no doubt flooding his system.

By some animal instinct, kneeling over the other Jon, this one leaned on the semi-automation of his mind:

What can a person say? I had two literature professors in college who made us memorize poems. You never knew when some lines of verse would come in handy, they claimed. One liked to brag that, while traveling through Ireland, he found that if he spat out some Yeats at a pub, he could drink for free. This is how I wound up reciting a love poem to Jon.

That poem was “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop. He moved on to Auden’s “The More Loving One.” Then some Robert Frost, some Kay Ryan. He recounts:

Jon and I would spend about an hour and a half together alone on the forest floor. I ran through everything in my quiver—Kay Ryan, A. R. Ammons, Michael Donaghy—padding each poem with little prefatory remarks, while Jon said nothing, just signaled with his eyes or produced a sound whenever I checked in. I felt like a radio DJ playing records in the middle of the night, unsure if anyone was listening. And here’s one about owls by Richard Wilbur, I would tell Jon, and off we would go.

He was unsure — how can anyone be sure? — that he was doing the best thing, that he couldn’t do something better, be better. But it was the best he had.

The other Jon survived, and lived to remember the poetry on the forest floor as a serene moment amid the terrifying uncertainty and the adrenalized pain. Reflecting on the experience, now both of them twice the age they were then, this Jon writes:

Even my reciting those poems, which to me had always felt like a moment of utter helplessness, became, in Jon’s telling, a perfect emblem of that streak of serendipitous problem-solving. “You conveyed a calmness,” he told me recently.

This was poetry as time-dilation and poetry as prayer — a way to keep a drifting mind anchored in the questions that daily keep us from sleeping and quicken the creative restlessness we call art, we call meaning. One way to answer that long-ago question: with this tenderest testament to how, sometimes — and mostly when life boughs us to our knees on the forest floor of crisis — we are better, better than we ever thought we could be while coasting in the illusory safety of our daily lives.

Moved by the improbable way in which a stranger’s poem had helped Jon save his friend’s life and had shaped his own, I asked him to read it for us half a lifetime after his chance encounter with it in the submissions pile of his entry-level job, with a side of Bach:

Complement with Gwendolyn Brooks’s lifeline of a poem and Mary Oliver on how books saved her life, then revisit the strikingly kindred story of how Oliver Sacks saved his own life by reciting poetry.

BP

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