The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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.


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.


Eric Berne on the True Meaning of Intimacy, the Greatest Obstacle to It, and How to Transcend It

“A star is the glowing light inside the other person, distantly seen, brave soul’s tiny flame, too bright to approach without great courage and integrity.”

Eric Berne on the True Meaning of Intimacy, the Greatest Obstacle to It, and How to Transcend It

We move among surfaces. If we are lucky enough, if we are courageous enough, every once in a while we dive into the depths with another. It is not easy, because even through our best self-awareness, we remain largely unfathomable to ourselves. To reach the nether fathoms with another is a transcendent terror — one we can only bear for a little while before some great gasp of panic beckons us back to the surface.

The willingness to stay is what we call intimacy, and it is the hardest-won, most precious mutual gift two people could exchange.

In the final year of his life, six years after he radicalized the psychology of relationships with his now-iconic book Games People Play, Eric Berne (May 10, 1910–July 15, 1970) took up the intricacies of intimacy by building on his central model of the three ego states that live in each of us: the Child (the most natural, vulnerable, and spontaneous part of our personality, keeper of our creative vitality and our most unalloyed capacity for pleasure); the Parent (the part of us that unconsciously mimics the psychological responses of our parents as we observed them in childhood); and the Adult (the competent and self-possessed part of us capable of making sound decisions in our best interest).

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller.

In Games People Play, Berne had codified the basis of all human miscommunication and mutual wounding in the crossed communication channels between these three different ego-states as they converse with one another within and between persons. In Sex in Human Loving (public library), he considers the particular interference that garbles the flow of intimacy and the particular solution to it. He writes:

The human race has had so much time on its hands, and is so afraid of open intimacy, that it has devised many ways of using its organs for hidden purposes and for frivolous or false relationships.


Intimacy is a candid Child-to-Child relationship with no games and no mutual exploitation. It is set up by the Adult ego states of the parties concerned, so that they understand very well their contracts and commitments with each other, sometimes without a word being spoken about such matters. As this understanding becomes clearer, the Adult gradually retires from the scene, and if the Parent does not interfere, the Child becomes more and more relaxed and freer and freer. The actual intimate transactions take place between the two Child ego states. The Adult, however, still remains in the background as an overseer to assure that the commitments and limitations are kept. The Adult also has the task of keeping the Parent from barging in and spoiling the situation. In fact the capacity for intimacy depends upon the ability of the Adult and the Child to keep the Parent at bay if necessary; but it is even better if the Parent benevolently gives permission or, best of all, encouragement, for the relationship to proceed. Parental encouragement helps the Child lose his fear of intimacy, and assures that he will not be restrained by a burden or threat of guilt.

Art by Shel Silverstein from his allegory of the secret to true intimacy, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

Berne notes that anyone who has embarked on an intimate relationship would recognize the mental voices of the three ego states — the exuberant Child, impatient to dive headfirst into the shimmering waters of the new relationship; the Parent wagging a finger at some supposed red flag or “making some approving comment… at which the Child nods eagerly,” and the Adult coolly evaluating the situation until a pronouncement can me made that this potential partner seems to be “the one.”

Real intimacy, Berne argues, requires that the Child be set free from both the inner Parent and the Adult, for they have corrupted true seeing with notions of knowing: naming things, classifying things, conceptualizing things — the interpretive filters we superimpose over raw experience as we grow up.

In Berne’s model — although he doesn’t use those terms, for ancient Eastern philosophy was yet to permeate mainstream Western culture — the Child is the most nondualistic part of us: the part that inhabits that primeval space before the world has been divided into subject and object, when all is unfiltered experience, spontaneous and pure.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window — his little-known philosophical first children’s book.

In consonance with Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak’s insistence that a full life is a matter of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” Berne writes:

Most human beings never really see another person after they are five years old. In an intimate relationship, each party returns to the original naïve Child ego state, where he is free of such Parental prohibitions and Adult requirements, and can see, hear, and taste in its purest form what the world has to offer. This freedom of the Child is the essential part of intimacy, and it turns the whole universe, including the sun, moon, and stars, into a golden apple for both parties to enjoy.


Once the Child is free of Adult caution and Parental criticism, he has a sense of elation and awareness. He begins to see and hear and feel the way he really wants to, the way he originally did before he was corrupted by his living parents. In this autonomous state, he no longer has to name things, as is usually required by his Adult, nor account for his behavior, as demanded by his Parent. He is free to respond directly and spontaneously to what he sees and hears and feels. Because the two parties trust one another, they freely open up their secret worlds of perception, experience, and behavior to each other, asking nothing in return except the delight of opening the gates without fear.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

A childlike playfulness with language — that supreme castle of concepts — is one way Berne countered the Adult and the Parent. He enjoyed twisting common words deemed obscene, folding them unto themselves by spelling them backward and sideways. Cuff was his preferred phonetic origami of fuck — a superior form of the word, he thought, as a sensory emblem of both our somatic experience and our experiential ideologies:

A respect for the power of obscenity is not a quaint relic of an antique way of thinking. Rather it is one aspect of a way of life in which the most important quality is grace. Grace means graceful movements, and graceful moments of solitude or communion. This quality is well understood by dancers, rhetoricians, and students of Zen and other Oriental philosophies. It means speaking gracefully and making each hour a work of art.


Cuff is the only word in the English language that gives the full feeling, excitement, slipperiness, and aroma of the sexual act. Its lascivious “f” sound also helps to give it a realistic punch. [Other synonyms] carefully avoid the idea of excitement and lust, and even more carefully avoid one of the most primitive and powerful elements in sex, which is smell. Cuff takes in all of these, just as a child does, because it starts off as a child’s word.

Intimacy, Berne argues in the central premise of his model, can only be achieved by allowing untrammeled spontaneity — a function of the inner Child that must remain alive and beloved in each of us as we move through adulthood, if life is to have a fulness of being. In a lovely passage that reads like a poetic children’s book for grownups, he considers what real intimacy means:

A star is the glowing light inside the other person, distantly seen, brave soul’s tiny flame, too bright to approach without great courage and integrity. Each person lives alone in inner space, and intimacy is out there. Intimacy is outer space, and if that’s where you are, you don’t say “Cuff you!” to a star.

Art from Before I Grew Up

Complement with Shel Silverstein’s illustrated allegory of the key to true intimacy, then revisit Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.


How to Bear Your Suffering: The Young Poet Anne Reeve Aldrich’s Extraordinary Letter to Emily Dickinson

“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.”

How to Bear Your Suffering: The Young Poet Anne Reeve Aldrich’s Extraordinary Letter to Emily Dickinson

“What happened could have happened to anyone, but not everyone could have carried on,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Stoic strategy for turning suffering into strength.

Two millennia later, the young poet Anne Reeve Aldrich (April 25, 1866–June 28, 1892) attested to this insight with her life, short and soaring, spent writing soulful poems she considered “chiefly in a minor key” — the lyric epitome of “the bittersweet.”

Anne’s father died when she was eight. Immersed in music and art, with a gift for mathematics, she was only fifteen when she submitted her first poem to a magazine. With the notice of rejection came a friendly note of encouragement and praise from the editor, who eventually published a poem of hers two years later. Soon, her poems were populating prominent magazines, and newspapers frequently quoted verses from them.

But midway through her twenties, the impartial hand of chance dealt her a rapidly debilitating illness. She lived through it with fierce devotion to life. Like Beethoven, who vowed to “take fate by the throat” when chance dealt him his own hand of suffering, Aldrich went on composing poems at a feverish pace until the very end, even as she grew too weak to write by hand. She dictated her last poem, “Death at Daybreak,” and died just before dawn on June 18, 1892 — a season after Whitman. She was twenty-six.

Anne Reeve Aldrich

Her final poetry collection, aptly titled Songs about Love, Life, and Death (public library | public domain), was posthumously published by summer’s end. The Springfield Republican — the first paper to print Emily Dickinson’s poetry in her lifetime — lauded Aldrich as one of “the few who nearest share the moods of Sappho and her talents.” Seven years after her death, a major newspaper was still celebrating her “brief poems of unusual merit,” reprinting from them these “especially pregnant lines” — lines of abiding insight into how often we are the architects of our own suffering, a knowledge we carry with an uneasy awareness that only unmasons us more:

I made the cross myself, whose weight
Was later laid on me.
This thought adds anguish as I toil
Up life’s steep Calvary.

She understood that personal suffering — pain on the scale of our individual lives — is the grandest portal to sympathy with universal life; she understood that “we bear a common pain” — the elemental pain that is the price of being alive, pain often invisible and always ineffable, except perhaps through art. She articulated this understanding with uncommon sympathy and splendor of sentiment in an 1890 letter to Emily Dickinson — herself a patron saint of suffering.

A year after the publication of her debut collection, The Rose of Flame, and Other Poems of Love (public library | public domain), the twenty-four-year-old Aldrich writes to the fifty-year-old Dickinson, whose own immense body of work never appeared as a book in her lifetime:

A life of patient suffering, such as I am sure yours must be, dear Miss Dickinson is a better poem in itself than we can any of us write, and I believe 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.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, who died barely out of her twenties. (Available as a print.)

Those who read Anne Reeve Aldrich’s melancholy poetry speculated that she must be “an invalid” or “a sufferer,” but those who knew her knew a sunny-spirited young woman with a sense of humor and an exceptionally hopeful nature. Upon the posthumous publication of her final poems, she was compared to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — herself an emissary of radiance through inordinate suffering, who saw felicitous perseverance as a moral obligation. “Since Mrs. Browning has died, no sweeter spirit has breathed its life into verse than that of Anne Reeve Aldrich,” declared The Atlanta Constitution, noting how difficult it must be to die at the peak of one’s powers and prophesying that her poems would go on to “have a life of their own.” In them, she exalted not suffering itself but the full surrender to suffering, which triumph over it requires:

I love to feel a bitter throe
Rise to its fullest height,
Then watch a conquering anodyne
Softly assert its might.

Complement with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, Ursula K. Le Guin on getting to the other side of pain, and Sophie Scholl, who was even younger than Aldrich when she died for her values, on suffering, strength, and the deepest wellspring of courage, then revisit Dostoyevsky, just after his death sentence was repealed moments before his execution, on what makes life worth living.


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