The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Into the Heart of Life: Richard Powers on Living with Bewilderment at the Otherworldly Wonder of Our World

“That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.”

Into the Heart of Life: Richard Powers on Living with Bewilderment at the Otherworldly Wonder of Our World

“Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars,” Rachel Carson, dying of cancer, told an orchard of human saplings in the commencement address she delivered in the late spring of 1962 — still the best recipe we have for how to save a world — as she was weathering a savage storm of attacks for having awakened the modern ecological conscience with her Silent Spring.

But somewhere along the way between her epoch and ours, as the world became more and more unsteady, humanity was sold on the expensive dream of living certain rather than bewildered, the dream of choosing — or being chosen for — the islanded certitudes of power over the open horizons of truth. The “dark ocean of space” lost its stardusted luster as we grew more and more unwilling to remain uncertain about the nature of reality and the open-endedness of the future.

While the Golden Record was voyaging into the cosmic expanse encoded with the best of us, the possibility of other worlds began falling out of favor as this one became too much to govern, to bear. We fixated on the here and now not like the lover who makes the beloved the single focal point of passionate devotion, but like the small, anxious step-child: fearful, clinging, uncertain of what love looks like.

But beneath the wetsuit of fear, we remained what we are: passionate primates longing for truth and beauty, forever digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”

Richard Powers addresses this binary pull on our nature in a wonderful autobiographical piece presented at Portland’s Literary Arts, folded into which is a kind of civilizational memoir — the biography of an idea that is corroding what is best of us, and the future history of its shimmering alternative.

Richard Powers

He reflects:

Back when I was born, the world had only one moon. But by the time I turned five months old, it had twice as many. That was the year when my species… figured out how to escape gravity and send one of its most impressive artworks into permanent orbit.

It was quite a moment — the first time in four and a half billion years the planet had an entirely new type of object in the sky.

I grew up in a country racing into space. Sputnik made a special impression on my father, who had always dreamed of being a scientist but couldn’t hack the math. My dad believed, from my earliest days, that I would succeed where he had failed. That seemed right to me, too.

At the age of seven, at the attic bedroom of my family’s brick house on the north side of Chicago, I read the classic kids’ book he gave me: You Will Go to the Moon. Of all the wild stories I devoured back then — the one about befriending a wild raccoon, or the one about a bracelet falling inside a donut machine and being baked into the product — You Will Go to the Moon seemed by far the most plausible.

I was my father’s son, and I grew up committed to the new frontier: Easy travel to other planets — it all felt so imminent. Of course I would go to the Moon. We all would — the whole parade of human history pointed to it. My part in that outward journey was inevitable. In the meantime, I prepared myself, standing on the various scales at the Adler Planetarium to see how much I would weigh on Mercury, Jupiter, or Mars.

Space was where we would solve all the problems we never quite managed to square away here on this planet’s surface. My child’s pantheism merged with my father’s endless faith in human progress. By the time I turned nine, nothing was more obvious to me: Strange new worlds were within our reach, humankind would explore them forever, and they would be full of the most astonishing kinds of life.

Art by Leo and Diane Dillon from the visionary 1973 picture-book Blast Off by Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum

Powers looks back on his childhood and how his generation was sold on the dream of the year 2000 as a “transformative threshold,” on the other wide of which lay “fusion-powered rockets” and “space colonies mounted in geosynchronous orbits” and contact with alien civilizations.

The math of it crushed him — he would be forty-three then, “too decrepit to go anywhere.” (A touching reminder that across cultures and generations, across the bruising artifice of adult divides, in the eternal sweetness of childhood we find out most indivisible humanity: A generation after Powers, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the nine-year-old me declared to my parents that I wanted my cord pulled at the senile age of thirty. My beloved only aunt, then thirty-nine, reasoned with me to consider disembarking Spaceship Life at forty. I still have a blink of time to weigh the evidence for and against.)

Powers recounts watching the grainy Moon landing on a black-and-white TV in Bangkok, where his father had taken a job — the enchantment of “the two buoyant people in bulky suits and helmets, bobbing around on a dusty plain, making footprints that would last forever,” before the program returned to the I Love Lucy episode dubbed into Thai, depositing him back to the planet he “still half-expected to leave forever someday.”

Looking back on the science fiction wonderland of his teenage years — the peaking art of “planetary romances,” drawing on Melville’s island romances from the previous century, which in turn built on Daniel Dafoe a century before that — Powers writes:

It never occurred to me, even when I moved back to the States at the age of fifteen, that I would die before human beings ever set foot again on any new or further place.

[…]

By the time I graduated from high school in 1975, humans had taken dominion over the Earth and subdued every inch of it. Going where no one had gone before was now impossible.

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

And yet something of the wanderlust which artist Rockwell Kent so poetically captured at the dawn of the century seemed part of what Powers calls “the legacy hardware” of the human brain. He couldn’t shake it. So he pressed it down:

Sometime between starting college as a Physics major and ejecting four and a half years later with a Master’s degree in Literature, I gave up space travel. In the interim, I had signed on to the idea — pretty much universal among my professors and fellow students in literature — that we humans were the only game in town, and there was no use pretending otherwise.

And so he came to scorn as crude or colonialist all stories that placed science above psychology, fact above feeling. “Real” literature, to his malleable and culture-sculpted mind, was the story of the social world. “The self-made mazes of the self.” Solipsism on the scale of the species.

With the abashed tenderness that is the best we can hope to muster for our younger selves — because, as Joan Didion reminds us, “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” — he reflects:

I put away science fiction, along with my other childish things, and I began writing stories of my own — stories that, without my realizing it, had assimilated the prevailing literary idea that human beings would never go anywhere new again; that we were here, in an empty universe, with only ourselves to contemplate.

One of Italian painter, poet, and futurist Giacomo Balla’s paintings from his 1914 series Mercury Passing Before the Sun. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

This was not an entirely unfounded prevailing idea. In that era, even most astronomers had no grounds for believing they would live to see the discovery of another new planet — a time when “anything more than brief, poetic speculation about life beyond Earth was courting professional suicide.”

Everyone seemed to have forgotten that to live wonder-smitten by reality and the enchanted by the possible is not the stuff of science fiction but the core of our humanity. (Everyone except Jill Tarter and Frank Drake.)

When the unimaginable happened and NASA’s Kepler mission, spearheaded by my visionary friend Natalie Batalha, discovered Kepler-10b — the first potentially habitable planet outside our solar system — Powers was thirty-five and so devoted to his narrow band of literary fiction that he just about missed the news.

Artist rendering of Kepler-10b. (NASA)

Abashed by this poverty of imagination — as much that of his young self as that of his young species — he writes:

I barely registered the landmark that life on Earth had just passed: A few self-replicating molecules, after four billion years of random walks shaped by nothing more than trial and error, had learned how to measure the infinitesimal dimming of light from trillions of miles away with enough precision to infer the transits of minuscule invisible planets passing in front of their obliterating stars — it was like detecting a fly walking across a streetlight in a distant city.

We did that — we Earthlings.

And then, just like that, a civilizational bloom of bold speculations followed — not merely about the existence of life, but about the wild and wondrous types of life that could exist in the frozen lakes of faraway moons or in the roiling mantles of drifting planets.

But Powers missed that, too — having “graduated from outer space,” he was living in the Absolute Here, occupied by Only Us. It took him years to catch up to reality.

By the 1990s — perhaps awakened by the Hubble Space Telescope’s epoch-making glimpse into the previously unfathomed frontiers of a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — he was yawning awake.

Art by Daniel Bruson for “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Our best advice to others is often not what we have already proven with our own lives, but what we ourselves most need to hear. Back then, when a young man asked him for his best advice on living, that is precisely what Powers offered:

Never forget what you were born knowing. That this fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is still in embryo. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet. Buy the plot some time.

But Powers himself was out of purchasing power. By the time he realized he was at the midpoint of his expected lifetime, he found himself gnawed by the same suspicion many of us face on our darkest days: that humanity had permanently maimed life on Earth, that “there was something inherently wrong with Homo sapiens, that we suffered from congenital defect — a built-in, incurable sadistic impulse toward domination that doomed us to failure along with 98% of Earth’s other experiments that had already gone extinct.”

It took decades to calibrate his despair with the elemental fact beneath the flinch:

Insanity wasn’t in our genes — we humans had gone off the rails because our culture had lost its source of external significance. We were so completely colonized by the belief that all meaning came down to economics and private consumption that it no longer even felt like a belief. We’d forgotten the fact that, in Gaylor Nelson’s great phrase, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, and not the other way around.”

Echoing Carson’s prescient 1953 admonition that our only real wealth lies in honoring “the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” he adds:

Our willingness to dismantle the greatest imaginable place in the universe for life results from the fact that very few of us live here — We had come to see the planet as a collection of exchangeable commodities reduced to their use value.

Somehow, in the mere century since Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology to name the relationship between organisms in the house of life, one inhabitant of the house decided, as Powers puts it, to “exploit all the planet’s ecosystems to its own ends” while presuming to reside “outside ecology altogether.”

A nine-year-old’s drawing from humanity’s first gallery of children’s art in space, depicting what kids most cherish about life on Earth.

At the time of his most acute exasperation with our species, Powers befriended the nine-year-old son of a colleague — a kid whom we would now call “neurodivergent,” a term far beyond the cultural horizon then. One day, midway through a conversation about the boy’s beloved Star Wars, somehow Mars came up — the planet’s fate, how it may have been home to life once but lost all of its water to become an arid red desert.

At first incredulous that such a thing could befall a world, the child paused a moment, then asked Powers whether such a thing could befall Earth.

Powers lied.

It took twenty years, an existential breakdown that left him in “a constant state of pointlessness and dread,” a deadly pandemic, and a five-year love affair with the astonishing interconnected universe of old-growth forests until Powers could give the child — and himself, and the child he had once been, and the rest of despairing humanity — the real answer in his exquisite novel Bewilderment (public library).

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

Set sometime in the near future, when our search for life beyond the Solar System has come to its inevitable fruition, it tells the story of a thirty-nine-year-old astrobiologist and his neurodivergent, frightened, boundlessly courageous nine-year-old son, searching together for other worlds and instead discovering how to reworld ours with meaning.

Radiating from their quest is a luminous invitation to live up to our nature not as creatures consumed by “the black hole of the self,” as Powers so perfectly puts it in his talk, but as living empathy machines and portable cosmoses of possibility, whose planetary story is yet unwritten.

Fittingly, the novel opens with an epigraph from Carson’s The Sense of Wonder — her most personal piece of public writing, which had begun as an essay titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” inspired by the beloved grandnephew she adopted and raised after his mother’s death:

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain — a French illustrated celebration of a more possible world for the children of tomorrow.

As the father searches for other worlds, he is savaged by despair at humanity’s catastrophic mismanagement of this one, haunted by the growing sense that we couldn’t possibly be good interplanetary emissaries until we have become good stewards of our own home planet. But each time he hits rock bottom, he bounces back up — as we all do, as we all must in order to go on living — with rekindled faith in what we are capable of. There are echos of Maya Angelou’s spaceborne poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” in his reflection on what we, despite our sacrificial destructions at the altar of the self, have achieved in our longing for those truths much larger and longer lasting than us:

A lineage of slow, weak, naked, awkward creatures… had lasted through several near-extinctions and held on long enough to discover that gravity bent light, everywhere in the universe. For no good reason and at insane expense, we’d built an instrument able to see the tiniest bend in starlight made by this small body, from scores of light-years away… We were… making it up as we went along, then proving it for all the universe to see.

Although the novel is set in the future, I would not call it science fiction, or fantasy, or even speculative fiction — it is merely an inspired, lucid glide along the clear vector of knowledge stretching between our past and our future. Again and again, we have assumed to have reached some limit of truth, some limit of the possible called life. Again and again, we have been wrong. Powers’s astrobiologist names an existential possibility that, by all mathematical probability, will become reality in our lifetimes:

Data flowed back from instruments flying all over the Solar System. The planets were wilder than anyone suspected. Moons of Jupiter and Saturn turned out to be hiding liquid oceans beneath their suspiciously smooth crusts. All the Earthly chauvinisms began to fall. We’d been reasoning from a sample of one. Life might not need surface water. It might not need water at all. It might not even need a surface.

[…]

I was living through one of the great revolutions in human thought. A few years before, most astronomers thought they’d never live to see the discovery of even a single planet outside the solar system. By the time I was halfway through graduate school, the eight or nine planets known to exist turned into dozens, then hundreds. At first they were mostly gas giants. Then Kepler was launched, and Earth was flooded with worlds, some not much larger than ours… People were looking at infinitesimal changes in the light of immensely distant stars — reductions in brightness of a few parts per million — and calculating the invisible bodies that dimmed them in transiting. Minuscule wobbles in the motion of massive suns — changes of less than one meter per second in the velocity of a star — were betraying the size and mass of invisible planets tugging on them. The precision of these measurements defied belief. It was like trying to use a ruler to measure a distance a hundred times smaller than the amount the ruler would expand from the heat of your hand.

We did that. We Earthlings.

And yet we also did this — this burning house, this sullied pale blue.

Pessimism and Optimism by Giacomo Balla, 1923. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Echoing the largehearted Lewis Thomas and his forgiving assurance that we are “still new to the earth… a juvenile species, a child of a species… only tentatively set in place, error-prone, at risk of fumbling,” the astrobiologist looks at his son — a child filled with anger at his civilizational inheritance, filled with passion for righting it, uncertain where to begin or how much difference it would make — and reflects:

Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.

[…]

They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.

Art by Anne Bannock from Seeking an Aurora by Elizabeth Pulford

Over and over, Powers reckons with the question of why, given how life began in the first place — “One day two billion years ago, instead of one microbe eating the other, one took the other inside its membrane and they went into business together.” — we, supposed pinnacles of life, most privileged beneficiaries of this immense progression of symbiosis, have managed to turn on the rest of life so ungratefully, to grow so childish in mistaking Mother’s body for a resource and our responsibilities for rights. In one of his protagonist’s moments of shamed optimism, Powers produces the great indictment of our species:

That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.

Answering an audience question at his Literary Arts talk, Powers considers what it would take for us to make our tightrope way across the abyss toward the side of love:

For me, the wild is that condition of interbeing, of presence, that understands how beholden it is to place and everything else in that place. To be “bewildered” is to land back on Earth… to understand that there is no way of talking about us or our stories — where we’d been or where we’re going — without being a part of that interdependent wild community, of putting ourselves into the neighborhood — not as something above it, but just as one of the many, many agents that make place.

Telescope of Time by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Novels, if they are any good, are not things one can write about — only things one can read, or write. Read Bewilderment. It is an excellent novel — one of those rare epochal works, of art and of truth, that both slake the soul of their time and outlive it.

BP

Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

“As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state.”

Rebecca Solnit on Writing, Gardening, and the Life of the Mind

This is the great and terrifying truth about the creative life: Anything we make — all this longing for beauty and meaning, all these reckonings and raptures, these most passionate and personal fragments of being — is just a tiny seed compacting everything we are, blown into the wind that is the world.

Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later — and we can never fully know, or know at all, when or where or how they might.

But in that uncertainty is also our redemption — the thing that sets the artist, that civilizational gardener of eternal ideas, apart from the politician or the entrepreneur or any other harvester of seasonal urgencies.

Rebecca Solnit — one of the eternals of our time — explores this in some lovely passages from her unsummarizably magnificent book Orwell’s Roses (public library).

Rebecca Solnit prior to her 2020 Universe in Verse performance.

She writes:

Writing is a murky business: you are never entirely sure what you are doing or when it will be finished and whether you got it right and how it will be received months or years or decades after you finish. What it does, if it does anything, is a largely imperceptible business that takes place in the minds of people you will mostly never see and never hear from (unless they want to argue with you). As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state. What is vivid in the writing is not in how it hits the senses but what it does in the imagination; you can describe a battlefield, a birth, a muddy road, or a smell.

And then, making her contribution to the canon of great writers whose gardening anchored their art, she holds up the counterpoint and vital counterpart to this ethereal uncertainty:

A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect… To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses.

Elemental Forces by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet this is the paradox of the creative life: The world of ideas needs the world of atoms and forces — to believe otherwise is to dial back the centuries and go on perpetrating that amply confuted Cartesianism of regarding the life of the body as separate from the life of the mind. We are living embodiments of these selfsame forces of physics and biology. Walking hydrologies. Portable worlds with weather systems of biochemistry and feeling. Bodies moving through a world of other bodies in a particular stretch of spacetime.

All of these physical variables and the interactions between them shape our ideas, for they shape the interdependent chance-configuration of variables we experience as a self. We would not have Leaves of Grass or Beloved if Whitman’s and Morrison’s minds had been rooted in different bodies and different spacetimes.

If anyone knows this, of course, it is Rebecca Solnit — she who writes so beautifully about how the way we move shapes the way we think and about how the landscape colors the mind with feeling; she who thinks so deeply about trees and the shape of time; she who devotes two years of her life to writing a song of a book about how Orwell’s rose garden shaped his ideas.

Flowers by Clarissa Munger Badger — the artist who seeded Emily Dickinson’s botanial inspiration. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with two centuries of beloved writers on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening, then revisit Rebecca Solnit’s stirring letter to tomorrow’s readers about why we read and write.

BP

Iris Murdoch on the Myth of Closure and the Beautiful, Maddening Blind Spots of Our Self-Knowledge

“Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning.”

Iris Murdoch on the Myth of Closure and the Beautiful, Maddening Blind Spots of Our Self-Knowledge

In literature, when a storyline involves victim and a persecutor, we call it a drama. In life, most acts of aggression or complaint (which are two sides of the same coin: the emotional currency of existential malcontentment), most tantrums thrown by otherwise reasonable adults, most blamethirsty fingers pointed at some impartial reality, involve the self-victimization of drama. People prone to drama have not only cast themselves as victims of a perpetrator in a plot, but have tacitly conceded that there is a plot, which presupposes a playwright — some external entity scripting the story in which they feel done unto. The person self-cast into a drama is resigned to being a character, insentient to Joan Didion’s fundamental law of having character: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” Wherever there is drama, there is a deficiency of self-respect and too shallow a well of self-knowledge.

The ways in which we are all susceptible to drowning ourselves into drama, and what it takes to float free, is what Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea (public library) — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

Looking back on his life, the elderly playwright reflects on his own art and its relation to life itself:

Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted. This is why all the world is a stage.

Murdoch’s entire body of work, from philosophy to fiction, can be thought of as one cohesive inquiry into the meaning of goodness and the meaning of love, lensed through the meaning-machinery of art. She understood uniquely that we act out the messy middle of emotion because it is often too complex, contradictory, and category-defying for us to know what we are really feeling. Perennially half-opaque to ourselves, we feign surety and confidence in our reasons. Unwilling to fully live into what we are — anxious and uncertain creatures, tender and terrified throughout so much of life — we act ourselves into being, taking the stage costumed in false certitudes.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

As Murdoch’s protagonist sets out to write his memoirs — those sad shallows of literature, where art drifts to die as vain self-obsession — his cousin and boyhood playmate, now an old men himself, urges him to allot ample room for the eternal subject of human vanity, which renders us blinder to reality and more opaque to ourselves than any of our other confusions:

We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. But we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value. The heroes at Troy fought for a phantom Helen… Vain wars for phantom goods… People lie so… though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.

More than anything, we lie to ourselves. Peeled back far enough, even the most layered self-delusion springs from the same source — our illusion of free will amid a world in which, at the most basic level of reality, we control none of the fundamental forces and therefore have extremely limited agency in events. As the precocious teenage Sylvia Plath understood, our latitude of free movement in life is paralyzingly limited “from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention”. In such a reality, choice is only a narrative, and a retroactive one at that — it is the story we tell ourselves, in the vanity-light of hindsight, about why our lives went one way and not another.

Echoing James Baldwin’s exquisite lament about the illusion of choice, Murdoch writes:

What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ. Yet what were the reasons for the choice? They may have been forgotten. Did one know what one was choosing? Certainly not.

A subset of the illusion of choice is the illusion of closure — the alluring but ultimately vain idea that, as life lives itself through us in ways far beyond our control, in a complex and by definition ever-fraying tapestry of story-lines, we can tease out any one narrative thread neatly enough to tie it into a complete and permanently valid conclusion. Murdoch dispels the vanity:

Loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

But here is where we do have choice: In accepting a hazy and uncertain reality beyond our control, we can also refuse to resign ourselves to being victims of it — the sort of adaptation Octavia Butler held up as the highest measure of intelligence and integrity. We can recognize that life is much more interesting as a process of continual presence than as an acted drama; that the world is much more interesting as a shoreline than as a stage — for it is at the living shore that we witness, as Richard Feynman did, “ages upon ages” unfolding into the wonder of life; at the shore that we are humbled, as Rachel Carson was, by “our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea… in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality”; at the shore that we finally accept the most elemental fact of our lives: There is no final act — only shoreless seeds and stardust.

BP

Octavia Butler on the Meaning of God

On change, the measure of intelligence, the courage to take responsibility for our own lives.

Octavia Butler on the Meaning of God

“He is the only God. And so am I and so are you,” William Blake said of Jesus in one of his prophetic koan-like pronouncements.

A century after him, Hermann Hesse leaned on his reverence for nature as he considered the value of hardship, urging the dispirited to listen to our inner voice: “If you are now wondering where to look for consolation, where to seek a new and better God… he does not come to us from books, he lives within us… This God is in you too. He is most particularly in you, the dejected and despairing.”

Another century hence, another prophet of the ages saw, and named, the underlying truth beneath these truths: that if this you, this me, is in fact an ever-changing chance-constellation of cells, ideas, beliefs, impressions, mental states, emotional weather systems, constantly making and remaking itself into what we experience as selfhood, then God is the other name of chance and change, of that flickering constellation. God is the name we — “atoms with consciousness,” who know that one day we shall become “one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust” but wish it to be otherwise with every atomic fiber of our being — is the name we give to our touching longing for permanence in a universe of change.

Octavia Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of women writers who have enchanted and transformed our world.

In the opening pages of her 1993 masterwork Parable of the Sower (public library) — the first part of her oracular Earthseed allegory — Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) writes:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

This, of course, is the only appropriate conception of “God” — which is also another word for “nature” — if we are lucid about what actually happens when we die: that is, when we return our borrowed stardust to nature. Butler intimates as much, insisting again and again that “God” is the vessel we create to hold the blooming buzzing chaos of the ever-changing self. “To shape God, shape Self,” she would write five years later, in the sequel to Parable of the Sower.

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

Defining intelligence as “ongoing, individual adaptability” and reminding us that “civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals,” she considers our orientation to “God” — to change — as a vital adaptation that shapes the outcome of any individual human life. In a mighty antidote to our present culture of abdicating personal responsibility for our own lives (which, as Joan Didion knew, is another term for character) in favor of competitive victimhood, Butler writes:

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaption,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

Complement with Borges on what makes us who we are and John Burroughs’s superb century-old manifesto for the spirituality of nature, then revisit Butler on how we become ourselves and how (not) to choose our leaders.

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