The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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).”


Wholeness and the Implicate Order: Physicist David Bohm on Bridging Consciousness and Reality

How to “include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border.”

Wholeness and the Implicate Order: Physicist David Bohm on Bridging Consciousness and Reality

Life is an ongoing dance between the subjective reality of what it feels like to be alive, to tremble with grief, to be glad — what it feels like to be you — and the objective reality of a universe insentient to your hopes and fears, those rudiments of the imagination, the imagination at the heart of consciousness. We are yet to figure out how these two dimensions of being can be integrated into a totality. We are yet to figure out how the known physical laws can cohere with each other — relativity, the physics of the very large, is still at odds with quantum field theory, the physics of the very small — and yet to figure out how those physical laws give rise to the wonder of consciousness.

The urgency of this integration is what the physicist David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992) explores in Wholeness and the Implicate Order (public library).

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Bohm — who devoted his life to “understanding the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment” — writes:

To meet the challenge before us our notions of cosmology and of the general nature of reality must have room in them to permit a consistent account of consciousness. Vice versa, our notions of consciousness must have room in them to understand what it means for its content to be “reality as a whole.” The two sets of notions together should then be such as to allow for an understanding of how reality and consciousness are related.

Acknowledging that these immense questions might “never be resolved ultimately and completely” — that they might belong to what Hannah Arendt insisted were the unanswerable questions that make us human — he adds:

Man’s* general way of thinking of the totality, i.e. his general world view, is crucial for overall order of the human mind itself. If he thinks of the totality as constituted of independent fragments, then that is how his mind will tend to operate, but if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border (for every border is a division or break) then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole.


The way could be opened for a world view in which consciousness and reality would not be fragmented from each other.

A generation after the Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser contoured a view of this unfragmented reality in his notion of “the ever-present origin,” Bohm considers what arriving at such a holistic view would take:

Our general world view is itself an overall movement of thought, which has to be viable in the sense that the totality of activities that flow out of it are generally in harmony, both in themselves and with regard to the whole of existence. Such harmony is seen to be possible only if the world view itself takes part in an unending process of development, evolution, and unfoldment, which fits as part of the universal process that is the ground of all existence.

Art by Thomas Wright from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Such a way of viewing reality, Bohm argues against the grain of our reductionist culture, requires fully inhabiting all aspects of the mind, including those that elude the clutch of quantification:

The proper order of operation of the mind requires an overall grasp of what is generally known not only in formal, logical, mathematical terms, but also intuitively, in images, feelings, poetic usage of language, etc… It is needed for the human mind to function in a generally harmonious way, which could in turn help to make possible an orderly and stable society… This requires a continual flow and development of our general notions of reality.


A new kind of theory is needed which drops these basic commitments and at most recovers some essential features of the older theories as abstract forms derived from a deeper reality in which what prevails is unbroken wholeness.

In the remainder of Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Bohm goes on explore how the relationship between thought and reality illuminates the way this unbroken wholeness is enfolded within each region of space and time. Complement it with Iain McGilchrist on how we render reality and John Muir on the transcendent interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit Bohm on creativity, the paradox of communication, and how we shape reality.


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