The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Montaigne on How to Succeed at Solitude and His Antidote to the Three Great Fears That Haunt Self-Knowledge

“There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.”

Montaigne on How to Succeed at Solitude and His Antidote to the Three Great Fears That Haunt Self-Knowledge

“There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” the poet May Sarton wrote in her ravishing ode to solitude. “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote a generation before her as he reckoned with the heart of a healthy relationship. It may be that our relationship with ourselves — the extent to which we are able to be intimate with our own spirit and make of that intimacy a sanctuary — is a matter of learning to stand guard over our own solitude.

That is what Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) explores in some passages from his relentlessly insightful meditations predating psychology by centuries, rendered in a new translation by the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor in his altogether wonderful book The Art of Solitude.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for the essays of Montaigne

Montaigne spent much of his own life in solitude — the crucible of his enduringly insightful meditations on the fundaments of life. With life-tested surety, he allays the three great fears haunting solitude — boredom, the loss of social rewards, and self-confrontation. He writes:

We have a soul that can turn in on itself; it can keep itself company. It has the means to attack and defend, to give and receive. Don’t worry that solitude will find you hunched up in boredom.

Rather than boredom, such inner stillness leads us to what Bertrand Russell so memorably termed “fruitful monotony” — an inner quieting that becomes fertile compost for creativity. But even at its most generative, solitude succumbs to the basic binary of life: being any one place means not being another — an equivalence that metastasizes in the classic fear of missing out. Montaigne cautions against such preoccupation with the external world and calls for the vital self-mastery of learning to govern the internal:

It should no longer be your concern that the world speaks of you; your sole concern should be with how you speak to yourself. Retreat into yourself, but first of all make yourself ready to receive yourself there. If you do not know how to govern yourself, it would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.

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

To succeed in solitude, he argues, is to learn to “keep yourself settled, straight, inflexible, without movement or agitation,” so that you can begin to observe the mind as it happens unto itself — the happening that is our entire experience of life. He writes:

It is a tricky business to follow so meandering a course as that of our mind, to penetrate its opaque depths and hidden recesses, to discern and stop so many subtle shifts in its movements.

[…]

Others study themselves in order to advance and elevate their mind: I seek to humble it and lie it down to rest.

Complement with Emerson — Montaigne’s Transcendentalist inheritor — on how to trust yourself and what solitude really means and Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, sex, and creativity, then revisit Montaigne’s cumulative wisdom on how to live.

BP

Trees, Rivers, and the Exquisite Interdependence of Life: Artist Meredith Nemirov’s Consummate Map Paintings

“To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”

When the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in 1866 after the Greek words for “house” and “study” to denote the study of the relationship between organisms in the house of life, he had no idea just how intricate this relationship would be revealed to be by the science of the following century.

Imagine how astonished he would have been to know that one day we would find salmon in trees and trees in plankton.

Long after Haeckel had returned his borrowed atoms to the ecosystem, scientists discovered that nitrogen-15 — an isotope of nitrogen found almost exclusively in the oceans — is the reason some trees grow thrice as fast as others. This improbable fertilizer ends up in their root systems thanks to salmon, which carry it in their fatty bodies from the Pacific Ocean as they migrate upstream to spawn. Black bears fishing in the rivers ingest the salmon and metabolize the nitrogen, depositing it into the forest, where it seeps into the soil to be taken up by the hungry trees.

But this relationship between ocean and forest is reciprocal, flowing both ways across the conduits of river and tree: In turn, trees shed their leaves into the river, which carries the acids in them to the ocean to feed plankton — the first link in Earth’s food chain, in turn feeding the salmon and all other creatures uplink, including us.

This exquisite interdependence comes alive in artist Meredith Nemirov’s series Rivers Feed the Trees — consummate paintings of aspens atop historic topographic maps of the Colorado river.

Created in the wake of the region’s devastating wildfires, while a global pandemic was illuminating afresh the profound ecological interbeing of our Pale Blue Dot, this conceptual “rewatering” of the landscape is intended as a kind of visual rain dance — a prayerful invocation of water in acrylagouache and cartography.

The artist reflects:

The linear elements and patterns assigned by map makers to the various aspects of the geology of the land are visual elements in the landscape and the form of the tree. The idea of connectivity in nature has been a recurrent theme in my work and is expressed in this particular series and in this quote by Barry Lopez, “To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”

Couple with Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė’s illustrated love letter to rivers, then revisit Olivia Laing’s magnificent meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

HT Orion Magazine

BP

Affirmation in Solitude: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Poetry of Penguins

“The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth.”

Affirmation in Solitude: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Poetry of Penguins

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” Rachel Carson reflected in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” Carson saw the sea as a microcosm of all life, and indeed, there is native poetry in the wonder of reality that we access whenever we step beyond our habitual frames of reference and simply pay attention to what is other than ourselves. Her hero Henry Beston undrestood this when he observed that non-human animals move through the world “finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear” — the voices of poets in the deepest and widest sense of poetry as an instrument of living with wonder.

Ursula K. Le Guin

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores in her short story The Author of the Acacia Seeds: And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics, included in her 1982 collection The Compass Rose (public library) — the story of a group of scientists studying non-human languages, one of whom sets out “to approach the sea literature of the penguin with understanding.”

That Le Guin was writing before we had decoded the sonic hieroglyphics of dolphins or discerned the dance-language of bees only attests to her extraordinary foresight and penetrating wisdom into the more-than-human world.

The King Penguin by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1871. (Available as a print.)

Le Guin — who was a poet and believed that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe” — writes of the kinetic poetics of penguins:

The beauty of that poetry is as unearthly as anything we shall ever find on earth… Imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of the wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mortal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth. That is their poetry, that is their art. Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing; the touch, the faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, miserable, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.

Complement with a neuroscientist on the pengin’s antidote to abandonment, then revisit Le Guin on storytelling and the power of language, suffering and getting to the other side of pain, and the magic of real human conversation.

BP

How the Psychedelic Amanita Muscaria Mushroom May Have Inspired the Santa Legend of Lapland

Shamans, neurochemistry, and the metabolic byproducts of wonder.

It took humanity 200,000 years to “discover” mushrooms. Although they have accompanied us since the dawn of our species, although they far predate us and will far outlast every other living thing on Earth, we are only just beginning to understand their layered mysteries — from their properties as portals into “the Beyond” to their status as nature’s instruments for listening.

But while mushrooms have been part of ancient spiritual traditions the world over, they might also have inspired the most materialist mainstream holiday of Western civilization: Christmas. One species in particular: Amanita muscaria — a mushroom whose strong toxins have psychedelic properties considered the world’s oldest known intoxicant, predating alcohol by 10,000 years.

Amanita muscaria from “Atlas des Champignons Comestibles et Vénéneux,” 1891. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

According to the BBC, the shamans of the indigenous Sámi people of Lapland consumed small amounts of Amanita muscaria in their visionary rituals and drank urine from their reindeer, who eat the iconic red-and-white mushroom as part of their diet and metabolize its toxins without harm, excreting a fluid still full of psychoactive compounds but free from toxins. One of the known psychedelic effects of Amanita muscaria on humans is the sensation of flying, which might explain the origin of the myth about the man clad in red and white soaring through the sky on his reindeer-drawn sled, dispensing tokens of love to the world.

A decade after the BBC first brought this speculative theory to the popular imagination, filmmaker Matthew Salton set out to reenvision Christmas as a celebration not of capitalism but of shamanism in a wonderful op-doc for the New York Times, lensing the theory through the work of two scholars — Boston university classicist Carl Ruck, who studies ancient shamanistic traditions and ecstatic rituals, and mycologist Lawrence Millman.

Maybe we should be asking Santa for something different this year, something more in the tradition of our shaman forefathers — like time for reflection and looking inward.

For more on Amanita muscaria and its chemistry, its cultural myths, and its scientific promise, ethnobotanist Rob Nelson of Untamed Science has an excellent (and beautifully cinematic) primer:

Complement with Sylvia Plath’s haunting poem “Mushrooms,” then revisit Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s little-known mycological studies.

HT Ologies

BP

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from any link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)