The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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.


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.


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.

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.


Artist and Philosopher Rockwell Kent on Our Existential Wanderlust

“Wander where you will over all the world, from every valley seeing forever new hills calling you to climb them, from every mountain top farther peaks enticing you… until you stand one day on the last peak on the border of the interminable sea, stopped by the finality of that.”

Artist and Philosopher Rockwell Kent on Our Existential Wanderlust

“Man* is by Nature a migratory animal,” the elderly Frederick Douglass reflected in an 1887 speech about his global travels. “It does not appear that he was intended to dwell forever in any one locality. He is a born traveler.”

A generation after him, Maya Angelou observed that “you only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

Partway in time between Douglass and Angelou, the painter, printmaker, and philosopher Rockwell Kent (June 21, 1882–March 13, 1971) captured this vital interplay between freedom and belonging, between nature and human nature, in the preface to Wilderness (public library) — the exquisite record of the seven months he spent on a remote Alaskan island with his young son in the gloaming hour of the Spanish flu pandemic and the First World War, at the dawn of his artistic life.

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

We each have a particular style of wanderlust, pulled by particular types of nature that best speak to our own — those places where we most freely lose ourselves and, in consequence, find ourselves. For some, they are the austere open space of blue skies and red canyons. For me, they are the mossy old-growth forests of New Zealand and the American Pacific Northwest. For Kent, it was the severe majesty of the Great North:

It has always been hard for me to understand myself, to know why I work and love and live. Yet it is fortunate that such matters find a way of caring for themselves. I came to Alaska because I love the North. I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands.

In a new preface to his journals, penned in the final year of his life, Kent looks back on the wanderlust of his youth — the roaming restlessness that had shaped his spirit, the spirit from which his art sprang, the art that established him as one of the most celebrated creators of his time — and exhorts the generations of wanderers to come:

Wander where you will over all the world, from every valley seeing forever new hills calling you to climb them, from every mountain top farther peaks enticing you. Always the distant land looks fairest, till you are made at last a restless wanderer never reaching home — never — until you stand one day on the last peak on the border of the interminable sea, stopped by the finality of that.

The Star-Lighter by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Contemplating the existential pull beneath it all — the rippling, resonant why of our wanderlust — Kent adds:

We are part and parcel of the big plan of things. We are simply instruments recording in different measure our particular portion of the infinite. And what we absorb of it makes for character, and what we give forth, for [our art].

These are salutary words to read a century later, as our own world is only just shaking off its straitjacket of two-year terror and becoming wanderable again.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit’s wanderlusting history of walking, then revisit Kent’s breathtaking reflections on wilderness, solitude, and creativity.


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