The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self: How a Circle of Friends and Lovers United Nature and Human Nature

“Mind is invisible nature, while nature is visible mind.”

The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self: How a Circle of Friends and Lovers United Nature and Human Nature

Just after the revolutionary work he recounted in Awakenings, Oliver Sacks wrote in a note to the music therapist at Beth Abraham Hospital: “Every disease is a music problem; every cure is a musical solution.” He was quoting Novalis — the young German poet and philosopher who, while working in a salt mine and studying mathematics, geology, physics, and biology, was composing tortured and transcendent poems inspired by the death of his teenage beloved.

Novalis is one of the characters who animate Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (public library) — the story of a circle friends and lovers in late-eighteenth-century Germany who refined their ideas in ricochet — ideas that shaped our present understanding of art and nature, mind and reality, the world and ourselves as function and functionary of it.

After the formidable Germaine de Staël popularized their ideas outside Germany, the tendrils of their influence went on to touch Coleridge and Emerson, Whitman and Joyce, sinking into the very soul of the modern world and its self-regard.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having previously written about Alexander von Humboldt and the “invention” of nature — in the sense of the birth of its modern conception — Wulf now chronicles the “invention” of the modern self, the Ich, in the intellectual kiln of the same time and place, revealing the two to be inseparably related, reminding us that we can’t understand nature if we don’t understand ourselves or care for one without caring for the other.

She calls them the Jena set, after the town in Duchy of Saxe-Weimar where they constellated their portable universe of radicalism, and writes:

They were rebellious and felt invincible. Their lives became the playground of this new philosophy. And the story of their tiptoeing between the power of free will and the danger of becoming self-absorbed is significant on a universal level. The Ich, for better or worse, has remained centre stage ever since. The French revolutionaries changed the political landscape of Europe, but the Jena Set incited a revolution of the mind. The liberation of the Ich from the straitjacket of a divinely organised universe is the foundation of our thinking today. It gave us the most exciting of all powers: free will.

Against the grain of their time, they exercised their free will in open marriages and long-term monogamies without marriage. With names that sounded alike and intellectual passions that fired alike, they became a kind of hive mind fixated on celebrating the self and set out to “symphilosophize” — a term they invented for the intellectual symbiosis and symphonic creative collaboration at the heart of their life. Wulf writes:

Taken together, the knowledge available in the minds of those who lived in Jena was like a great living encyclopaedia covering a vast range of subjects from antiquity to comparative anatomy, from electricity to Spanish literature, from philosophy to poetry, from history to botany.

Among them, of course, were Goethe and Schiller, whose intergenerational friendship was the intellectual and creative anchor of both of their lives. Humboldt flits in and out of the scene, with his experiments in galvanism and his passionate devotion to the web of life. But there are also central characters now nearly forgotten — the influential brothers August Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schlegel, who believed that they were “all part of the same family of magnificent outlaws” and stood against Rousseau in their conviction that both boys and girls deserved a rigorous education; the young Friedrich Schelling, who at age eleven had informed his teachers that they had nothing else to teach him and had become the youngest professor appointed at the University of Jena at twenty-three, who “radiated infinity,” and who believed that “mind is invisible nature, while nature is visible mind” and told his students:

As long as I myself am identical with nature, I understand what living nature is as well as I understand myself.

Goethe’s color wheel from his theory of color and emotion. (Available as a print.)

There was Novalis, who “regarded the ordinary with wonder” and “slept little and worked hard” — at his poetry and in the salt mines — and believed that we and the world are an integrated system, each indispensable to the other, so that our task is to “catch sight of ourselves as an element in the system.” Wulf writes:

His notebooks are filled with more than a thousand sections which analyse, synthesise and connect everything from music to physics, poetry to chemistry and philosophy to mathematics. And he did so with a fluidity and lightness that reveals a mind wide open to everything. Novalis began to assemble his ideas and material under conventional headings, such as archaeology, religion, nature, politics, medicine, and so on, but also under more unusual groupings, such as “theory of the future,” “musical physics,” “poetical physiology” and “theory of excitation.”

It was Novalis who offered the closest thing they had to a founding credo of Romanticism:

By giving the commonplace a higher meaning, by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticise.

But by far the most colorful character is Caroline Schlegel, who was to the German Romantics what Margaret Fuller was to the American Transcendentalists. Vivacious, opinionated, educated far beyond the gendered limits of her time, Caroline spent time in prison for her revolutionary leanings, had a baby by a young Napoleonic soldier after a fiery one-night stand, and was animated by what she called “a firm, almost instinctive need for independence.” She besotted both Schlegel brothers, married one in what was at base an amicable friendship, and took the young Schelling as a lover, becoming the great love and muse of his life. The slight squint of her blue eyes cast the spell binding everyone into the “magic circle” of the group. “We have to build a poetic world out of ourselves,” Novalis told her as he declared her the beating heart of that world.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print, benefitting the New York public library system.)

They all believed in the power of language. “You have not just to carry out revolutions,” Friedrich Schlegel wrote, “you have to speak them too.” No one spoke them more revolutionarily than the young Schelling, whose lectures enchanted a generation of thinkers with a whole new way of seeing the world — his students called it his “poetry of the universe.” Wulf writes:

For millennia, thinkers had turned to their gods to understand their place and purpose in the unknowable divine plan. Then, in the late seventeenth century, a scientific revolution began to illuminate the world. Scientists had peered through microscopes into the minutiae of life or lifted new telescopes to the skies to discover Earth’s place in the universe. They had dissected human hearts to learn how the body functioned and classified plants, animals and minerals in neat categories to impose order on the world in which they lived. They had calculated the distance between the Sun and Earth, described how blood circulated through the body, and sailed to Australia, a “new” continent some ten thousand miles away on the other side of the world. They had discovered oxygen and used mathematics to define the laws of planetary motion and gravity.

The Enlightenment had truly enlightened. But this new rational approach had also created a certain distancing from nature and excluded the roles of feeling and beauty. Nature had become something that was investigated from a so-called objective perspective. Light, for example, was no longer appreciated for its kaleidoscopic play of iridescent colours, Novalis said, but for its refraction and “mathematical obedience”: hence its elevation to the term “Enlightenment” itself. This was why Schelling’s students fell for their young professor. He reunited what the scientific revolution had separated: nature and humankind. No matter how much scientists observed, calculated and experimented, there was something emotional, something visceral and perhaps inexplicable about humanity’s connection to nature. However we feel it, nature can soothe, heal or simply fill us with joy. Schelling gave us the philosophical explanation.

And by doing so, his philosophy of oneness became the heartbeat of Romanticism.

Art by Charlie Mackesy from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

In consonance with William Blake’s lifelong devotion to turning art into a lens on the universe, the Jena set understood that because we are part of nature, the products of our creative imagination are how nature examines itself, comprehends itself, and coheres. Wulf considers how Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism “became the philosophical underpinning of Romanticism”:

An artwork — a painting, a sculpture, a poem — was therefore the expression of the union between the self and nature. Whatever an artist produced was created by nature through him or her. Nature — the unconscious product of the self — and the conscious self came together in the artistic creation. Art was therefore essential in order to make sense of the world, Schelling declared. Neither rational thought nor the most accurate scientific instruments held the key to understanding the world. Art was the finite or concrete representation of the infinite. Art opened “the holiest of holies,” Schelling wrote. It was the revelation of the universe through the creative production of an artist.

These were ideas the entire Jena set shared. Friedrich Schlegel proclaimed that “all art should become science and all science art.” Novalis insisted that “science in its perfected form must be poetic” and that “laboratories will be temples.” Caroline Schlegel prophesied that “when the world goes up in flames like a scrap of paper, works of art will be the last living sparks.”

Works of art only ever spring from the particular vantage point of a particular authentic self — an Ich — and this is the enduring legacy of the first Romantics.

But all great ideas, if followed not critically but cultishly, run the risk of metastasizing into dogmas. Today, we are living with one such metastasis of Romanticism in our staggering epidemic of selfing — rather than connecting us to each other and the living world as kindred elements in a system, the inflamed Ich has folded us unto ourselves: living proteins of ego. It is by returning to the original philosophy, before its mutation, that we stand a chance of reclaiming the self as a crucible of creativity and a portal of connection to nature.

Art by Paloma Valdiva for Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions

Wulf reclaims the legacy of the Romantics:

Life is a negotiation between our rights as an individual and our role as a member of a community, including our responsibilities towards future generations who will inhabit this planet. How can we live a meaningful life in which we determine the direction of our path while also being a morally good person? How do we reconcile personal liberty with the demands of society? Are we selfish? Are we pursuing our dreams? Are we treading on someone else’s liberty? Are we looking only after ourselves? Or others? Or both? We have entered a social contract with each other and with our governments, agreeing to abide by laws and conventions — yet this only works if we are free and trust one another at the same time.

The Jena Set believed that we have to be conscious of our selves — to be “selfish” in the sense of being aware of and in control of our own being and free will.


The “Art of being Selfish,” in the context of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, also means understanding one’s place in this great interconnected living organism that is nature. “Since we find nature in the self,” one of Schelling’s students concluded, “we must also find the self in nature.” Being selfish in that sense means comprehending and recognising the concept of unity with the universe. Not harming the planet therefore means not harming yourself.

With an eye to Novalis’s insistence that “without perfect self-understanding we will never learn truly to understand others,” she adds:

Only if we are fully aware of ourselves — of our needs, our wishes, and of our thoughts — can we truly embrace the other. This emphasis on the Ich means being “self aware” as the prerequisite for “being aware and concerned for the other.” Only through self-awareness can we feel empathy with others. Only through self-reflection can we question our behaviour towards others. Self-examination in that sense is for the greater good — for us, for our wider community, for society in general and for our planet.

Complement Magnificent Rebels with poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan — a modern-day Romantic, writing in her nineties — on the self and the universe, then revisit the Schelling-influenced Emerson on how to trust yourself and Whitman’s Humboldt-inspired poem “Kosmos.”


Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Almost Unbearably Sweet Account of Sole-Parenting His Small Son

“Mercy on me, was ever man before so be-pelted with a child’s talk as I am! It is his desire of sympathy that lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement.”

Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Almost Unbearably Sweet Account of Sole-Parenting His Small Son

Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) was forty-seven when he became five. He had never had a childhood himself — his father, a sea captain, had died when Nathaniel was a small boy, hurling his mother into a near-catatonic grief from which she never recovered. But when his own small son was left in his sole care for three summer weeks in the mountains, Hawthorne contacted the spirit of childhood with uncommon sweetness and sincerity as little Julian collected flowers, fished with an imaginary rod, “philosophized about rainbows” in the August mist, and ran across the room “with a marvellous swagger of the ludicrousness of which he seems perfectly conscious.” Hawthrone partook of their joint sword-war on the thistles “which represented many-headed dragons and hydras,” climbed trees, engaged in nightly wrestling, and relished the ravishments of nature with childlike wonder.

On July 28, 1851, his wife Sophia — a gifted artist, and sister to the pioneering education reformer and Transcendentalism founding mother Elizabeth Peabody — left for Boston on business for three weeks, taking with her their beloved daughter Una and their newborn baby Rosebud, and leaving the five-year-old Julian in his father’s care in the Red Shanty — the modest red farmhouse they had rented in the Berkshires, where Hawthorne met and cast his spell on the young Herman Melville.

Nathaniel Hawthorne by John Adams Whipple

Melancholy by nature and painfully introverted to the rest of the world, Hawthorne came alive in a different way with his children. “He was capable of being the gayest person I ever saw,” Una would later recall. “He was like a boy.”

Now, alone with Julian and their pet rabbit, Hawthorne was simultaneously five and almost fifty, both playmate and artist at the peak of his powers, trying to write while affectionately grumbling about “the babble which [runs] like a brook through all my thoughts” in the diary he kept for Sophia, rediscovered nearly a century later — the almost unbearably wonderful Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa (public library).

With infinite sweetness, tenderness, and patience, Hawthorne indulged little Julian’s bombardment of questions, nursed his stomachaches, attended to the misfires of childhood with touching amiability (“There had been a deluge in his bed, and nowhere else.”), and curled the boy’s hair each morning before they headed out on their daily expedition for milk, picking flowers and fighting thistles along the way.

It was joyful, but it was hard. “I have all his mother’s anxieties, added to my own,” Hawthorne wrote in the diary. “It must have been weary work [for my father],” Julian would recall half a lifetime later of those three weeks, “though for the little boy it was one uninterrupted succession of halcyon days.”

Julian with his sister Una

Having been made to tip-toe around the baby since her birth in the spring, Julian immediately sets about making unfettered ruckus as soon as he is alone with his father, hammering on an empty box with great enjoyment — Hawthorne, bemused rather than annoyed, lets him — before exhausting himself and growing very pensive about his mother’s absence. Then begins the barrage of queries and musings, pelting the helpless father from dawn until dusk, making it impossible “to write, read, think, or even to sleep (in the daytime).” And yet Hawthorne delights in the “genial and good-humored little man” — “the old gentleman” — with such unalloyed love that he finds it difficult to get annoyed, even as he watches his son “felicitating himself continually on the license of making what noise he pleased… He enjoys his freedom so greatly, that I do not mean to restrain him.”

Hawthorne marvels:

He is never out of temper or out of spirits, and is certainly as happy as the day is long. He is happy enough by himself; and when I sympathize or partake in his play, it is almost too much; and he nearly explodes with laughter and delight.

He meets even the boy’s occasional remonstrations with the loving assessment that his “sharp, quick, high voice” makes him sound “very much like the chattering of an angry squirrel.” When the father does reach the end of his rope, it is only with bemused amiability:

Either I have less patience to-day than ordinary, or the little man makes larger demands upon it; but it really does seem as if he had baited me with more questions, references, and observations, than mortal father out to be expected to endure. He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.

He reflects on the storm of interruptions with lucid and largehearted insight into their deeper roots in human nature, always clearest in children:

Mercy on me, was ever man before so be-pelted with a child’s talk as I am! It is his desire of sympathy that lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been.

A living reminder that even the largest minds and most generous spirits are captors of their time and culture, the diary reveals Hawthorne’s ineptitude in domestic matters and his genuine confusion about how to take care of himself, much less his son, in Sophia’s absence:

Went to bed without any supper — having nothing to eat but half-baked, sour bread.

He does receive the steady help of a part-time housekeeper — a Mrs. Peters, who comes to make breakfast for the two boys and whom Hawthorne regards with respect bordering on deference; only toward the end of the diary, in a passing mention, do we learn that the cherished woman is “a colored angel.” Most of the time, though, Julian is in Hawthorne’s sole care, down to the suppers of crushed currants and plain bread, which father and son savor with perfect contentment upon finishing each long summer day of outdoor adventure. Over and over, Hawthorne delights in the child’s delights:

Julian climbed up into the tree, and sat astride of a branch. His round merry face appeared among the green leaves, and a continual stream of babble came dripping down upon me, like a summer shower.


After a while, I took him down from the tree; and removing a little way from the spot, we chanced upon a remarkable echo. It repeated every word of his clear little voice, at his usual elevation of talk ; and when either of us called loudly, we could hear as many as three or four repetitions — the last coming apparently from far away beyond the woods, with a strange, fantastic similitude to the original voice, as if beings somewhat like ourselves were shouting in the invisible distance. Julian called “Mamma,” “Una,” and many other words; then he shouted his own name, and when the sound came back upon us, he said that mamma was calling him. What a strange, weird thing is an echo, to be sure!

Together, father and son observe their pet rabbit, who at first “does not turn out to be a very interesting companion” — “with no playfulness, as silent as a fish, inactive,” passing his life “between a torpid half-slumber, and the nibbling of clover-tops, lettuce, plantain-leaves, pig-weed, and crumbs of bread” — but eventually becomes a curious object of meditation. (Shine the beam of curiosity upon even the dullest object and it becomes interesting; polish anything with attention and it becomes a mirror for the meaning of life.) Reflecting on the bunny’s tendency to tremble “as an aspen leaf” and the general “apprehensiveness of his nature,” Hawthorne considers the creature’s unwelt:

I do not think that these fears are any considerable torment to Bunny; it is his nature to live in the midst of them, and to intermingle them, as a sort of piquant sauce, with every morsel he eats. It is what redeems his life from dulness and stagnation.


The mystery that broods about him — the lack of any method of communicating with this voiceless creature — heightens the interest.

One of Japanese artist Komako Sakai’s tender illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit

As the days unspool, Hawthorne finds himself “getting rather attached to this gentle little beast” and devoted to satisfying the bunny’s increasingly finicky appetite with only the freshest grass and leaves, shares of his own bread, and borrowed green oats from the neighbor.

He ate a leaf of mint to-day, seemingly with great relish. It makes me smile to see how he invariably comes galloping to meet me, whenever I open the door, making sure that there is something in store for him, and smelling eagerly to find out what it is.


He has, I think, a great deal of curiosity, and an investigating disposition, and is very observant of what is going on around him. I do not know any other beast, and few human beings, who, always present, and thrusting his little paw into all the business of the day, could at the same time be so perfectly unobtrusive.

Punctuating the diary is Hawthorne’s exquisitely attentive relishment of the living world, once again affirming him as the greatest nature writer of all the nineteenth-century American novelists, second perhaps only to Mary Shelley. In one of many exquisite examples of the unphotographable, he writes:

The heavy masses of cloud, lumbering about the sky, threw deep black shadows on the sunny hill-sides; so that the contrast between the heat and coolness of the day was thus visibly expressed. The atmosphere was particularly transparent, as if all the haze was collected into these dense clouds. Distant objects appear with great distinctness; and the Taconic range of hills was a dark blue substance, with its protuberances and inequalities apparent — not cloud-like, as it often is. The sun smiled with mellow breadth across the rippling lake — rippling with the north-western breeze.

Two days later, on the last day of July, he records another reverie:

It was another cloudy and lowery morning, with a cloud (which looked as full of moisture as a wet sponge) lying all along the ridge of the western hill; beneath which the wooden hill-side looked black, grim, and desolate. Monument Mountain, too, had a cloud on its back; but the sunshine gleamed along its sides, and made it quite a cheerful object; and being in the centre of the scene, it cheered up the whole picture, like a cheery heart. Even its forests, as contrasted with the woods on the other hills, had a light on them; and the cleared tracts seemed doubly sunny, and a field of rye, just at its base, shone out with yellow radiance, quite illuminating the landscape.

Art from Every Color of Light — a stunning Japanese illustrated celebration of the weather and the fulness of life

A week later, admiring “the Kaatskills blue and far on the horizon,” he reverences another atmospheric dazzlement:

Across our valley, from east to west, there was a heavy canopy of clouds almost resting on the hills on either side. It did not extend southward so far as Monument Mountain, which lay in sunshine, and with a sunny cloud midway on its bosom; and from the midst of our storm, beneath our black roof of clouds, we looked out upon this bright scene, where the people were enjoying beautiful weather. The clouds hung so low over us, that it was like being in a tent, the entrance of which was drawn up, permitting us to see the sunny landscape. This lasted for several minutes; but at last the shower stretched southward, and quite snatched away Monument Mountain, and made it invisible, although now it is mistily re-appearing.

Along their rambles, Julian invents Giant Despair — an evil spirit responsible for every misfortune that befalls them, from the cow dung he runs through to the menacing summer storms.

Hawthorne himself frequently touches despair as he dwells on Sophia’s absence — his Phoebe. He misses her terribly. He walks to the post office again and again, anguished each time he finds no letter from her; when the letters do come, he mourns how “excruciatingly short” they are. “I spent a rather forlorn evening,” he writes after another joyful day with Julian, “and to bed at nine.”

Visits from Melville, ever-adoring, distract him, prompting Julian to declare that he now loves “Mr. Melville” as much as he does his mother and Una. (“I do not think he has given Rosebud any place in his affections yet.”) He records:

After supper, I put Julian to bed; and Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night.

Herman Melville by Asa Weston Twitchell

When spells of Hawthorne’s lifelong melancholy descend upon him, he finds nothing more salutary than Julian’s contagious cheer. During one of their daily jaunts to the local lake, watching the indefatigable boy amuse himself, he writes:

I lay on the bank, under the trees, and watched his little busyness — his never-wearing activity — as cheerful as the sun, and shedding a reflected cheer upon my sombreness.

Two weeks into this experiment in sole-parenthood, Hawthorne’s longing for Sophia and the girls grows unbearable, prompting an ecstatic outpouring on the pages of the diary he knows she will soon read:

Let me say outright, for once, that he is a sweet and lovely little boy, and worthy of all the love that I am capable of giving him. Thank God! God bless him! God bless Phoebe for giving him to me! God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! God bless Una, whom I long to see again! God bless little Rosebud! God bless me, for Phoebe’s and all their sakes! No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!

And then, immediately, he adds a forlorn reflection on the reality of their absence:

My evenings are all dreary, alone, and without books that I am in the mood to read; and this evening was like the rest. So I went to bed at about nine, and longed for Phoebe.

But then, on the eve of Sophia’s much anticipated and thrice delayed return, Giant Despair deals his cruelest blow — after a spell of shivers in the evening, Bunny is found still and stiff in his lair by morning. Julian, however, becomes a living testament to children’s ability to perceive the naturalness of death as a part of life, before it has been tainted with our adult dogmas and frights. After breakfast, father and son dig a small hole in the garden and bury the creature as Julian whispers his hope that a flower will spring up over the grave, then elaborates on his ecological cosmogony, telling his father:

Perhaps tomorrow there will be a tree of Bunnies, and they will hang all over it by their ears!

One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit

Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is a charm of a read in its entirety. Complement it with Hawthorne on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning — his touching account of watching his young daughter interact with his dying mother — then revisit Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to him and Kahlil Gibran’s poetic advice on parenting.


The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

Finding that vitalizing “a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make.”

The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” Alan Watts wrote as he contemplated our search for meaning. “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

It is a fertile metaphor, for the way we move through the world — and how we move the world through the mind — shapes our entire experience of it. Out of this existential choreography, which we perform a million times a day in a million unconscious ways, arises our perception of reality.

The metaphor comes alive with uncommon vitality in The Choreography of Everyday Life (public library) by choreographer Annie-B Parson, who has shaped living artworks by cultural icons ranging from David Bowie and David Byrne to Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Reading the Odyssey as a kind of secular theology and reckoning with Tik-Tok as the folk art form of our time, she turns a cautious eye to our menacing pandemic of selfing, observing the self-made corner into which we have punished ourselves:

Social media forms are performative solo forms with an odd conflation of friendship and marketing; the body is alone in a room performing the self, with an undercurrent of desire for applause. Without a town square to gather in and hash out the day with neighbors, social media communications have a shading of loneliness underneath.

Art by Maira Kalman for her illustrated adaptation of David Byrne’s American Utopia, choreographed by Annie-B Parson

The way out, she intimates, is movement — a movement of the spirit that mirrors the movement of bodies toward the togetherness of the town square, the place where generative change takes place, for all creativity — which is the antidote to loneliness — is a kind of dance we perform not in isolation but with the world:

The wide shot is the camera position that allows the audience to see the full body of everyone in the scene in their environment, it’s the most objective and potentially the most compositional of camera positions, and for very brief moments I can perceive our wide shot: that we experience contentment, then we suffer, we slog through what we deem uninteresting, we get inspired, we see things, we miss things, we trip or fall or slowly crumble, we get up, we fight, we reconnect, and then in despair or fascination or just reflexively, we write about it.

And this desire to articulate what you feel and perceive, to tell it, to name it, to describe it, this is as natural as the progression from walking to running to leaping, to shaping that leap into a pattern of leaps, and then a group of leapers in unison — into a dance.

And if I go into the extreme wide shot, I can see a generative duality between us and the world, a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make. In this mirror structure, I can imagine the creative act as world-actualization rather than self-actualization, that what we make becomes a part of nature’s generative system.

Art by Maira Kalman for American Utopia

Couple this fragment of The Choreography of Everyday Life with Zadie Smith on what writers can learn from the great dancers, then revisit Helen Keller, upon visiting Martha Graham’s studio, on how dance is like thought.


David Bowie on Creativity and His Advice to Artists

“It’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations”

Every creator’s creations are their coping mechanism for life — for the loneliness of being, for the longing for connection, for the dazzling incomprehension of what it all means. What we call art is simply a gesture toward some authentic answer to these open questions, at once universal and intimately felt — questions aimed at the elemental truths of being alive, animated by a craving for beauty, haunted by the need to find a way of bearing our mortality. Without this elemental longing, without this authentic gesture, what is made is not art but something else — the kind of commodified craftsmanship Virginia Woolf indicted when she weighed creativity against catering.

The year he turned fifty, and a year before he gave his irreverent answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire, David Bowie (January 8, 1947–January 10, 2016) contemplated the soul of creativity in a television interview marking the release of his experimental drum’n’bass record Earthling — a radical departure from the musical style that had sprinkled the stardust of his genius upon the collective conscience of a generation, and a testament to Bowie’s unassailable devotion to continual creative growth.

Nested into the interview is his most direct advice to artists and the closest thing he ever formulated to a personal creative credo.

In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s splendid insistence that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Bowie reflects:

Never play to the gallery… Always remember that the reason that you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations — they generally produce their worst work when they do that.

Echoing Beethoven’s life-tested insight that though the true artist “may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun,” Bowie adds a mighty antidote to the greatest enemy of creative work — complacency:

If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

Complement with John Lennon on creativity, Nick Cave on the relationship between art and mystery, Paul Klee on how an artist must be like a tree, and Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s account of the epiphany that revealed to her what the creative life means.


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.)