Lawrence finds himself contemplating the birds on the walls of the Tarquinia tombs, painted by artists before whose eyes they “flew through the living universe as feelings and premonitions fly through the breast of man, or as thoughts fly through the mind.” For those artists, the birds became a lens on “the complex destiny of all things” — the elemental hunger for truth and meaning we live with, which requires what might best be termed divination.
But at the center of such divination, whether we perform it through art or through science, lies the hallmark of our consciousness — the capacity for unalloyed and prayerful attention, which can turn any object into a miniature of all things and all meaning. (The poet J.D. McCatchy captured this essential fact beautifully in his observation that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”)
If you live by the cosmos, you look in the cosmos for your clue. If you live by a personal god, you pray to him. If you are rational, you think things over. But it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Prayer, or thought or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.
It is the same with the study of the stars, or the sky of stars. Whatever object will bring the consciousness into a state of pure attention, in a time of perplexity, will also give back an answer to the perplexity.
“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that… is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction… There can be no separate literature of science.”
By Maria Popova
A century and a half after Novalis declared that laboratories will be temples, the poet turned marine biologist Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) consecrated science in her lyrical writings about the natural world. At the center of her creative cosmogony was a vital symbiosis between literature and science in illuminating the nature of reality — a credo she formulated directly only once, in the acceptance speech, excerpted in Figuring, for the National Book Award her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had earned her: “a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination and such clarity of style and originality of approach as to win and hold every reader’s attention,” read the award citation.
At the ceremony held on January 29, 1952, the drama critic John Mason Brown welcomed Carson to the stage with introductory remarks that captured the unexampled allure of her scientific-artistic sensibility:
Miss Carson [has] made those odd creatures of the sea, those bipeds known as men and women, interested the world over in the mystery of our beginnings and the profundity and beauty of something far greater than mortals, with their petty egotisms and vanities, can hope to know… She has atomized our egos and brought to each reader not only a new humility but a new sense of the inscrutable vastness and interrelation of forces beyond our knowledge or control. She has placed us as specks in time and yet inheritors of a history older, and certainly deeper, than many of us realized… Where prose ends and poetry begins is sometimes hard to say. But I do know that Miss Carson writes poetic prose or prose poetry of uncommon beauty.
Rising from the table she shared with the poet Marianne Moore, Carson took the podium, looked softly, almost shyly, at the audience with her eyes the color of sea water, and spoke with confident composure about the animating ethos of her work:
The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man* without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.
The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.
Speaking before we discovered the double helix, before we set foot on the Moon, before we heard the sound of spacetime in the collision of two black holes, Carson considers how science invites us to be wonder-smitten by reality, which is the ultimate poetry of existence:
We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.
The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.
In a sentiment she would echo a decade later in her bittersweet farewell and challenge to posterity, she intimates that such a worldview can make us better stewards of this irreplaceable world — which means, invariably, better stewards of our own survival:
I wonder if we have not too long been looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We have looked first at man with his vanities and greed and his problems of a day or a year; and then only, and from this biased point of view, we have looked outward at the earth he has inhabited so briefly and at the universe in which our earth is so minute a part. Yet these are the great realities, and against them we see our human problems in a different perspective. Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vis- tas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.
“Over a hill, at the end of a road, by a glittering stream that twists and turns, stands a house…”
By Maria Popova
Every year, monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico. Each passage takes three to four generations, and each generation manages to communicate to the next, without language as we know it, the direction and call of the journey as it dies. Along the way, the caterpillars of the new generation feed exclusively on milkweed — the only host plant of the species, the only taste of home for these eternal migrants.
A house is the milkweed of human life. Within it, generations live out their lives, passing customs and apple pie recipes and personality traits to each other.
One spring not long ago, my darling friend, occasional collaborator, and Caldecott-winning children’s book maker Sophie Blackall bought an old dairy farm that came with a ramshackle house, in which twelve children had been born and raised a century ago; the old lady who sold it to her was one of them.
After years of immersion in the enchanting remnants of their bygone lives — photographs and hand-printed wallpaper, a handkerchief and a wedding dress, old brass keys and dusty books, a box of mud-soaked rags that turned out to be twenty colorful hand-sewn dresses — Sophie brings them alive in her wondrous book Farmhouse (public library) — a consummately illustrated, painstakingly hand-collaged story in the shape of a poem that is a single sentence, undulating with its “ands” and “ors” like a life does.
Over a hill,
at the end of a road,
by a glittering stream
that twists and turns,
stands a house
where twelve children
were born and raised,
where they learned to crawl
in the short front hall,
where they posed, arranged
on the wooden stairs,
and were measured with marks
over the years,
where they carved potatoes
and dipped them in paint
to pattern the walls
with flowers and leaves,
and painted the cat,
about which they lied,
for which they were scolded
and maybe they cried
and then were enfolded
in forgiving arms
in the serious room…
…and on and on it goes, as their lives unfold…
…until one day,
the youngest child,
who was now quite old,
took a last look around
and picked up her case
and opened the door
and stepped outside
and into a car,
where her sister was waiting,
to drive to the sea,
which they’d always,
always wanted to see,
and the house
gave a sigh
on the stones,
a slight lean
in its beams
and its bones,
so the door
to let in
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Sophie reflects on the splendid confluence of chance and choice by which it all came together:
I first explored the house on a late-spring day. Outside, the meadow was noisy with chattering birds, and the wildflowers nodded their heads in the sun. Inside, everything was cool and dark and quiet. The floor was scattered with brittle leaves, a saucepan lid, and a stiff leather shoe. An ornate parlor organ held walnut shells and the curled-up pages of lovesick songs. A waterlogged catalog offered beehives and waffle irons, bedsprings and guitar strings. In the kitchen, newspapers, with reports of milk prices and war, lined sagging pantry shelves of rusted tin cans. A straw mattress slumped in a corner. A calendar still hung on the wall, open to July 1970, the month and year I was born.
A willow sapling grew through a hole in the floor, reaching toward a hole in the roof. Nobody had lived there for a long time. Well, no people, that is. Plenty of animals had taken shelter. Raccoons, judging by the droppings; squirrels, by the walnut shells; swallows, by the nests. Not to mention mice and bats and wasps. It was as well I didn’t know, until a farmer told me later, that a bear had been sleeping in the basement.
I was convinced then and there that I needed to honor this farmhouse.
She honored it with this lovely book. But she also, with much love and much labor, turned the farm into a wondrous residency for children’s-book artists and writers called Milkwood, after Dylan Thomas’s poetic 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood, which begins: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.” Under the century-old wooden beams, in a majestic library that was once a heap of hay, a new generation of storytellers are gathering to tell stories of what we are and how the world works — stories that, in words and pictures, transmit to the next generations that monarch knowledge of where we are going.
“Mind is invisible nature, while nature is visible mind.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.