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Love, Loss, and the Banality of Survival: Charles Darwin, His Beloved Daughter, and How We Find Meaning in Mortality

A bittersweet signal from the discomposing territory between reason and hope.

This essay is excerpted from the thirteenth chapter of Figuring, titled “The Banality of Survival.”

In the spring of 1849, ten years before On the Origin of Species shook the foundation of humanity’s understanding of life, the polymathic astronomer John Herschel — coiner of the word photography, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional female astronomer — invited the forty-year-old Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) to contribute the section on geology to an ambitious manual on ten major branches of science, commissioned by the Royal Navy. Darwin produced a primer that promised to make good geologists even of readers with no prior knowledge of the discipline, so that they might “enjoy the high satisfaction of contributing to the perfection of the history of this wonderful world.”

In submitting his manuscript, Darwin wrote to Herschel:

I much fear, from what you say of size of type that it will be too long; but I do not see how I could shorten it, except by rewriting it, & that is a labour which would make me groan. I do not much like it, but I have in vain thought how to make it better. I should be grateful for any corrections or erasures on your part.

A perfectionist prone to debilitating anxiety, Darwin was vexed by the editorial process. But in the autumn of 1850, just as the manual was about to go to press, trouble of a wholly different order eclipsed the professional irritation: The Darwins’ beloved nine-year-old daughter, Annie — the second of their ten children and Charles’s favorite, fount of curiosity, sunshine of the household — fell ill with a mysterious ailment.

Emma and Charles Darwin

When Charles and Emma first realized that their daughter’s condition was more than a fleeting sickness, they turned to what the era’s medical authorities prescribe for sickly children: sea-bathing, believed to be a reliable cure-all for symptoms ranging from “languor and weakness of circulation,” per one medical encyclopedia, to cases of “listless and indolent state of the mind.” A natural history and travel guide from the era describes the craze for sea-bathing at Ramsgate, a coastal resort in Kent: “A sudden plunge into the ocean causes the blood to circulate briskly, and promotes the heat of the body.” It was to Ramsgate that the Darwins first sent Annie, hoping for maritime recovery. But her illness only escalated into fever and headaches.

A year earlier, the Darwins had traveled to the spa village of Malvern, where Charles was to try a new “cold water cure” devised by a Dr. James Gully. Darwin’s chronic illness at times manifested as insomnia, at other times as “dreadful vomiting every week.” It was never accurately diagnosed nor treated, and he was desperate for relief. One contemporary theory holds that he suffered from an acute anxiety disorder. Having read Dr. Gully’s The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, Darwin set his scientific skepticism aside and wrote to the physician, willing to try his treatment — he worried that the constant vomiting was getting in the way of his work. “If once half-well,” he wrote to his best friend, “I could do more in six months than I now do in two years.”

Dr. Gully’s treatment, developed in response to his two-year-old daughter’s death, included the vehement disavowal of medication. The little girl had been treated with every known drug at the time — including heavy metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic — and had died convulsed with harrowing pain. The bereaved father had set out to devise a course of alternative medicine. His hydropathy drew such famous patients as Lord Tennyson and Florence Nightingale — and now Charles Darwin.

Vanity Fair caricature of Dr. Gully by the famed English portrait artist and caricaturist Spy. (Wellcome Collection.)

In Darwin’s defense, this was a time when medical science was so rudimentary that it bled into the same metaphysical manipulation techniques that religious rhetoric used to keep belief systems and power structures in place. Such manipulation was only possible because the line between science and pseudoscience was blurred again and again as modern medicine was finding its footing. Because the body — especially woman’s body — was so poorly understood and the paradigm of clinical trials was generations away, most medical treatments in Darwin’s day were based on some combination of speculation, common lore, and anecdotal trial and error. This was an era when bloodletting was the primary treatment of a vast array of sickness and the majority of early childhood illnesses — from diarrhea and colic to fever and restlessness — were attributed to teething. The all-inclusive malady was the most commonly listed cause of infant death in local registers and was treated with a litany of allegedly curative barbarisms — blistering, bloodletting, and massive doses of dubious medication. Parents would lance the inflamed gums of their infants using unsterilized kitchen utensils, which often inflicted infections that ended up as the true cause of fatality. One of the most common medications was a solution of calomel powder — mercury — given to the child until he or she began to salivate, now a recognized symptom of acute mercury poisoning. With their tongues swollen to manyfold the usual size, children often died of dehydration following calomel treatment, but neither parents nor physicians implicated the drug in causality for half a century. It took many more decades to uncover the permanent neurological damage — from seizures to tremors to chronic fatigue — on those who survived the treatment, with mercury lodged in their bodies for life.

Because it bears repeating again and again that even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, Darwin was trapped between the medical lore of his day and the ineradicable human hope for miracles. Although Dr. Gully’s belief in clairvoyance and general susceptibility to unscientific thought sat uncomfortably with Darwin, he came to like the hydropath a great deal and readily submitted to his methods — which included “cold feet baths and compress on the stomach,” as well as a proprietary “sweating process.”

The Darwins left Malvern after three months. In a letter to John Herschel penned in June 1849, Charles set aside his discontentment over the editorial tensions with the manual and instead enthused about the treatment’s “astonishingly renovating action” on his health:

Before coming here I was almost quite broken down, head swimming, hands tremulous & never a week without violent vomiting, all this is gone, & I can now walk between two & three miles. Physiologically it is most curious how the violent excitement of the skin, produced by simple water, has acted on all my internal organs.

I mention all this out of gratitude to a process which I thought quackery a year since, but which now I most deeply lament I had not heard of some few years ago.

1855 caricature of one of Dr. Gully’s water cures.

Despite Darwin’s elation over the effect of the “cold water treatment” on his own health, when Annie fell gravely ill, he couldn’t set aside his scientific doubts about Dr. Gully’s dubious beliefs in clairvoyance, homeopathy, and other pseudoscience. He scoffed in a letter:

[Homœopathy] is a subject which makes me more wroth, even than does Clairvoyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy common sense & common observation come into play, & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever… No one knows in disease what is the simple result of nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare Homœopathy & all other such things.

Such things were out of the question when it came to Darwin’s most beloved child — he entrusted her health to traditional medicine. In November 1850, the Darwins took their daughter to London to be seen by the prominent physician who had supervised her birth. After a second futile visit the following month — Annie had added a barking cough to her swelling chest of symptoms — Darwin was once again desperate, betrayed by medical science. He finally gave in and wrote to Dr. Gully for advice, then commenced a water treatment at home under the doctor’s instruction, planning to take Annie back to Malvern in the spring for a proper “water cure.” But even this home remedy Darwin approached with scientific rigor. In a medical diary of sorts, he meticulously recorded Annie’s changing condition as he applied the six-part method, which included Dr. Gully’s proprietary “spinal wash” (a towel repeatedly drenched in icy water is swept up and down the patient’s spine) and “sweating by the lamp” (the patient is draped with a tent of sheets, under which a lamp containing alcohol is lit, producing nearly unbearable heat).

Some of the water treatments offered at Malvern.

Although Annie would show intermittent signs of improvement — enough to give the anxious parents hope that what they were doing was effective — her health declined over the longer span of weeks. In the first days of spring, Darwin gave up on his home treatment, ended the medical diary, and braved the two-day passage to Malvern with Annie and two of her siblings, leaving Emma at home, seven months pregnant with the ninth of their ten children.

As Annie was lying mortally ill, Charles Dickens and his wife were also at Malvern, where Catherine Dickens was undergoing hydropathy to improve her shaky health. Dickens, who had just lost his father, left Kate at Malvern just after Darwin arrived with Annie and returned home, where he was given harrowing news: His youngest daughter, Dora — named after David Copperfield’s child bride — had died, not yet one, after a sudden and inexplicable series of seizures. A decade later, in a letter of consolation to his sister upon the loss of her husband, Dickens would write that while grief never fully leaves, “a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit” is necessary if one is to go on with life — observing that in “a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.” The strategy seems almost banal. But anyone who has lived through loss will recognize in it the essential banality of survival — we come unmoored, then buoy ourselves up with the flimsiest of lifeboats, cobbled together out of any plank and rope we can grasp.

Annie Darwin (Cambridge University Libraries)

On April 23, 1851, Annie Darwin dies in her father’s arms. Eight years later, On the Origin of Species would subvert the elemental human instinct with its argument for natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Death, Darwin would imply, is not unjust but inherently natural — part of the impartial laws holding the universe together, mortality unshackled from morality and metaphysics, leaving no room for charges of blame and pleas for mercy. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin would write, speaking perhaps to himself. Across the Atlantic, Emily Dickinson would ponder this cycle — “circuit,” she called it — of life and death:

Seed, summer, tomb.
Who’s doom —
To whom?

With Annie’s body still warm beside him, Darwin drags the pen across the letter paper, across the British archipelago, across his lacerated consciousness, to deliver to Emma the most undeliverable news in the universe.

“I am so thankful for the daguerreotype,” he writes.

For other excerpts from Figuring, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert; the striking story of how Kepler invented science fiction and revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial; wisdom on middle age and the art of self-renewal from the remarkable forgotten pioneer who in her ninety years translated the first American edition of Buddhist teachings, founded the first English-language kindergarten in the United States, and coined the word “Transcendentalism”; the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his greatest heartbreak into one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time; a lesson in tenacity and perseverance from the polymathic woman for whom the word “scientist” was coined; and the lost story of the nineteenth-century sculptor who blazed the path for women of color in art.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2020

A glance over the shoulder of time to reveal the patterns, themes, and ideas that steady us and shelter us in the tempest of life.

Like every year, this annual glance over the shoulder of time is a composite of the essays that most resonated with readers and those I most enjoyed writing, the overlap being always significant but always the Venn diagram of a partial eclipse rather than a perfect totality.

Even more so than other years, in this particularly trying year, it has been curious to observe the patterns that emerge across those ideas, themes, and regions of being that most sustain us in times of crisis: love, trees, poetry, creativity, the stubborn insistence on life in the face of loss, the constancy of nature’s consolations, the revivifying passion to go on making, go on loving, go on living.

* * *

Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

Read it here.

* * *

Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart

Read it here.

* * *

Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything: Viktor Frankl’s Lost Lectures on Moving Beyond Optimism and Pessimism to Find the Deepest Source of Meaning

Read it here.

* * *

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Read it here.

* * *

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

Read it here.

* * *

I Long to Read More in the Book of You: Moomins Creator Tove Jansson’s Tender and Passionate Letters to the Love of Her Life

Read it here.

* * *

Bloom: A Touching Animated Short Film about Depression and What It Takes to Recover the Light of Being

Read it here.

* * *

The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

Read it here.

* * *

Standing on the Shoulders of Solitude: Newton, the Plague, and How Quarantine Fomented the Greatest Leap in Science

Read it here.

* * *

Nick Cave on Living with Loss and the Central Paradox of Grief as a Portal to Aliveness

Read it here.

* * *

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

Read it here.

* * *

Singularity: Marie Howe’s Ode to Stephen Hawking, Our Cosmic Belonging, and the Meaning of Home, in a Stunning Animated Short Film

Read it here.

* * *

The Radical Act of Letting Things Hurt: How (Not) to Help a Friend in Sorrow

Read it here.

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Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

Read it here.

* * *

The Spirit of the Woods: Poet and Painter Rebecca Hey’s Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations for the World’s First Encyclopedia of Trees

Read it here.

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What It Takes to Grow Up, What It Means to Have Grown

Read it here.

* * *

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

Read it here.

* * *

A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

Read it here.

* * *

How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

Read it here.

* * *

How to Live and How to Die

Read it here.

Complement with the year’s most nourishing books.

BP

The Radical Act of Letting Things Hurt: How (Not) to Help a Friend in Sorrow

Why our instinctive efforts to salve another’s sadness tend to only deepen their helpless anguish and broaden the abyss between us and them — and what to do instead.

The Radical Act of Letting Things Hurt: How (Not) to Help a Friend in Sorrow

“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” Elizabeth Gilbert reflected in the wake of losing the love of her life. “Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”

Like love, grief swells into an entire inner universe that comes to color the whole of the outside world. Like love — that rapturous raw material for most of the songs and poems and paintings our species has produced — grief lives itself through the grieving and can’t but speak its truth. Unlike love, our culture meets the voice of grief with an alloy of disquiet and denial. We want to make the sadness go away, to lift the sorrowing heart out of its sorrow immediately. Often, we mistake for personal failure our inability to salve another’s grief or mistake for their failure the inability to snap out of it on the timeline of our wishes.

Art by Jacqueline Chwast from I Like You by Sandol Stoddard — a vintage serenade to friendship.

When psychotherapist Megan Devine — creator of the excellent resource Refuge in Grief and author of its portable counterpart, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (public library) — watched her young, healthy partner drown, the sudden and senseless loss suspended her world. As it slowly regained the motive force of life, she set out to redirect her professional experience of studying emotional intelligence and resilience toward better understanding the confounding, all-consuming process of grief — the process by which, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his immensely insightful letter of consolation to a bereaved friend, the agony of loss is slowly transmuted into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before”; a transmutation in which skillful loving support can make a world of difference — support very different from what we instinctively imagine helps.

Art by Valerio Vidali from The Shadow Elephant by Nadine Robert — a subtle meditation on what it actually takes to unblue our sorrows.

In studying how people navigate intense grief — the loss of loved ones to violent crime, suicide, disaster, infant death, and other abrupt catastrophic traumas — Devine arrived at an arresting insight. Again and again, she observed that our most intuitive impulses about helping those whose suffering we yearn to allay — by cheering them up, by reorienting them toward the lighthouses in their lives amid the darkness — tend to only deepen their helpless anguish and broaden the abyss between us and them. And so she began to wonder what does salve the immense sorrow we encounter in the world and experience in our own lives.

This is what she learned:

Complement with a soulful animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of being, an uncommon children’s book about that nonjudgmental place of permission for sadness where all healing begins, and Nick Cave on living with loss and the central paradox of grief as a portal to aliveness.

HT Kottke

BP

Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

On the weight of the world and the weight of the sky.

Brain Pickings was born on October 23, 2006, as a short email to seven friends. Seven years and several incomprehensible million readers into its existence, I began what has since become an annual tradition — a distillation of the most important things I have learned about living while reading and writing my way through life; private learnings offered in the public commons, in the hope that these thoroughly subjective insights of a single consciousness might be of succor or salve to another. It is the only overtly personal writing I do on Brain Pickings. (Though, of course, the whole of it remains a deeply personal exercise in processing my own life and annealing my own ideas through the lives and ideas I celebrate in writing.) We are, after all, made of the same stuff.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical paintings. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Each year, I have drawn one new learning from that particular season of life. Each year, it has swelled into an existential challenge to prune the vastness, the lushness, the interleaved complexity of experience into a single blade of simple but not simplistic insight into the nature of life, glimpsed from the solitary pinhole of this one life. The challenge has never been more colossal than this past year — the most trying I have lived through, by orders of magnitude. Depression has lowered its leaden cloudscape over me again and again since I was fifteen, but no other year has lidded life more ominously, as the staggering collective grief we are living through together densified the black fog of private loss. In such seasons of life, one is pressed against the limits of one’s being, pressed eventually against the understanding — no, more than understanding and less than understanding: the blind elemental fact — that no matter the outer atmosphere of circumstance, one must lift the inner cloudscape by one’s own efforts, or perish under it.

I chose, by that blind instinct of survivalism we mistake for choice, to lift.

Against this contextual backdrop, here is the central learning drawn from a year so discomposing yet so vital and transformative a verse from the poetry of life. (You can read the previous thirteen here.)

14. Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature. If Viktor Frankl can exclaim “yes to life, in spite of everything!” — and what an everything he lived through — then so can any one of us amid the rubble of our plans, so trifling by comparison. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.

Delight in the age-salted man on the street corner waiting for the light to change, his age-salted dog beside him, each inclined toward the other with the angular subtlety of absolute devotion.

Delight in the little girl zooming past you on her little bicycle, this fierce emissary of the future, rainbow tassels waving from her handlebars and a hundred beaded braids spilling from her golden helmet.

Delight in the snail taking an afternoon to traverse the abyssal crack in the sidewalk for the sake of pasturing on a single blade of grass.

Delight in the tiny new leaf, so shy and so shamelessly lush, unfurling from the crooked stem of the parched geranium.

I think often of this verse from Jane Hirshfield’s splendid poem “The Weighing”:

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

Yes, except we furnish both the grains and the scales. I alone can weigh the blue of my sky, you of yours.

BP

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