In praise of the “dainty abandon” that awakens us to wonder and carries us outside ourselves. “Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import,” philosopher Susanne Langer wrote of music, which she defined as “a highly articulated sensuous object.” Although many great writers have contemplated the power of music, few have articulated it more perfectly or more sensuously than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) does in Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of prose fragments and journal entries, which gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees and which the poet himself described as “a melange of loafing, looking, hobbling, sitting, traveling — a little thinking thrown in for salt, but very little — …mostly the scenes everybody sees, but some of my own caprices, meditations, egotism.” And what a beautiful, generous egotism it is.
“My uniform is emblematic of my philosophy that people should try to leave the world better than they found it.” “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!
“Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age… is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.” “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy, before the release of Silent Spring — Carson’s epoch-making 1962 book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement.
An animated journey to the center of the self. “The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he anguished at the intersection of love and loss.
“It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction.” “And don’t ever imitate anybody,” Hemingway cautioned in his advice to aspiring writers.
“Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” “Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” wrote the poet Mary Ruefle.
A supreme lesson in authenticity from a being “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage.” “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” Two generations earlier, a different titan of poetic sentiment extolled trees not only as a source of joy but as a source of unheralded moral wisdom and an improbable yet formidable model of what is noblest in the human character.
A choral serenade to the building blocks of language starring Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, John Updike, and more titans of literature.
“Sit. Feast on your life.” “The alternations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in contemplating how we know we love somebody.
“…nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity to continue.” I am thinking about time this morning — about how it expands and contracts in the open fist of memory, how the same duration can feel like a blink or incline toward the infinite.
The pleasure of meeting the mind at the edge of its aptitude. “Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being,” Nietzsche wrote in reflecting on the true value of education.
A labor of love four years in the making, celebrating a trailblazing woman who shattered multiple glass ceilings.
Where the hard edge of physics meets the vulnerable metaphysics of the human heart. Few people have enchanted the popular imagination with science more powerfully and lastingly than physicist Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) — the “Great Explainer” with the uncommon gift for bridging the essence of science with the most human and humane dimensions of life.
“The constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times.” In his diary of moral development, young Tolstoy proclaimed: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you?
A subtle meditation on the meaning of solidarity, the relationship between the ego and the capacity for love, and the little tendrils of care that become the armature of friendship.
“I did not know that I could only get the most out of life by giving myself up to it.” “One must know what one wants to be,” the eighteenth-century French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet wrote in weighing the nature of genius.
A trailblazing effort “to give, in as systematic and compact a form as possible, the history and present condition of a large group of human beings.” On a recent research visit to the Emily Dickinson museum and archives in Amherst, I chanced upon a most improbable discovery of forgotten, pioneering work by another titan of culture.
“The sort of fearless openness required to turn toward our suffering is only possible within the spacious receptivity of love.” “It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” wrote Alice James, the brilliant and terminally ill sister of Henry James and William James, as she reflected on how to live fully while dying.
“Why do you paint? For exactly the same reason I breathe.” “The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” wrote E.E.
“Freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.” “Everything can be taken from a man,” the great Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” A generation later, James Baldwin examined how we imprison ourselves and asserted: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” These are discomfiting sentiments, for they annihilate the protective possibility for self-victimization and place the responsibility for freedom squarely on our own shoulders — a responsibility whose first demand is that we learn to want to be free.