Alain de Botton on love and the paradoxical psychology of why we sulk, Schopenhauer on talent vs. genius, artist Anne Truitt on what makes marriage work, astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan on the essence of science and how the term "black hole" was born, and more.
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“Nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp?” philosopher Martin Heidegger asked in his electrifying love letters to Hannah Arendt. “Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.” Still, nearly every anguishing aspect of love arises from the inescapable tension between this longing for transformative awakening and the sleepwalking selfhood of our habitual patterns. True as it may be that frustration is a prerequisite for satisfaction in romance, how are we to reconcile the sundering frustration of these polar pulls?
The multiple sharp-edged facets of this question are what Alain de Botton explores in The Course of Love (public library) — a meditation on the beautiful, tragic tendernesses and fragilities of the human heart, at once unnerving and assuring in its psychological insightfulness. At its heart is a lamentation of — or, perhaps, an admonition against — how the classic Romantic model has sold us on a number of self-defeating beliefs about the most essential and nuanced experiences of human life: love, infatuation, marriage, sex, children, infidelity, trust.
Alain de Botton
A sequel of sorts to his 1993 novel On Love, the book is bold bending of form that fuses fiction and De Botton’s supreme forte, the essay — twined with the narrative thread of the romance between the two protagonists are astute observations at the meeting point of psychology and philosophy, spinning out from the particular problems of the couple to unravel broader insight into the universal complexities of the human heart.
In fact, as the book progresses, one gets the distinct and surprisingly pleasurable sense that De Botton has sculpted the love story around the robust armature of these philosophical meditations; that the essay is the raison d’être for the fiction.
In one of these contemplative interstitials, De Botton examines the paradoxical psychology of one of the most common and most puzzling phenomena between lovers: sulking. He writes:
At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add: it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.
Sulking, De Botton suggests, stems from a form of magical thinking — the belief, endearing in its origin but deleterious in its effect, that an impossibility is possible:
Sulking pays homage to a beautiful, dangerous ideal that can be traced back to our earliest childhoods: the promise of wordless understanding. In the womb, we never had to explain. Our every requirement was catered to. The right sort of comfort simply happened. Some of this idyll continued in our first years. We didn’t have to make our every requirement known: large, kind people guessed for us. They saw past our tears, our inarticulacy, our confusions: they found the explanations for discomforts which we lacked the ability to verbalize.
That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood.
But rather than bemoaning the sulk as a fatal flaw of a relationship, De Botton wrests from it evidence of the most hopeful and generous capacity of the human heart:
We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: “Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.”
We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with — and forgive — the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.
Half a century after Iris Murdoch consoled a heartbroken friend by reminding her that “love is better than no love, though it can hurt so much,” De Botton revisits another facet of the same bewildering dynamic in a section on the interplay between trust and blame:
The most superficially irrational, immature, lamentable, but nonetheless common of all the presumptions of love is that the person to whom we have pledged ourselves is not just the center of our emotional existence but is also, as a result — and yet in a very strange, objectively insane and profoundly unjust way — responsible for everything that happens to us, for good or ill. Therein lies the peculiar and sick privilege of love.
Toward the end of the book, De Botton follows this paradoxical privilege to its equally paradoxical conclusion:
Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.
For more of his largehearted wisdom on love and our human vulnerabilities, see his magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:
My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways — and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.
Subscribe to Design Mattershere for more invigorating conversations with artists, writers, designers, and other creative thinkers.
But perhaps the most useful and timelessly insightful take on the perennial puzzlement over the difference between talent and genius came the year after Thoreau’s birth from the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) in his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library).
Schopenhauer’s central premise is that talent achieves what others cannot achieve, whereas genius achieves what others cannot imagine. This vision of a different order, he argues, is what sets geniuses apart from mere mortals, and it arises from a superior capacity for contemplation that leads the genius to transcend the smallness of the ego and enter the infinite world of ideas. He writes:
Only through [such] pure contemplation … can Ideas be comprehended; and the nature of genius consists in pre-eminent capacity for such contemplation. Now, as this requires that a man* should entirely forget himself and the relations in which he stands, genius is simply the completest objectivity, i.e., the objective tendency of the mind, as opposed to the subjective, which is directed to one’s own self — in other words, to the will. Thus genius is the faculty of continuing in the state of pure perception, of losing oneself in perception, and of enlisting in this service the knowledge which originally existed only for the service of the will; that is to say, genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world; and this not merely at moments, but for a sufficient length of time, and with sufficient consciousness, to enable one to reproduce by deliberate art what has thus been apprehended.
But although a superior capacity to imagine is a centerpiece of genius, Schopenhauer cautions against mistaking the imagination for the entirety of genius:
Imagination has rightly been recognized as an essential element of genius; it has sometimes even been regarded as identical with it; but this is a mistake. As the objects of genius are the eternal Ideas, the permanent, essential forms of the world and all its phenomena, and as the knowledge of the Idea is necessarily knowledge through perception, is not abstract, the knowledge of the genius would be limited to the Ideas of the objects actually present to his person, and dependent upon the chain of circumstances that brought these objects to him, if his imagination did not extend his horizon far beyond the limits of his actual personal existence, and thus enable him to construct the whole out of the little that comes into his own actual apperception, and so to let almost all possible scenes of life pass before him in his own consciousness… The imagination then extends the intellectual horizon of the man of genius beyond the objects which actually present themselves to him, both as regards quality and quantity. Therefore extraordinary strength of imagination accompanies, and is indeed a necessary condition of genius. But the converse does not hold, for strength of imagination does not indicate genius; on the contrary, men who have no touch of genius may have much imagination.
But the curse of the extraordinary, Schopenhauer suggests, is a certain loneliness with which the person of genius walks through life, always slightly apart from the ordinary world in being slightly above it:
The common mortal, that manufacture of Nature which she produces by the thousand every day, is, as we have said, not capable, at least not continuously so, of observation that in every sense is wholly disinterested, as sensuous contemplation, strictly so called, is. He can turn his attention to things only so far as they have some relation to his will, however indirect it may be… The man of genius, on the other hand, whose excessive power of knowledge frees it at times from the service of will, dwells on the consideration of life itself, strives to comprehend the Idea of each thing, not its relations to other things; and in doing this he often forgets to consider his own path in life, and therefore for the most part pursues it awkwardly enough. While to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp to lighten his path, to the man of genius it is the sun which reveals the world… The man in whom genius lives and works is easily distinguished by his glance, which is both keen and steady, and bears the stamp of perception, of contemplation.
In the second volume of his treatise, Schopenhauer revisits the subject of talent versus genius through the lens of time — talent, he argues, speaks brilliantly to the moment and is of the moment, while genius speaks of the eternal and to eternity. He writes:
Mere men of talent always come at the right time; for, as they are roused by the spirit of their age and are called into being by its needs, they are only just capable of satisfying them. They therefore go hand in hand with the advancing culture of their contemporaries, or with the gradual advancement of a special science; for this they reap reward and approbation. But to the next generation their works are no longer enjoyable; they must be replaced by others; and these do not fail to appear.
The genius, on the other hand, lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign. Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front (just as the emperor, giving himself up to death, flings his spear among the enemy), on which time has first to overtake them… Talent is able to achieve what is beyond other people’s capacity to achieve, yet not what is beyond their capacity of apprehension; therefore it at once finds its appreciators. The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only others’ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.
Perhaps because she was trained as a psychologist, artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) had a special attentiveness to the inner life of the creative spirit and a great gift for articulating that aliveness with lyrical nuance in her prolific diaries. She wrote especially beautifully about the parallels between being an artist and being a parent — an insight forced upon her partly by circumstances as the demands of the latter role swelled in intensity after she divorced her husband, the journalist James Truitt, in 1969. She became the primary parent of their three children — Alexandra (age 14), Mary (age 11), and Sam (age 9) — and then a single parent after James’s death in 1981. All the while, Truitt remained an artist of remarkable discipline and integrity, continuing to create work that would render her one of the most significant, visionary, and influential sculptors of the twentieth century.
Emanating from her distinctive sculptures, where vibrant colors possess and are possessed by muted minimalist shapes, is a certain subtle dialogue between gain and loss, between what is and what isn’t, or perhaps what never was and never could be.
Truitt writes in August of 1983, when her son was twenty:
I was in the kitchen the other day when Sam read me a line of Borges: “You can only lose what you have never had,” and I have been thinking it over ever since. The truth is instantly recognizable; it might almost be a platitude. But it came at me at an angle around a corner from his lair of books in Sam’s reflective voice, and touched a sore spot in my memory of his father.
For when I mourn, I do mourn what he and I never had: the lovely entire confidence that comes only from innumerable mutual confidences entrusted and examined. And woven by four hands, now trembling, now intent, over and under into a pattern that can surprise both husband and wife. I miss the rich doubling of experience that comes only from such confidence, the nuances of refraction and reflection, nourished and enhanced and underwritten by the sweet union of familiar bodies — touch and smell, tidal.
Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
But the most piercing point of mourning, Truitt observes, is that of regret — the irremediable regret of having held back, of having let the fearsome vulnerability of being hurt preclude the grand reward of being truly understood. She writes:
I mourn my failures to confide. I should have had more courage, dared, risked rejection, even ejection — naked, awkward, crouched as Eve in Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise. “Should” is a dreadful auxiliary word, and worst when linked with “have,” rendering an act one never thought of at a certain time, or thought of and decided not to do, as effective and inexorably irrevocable as a deed done.
I mourn what I did not know when I was married: the necessity for honesty between people if mutuality is to bud out of a status quo into air it can then fill with a new form. When I saw how one of the Australian gum trees, the angophora, thrust out new branches, I saw how a marriage could work: a nub pushes out from a fork and as it grows into a branch (there are wide-branched trees) the bark of the tree’s trunk spreads smoothly over this rough, crude juncture so that it joins the other branches seamlessly, enhances the whole tree’s amplitude. The bark is purple, tan-pink-violet. There is warmth in its seal.
This poetic image of growth through sealing and healing together reminded me of Jane Hirshfield’s beautiful poem “For What Binds Us,” included in her altogether sublime 1988 collection
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