Rebecca Solnit on silence, Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on the creative fertility of not-knowing and how our certitudes keep us small, mathematician Lillian Lieber on infinity and free will, and more.
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“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion,” the great painter Richard Diebenkorn counseled in his ten rules for beginning creative projects. “One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going,” the artist Ann Hamilton wrote a generation later in her magnificent meditation on the generative power of not-knowing. “In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know.”
What is true of art is even truer of life, for a human life is the greatest work of art there is. (In my own life, looking back on my ten most important learnings from the first ten years of Brain Pickings, I placed the practice of the small, mighty phrase “I don’t know” at the very top.) But to live with the untrammeled openendedness of such fertile not-knowing is no easy task in a world where certitudes are hoarded as the bargaining chips for status and achievement — a world bedeviled, as Rebecca Solnit memorably put it, by “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate.”
That difficult feat of insurgency is what the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explored in 1996 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for capturing the transcendent fragility of the human experience in masterpieces like “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.”
It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don’t understand yourself.
Noting that she, too, tends to be rattled by the question, she offers her wieldiest answer:
Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”
In a sentiment of chilling prescience today, as we witness tyrants drunk on certainty drain the world of its essential inspiration, Szymborska considers the destructive counterpoint to this generative not-knowing:
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
Such surrender to not-knowing, Szymborska argues as she steps out into the cosmic perspective, is the seedbed of our capacity for astonishment, which in turn gives meaning to our existence:
The world — whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world — it is astonishing.
But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else.
Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.
Twenty years before she received the Nobel Prize, Szymborska explored how our contracting compulsion for knowing can lead us astray in her sublime 1976 poem “Utopia,” found in her Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library):
Island where all becomes clear.
Solid ground beneath your feet.
The only roads are those that offer access.
Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.
The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here with branches disentangled since time immemorial.
The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple, sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.
The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista: the Valley of Obviously.
If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.
Echoes stir unsummoned and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.
On the right a cave where Meaning lies.
On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction. Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.
Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley. Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.
For all its charms, the island is uninhabited, and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches turn without exception to the sea.
As if all you can do here is leave and plunge, never to return, into the depths.
Into unfathomable life.
Purely for the fun of it, I found myself drawing Szymborska’s poetic island in a map inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia:
“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — an incantation which fomented biologist and writer Rachel Carson’s courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she catalyzed the environmental movement. “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished on the cusp of another cultural revolution in her influential 1984 treatise on transforming silence into redemptive action. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech shortly after Lorde’s landmark essay was published.
No silence is larger, both in age and in scope, nor more demanding of breaking, than the silencing of women’s voices — a millennia-old assault on the integrity of more than half of humankind.
Let me make one thing clear here: We — all of us, of any gender — may have different answers to the questions feminism raises. But if we refuse to engage with the questions themselves, we are culpable not only of cowardice but of complicity in humanity’s oldest cultural crime.
How to dismantle that complicity and transmute it into courage is what Rebecca Solnit explores in an extraordinary essay titled “Silence Is Broken,” found in The Mother of All Questions (public library) — a sweeping collection of essays Solnit describes as “a tour through carnage, a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.”
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Solnit begins by mapping the terra cognita of silence:
Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard. It surrounds the scattered islands made up of those allowed to speak and of what can be said and who listens. Silence occurs in many ways for many reasons; each of us has his or her own sea of unspoken words.
Silence, of course, is crucially different from quietude, the latter being the absence of noise and the former the absence of voice. Silence is to quietude what isolation, that weapon of oppression, is to solitude, that wellspring of creative fertility. Defining silence as “what is imposed” and quietude as “what is sought,” Solnit contrasts the two:
The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle, is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression but psychically and politically something entirely different. What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink.
Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity.
Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit.
We are our stories, stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison; we make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others, stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.
The New York City subway map reimagined with every stop named after a notable woman, from Nonstop Metropolis by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly Shapiro
Noting that “the history of silence is central to women’s history,” Solnit writes:
Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.
Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons. And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.
Even those who have been audible have often earned the privilege through strategic silences or the inability to hear certain voices, including their own. The struggle of liberation has been in part to create the conditions for the formerly silenced to speak and be heard.
Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over” in his abiding inquiry into freedom and how we imprison ourselves, Solnit considers how the redemptive reclaiming of systemically muted voices is reconfiguring our world:
If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.
Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the center; those who embody what is not heard or what violates those who rise on silence are cast out. By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.
Art by Jabari Asim from Preaching to the Chickens by E.B. Lewis, a children’s book about how the great civil rights leader John Lewis found his voice as a boy
In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s incisive treatise on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Solnit argues that “silence is the universal condition of oppression” and considers the complex cultural matrix on which various sets of oppressive silences intersect:
The category women is a long boulevard that intersects with many other avenues, including class, race, poverty and wealth. Traveling this boulevard means crossing others, and it never means that the city of silence has only one street or one route through it that matters. It is now useful to question the categories of male and female, but it’s also useful to remember that misogyny is based on a devout belief in the reality of those categories (or is an attempt to reinforce them by demonstrating the proper role of each gender)… It was in opposition to slavery that American feminism arose, born at the intersection. Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to the World’s Antislavery Convention in London in 1840, one of many women abolitionists who traveled to participate, only to find that they could not be seated and could not speak. Even people who considered themselves champions of the oppressed could not see what was oppressive about an order so old it was perceived as natural. A controversy arose. Stanton wrote in her autobiography of the remarkable women gathered there, who were “all compelled to listen in silence to the masculine platitudes on women’s sphere.” She went home furious, and that fury at being silenced and shut out, and the insight that resulted, gave rise to the first women’s rights movement.
Indeed, the history of breaking silence is the history of insurgent solidarity with the silenced on behalf of those who have voice. Without the silence-shattering letter of solidarity which sixteen of the twentieth century’s most prominent white poets wrote after Amiri Baraka was brutalized by racial violence, he might have perished as another black man swallowed by the systemic injustice of the prison system instead of becoming one of the world’s most influential poets.
Solnit considers this essential human task of those who have voice in relation to those who are silenced:
Empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves. To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself and your humanity,
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