Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, Amanda Palmer reads Neil Gaiman's feminist poem about science, astrophysicist Janna Levin reads Adrienne Rich's tribute to women in astronomy, Ursula K. Le Guin on writing, and more.
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Hello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – Neil Gaiman on how to tell a great personal story, Meryl Streep sings her mother's lullaby, an anthem against the silencing of science, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the great astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in her diary in 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, I hosted The Universe in Verse in collaboration with astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin and the Academy of American Poets — an evening of poetry celebrating science and the scientists who have taken us to where we are today, and a kind of symphonic protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
To our astonishment, eight hundred people poured into Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works and thousands watched the livestream of the sold-out show — a heartening testament to this seemingly unsuspected yet immensely fertile meeting point of science, poetry, and protest, featuring poems about Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Caroline Herschel, Euclid, neutrinos, and the number pi, by poets like Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wisława Szymborska, read by beloved artists and writers, including Rosanne Cash, Diane Ackerman, Ann Hamilton, Brandon Stanton, Jad Abumrad, and Elizabeth Alexander.
Amanda Palmer with her reading as the audience packs into Pioneer Works (Photograph by Amanda Palmer)
The readings concluded with something very special: “The Mushroom Hunters,” a feminist poem about the dawn of science, written by the inimitable Neil Gaiman especially for this occasion and read by his wife, the ferocious musician, artist, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer — what a generous gift and what a perfect finale, tying together an evening whose unspoken yet deliberate theme was the often untold history of women in science. (The image I chose as the backdrop for Amanda’s reading of “The Mushroom Hunters” comes from children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s little-known yet revolutionary mycological work — another fragment in the canon of women’s underheralded contribution to science.)
In this excerpt from the show, I frame the significance of the poem in the context of the evening and Amanda tells the story of its composition. (The isolated audio of the poem appears below the video.) Please enjoy.
And the poem by itself:
THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS
Science, as you know, my little one, is the study of the nature and behaviour of the universe. It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.
In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run, to hurdle blindly into the unknown, and then to find their way back home when lost with a slain antelope to carry between them. Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.
The women, who did not need to run down prey, had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them left at the thorn bush and across the scree and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree, because sometimes there are mushrooms.
Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools, The first tool of all was a sling for the baby to keep our hands free and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in, the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers. Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.
And sometimes men chased the beasts into the deep woods, and never came back.
Some mushrooms will kill you, while some will show you gods and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify. Others will kill us if we eat them raw, and kill us again if we cook them once, but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away, and then boil them once more, and pour the water away, only then can we eat them safely. Observe.
Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts, and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.
And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk and watch the world, and see what they observe. And some of them would thrive and lick their lips, While others clutched their stomachs and expired. So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.
The tools we make to build our lives: our clothes, our food, our path home… all these things we base on observation, on experiment, on measurement, on truth.
And science, you remember, is the study of the nature and behaviour of the universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.
The race continues. An early scientist drew beasts upon the walls of caves to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.
The men go running on after beasts.
The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs. They are carrying their babies in the slings they made, freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.
Photograph by Molly Walsh / Academy of American Poets
For more of the gorgeous poetry performances I mention in introducing Amanda to the stage, hear her readings of “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, then join me in supporting the wonderful nonprofit artists’ space Pioneer Works so that they may continue to open their doors to such elevating events.
“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion famously wrote in making her case for the value of keeping a notebook. But many of us frequently find it hard enough to be on nodding terms even with the people we currently are. “We have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in contemplating the perils of self-criticism and how to break free from the internal critics that enslave us. And yet can we even imagine self-celebration — do we even know what it looks like — if we are so blindly bedeviled by self-criticism? Can we, in other words, celebrate what we cannot accept and therefore cannot love?
Fromm frames love as what he calls “the productive orientation” of the psyche, an “active and creative relatedness of man to his fellow man, to himself and to nature.” He writes:
In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all men, and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence. In the experience of love the paradox happens that two people become one, and remain two at the same time. Love in this sense is never restricted to one person. If I can love only one person, and nobody else, if my love for one person makes me more alienated and distant from my fellow man, I may be attached to this person in any number of ways, yet I do not love.
If I can say, “I love you,” I say, “I love in you all of humanity, all that is alive; I love in you also myself.” Self-love, in this sense, is the opposite of selfishness. The latter is actually a greedy concern with oneself which springs from and compensates for the lack of genuine love for oneself. Love, paradoxically, makes me more independent because it makes me stronger and happier — yet it makes me one with the loved person to the extent that individuality seems to be extinguished for the moment. In loving I experience “I am you,” you — the loved person, you — the stranger, you — everything alive. In the experience of love lies the only answer to being human, lies sanity.
Fromm is careful to point out that in this “productive orientation,” love is not a passive abstraction but an active responsibility. Shortly before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his abiding case for the respectful and responsible love of agape, Fromm writes:
Productive love always implies a syndrome of attitudes; that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. If I love, I care — that is, I am actively concerned with the other person’s growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to his needs, to those he can express and more so to those he cannot or does not express. I respect him, that is (according to the original meaning of re-spicere) I look at him as he is, objectively and not distorted by my wishes and fears. I know him, I have penetrated through his surface to the core of his being and related myself to him from my core, from the center, as against the periphery, of my being.
Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer, was a remarkable woman who lived a long and pathbreaking life. Her parents deemed her too ugly to marry and envisioned for her a life as a servant — she became the Cinderella of the household, tending to the domestic needs of her parents and her eleven siblings. But Herschel, though incredibly humble, had a tenacity of spirit that kept her quiet passion for the life of the mind burning. She went on to pave the way for women in science, becoming the first woman admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society — the era’s most prestigious scientific institution — alongside the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (for whom the word “scientist” was coined).
Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848) astronomer, sister of William; and others.
A woman in the shape of a monster a monster in the shape of a woman the skies are full of them
a woman ‘in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles’
in her 98 years to discover 8 comets
she whom the moon ruled like us levitating into the night sky riding the polished lenses
Galaxies of women, there doing penance for impetuousness ribs chilled in those spaces of the mind
‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’ from the mad webs of Uranusborg
encountering the NOVA
every impulse of light exploding
from the core as life flies out of us
Tycho whispering at last ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’
What we see, we see and seeing is changing
the light that shrivels a mountain and leaves a man alive
Heartbeat of the pulsar heart sweating through my body
The radio impulse pouring in from Taurus
I am bombarded yet I stand
I have been standing all my life in the direct path of a battery of signals the most accurately transmitted most untranslatable language in the universe I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo- luted that a light wave could take 15 years to travel through me And has taken I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind.
A curious footnote I shared at the show: When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was struck by its searing beauty, but also puzzled by why, out of all possible cosmic phenomena, Rich chose to make a particular mention of pulsars. It wasn’t until I devoured Levin’s gorgeous book Black Hole Blues that I came to suspect why: The first pulsar, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was discovered in 1967 — less than a year before Rich wrote the poem — by a 23-year-old astronomer named Jocelyn Bell, who was subsequently excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery she herself had made.
This being an Adrienne Rich poem, I’ve always taken its dedication — to Caroline Herschel “and others” — to mean “and other unsung and undersung women in astronomy.” After reading Levin’s book, I’ve come to suspect that Rich’s deliberate mention of pulsars — a completely nascent discovery at the time, and not at all common cosmic vocabulary
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