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Walt Whitman on Beethoven and music as the profoundest expression of nature, Primo Levi on science, Amanda Palmer + Jane Kenyon on happiness, and more

Walt Whitman on Beethoven and music as the profoundest expression of nature, Primo Levi on how science brings us closer to each other, Amanda Palmer reads Jane Kenyon's perfect poem about happiness, and more. NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program.
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Walt Whitman on Beethoven and Music as the Profoundest Expression of Nature

“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.

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

One cold February evening in the last weeks of his sixtieth year, having finally recovered from the stroke that had rendered him paralyzed for two years, Whitman treated himself to a concert at Philadelphia’s opera house. Two decades after he wrote of music as “a god, yet completely human… supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply,” Whitman found himself surrendering to its transcendent transport in a way that eclipsed every other musical experience he’d ever had, revealing to him the very essence of music’s power. Enraptured, he writes:

Never did music more sink into and soothe and fill me — never so prove its soul-rousing power, its impossibility of statement.

Particularly enchanted by the orchestral splendor of a Beethoven septet, Whitman meditates on whether music might be the purest and profoundest expression of nature:

I [was] carried away, seeing, absorbing many wonders. Dainty abandon, sometimes as if Nature laughing on a hillside in the sunshine; serious and firm monotonies, as of winds; a horn sounding through the tangle of the forest, and the dying echoes; soothing floating of waves, but presently rising in surges, angrily lashing, muttering, heavy; piercing peals of laughter, for interstices; now and then weird, as Nature herself is in certain moods — but mainly spontaneous, easy, careless — often the sentiment of the postures of naked children playing or sleeping.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Long before scientists illuminated why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, Whitman intuited the singular mind-body attunement of performance. More than a purely aural bewitchment, he revels in the full-body, creaturely delight of music — both of playing and of listening:

It did me good even to watch the violinists drawing their bows so masterly — every motion a study. I allow’d myself, as I sometimes do, to wander out of myself. The conceit came to me of a copious grove of singing birds, and in their midst a simple harmonic duo, two human souls, steadily asserting their own pensiveness, joyousness.

Specimen Days is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on the source of music’s supreme power, Aldous Huxley on why it sings to our souls, and Wendy Lesser on how it helps us grieve, then revisit Whitman on the connection between the body and the spirit, why literature is central to democracy, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

Amanda Palmer Reads “Happiness” by Jane Kenyon

There are few things in life more inconstant and more elusive, both in the fist of language and in the open palm of experience, than happiness. Philosophers have tried to locate and loosen the greatest barriers to it. Artists have come into this world “born to serve happiness.” Scientists have set out to discover its elemental components. And yet for all our directions of concerted pursuit, happiness remains mostly a visitation — a strange miracle that seems to come and go with a will of its own. “Those who prefer their principles over their happiness,” Albert Camus wrote in contemplating our self-imposed prisons, “they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.”

How to welcome the visitation of happiness on its own miraculous terms, liberated from our conditioned and conditional expectations, is what poet Jane Kenyon (May 23, 1947–April 22, 1995) — a woman of immense wisdom on what it takes to nourish a creative life — explores in an astounding poem posthumously published in The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place (public library).

I asked the wonderful Amanda Palmer to lend her voice to Kenyon’s masterpiece in a complement to her earlier reading of Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression. Please enjoy.


There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
        It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

Complement with Willa Cather’s soulful definition of happiness and Mary Oliver’s ode to the art of finding magic in life’s unremarkable moments, then revisit Amanda’s stirring readings of “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “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.

Amanda’s work, like my own, is made possible by patronage — join me in supporting her work so that she may go on bringing beautiful things into this world.

Primo Levi on the Spiritual Value of Science and How Space Exploration Brings Humanity Closer Together

“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Ray Bradbury observed in his forgotten conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration. Three years earlier, on December 21, 1968, a romance of the most imaginative caliber became reality when three astronauts launched into the cosmos aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft and returned six days later with the iconic Earthrise photograph — Earth’s first look at itself, taken on Christmas Eve from aboard the spacecraft. The striking image stirred in humanity a shared and unprecedented tenderness for this planet we call home. It awakened a new ecological awareness that catalyzed the environmental movement. It even inspired Carl Sagan’s Valentine to the cosmos nearly a quarter century later.

The Apollo 8 mission was the costliest investment in space exploration thus far, but who could put a price on its largely unanticipated cascading consequences for science, society, and the human spirit?

Primo Levi (Photograph © Jillian Edelstein with kind permission of the artist)

On the eve of this momentous occasion for humanity, the great Italian Jewish scientist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (July 31, 1919–April 11, 1987) considered the spiritual value of such scientific ambitions in a beautiful essay titled “The Moon and Man,” included in his altogether indispensable The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays (public library).

Shortly before Isaac Asimov’s witty and wise retort to those who challenge the value of investing in space exploration, Levi writes:

It seems that in a few days common consciousness has changed, as always happens after a qualitative leap: you tend to forget the cost, the effort, the risks and sacrifices. They were there undoubtedly, and they were enormous: nevertheless, today we still ask ourselves whether it was “money well spent.” We can see it today, and yesterday we could see it less well: the enterprise was not to be judged on a utilitarian scale, or not chiefly in those terms. In the same way, an inquiry into the costs encountered in building the Parthenon would seem jarringly out of place; it is typical of man to act in an inspired and complex manner, perhaps adding up the costs beforehand, but not confining himself to the pure, imminent, or distant advantage, to take off for remote goals, with aims that are justification in themselves: to act in order to challenge a secret, enlarge his frontiers, express himself, test himself.

More than half a century later, the recent discovery of gravitational waves stands as a supreme testament to Levi’s point. LIGO, the observatory responsible for the breakthrough, is the costliest project the National Science Foundation has ever funded, exceeding $1 billion in total — an investment that went far from unquestioned in the decades between LIGO’s launch and its groundbreaking feat. And yet the discovery ushers in a new era of gravitational astronomy that might be as revolutionary as Galileo’s trailblazing telescopic observations once were — after all, almost everything we know about the universe so far comes from observing its light via telescopes, and who knows what secrets it might whisper or bellow now that we’re learning to speak its sonic language. Who could possibly put a price on such a radical leap in our understanding of the universe and our place in it, such a courageous reach into the unknown?

Earthrise (December 24, 1968)

The most valuable thing to be gained from this endeavor to know the cosmos, Levi argues, is this new kind of bravery, which didn’t exist before the dawn of space exploration:

Our world, in so many of its aspects sinister, provisional, diseased, and tragic, has also this other face: it is a “brave new world” that does not recoil before obstacles and does not find peace until it has circumvented, penetrated, or overwhelmed them. It is braveness of a new type: not that of the pioneer, the hero at war, the lone navigator. This, even though praiseworthy, is not very new or very rare: you can find it in all countries and in all ages, and it isn’t even specifically human. Also the wolf, also the tiger and bull are brave, and so without a doubt were our distant progenitors and the Homeric heroes.

We are at once similar and different: the bravery from which the lunar adventure sprang is different, it is Copernican, it is Machiavellian. It defies other obstacles, other dangers, less bloody but longer and heavier; it confronts other enemies, it confronts common sense, it confronts “it’s always been done like this,” the laziness and weariness in ourselves and around us. It rights with different arms, portentously complex and subtle, all or almost all created from nothing during the last ten or twenty years by virtue of intelligence and patience: new technologies, new substances, new energies, and new ideas.

Illustration from Blast Off, a vintage children’s book that envisioned a black female astronaut decades before one became a reality.

As if to remind us that at any moment when the improbable becomes possible, human nature is such that we immediately take for granted what we had only just moments ago taken for impossible, Levi considers the sheer miraculousness — a miracle enkindled by our scientific doggedness and ingenuity — of a human being leaving the planet and voyaging into the cosmic unknown:

Man, the naked ape, the terrestrial animal who is the son of a very long dynasty of terrestrial or marine beings, molded in all of his organs by a restricted environment which is the lower atmosphere, can detach himself from it without dying. He can endure exposure to cosmic radiation, even without the domestic screen of air; he can remove himself from the familiar alteration of day and night; he can tolerate accelerations that are multiples of gravity’s; he can eat, sleep, work, and think even at zero gravity — and perhaps this is the most astounding revelation, the one about which, before Gagarin’s exploit, it was permissible to entertain the greatest doubts.

Art from The Three Astronauts, Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s book about the role of space exploration in world peace

This capacity for transcending our limitations, Levi reminds us, is the great hallmark of the human species:

Not only is man strong because he has made himself so since the time a million years ago when, from among the many weapons that nature offered the animals, he opted for the brain — man is strong in himself, he is stronger than he estimated, he is made of a substance fragile only in appearance, he has been mysteriously planned with enormous, unsuspected margins of safety. We are singular animals, solid and ductile, driven by atavistic impulses, and by reason, and at the same time by a “cheerful strength,” so that, if an enterprise can be accomplished, be it god or evil, it cannot be set aside but must be carried through.

And yet the largest reward of such feats, Levi reminds us, aren’t their gains for a narrow field of science but their broad unifying effect on humanity — that “cheerful strength” becomes a centripetal force drawing us together toward a common center of purpose and participatory pride in the astronomical accomplishment. A quarter century after Einstein considered how the common language of science brings humanity closer together, Levi considers our “deeds of courage and ingenuity”:

Confronted by this latest evidence of bravery and ingenuity, we can feel not only admiration and detached solidarity: in some way and with some justification each of us feels he is a participant… so even the one least connected with the colossal labor of cosmic flights feels that a small particle of merit falls to the human species, and so also to himself, and because of this feels that he has great value. For good or evil, we are a single people: the more we become conscious of this, the less difficult and long will be humanity’s progress toward justice and peace.

The Mirror Maker is a magnificent read in its totality. From Kafka to chemistry, it brims with Levi’s cheerful curiosity about the world and his staunch solidarity with the human experience across the entire spectrum from the macabre to the mirthful. “In my writing,” Levi once reflected, “I have always strived to pass from the darkness into the light,” and in this uncommonly wonderful collection he takes us along for the luminous passage.

Complement this particular portion with Simone Weil on science and our spiritual values, physicist Sean Carroll on the existential value of poetic naturalism, and the little-known story of the remarkable women who powered space exploration.


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