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Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling, Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr on science and spirituality, Madeleine L'Engle on the wellspring of creativty

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Welcome Hello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed the special annual edition of highlights, here is the best of Brain Pickings 2017. If you missed last week's regular edition — Ursula K. Le Guin on what makes life worth living, an illustrated meditation on our paths to acceptance, Jane Hirshfield on writing and the fluid self — 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. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Emerson wrote in contemplating the key to personal growth. Hardly anything does this for us more powerfully than art — it unsettles us awake, disrupts our deadening routines, enlarges our reservoir of hope by enlarging our perspective, our grasp of truth, our capacity for beauty.

This singular function of art is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) reflects on in an interview by the polymathic marine conservationist Jonathan White, included in his wonderful Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photograph: The Oregonian)

In a roaming conversation over tea, “with only momentary interruptions by Lorenzo the cat or chimes from the grandfather clock,” Le Guin tells White:

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. We’re drawn in — or out — and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we’re around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.

Art, Le Guin suggests a century after Kandinsky extolled its spiritual element and a decade after Susan Sontag considered its ethical responsibility, restores to secular culture the sense of sacredness and moral purpose:

Our culture doesn’t think storytelling is sacred; we don’t set aside a time of year for it. We don’t hold anything sacred except what organized religion declares to be so. Artists pursue a sacred call, although some would buck and rear at having their work labeled like this. Artists are lucky to have a form in which to express themselves; there is a sacredness about that, and a terrific sense of responsibility. We’ve got to do it right. Why do we have to do it right? Because that’s the whole point: either it’s right or it’s all wrong.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Albert Camus’s reflection on the lacuna between truth and meaning, Le Guin — who spent the last sixty-five years of her life married to a historian — considers the lacuna between the events of the past and their selective retelling in what we call history:

History is one way of telling stories, just like myth, fiction, or oral storytelling. But over the last hundred years, history has preempted the other forms of storytelling because of its claim to absolute, objective truth. Trying to be scientists, historians stood outside of history and told the story of how it was. All that has changed radically over the last twenty years. Historians now laugh at the pretense of objective truth. They agree that every age has its own history, and if there is any objective truth, we can’t reach it with words. History is not a science, it’s an art.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds

The paradox, of course, is that because our notion of history is rooted in the written record, words are both our instrument of truth and our weapon of distortion. We use them both to reveal and to conceal — a duality which Hannah Arendt so memorably dissected in her meditation on lying in politics. Le Guin — who has written beautifully about the transformational potential of words — echoes Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language, and reflects on the challenging task of those who limn reality in words:

As a writer, you want the language to be genuinely significant and mean exactly what it says. That’s why the language of politicians, which is empty of everything but rather brutal signals, is something a writer has to get as far away from as possible. If you believe that words are acts, as I do, then one must hold writers responsible for what their words do.

With a concerned eye to how our metaphors shape our thinking, Le Guin adds:

We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict [and] the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, righting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start “fighting” against them. That’s one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.

What literature does, Le Guin points out, is enlarge our understanding of our own experience by enriching its container in language:

One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say. It’s one reason why we read poetry, because poets can give us the words we need. When we read good poetry, we often say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s how I feel.’

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

In a sentiment evocative of James Baldwin’s assertion that “an artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian [whose] role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” she adds:

Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want, too. If we never find our experience described in poetry or stories, we assume that our experience is insignificant.

Complement this particular portion of the splendid Talking on the Water with Le Guin’s immortal wisdom on the artist’s task, growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her classic unsexing of gender.

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Nobel-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr on Subjective vs. Objective Reality and the Uses of Religion in a Secular World

In the autumn of 1911, just as the dawn of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of relativity were unsettling our understanding of existence, some of the world’s most influential physicists were summoned to Brussels for the Solvay Conference — an invitation-only gathering that would become a turning point for modern physics and our basic understanding of reality. The conference was such a towering success that it became a regular event, with twenty-five installments over the next century. The most famous was the fifth, convened in 1927 and chaired by the Dutch Nobel laureate Hendrik Lorenz, whose transformation equations had become the centerpiece of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Of the 29 attendees that year, 17 would become Nobel laureates; Marie Curie, the sole woman since the inaugural gathering, would become the only scientist to win two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines. (It was at the first Solvay Conference that Curie had met Einstein — the inception of a lifelong friendship in the course of which he would buoy her during a crisis with his splendid advice on how to handle haters.)

The 1927 Solvay Conference (colorized photograph)

One evening during the 1927 conference, some of the younger attendees — including twenty-seven-year-old Wolfgang Pauli, who was yet to co-invent synchronicity with Carl Jung, and twenty-six-year-old Werner Heisenberg, who had just published his revolutionary uncertainty principle earlier that year — stayed up at the hotel lounge and launched into a swirling conversation at the borderline of physics and metaphysics, ignited by the young physicists’ unease about Einstein’s views on God. (Three years later, Einstein himself would traverse that borderline in his historic conversation with the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, the first non-European to with the Nobel Prize.) They collided with the difficulty of reconciling science and religion, some adamantly insisting that the two were simply incompatible, for religion is a vestige of a pre-scientific world of superstition, while others suggesting that science can never supplant but can only complement the essential moral guidance by which theology strengthens society.

The unresolved question stayed with Heisenberg. After the conference, he recounted the conversation to quantum theory founding father and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr (October 7, 1885–November 18, 1962). Bohr surprised him with a nuanced and uncommonly insightful take on the subject, which Heisenberg recounts in Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (public library) — part of the pioneering World Perspectives series envisioned by philosopher Ruth Nanda Anshen as a canon of books by the world’s great “spiritual and intellectual leaders who possess full consciousness of the pressing problems of our time with all their implications,” with a board of editors including Robert Oppenheimer and Bohr himself.

Niels Bohr as a young man

Bohr tells Heisenberg:

We ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective side much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.

With an eye to the monumental impact of Einstein’s relativity and to the profound shift in thought which quantum theory’s notion of complementarity introduced, Bohr adds:

That is why I consider those developments in physics during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as “objective” and “subjective” are, a great liberation of thought. The whole thing started with the theory of relativity. In the past, the statement that two events are simultaneous was considered an objective assertion, one that could be communicated quite simply and that was open to verification by any observer. Today we know that “simultaneity” contains a subjective element, inasmuch as two events that appear simultaneous to an observer at rest are not necessarily simultaneous to an observer in motion. However, the relativistic description is also objective inasmuch as every observer can deduce by calculation what the other observer will perceive or has perceived. For all that, we have come a long way from the classical ideal of objective descriptions.

In quantum mechanics the departure from this ideal has been even more radical. We can still use the objectifying language of classical physics to make statements about observable facts. For instance, we can say that a photographic plate has been blackened, or that cloud droplets have formed. But we can say nothing about the atoms themselves. And what predictions we base on such findings depend on the way we pose our experimental question, and here the observer has freedom of choice. Naturally, it still makes no difference whether the observer is a man, an animal, or a piece of apparatus, but it is no longer possible to make predictions without reference to the observer or the means of observation. To that extent, every physical process may be said to have objective and subjective features. The objective world of nineteenth-century science was, as we know today, an ideal, limiting case, but not the whole reality. Admittedly, even in our future encounters with reality we shall have to distinguish between the objective and the subjective side, to make a division between the two. But the location of the separation may depend on the way things are looked at; to a certain extent it can be chosen at will.

This, Bohr notes, is why the language of objectivity doesn’t belong in religious rhetoric — religion and its pluralities are best understood, and best applied to human life as an instrument of moral enrichment rather than one of dogmatic constriction, through the lens of complementarity:

The fact that different religions try to express this content in quite distinct spiritual forms is no real objection. Perhaps we ought to look upon these different forms as complementary descriptions which, though they exclude one another, are needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man’s relationship with the central order.

Illustration by Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by Lillian Lieber

A quarter century before mathematician Lillian Lieber demonstrated how mathematical abstractions like infinity, which have no correlate in physical reality, offer an analogue for moral questions, Bohr considers whether or not the tenets of religion can similarly offer useful abstractions, even though they are not to be taken as objective truth:

In mathematics we can take our inner distance from the content of our statements. In the final analysis mathematics is a mental game that we can play or not play as we choose. Religion, on the other hand, deals with ourselves, with our life and death; its promises are meant to govern our actions and thus, at least indirectly, our very existence. We cannot just look at them impassively from the outside. Moreover, our attitude to religious questions cannot be separated from our attitude to society. Even if religion arose as the spiritual structure of a particular human society, it is arguable whether it has remained the strongest social molding force through history, or whether society, once formed, develops new spiritual structures and adapts them to its particular level of knowledge. Nowadays, the individual seems to be able to choose the spiritual framework of his thoughts and actions quite freely, and this freedom reflects the fact that the boundaries between the various cultures and societies are beginning to become more fluid. But even when an individual tries to attain the greatest possible degree of independence, he will still be swayed by the existing spiritual structures — consciously or unconsciously. For he, too, must be able to speak of life and death and the human condition to other members of the society in which he’s chosen to live; he must educate his children according to the norms of that society, fit into its life. Epistemological sophistries cannot possibly help him attain these ends. Here, too, the relationship between critical thought about the spiritual content of a given religion and action based on the deliberate acceptance of that content is complementary. And such acceptance, if consciously arrived at, fills the individual with strength of purpose, helps him to overcome doubts and, if he has to suffer, provides him with the kind of solace that only a sense of being sheltered under an all-embracing roof can grant. In that sense, religion helps to make social life more harmonious; its most important task is to remind us, in the language of pictures and parables, of the wider framework within which our life is set.

Physics and Beyond, though out of print, is a fascinating read in its totality and well worth the search for a surviving copy. Complement this particular portion with pioneering nineteenth-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, on our conquest of truth, Carl Sagan on science and spirituality, Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality, Simone de Beauvoir on the moral courage of atheism, Alan Lightman on transcendent experiences in the secular world, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.

“A Wrinkle in Time” Author Madeleine L’Engle on Self-Consciousness and the Wellspring of Creativity

“Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts,” Franz Kafka told a young friend ambivalent about pursuing a creative life. This prayerful quality of art and the free-flowing generosity it presupposes can only arise from a certain self-transcendence, from a place untrammeled by ego and untrapped in a static, contracted self. “The creative self,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful case for the liminal, “[asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance.”

That delicate relationship between self-consciousness and creativity is what A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle (November 29, 1918–September 6, 2007), a woman of abiding wisdom on the creative life, contemplates in Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections (public library) — a collection of meditations drawn from L’Engle’s beloved books and personal writings, arranged like Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and Joanna Macy’s A Year with Rilke, with a short reflection allotted to each day of the year.

Madeleine L’Engle (Photograph: Sigrid Estrada)

In a series of reflections chosen for the last stretch of June, L’Engle echoes the Buddhist admonition against clinging to the “ego-shell” and examines how letting go of the illusion of a static, solid self uncorks creativity:

When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.

A most perilous malignancy of self-consciousness is pride — something Bruce Lee knew when he observed that “the core of pride is self-rejection,” and Agnes Martin knew when she cautioned that pride destroys freedom, joy, and creativity. With a kindred awareness, L’Engle adds:

The Greeks had a word for ultimate self-consciousness which I find illuminating: hubris: pride: pride in the sense of putting oneself in the center of the universe. The strange and terrible thing is that this kind of total self-consciousness invariably ends in self-annihilation. The great tragedians have always understood this, from Sophocles to Shakespeare. We witness it in history in such people as Tiberius, Eva Perón, Hitler.

Creativity, she argues, is the work of absolute unselfconsciousness, for it requires nonjudgmental observation and discovery, with an element of what Jeanette Winterson has so memorably termed “active surrender.” L’Engle writes:

Creativity is an act of discovering. The very small child, the baby, is still unself-conscious enough to take joy in discovering himself: he discovers his fingers; he gives them his complete, unself-conscious concentration.

Writing at a time when psychologists were formalizing this unselfconscious creative state in the concept of flow, L’Engle adds:

The kind of unself-consciousness I’m thinking about becomes clearer to me when I turn to a different discipline: for instance, that of playing a Bach fugue at the piano, precisely because I will never be a good enough pianist to play a Bach fugue as it should be played. But when I am actually sitting at the piano, all there is for me is the music. I am wholly in it, unless I fumble so badly that I perforce become self-conscious. Mostly, no matter how inadequate my playing, the music is all that matters: I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Because this sense of being “outside self” is so central to creative flow, at the heart of this generative unselfconsciousness is the discipline of holding the self loosely, as the ever-changing constellation of values, beliefs, and habits that it is — for, as the young Borges observed in his fantastic first essay, “there is no whole self.” Echoing philosopher Jacob Needleman’s insight into the path to self-liberation, L’Engle points to what is problematic about simply giving the growing person a ready-made self-image:

I haven’t defined a self, nor do I want to. A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming. Being does mean becoming, but we run so fast that it is only when we seem to stop — as sitting on the rock at the brook — that we are aware of our own isness, of being. But certainly that is not static; for this awareness of being is always a way of moving from the selfish self — the self-image — and towards the real.

Who am I, then? Who are you?

The young Tolstoy considered this very question “the entire essence of life.” The young Emily Dickinson answered it splendidly in a perfect line of verse: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

Complement Glimpses of Grace with L’Engle on how to get unstuck and her forgotten Library of Congress lecture on creativity, then revisit Walt Whitman on the paradox of the self and mathematician-turned-physician Israel Rosenfield’s pioneering inquiry into how our sense of self arises.

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Each week of the past eleven years, I have poured tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

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