Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Brené Brown on what people who rise strong from their facedown moments have in common, Grace Paley on the art of growing older, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
"For one human being to love another," Rilke wrote, "that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation." And yet the work of love too often leaves us feeling profoundly unprepared, nowhere more so than when lovers confront the abyss of daily differences between them. But rather than a fault line where the relationship fractures, that gulf can be the source of deeper communion – that's what beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) suggests in a portion of her wholly wonderful Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library).
Reflecting on the enduring love she shared with her soul mate – the photographer Molly Malone Cook, for whom she later wrote one of the most moving elegies of all time – Oliver considers the gift of differences:
Mary Oliver (right) with Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple's home in Provincetown, Massachusetts
M. and I have plagued each other with our differences for more than forty years. But it is also a tonic.
Along with the differences that abide in each of us, there is also in each of us the maverick, the darling stubborn one who won’t listen, who insists, who chooses preference or the spirited guess over yardsticks or even history. I suspect this maverick is somewhat what the soul is, or at least that the soul lives close by and companionably with its agitating and inquiring force. And of course all of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me? I bring home sassafras leaves and M. looks and admires. She tells me how it feels to float in the air above the town and the harbor, and my world is sweetened by her description of those blue miles. The touch of our separate excitements is another of the gifts of our life together.
What, indeed, is love if not the enmeshing of separate excitements?
Complement the wholly soul-stretching Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on the mystery of the human psyche and how habit shapes our inner lives, with Shel Silverstein's illustrated allegory of love as complementary difference and Oliver's breathtaking reading of "Wild Geese," her most widely beloved poem.
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"Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world," Saul Bellow asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Pablo Neruda illuminated this notion from another angle in his magnificent metaphor for why we make art,ut the questions of what compels artists to reach for that other reality and how they go about it remains one of the greatest perplexities of the human experience.
No one has addressed this immutable mystery with more piercing insight than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). In one of the most breathtaking passages ever written, found in her Moments of Being (public library) – the magnificent posthumous collection of Woolf's only autobiographical writings – she considers what made her a writer and peers into the heart of the sensemaking mechanism we call art.
As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby [Woolf's older brother] on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later. The third case was also at St Ives. Some people called Valpy had been staying at St Ives, and had left. We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr Valpy’s suicide. I could not pass it. I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark – it was a moonlit night – in a trance of horror. I seemed to be dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape. My body seemed paralysed.
These were three instances of exceptional moments. I often tell them over, or rather they come to the surface unexpectedly. But now that for the first time I have written them down, I realise something that I have never realised before. Two of these moments ended in a state of despair. The other ended, on the contrary, in a state of satisfaction. When I said about the flower “That is the whole,” I felt that I had made a discovery. I felt that I had put away in my mind something that I should go back [to], to turn over and explore. It strikes me now that this was a profound difference. It was the difference in the first place between despair and satisfaction. This difference I think arose from the fact that I was quite unable to deal with the pain of discovering that people hurt each other, that a man I had seen had killed himself. The sense of horror held me powerless. But in the case of the flower I found a reason; and was thus able to deal with the sensation. I was not powerless. I was conscious – if only at a distance – that I should in time explain it.
Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener
Woolf argues that the wellspring of the creative impulse lies in the crucial qualitative difference between the experiences that produced despair and the one that sparked satisfaction:
As one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.
Befittingly, Woolf would later transmute this insight into a beautiful line from Mrs. Dalloway: "The compensation of growing old [is] that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light." But, here, she continues digging deeper for the source of this seismic activity of the soul:
I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together.
Woolf ends with an exquisite summation of her personal philosophy – the only direct articulation of it to appear in any of her writing:
From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.
Complement the wholly indispensable Moments of Being with Woolf on the elasticity of time, why the best mind is the androgynous mind, writing and self-doubt, and the consolations of growing older.
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Your two hands are radically different from the other – not only in the distinct microbial populations they carry but in their cultural baggage as well. The symbolism of the right hand as the doer and the left as the dreamer compelled the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner to write an entire book about it – one of the most insightful books ever written, no less. Even as modern science disperses centuries-old superstition, the evolutionary mystery of handedness continues to fascinate.
The enduring enigma of why a tenth of all humans are left-handed is what the fine folks at TED-Ed distill in this animated primer:
Handedness seems to be determined by a roll of the dice, but the odds are set by your genes.
Dive deeper into the scientific detective story of left-handedness here, then revisit other stimulating TED-Ed animations exploring how melancholy enhances creativity, what makes a hero, how you know you exist, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.
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By bridging the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, geopolitics, and social science, trailblazing scientist Jared Diamond (b. September 10, 1937) has done more than anyone since Margaret Mead to decondition the Eurocentric approach to history and debunk the biological fallacies on which the monster of racism feeds. His Pulitzer-winning 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (public library) is a foundational text illuminating the conditions that led to inequality in the modern world and combating the broken logic that perpetuates these toxic beliefs.
At the heart of Diamond's work is the notion that in order to understand any one society, we must contextualize it in the larger ecosystem of humanity and therefore must understand all societies. Only by grasping the richness and diversity of the entire ecosystem can we begin to dismantle our assumptions about the value of others and realize that people from different groups fared differently in history not due to their innate abilities but due to a complex cluster of environmental and geopolitical forces.
We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial.
Questions about inequality in the modern world can be reformulated as follows. Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren’t Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?
The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas today.
Diamond arrived at studying the interplay of these complex forces via an unlikely path. A self-described "fanatical bird-watcher" since the age of seven, he came to study biology, then nearly dropped out of his Ph.D. program in physiology to become a linguist. But he did complete his science degree and landed in Papua New Guinea as a passionate thirty-something biologist studying bird evolution. He spent the decades that followed doing fieldwork in evolutionary biology, which took him into a remarkably wide range of human societies. Out of that immersion sprang the centerpiece of Diamond's work – an unflinching invitation to nuance in how we think about progress.
He confronts a common bias:
Don’t words such as “civilization,” and phrases such as “rise of civilization,” convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed.
With an eye to the social environment and educational opportunities that shape the intellectual destiny of human beings, Diamond argues that our notions of intelligence are not only gravely skewed by the Western perspective but just about inverted. The IQ tests on which technologically advanced societies like our own do better than technologically primitive societies like aboriginal cultures – results on which many racist claims are predicated – actually measure cultural learning rather than innate cognitive ability. He writes:
My perspective on this controversy comes from 33 years of working with New Guineans in their own intact societies. From the very beginning of my work with New Guineans, they impressed me as being on the average more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is. At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function, such as the ability to form a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings, they appear considerably more adept than Westerners. Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not. Hence when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners. Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I’m with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.
In this excerpt from a talk at British science powerhouse The Royal Institution, animated by artist Andrew Khosravani, Diamond illustrates New Guineans' intellectual superiority with one particularly striking example of their sounder judgment in everyday matters:
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond points to two factors that explain New Guineans' superior intelligence: First, European cultures have spent thousands of years in areas so densely populated that infectious disease spread and became the major cause of death, while centralized government and law enforcement kept murder at a relatively low rate. In New Guinea, on the other hand, societies were too sparse for epidemics to evolve, making murder, accidents, and tribal warfare the primary causes of death. Smart people were more likely to escape murder and avoid accident, passing their intelligent genes forward.
The second factor Diamond considers strikes much closer to the present and points to perilous forces we still have a chance to avert:
Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household, the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.
That is, in mental ability New Guineans are probably genetically superior to Westerners, and they surely are superior in escaping the devastating developmental disadvantages under which most children in industrialized societies now grow up.
Writing in 1997, Diamond could not yet point to other developmentally detrimental Western technologies that now hijack our cognitive faculties by reducing the world's complexity to clickbait and listicles. But the cultural forces he examines make sense of how we ended up here. A revelatory read in its entirety, Guns, Germs, and Steel is thus no less timely today, packed with insight into the microscopic and monumental forces that shape our daily lives. Complement it with a very different and equally important perspective on the unconscious biases that permeate our world.
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A science-storyteller like the late, great, sorely missed Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) comes about once a century, if we're lucky. Throughout his long career as a working scientist who bewitched the popular imagination with beautiful writing, he frequently turned to music as his storytelling muse. It was a relationship that once saved his life and culminated in his magnificent book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library) – an immensely insightful exploration of the physiological and psychological phenomena behind the all too common human impulse that once compelled the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to profess: "Without music I should wish to die."
In one particularly poignant passage, emanating his usual gift for exposing the monumental through the minute, Dr. Sacks captures the heart of music's strange power over us by reflecting on a fleeting moment that took place on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks:
On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in D on his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.
Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.
Complement the superb Musicophilia with Dr. Sacks on storytelling and the psychology of writing, then revisit his extraordinary life-story and my eulogy for this irreplaceable human.
For more on the power of music, see the science of why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, singer-songwriter Morley on how music heals the soul, and the psychology of how refrains enchant the brain.
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