Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – Patti Smith on transformation and how the radiance of love redeems the rupture of loss, physicist Lisa Randall on the crucial difference in how art, science, and religion explain the universe, Mary Oliver on love and its necessary madness, 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.
"To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love," the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn admonished in his terrific treatise on how to love – a sentiment profoundly discomfiting in the context of our cultural mythology, which continually casts love as something that happens to us passively and by chance, something we fall into, something that strikes us arrow-like, rather than a skill attained through the same deliberate practice as any other pursuit of human excellence. Our failure to recognize this skillfulness aspect is perhaps the primary reason why love is so intertwined with frustration.
That's what the great German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher Erich Fromm examines in his 1956 masterwork The Art of Loving (public library) – a case for love as as a skill to be honed the way artists apprentice themselves to the work on the way to mastery, demanding of its practitioner both knowledge and effort.
This book ... wants to show that love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. It wants to convince the reader that all his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries most actively to develop his total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; that satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. In a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement.
Fromm considers our warped perception of love's necessary yin-yang:
Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.
People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love – or to be loved by – is difficult. This attitude has several reasons rooted in the development of modern society. One reason is the great change which occurred in the twentieth century with respect to the choice of a “love object."
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
Our fixation on the choice of "love object," Fromm argues, has seeded a kind of "confusion between the initial experience of 'falling' in love, and the permanent state of being in love, or as we might better say, of 'standing' in love" – something Stendhal addressed more than a century earlier in his theory of love's "crystallization." Fromm considers the peril of mistaking the spark for the substance:
If two people who have been strangers, as all of us are, suddenly let the wall between them break down, and feel close, feel one, this moment of oneness is one of the most exhilarating, most exciting experiences in life. It is all the more wonderful and miraculous for persons who have been shut off, isolated, without love. This miracle of sudden intimacy is often facilitated if it is combined with, or initiated by, sexual attraction and consummation. However, this type of love is by its very nature not lasting. The two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet, in the beginning they do not know all this: in fact, they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being “crazy” about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.
There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.
Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown
The only way to abate this track record of failure, Fromm argues, is to examine the underlying reasons for the disconnect between our beliefs about love and its actual machinery – which must include a recognition of love as an informed practice rather than an unmerited grace. Fromm writes:
The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one – my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art – the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry – and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power – almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.
In the remainder of the enduringly excellent The Art of Loving, Fromm goes on to explore the misconceptions and cultural falsehoods keeping us from mastering this supreme human skill, outlining both its theory and its practice with extraordinary insight into the complexities of the human heart. Complement it with French philosopher Alain Badiou on why we fall and stay in love and Mary Oliver on love's necessary madnesses.
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"A lot of us humans," Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her magnificent meditation on aging and what beauty really means, "are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like." But humanity's abiding love of dogs has to do with something deeper than this psychological kinship – in loving us, dogs clarify our own size and shape by mirroring back to us who we really are.
The magnetism of that mutuality is what artist, visual memoirist, and champion of attentiveness Maira Kalman explores in Beloved Dog (public library) – a tender, quirky, scrumptiously sincere love letter our canine companions, part memoir of and part manifesto for the adoration of Dog.
Composed of Kalman's vast existing body of work celebrating the canine spirit – spreads from her children's books and illustrated memoirs, New Yorker covers, portraits of dog-loving literary icons, and more – the book is both quintessentially New York and astonishingly universal, a reminder that however much we may think with animals, we feel with them infinitely more.
Kalman, an irrepressible humanist and patron saint of presence, writes:
When I go out for a walk, there is so much that makes me happy to be alive. Breathing. Not thinking. Observing. I am grateful beyond measure to be part of it all. There are people, of course, heroic and heartbreaking, going about their business in splendid fashion.
There are the discarded items – chairs, sofas, tables, umbrellas, shoes – also heroic for having lived life in happy (or unhappy) homes.
There are trees. Glorious and consoling. Changing with the seasons. Reminders that all things change. And change again. There are flowers, birds, babies, buildings.
I love all of these. But above all, I am besotted by dogs.
Kalman's path to becoming enamored of dogs has been an unlikely one – her mother, born in Belarus, instilled in young Maira a deathly fear of dogs, casting them as mean-spirited beasts likely to attack at any moment. (Having grown up in Eastern Europe myself, where decades of communism and poverty have seeded an enormous population of stray dogs – creatures obeying the same distribution of good and evil as our human lot but bedeviled by ravenous hunger at all times – I find Kalman's mother far from unreasonable in her fear.) When Kalman fell in love with her husband, Tibor, her terror wasn't exactly decondition by his family's dog – "a big black slobbering hairy Hungarian beast named Boganch."
Beast notwithstanding, Maira and Tibor built a loving home and started a family. But then Tibor fell mortally ill and as Kalman and their two children watched him die, they decided to get a dog – an Irish Wheaten named Pete, who became the family's solace.
I was afraid to touch him. And then, little by little – or perhaps with blinding speed – I fell madly in love.
We took walks together and stopped often to talk to people, or just to look around.
He stayed net to me the entire day and slept on the floor next to my bed.
Pete became her muse and the subject of one of the loveliest children's books of all time, Kalman's What Pete Ate from A to Z.
A passionate reader, Kalman communes with literary history's famous dog-lovers: Kafka, for whom dogs (along with books) were the only light amid his existential darkness, Gertrude Stein, whose French poodle named Basket was central to her daily routine, and E.B. White, literature's greatest champion of dogs.
Undergirding the book, like all of Kalman's work, is a subtle and poignant layer of philosophy. Of loss, she writes:
When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.
Over and over, Kalman embraces the glorious imperfections that make us human – our fragility, our irrational capacity for hope against reality, and above all our willingness to give ourselves over to the force of love which, taken to its ultimate denouement, is always a force of loss:
Complement the uncontainably wonderful Beloved Dog with Patti Smith on how the radiance of love redeems the rupture of loss and Kalman's delightful Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag, then revisit The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, Mary Oliver's bewitching Dog Songs, and this lovely animated ode to what dogs teach us about the meaning of human life.
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One of our our basic human biases is the tendency to take credit for our successes as a function of our personal excellence and to attribute out failures to external circumstances. Privilege is problematic precisely because it leads the privileged to believe that their advantages in life are entirely earned and the disadvantages of the less fortunate entirely merited, when in reality powerful cultural currents can carry us in either direction based on cultural, political, and economic forces wholly external to our character, ability, and personal worth. But when all of our external conditions are stripped away, be they fortuitous or wretched, who are we in our innermost personhood? What erects the geometry of the "I"?
That's what young Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) addresses in a characteristically poignant and exquisitely self-aware passage from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) – the same terrific volume that gave us the precocious poet on finding nonreligious divinity in nature, her exuberant celebration of curiosity, and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness.
In a journal entry from the autumn of 1950, eighteen-year-old Plath considers free will, the blinders of privilege, and what makes us who we are. She writes:
What do I know of sorrow? No one I love has ever died or been tortured. I have never wanted for food to eat, or a place to sleep. I have been gifted with five senses and an attractive exterior. So I can philosophize from my snug little cushioned seat. So I am going to one of the most outstanding colleges in America; I am living with two thousand of the most outstanding girls in the United States. What have I to complain about? Nothing much. The main way I can add to my self-respect is by saying that I’m on scholarship, and if I hadn’t exercised my free will and studied through high school I never would be here. But when you come right down to it, how much of that was free will? How much was the capacity to think that I got from my parents, the home urge to study and do well academically, the necessity to find an alternative for the social world of boys and girls to which I was forbidden acceptance? And does not my desire to write come from a tendency toward introversion begun when I was small, brought up as I was in the fairy-tale world of Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh? Did not that set me apart from most of my school mates? – the fact that I got all A’s and was “different” from the rough-and-tumble Conways – how I am not quite sure, but “different” as the animal with the touch of human hands about him when he returns to the herd. All this may be a subtle way of egoistically separating myself from the common herd, but take it for what it’s worth.
Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
A year earlier, Plath had written in a letter to her mother: "I want to be free – free to know people and their backgrounds – free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own." Now, it is with this empathetic curiosity and acute awareness of how different cultural backgrounds manifest different foregrounds of personhood that she returns to the question of free will in her journal:
As for free will, there is such a narrow crack of it for man to move in, crushed as he is from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention. If I had been born of Italian parents in one of the caves in the hills I would be a prostitute at the age of 12 or so because I had to live (why?) and that was the only way open. If I was born into a wealthy New York family with pseudo-cultural leanings, I would have had my coming-out party along with the rest of them, and be equipped with fur coats, social contacts, and a blasé pout. How do I know? I don’t; I can only guess. I wouldn’t be I. But I am I now; and so many other millions are so irretrievably their own special variety of “I” that I can hardly bear to think of it. I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession. The pen scratches on the paper … I … I … I … I … I … I.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a remarkable read in its entirety – a masterwork both of philosophy at its rawest and of prose at its most refined. Complement this particular passage with cosmologist Janna Levin on the perplexity of free will, C.S. Lewis on what it means to have a free will in a universe of fixed laws, and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity, then revisit Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a journal, her little-known children's book illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, and her beautiful and heartbreaking reading of the poem "A Birthday Present."
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By the time mathematician John Wallis pioneered the lemniscate – that familiar "napping eight" – as the symbol for infinity in 1655, the human mind had been grappling with the notion of the infinite for millennia. But if infinity occupies some of our smartest scientists and is the subject of philosophers' most mind-bending thought experiments, how can young minds wrap themselves around this bamboozlement? That's what writer Kate Hosford explores in Infinity and Me (public library) – an infinitely delightful parable of the inescapable humanity we bring to even the most intellectually ambitious inquiries, told in gorgeous illustrations by Polish-born artist Gabi Swiatkowska.
The book is all kinds of heartening – in a culture where great children's books about science are hard to come by, and where only 31% of children's books feature female protagonists and a mere 3% star people of color, here comes Uma, a little girl of multiethnic background who contemplates one of the most cerebrally stretching questions of science.
The night I got my new red shoes, I couldn't wait to wear them to school. I was too excited to sleep, so I went outside and sat on the lawn. >When I looked up, I shivered. The sky seemed so huge and cold.
How many stars were in the sky?
A million? A billion?
Maybe the number was as big as infinity.
I started to feel very, very small, how could I even think about something as big as infinity?
Animated by this unnerving question, Uma turns to the people in her life for an answer.
Her classmate imagines infinity as a number so immense that he wouldn't be able to write it out even if he lived forever.
Her grandmother compares infinity to an enormous family tree with ancestry going back countless generations.
Her teacher likens infinity to never-ending music that loops in circle.
The more Uma ponders infinity, the more she realizes that it is inseparable from eternity – and the notion of "forever" confounds and captivates her just as much. The question of personal continuity is, after all, one of the greatest mysteries of human life.
I started to wonder, what would I like to do forever?
At first, I thought that I might like to have recess forever.
But if there's no school before recess, and no school after recess, is it really recess anymore?
Maybe I'd like to be eight forever, but I didn't know if Samantha would still want to be my best friend when she was eighty-five and I was still eight.
As she tussles with these grand questions through her various encounters, Uma grows increasingly disheartened that no one seems to notice her glorious red shoes. But when she returns home and grandma greets her with a favorite meal, both of Uma's unsettlements are suddenly and surprisingly resolved as she discovers the one thread of which infinity and eternity are woven:
"Uma, I meant to tell you this morning – those are the most beautiful shoes I have ever seen!"
I didn't hear the rest of what Grandma said. I was too busy smiling. Right then I knew – my love for her was as big as infinity.
Pair the marvelous Infinity and Me with the picture-book biography of legendary mathematician Paul Erdos. For a grownup counterpart, revisit astrophysicist Janna Levin's letters to her mother on whether the universe is infinite or finite.
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"Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant – there is no such thing," Georgia O'Keeffe wrote in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, adding: "Making your unknown known is the important thing." Over the years, I've kept coming back to this as the most piercing and perfect definition of what it means to be an artist – an idea E.E. Cummings echoed in asserting that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” During a recent walk with a cellist friend, I was reminded of this sentiment and the immutable inquiry at its heart – when the banality of exterior metrics falls away, what is that singular interior orientation that sets the artist apart from the rest?
That's what Vivian Gornick explores in a portion of her superb 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments (public library).
'Red and yellow sunflowers' (1920) by German-Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (Courtesy of Nolde Foundation)
Gornick describes her first brush with the throbbing contour of the creative impulse during an impromptu visit to the Whitney Museum:
I walk through the door, turn to the wall nearest me, and come face to face with two large Nolde watercolors, the famous flowers. I’ve looked often at Nolde’s flowers, but now it’s as though I am seeing them for the first time: that hot lush diffusion of his outlined, I suddenly realize, in intent. I see the burning quality of Nolde’s intention, the serious patience with which the flowers absorb him, the clear, stubborn concentration of the artist on his subject. I see it. And I think, It’s the concentration that gives the work its power. The space inside me enlarges. That rectangle of light and air inside, where thought clarifies and language grows and response is made intelligent, that famous space surrounded by loneliness, anxiety, self-pity, it opens wide as I look at Nolde’s flowers.
That rectangle of air and light – an interior space wholly different from the illusory fetishes of exterior space against which Bukowski admonished when he wrote "baby, air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for" – becomes Gornick's recurring companion during the most electrifying moments of creative flow. She recounts a particularly formative period of her life, "a true beginning," during which the rectangle took shape in her own art:
In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you” in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.
The metaphor of this image-animating rectangle of creative electricity is astonishingly poignant today, nearly three decades later, in an era where we've grown transfixed by a very different – and in many ways opposite – kind of luminous rectangle. One is left to wonder, not without wistfulness, how the glowing screens into which we stare day and night, and through which we both consume and communicate so much of our experience of life, might be dimming the inner light of that interior rectangle where the wholeness of thought takes shape.
But the romance of this exultant rectangle, Gornick reminds us, coexists with the reality of the negative space surrounding it – a space rife with the artist's atmospheric self-doubt, which animated Virginia Woolf and filled John Steinbeck's diary. Reflecting on an especially intense period of work, Gornick captures the ebb and flow of these two states, always in an osmotic relationship:
I sat at the desk and I concentrated. I didn’t glaze over looking at the words, or stumble about in my chair reeling with fog and fatigue. Rather, I sat down each morning with a clear mind and hour after hour I worked. The rectangle had opened wide and remained open: in the middle stood an idea. A great excitement formed itself around this idea, and took hold of me. I began fantasizing over the idea, rushing ahead of it, envisioning its full and particular strength and power long before it had clarified. Out of this fantasizing came images, and out of the images a wholeness of thought and language that amazed me each time it repeated itself. At the end of the week I had a large amount of manuscript on my desk. On Friday afternoon I put away the work. On Monday morning I looked at it, and I saw that the pages contained merit but the idea was ill-conceived. It didn’t work at all. I’d have to abandon all that I had done. I felt deflated. The period of inspired labor was at an end. The murk and the vapor closed in on me again, the rectangle shriveled and I was back to eking out painfully small moments of clarity, as usual and as always. Still, it was absorbing to remember the hours I had put in while under the spell of my vision. I felt strengthened by the sustained effort of work the fantasizing had led to.
Fierce Attachments is a rich and deeply rewarding read in its totality. Complement it with Gornick on how to own your story and some of today's most celebrated artists on what it means to be a great artist.
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