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â€œBoth in thought and in feeling, even though time be real, to realise the unimportance of time is the gate of wisdom.â€
Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ anger and forgiveness, Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on complementarity and why reality is woven of opposing truths, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life, and a very special musical treat â€“ you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
â€œOne canâ€™t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes,â€ Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary midway through writing To the Lighthouse. And yet: â€œNothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,â€ Hannah Arendt â€” another woman of searing intellect and uncommon insight into the human spirit â€” observed exactly half a century later in contemplating how the rift between being and appearing rips us asunder. So if the seismic core of being we call soul exists, as I emphatically believe it does, how do we reconcile its elemental demand for spectatorship with the impossibility of writing about the drama that animates it?
That improbable, sublime feat is what cartoonist Alison Bechdel accomplishes in Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (public library), a psychological sequel of sorts to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic â€” Bechdelâ€™s spectacular memoir-turned-Broadway-hit about her childhood and her closeted fatherâ€™s suicide. In plumbing the catacombine depths of her ambivalent relationship with her mother â€” which she does with astonishing self-awareness and vulnerability, climaxing in reluctant self-compassion â€” Bechdel speaks to some of the most elemental and most universal aspects of the human experience: loneliness, love, the perennial perplexities of the child-parent relationship, our longing for unconditional acceptance and adoration, and the pathological onslaught of self-doubt with which those engaged in a creative life live.
I pause here to note that this is one of very few books Iâ€™ve encountered which, in addition to being creatively and intellectually superb, I consider absolutely life-changing â€” so much so, that anything I write here about the book is bound to be a woefully deficient representation of what the book is.
Although she sets out to write a book about her motherâ€™s life, it ends up being a memoir of Bechdelâ€™s own (somewhat like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is really Gertrude Steinâ€™s memoir of her own life, illuminated via a sidewise gleam refracted through her wifeâ€™s). Her motherâ€™s resistance to the merits of memoir as a genre only enriches the meta-story of both their relationship and the archetypal yearning for approval in every parent-child relationship:
(I am reminded here of A.M. Homes and her unforgettable insight into the art of memoir: â€œMaking art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand weâ€™ve been dealt. Itâ€™s closer to your own bone when itâ€™s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.â€)
In one of the opening pages, Bechdel captures the Woolfian paradox of this entire meta-project:
You canâ€™t live and write at the same time.
And yet she has been writing about life, perhaps in order to avoid experiencing life, since childhood. The journal, after all, is a technology of thought and selfhood; like any technology, it is the intention behind its use that determines whether its effect is constructive or destructive. Rather than a medium of creative expression, Bechdelâ€™s early diary became an obsessive compulsion, to the point where her mother had to intervene. In looking back on the episode, she invokes a passage from Virginia Woolfâ€™s diary: â€œWhat a disgraceful lapse! Nothing added to my disquision, & life allowed to waste like a tap left running. Eleven days unrecorded.â€
â€œMy mother composed me as I now compose her,â€Bechdel observes of one of the many role-reversals that mark their parent-child relationship, and Iâ€™m reminded of the anthropologist Mary Catherine Batesonâ€™s wonderful phrase â€œcomposing a lifeâ€ â€” for isnâ€™t every life, after all, a composition?
For a long time I resisted including my present-day interactions with mom in this book precisely because theyâ€™re so â€œordinary.â€
Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday.
Indeed, it is in the most mundane of moments that the monumental is revealed â€” in Bechdelâ€™s life, as in any life. One such moment: her motherâ€™s unease about the publication of Bechdelâ€™s now-legendary lesbian comic. The tension of their culminant conversation broke open an unexpected ease around Bechdelâ€™s anguishing, elemental, lifelong need she had always experienced as unmet, which was now suddenly revealed as unmeetable:
It is also a masterwork of dot-connecting â€” in a testament to my longtime conviction that literature is the original Internet, Bechdel follows the web of â€œhypertextâ€ references that lead her from one book to the next, from one thinker to another. But, more than that, she links concepts across wildly divergent books with remarkable virtuosity. It takes a rare kind of mind to go from Winnicottâ€™s influential notion of transitional objects to Winnie the Pooh, the iconic stuffed toy being one such object that just so happens to bear a striking linguistic similarity to the pioneering psychoanalystâ€™s name.
No doubt the great Vannevar Bush, in contemplating how the future of information will shape human thought in 1945, had in mind rare geniuses like Bechdel when he envisioned â€œa new profession of trail blazers â€¦ who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.â€
The book is also a sort of elegy for therapy â€” at once a celebration and a lamentation, reminding us of our inescapable human fragility and of how imperfect even our most refined, best-intentioned mechanisms for fixing our brokenness are.
Each chapter begins with a strange and particularly psychologically illuminating dream Bechdel has at an existentially pivotal point, then unfolds into the strangeness of her waking life, as if to remind us that the â€œsleeping counterpartâ€ who does our dreaming springs from the same self that also does our living.
Her sleeping self is stranded by her father at a picnic, falls off an icy cliff that melts to reveal her childhood home, and marvels at a perfect spiderâ€™s web on a blanket. Her wakeful self tries to dissipate a fight with her girlfriend by walking into a mass service only to get trapped in a Christmas pageant, kicks a hole in the wall in a fit of jealous rage over an infidelity before falling asleep cuddling her childhood teddy bear, and contends with the fact that her father killed himself by jumping in front of a bread truck. Which world is the stranger of the two?
Anyone who attends to his or her life with the same granular attention with which Bechdel constructs her memoir knows that the answer lies in the thin membrane of consciousness and selfhood separating the two worlds â€” a membrane as porous and permeable as the one separating our so-called personal and professional lives.
At the end, as she nears the completion of this meta-memoir, Bechdel comes full circle to the paradox with which she began, newly illuminated:
I would argue that for both my mother and me, itâ€™s by writingâ€¦ by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.
Complement the brilliant, layered, and immeasurably insightful Are You My Mother? with Bechdelâ€™s magnificent Design Matters interview, in which she discusses her life, her work, and the constant dynamic interaction between the two:
I do think there is something about just the fact of being able to show stuff that enables you to convey an order of meaning that, once you attach language to it, something gets lost.
â€œEverything can be taken from a man,â€ Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, â€œbut one thing: the last of the human freedoms â€” to choose oneâ€™s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose oneâ€™s own way.â€And yet, as Adrienne Rich observed in her sublime meditation on writing, capitalism, and freedom, â€œin the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.â€ How, then, are we to choose our own way amid a capitalist society that continually commodifies our liberty?
The peculiar manner in which personal and political freedom magnetize each other is what James Baldwin(August 2, 1924â€“December 1, 1987) explores in a piece titled â€œNotes for a Hypothetical Novel,â€ originally delivered as an address at the 1960 Esquire symposium on the writerâ€™s role in society and later included in his altogether spectacular essay collection Nobody Knows My Name (public library).
Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasnâ€™t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when itâ€™s simpler to be asleep, when itâ€™s simpler to be apathetic, when itâ€™s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.
There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I donâ€™t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it â€” and almost all of us have one way or another â€” this collision between oneâ€™s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
We have some idea about reality which is not quite true. Without having anything whatever against Cadillacs, refrigerators or all the paraphernalia of American life, I yet suspect that there is something much more important and much more real which produces the Cadillac, refrigerator, atom bomb, and what produces it, after all, is something which we donâ€™t seem to want to look at, and that is the person.
A country is only as goodâ€¦ only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to becomeâ€¦ I donâ€™t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world weâ€™re living in and we have to make it over.
â€œReal love,â€ wrote philosopher Alain Badiou in contemplating how we fall and stay in love, â€œis one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.â€ But what, exactly, adrenalizes that triumph, particularly against the tidal tedium of time that washes over any long-term relationship?
In an entry from the early fall of 1926, fourteen years into her unconventional marriage to Leonard, 44-year-old Woolf writes under the heading The married relation:
Arnold Bennett says that the horror of marriage lies in its â€œdailiness.â€ All acuteness of a relationship is rubbed away by this. The truth is more like this: life â€” say 4 days out of 7 â€” becomes automatic; but on the 5th day a bead of sensation (between husband and wife) forms which is all the fuller and more sensitive because of the automatic customary unconscious days on either side. That is to say the year is marked by moments of great intensity. Hardyâ€™s â€œmoments of vision.â€ How can a relationship endure for any length of time except under these conditions?
In his taxonomy of the two types of geniuses, probability theory pioneer Mark Kac distinguishes between â€œordinary geniusesâ€ and â€œmagicians,â€ pointing to Richard Feynman(May 11, 1918â€“February 15, 1988) as a rare example of the latter. One of the most celebrated minds of the past century, Feynman was a champion of scientific knowledge so effective and so beloved that he has generated an entire canon of personal mythology. And yet he held uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life. The pursuit and stewardship of knowledge was his lifeâ€™s work, but the ecstasy of not-knowing was the wellspring of his magic. â€œIt is imperative,â€he wrote, â€œto have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.â€
In chronicling Feynmanâ€™s childhood in the Far Rockaways in the first half of the twentieth century, which unfolded in an era predating television and even the earliest visions of the web, Gleick does what makes him a biographer of such uncommon mastery â€” through the elements of his subjectâ€™s life, he constructs a diorama of an entire cultural epoch and stuns us into appreciating the imperceptible tectonic shifts that drifted us into the world weâ€™ve come to take for granted. He writes:
Knowledge was rarer then. A secondhand magazine was an occasion. For a Far Rockaway teenager merely to find a mathematics textbook took will and enterprise. Each radio program, each telephone call, each lecture in a local synagogue, each movie at the new Gem theater on Mott Avenue carried the weight of something special. Each book Richard possessed burned itself into his memory.
Even with the radio era in full swing, oneâ€™s senses encountered nothing like the bombardment of images and sounds that television would bringâ€”accelerated, flash-cut, disposable knowledge. For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear.
Itâ€™s easy to imagine how this mismatch between his intellectual voraciousness and the availability of knowledge would enamor young Ritty with â€œthe pleasure of finding things outâ€ â€” a phrase that grew to be so integral to Feynmanâ€™s identity that it became the title of his collected works.
Itâ€™s also suddenly easy, and somewhat alarming, to grasp how profoundly we are shaped by our formative environment and how much what we celebrate as genius is not just a function of personhood but of the confluence of person, place, and time. Can there be a comparable â€œpleasure of finding things outâ€ in our era of informational morass, which burdens us with the deeply unpleasant task of sifting what is worth knowing from the deluge of what is knowable? When Feynman came of age, the cultural landscape was such that everything knowable was worth knowing â€” and worth going out of oneâ€™s way to know. Young Ritty and his friends â€œtraded mathematical tidbits like baseball cards.â€
It was the same for scientists. The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers.
This feeling, Gleick intimates, is also what led Feynman to consistently feel out the frontiers of competence by teaching himself a wide and wild array of skills, always romancing the intoxicating uncertainty of not-quite-knowing:
Democratically, as if he favored no skill above any other, he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to tell stories, to pick up women in bars, considering all these to be crafts with learnable rules.
He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance that remained: knowing nothing about drawing, he taught himself to make perfect freehand circles on the blackboard; knowing nothing about music, he bet his girlfriend that he could teach himself to play one piece, â€œThe Flight of the Bumblebee,â€ and for once failed dismally; much later he learned to draw after all, after a fashion, specializing in sweetly romanticized female nudes and letting his friends know that a concomitant learned skill thrilled him even more â€” how to persuade a young woman to disrobe. In his entire life he could never quite teach himself to feel a difference between right and left, but his mother finally pointed out a mole on the back of his left hand, and even as an adult he checked the mole when he wanted to be sure. He taught himself how to hold a crowd with his not-jazz, not-ethnic improvisational drumming; and how to sustain a two-handed polyrhythm of not just the usual three against two and four against three but â€” astonishing to classically trained musicians â€” seven against six and thirteen against twelve. He taught himself how to write Chinese, a skill acquired specifically to annoy his sister and limited therefore to the characters for â€œelder brother also speaks.â€ â€¦ He taught himself how to discourage autograph seekers and refuse lecture invitations; how to hide from colleagues with administrative requests; how to force everything from his field of vision except for his research problem of the moment; how to hold off the special terrors of aging that shadow scientists; then how to live with cancer, and how to surrender to it.
After he died several colleagues tried to write his epitaph. One was Schwinger, in a certain time not just his colleague but his preeminent rival, who chose these words:
â€œAn honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum.â€ â€¦ When Feynman was gone, he had left behind â€” perhaps his chief legacy â€” a lesson in what it meant to know something in this most uncertain of centuries.