Putting my experiences of Life In NYC in a more personal perspective, and checking in with international/national, tech and some other news
Translation from English
Sunday, July 3, 2016
Alain de Botton on love and the paradoxical psychology of why we sulk, Schopenhauer on talent vs. genius, artist Anne Truitt on what makes marriage work, astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan on the essence of science and how the term "black hole" was born, and more.
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â€œNothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love,â€ Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. â€œWhy is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp?â€ philosopher Martin Heidegger asked in his electrifying love letters to Hannah Arendt. â€œBecause we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.â€ Still, nearly every anguishing aspect of love arises from the inescapable tension between this longing for transformative awakening and the sleepwalking selfhood of our habitual patterns. True as it may be that frustration is a prerequisite for satisfaction in romance, how are we to reconcile the sundering frustration of these polar pulls?
The multiple sharp-edged facets of this question are what Alain de Botton explores in The Course of Love (public library) â€” a meditation on the beautiful, tragic tendernesses and fragilities of the human heart, at once unnerving and assuring in its psychological insightfulness. At its heart is a lamentation of â€” or, perhaps, an admonition against â€” how the classic Romantic model has sold us on a number of self-defeating beliefs about the most essential and nuanced experiences of human life: love, infatuation, marriage, sex, children, infidelity, trust.
Alain de Botton
A sequel of sorts to his 1993 novel On Love, the book is bold bending of form that fuses fiction and De Bottonâ€™s supreme forte, the essay â€” twined with the narrative thread of the romance between the two protagonists are astute observations at the meeting point of psychology and philosophy, spinning out from the particular problems of the couple to unravel broader insight into the universal complexities of the human heart.
In fact, as the book progresses, one gets the distinct and surprisingly pleasurable sense that De Botton has sculpted the love story around the robust armature of these philosophical meditations; that the essay is the raison dâ€™Ãªtre for the fiction.
In one of these contemplative interstitials, De Botton examines the paradoxical psychology of one of the most common and most puzzling phenomena between lovers: sulking. He writes:
At the heart of a sulk lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add: it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.
Sulking, De Botton suggests, stems from a form of magical thinking â€” the belief, endearing in its origin but deleterious in its effect, that an impossibility is possible:
Sulking pays homage to a beautiful, dangerous ideal that can be traced back to our earliest childhoods: the promise of wordless understanding. In the womb, we never had to explain. Our every requirement was catered to. The right sort of comfort simply happened. Some of this idyll continued in our first years. We didnâ€™t have to make our every requirement known: large, kind people guessed for us. They saw past our tears, our inarticulacy, our confusions: they found the explanations for discomforts which we lacked the ability to verbalize.
That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we donâ€™t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood.
But rather than bemoaning the sulk as a fatal flaw of a relationship, De Botton wrests from it evidence of the most hopeful and generous capacity of the human heart:
We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulkerâ€™s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: â€œDeep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.â€
We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that itâ€™s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with â€” and forgive â€” the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.
Half a century after Iris Murdoch consoled a heartbroken friend by reminding her that â€œlove is better than no love, though it can hurt so much,â€ De Botton revisits another facet of the same bewildering dynamic in a section on the interplay between trust and blame:
The most superficially irrational, immature, lamentable, but nonetheless common of all the presumptions of love is that the person to whom we have pledged ourselves is not just the center of our emotional existence but is also, as a result â€” and yet in a very strange, objectively insane and profoundly unjust way â€” responsible for everything that happens to us, for good or ill. Therein lies the peculiar and sick privilege of love.
Toward the end of the book, De Botton follows this paradoxical privilege to its equally paradoxical conclusion:
Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasnâ€™t begun.
For more of his largehearted wisdom on love and our human vulnerabilities, see his magnificent Design Mattersconversation with Debbie Millman:
My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways â€” and thatâ€™s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that weâ€™re all these incredibly fragile beings.
Subscribe to Design Mattershere for more invigorating conversations with artists, writers, designers, and other creative thinkers.
But perhaps the most useful and timelessly insightful take on the perennial puzzlement over the difference between talent and genius came the year after Thoreauâ€™s birth from the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788â€“September 21, 1860) in his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library).
Schopenhauerâ€™s central premise is that talent achieves what others cannot achieve, whereas genius achieves what others cannot imagine. This vision of a different order, he argues, is what sets geniuses apart from mere mortals, and it arises from a superior capacity for contemplation that leads the genius to transcend the smallness of the ego and enter the infinite world of ideas. He writes:
Only through [such] pure contemplation â€¦ can Ideas be comprehended; and the nature of genius consists in pre-eminent capacity for such contemplation. Now, as this requires that a man* should entirely forget himself and the relations in which he stands, genius is simply the completest objectivity, i.e., the objective tendency of the mind, as opposed to the subjective, which is directed to oneâ€™s own self â€” in other words, to the will. Thus genius is the faculty of continuing in the state of pure perception, of losing oneself in perception, and of enlisting in this service the knowledge which originally existed only for the service of the will; that is to say, genius is the power of leaving oneâ€™s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing oneâ€™s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world; and this not merely at moments, but for a sufficient length of time, and with sufficient consciousness, to enable one to reproduce by deliberate art what has thus been apprehended.
But although a superior capacity to imagine is a centerpiece of genius, Schopenhauer cautions against mistaking the imagination for the entirety of genius:
Imagination has rightly been recognized as an essential element of genius; it has sometimes even been regarded as identical with it; but this is a mistake. As the objects of genius are the eternal Ideas, the permanent, essential forms of the world and all its phenomena, and as the knowledge of the Idea is necessarily knowledge through perception, is not abstract, the knowledge of the genius would be limited to the Ideas of the objects actually present to his person, and dependent upon the chain of circumstances that brought these objects to him, if his imagination did not extend his horizon far beyond the limits of his actual personal existence, and thus enable him to construct the whole out of the little that comes into his own actual apperception, and so to let almost all possible scenes of life pass before him in his own consciousnessâ€¦ The imagination then extends the intellectual horizon of the man of genius beyond the objects which actually present themselves to him, both as regards quality and quantity. Therefore extraordinary strength of imagination accompanies, and is indeed a necessary condition of genius. But the converse does not hold, for strength of imagination does not indicate genius; on the contrary, men who have no touch of genius may have much imagination.
But the curse of the extraordinary, Schopenhauer suggests, is a certain loneliness with which the person of genius walks through life, always slightly apart from the ordinary world in being slightly above it:
The common mortal, that manufacture of Nature which she produces by the thousand every day, is, as we have said, not capable, at least not continuously so, of observation that in every sense is wholly disinterested, as sensuous contemplation, strictly so called, is. He can turn his attention to things only so far as they have some relation to his will, however indirect it may beâ€¦ The man of genius, on the other hand, whose excessive power of knowledge frees it at times from the service of will, dwells on the consideration of life itself, strives to comprehend the Idea of each thing, not its relations to other things; and in doing this he often forgets to consider his own path in life, and therefore for the most part pursues it awkwardly enough. While to the ordinary man his faculty of knowledge is a lamp to lighten his path, to the man of genius it is the sun which reveals the worldâ€¦ The man in whom genius lives and works is easily distinguished by his glance, which is both keen and steady, and bears the stamp of perception, of contemplation.
In the second volume of his treatise, Schopenhauer revisits the subject of talent versus genius through the lens of time â€” talent, he argues, speaks brilliantly to the moment and is of the moment, while genius speaks of the eternal and to eternity. He writes:
Mere men of talent always come at the right time; for, as they are roused by the spirit of their age and are called into being by its needs, they are only just capable of satisfying them. They therefore go hand in hand with the advancing culture of their contemporaries, or with the gradual advancement of a special science; for this they reap reward and approbation. But to the next generation their works are no longer enjoyable; they must be replaced by others; and these do not fail to appear.
The genius, on the other hand, lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign. Accordingly, he cannot go hand in hand with the regular course of the culture of the times as found; on the contrary, he casts his works far out on to the path in front (just as the emperor, giving himself up to death, flings his spear among the enemy), on which time has first to overtake themâ€¦ Talent is able to achieve what is beyond other peopleâ€™s capacity to achieve, yet not what is beyond their capacity of apprehension; therefore it at once finds its appreciators. The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only othersâ€™ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target â€¦ which others cannot even see.
Perhaps because she was trained as a psychologist, artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921â€“December 23, 2004) had a special attentiveness to the inner life of the creative spirit and a great gift for articulating that aliveness with lyrical nuance in her prolific diaries. She wrote especially beautifully about the parallels between being an artist and being a parent â€” an insight forced upon her partly by circumstances as the demands of the latter role swelled in intensity after she divorced her husband, the journalist James Truitt, in 1969. She became the primary parent of their three children â€” Alexandra (age 14), Mary (age 11), and Sam (age 9) â€” and then a single parent after Jamesâ€™s death in 1981. All the while, Truitt remained an artist of remarkable discipline and integrity, continuing to create work that would render her one of the most significant, visionary, and influential sculptors of the twentieth century.
Emanating from her distinctive sculptures, where vibrant colors possess and are possessed by muted minimalist shapes, is a certain subtle dialogue between gain and loss, between what is and what isnâ€™t, or perhaps what never was and never could be.
Truitt writes in August of 1983, when her son was twenty:
I was in the kitchen the other day when Sam read me a line of Borges: â€œYou can only lose what you have never had,â€ and I have been thinking it over ever since. The truth is instantly recognizable; it might almost be a platitude. But it came at me at an angle around a corner from his lair of books in Samâ€™s reflective voice, and touched a sore spot in my memory of his father.
For when I mourn, I do mourn what he and I never had: the lovely entire confidence that comes only from innumerable mutual confidences entrusted and examined. And woven by four hands, now trembling, now intent, over and under into a pattern that can surprise both husband and wife. I miss the rich doubling of experience that comes only from such confidence, the nuances of refraction and reflection, nourished and enhanced and underwritten by the sweet union of familiar bodies â€” touch and smell, tidal.
Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
But the most piercing point of mourning, Truitt observes, is that of regret â€” the irremediable regret of having held back, of having let the fearsome vulnerability of being hurt preclude the grand reward of being truly understood. She writes:
I mourn my failures to confide. I should have had more courage, dared, risked rejection, even ejection â€” naked, awkward, crouched as Eve in Masaccioâ€™s Expulsion from Paradise. â€œShouldâ€ is a dreadful auxiliary word, and worst when linked with â€œhave,â€ rendering an act one never thought of at a certain time, or thought of and decided not to do, as effective and inexorably irrevocable as a deed done.
I mourn what I did not know when I was married: the necessity for honesty between people if mutuality is to bud out of a status quo into air it can then fill with a new form. When I saw how one of the Australian gum trees, the angophora, thrust out new branches, I saw how a marriage could work: a nub pushes out from a fork and as it grows into a branch (there are wide-branched trees) the bark of the treeâ€™s trunk spreads smoothly over this rough, crude juncture so that it joins the other branches seamlessly, enhances the whole treeâ€™s amplitude. The bark is purple, tan-pink-violet. There is warmth in its seal.
This poetic image of growth through sealing and healing together reminded me of Jane Hirshfieldâ€™s beautiful poem â€œFor What Binds Us,â€ included in her altogether sublime 1988 collection Of Gravity & Angels (public library):
FOR WHAT BINDS US
There are names for what binds us: strong forces, weak forces. Look around, you can see them: the skin that forms in a half-empty cup, nails rusting into the places they join, joints dovetailed on their own weight. The way things stay so solidly wherever theyâ€™ve been set down â€” and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence, more strong than the simple, untested surface before. Thereâ€™s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
as all flesh, is proud of its wounds, wears them as honors given out after battle, small triumphs pinned to the chest â€”
And when two people have loved each other see how it is like a scar between their bodies, stronger, darker, and proud; how the black cord makes of them a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend.
But as she continues her diaristic meditation, Truitt suggests that perhaps regret â€” the regret of not having conjoined each otherâ€™s woundedness boldly enough in order to mend and grow together â€” is the one thing that can tear a relationship, or the memory of a relationship. She reflects on her gum tree epiphany:
I am saddened that I learned this truth so late, but the ironic fact is that I only came to realize it because of what my children taught me while I was bringing them up alone. The staunchness of their affection and the openness of their hearts slowly brought me to an emotional courage for which I had simply never before had the security.
Anne Truitt with two of her three children and two of her eight grandchildren. (Photograph: Mariana Cook, 1997)
â€œWhen they gazed at the sky â€” infinite, remote and existing quite apart from their puny lives â€” people had a religious experience,â€historian Karen Armstrong wrote in examining our earliest myths. â€œThe sky towered above them, inconceivably immense, inaccessible and eternal. It was the very essence of transcendence and otherness.â€ Our sensemaking instinct pounced on that transcendent otherness and we spent 4,000 years mapping the skies. But where mythology seeks to contain that overwhelming immensity in a set of illusory certitudes, science uses every new piece of knowledge as a key to a door into an even vaster unknown. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell captured this beautifully in her diary: â€œWe reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.â€
It was only the last century or so, much thanks to Einsteinâ€™s seminal theory of relativity, that we have devised systematic ways of incrementally lifting the curtain. In Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos (public library), Yale theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan explores how the advent of modern cosmology and astrophysics has shaped our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Natarajan uses the inquiries at the center of her research â€” illuminating how black holes form and mapping dark matter â€” as a lens through which to chronicle some of the most significant and disorienting discoveries in science. Radiating from the history of these paradigm-shifting breakthroughs is a larger meditation on how groundbreaking ideas are dreamt up, tested against reality, contested by the quintessential human resistance to the fraying of the status quo, and finally woven into the fabric of our accepted understanding.
The Nebra Sky Disc (2000â€“1600 B.C.), excavated illegally in Germany in 1999, is considered the oldest known visualization of celestial objects. Part of the Bronze Age ÃšnÃªtice culture, it depicts the sun or the full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars in a hammered copper-and-gold plate.
The journey to acceptance of an idea reveals many other facets of science â€” the emotional, psychological, personal, and social dimensions that extend beyond the purely intellectual pursuit of knowledge.
The scientific mind is honed during training to be nimble, and the practice of science tests this agility on a daily basis. This inoculates scientists against disorienting shocks when a preponderance of new data and evidence changes the best current understanding.
As such, science stands as a rare case for the uncomfortable luxury of changing oneâ€™s mind amid a culture whose chief social currency is the artificial certitude of fixed opinions. The past century in particular â€” a mere blink on the cosmological scale of time â€” is a supreme testament to this accelerating revision of accepted truth. Natarajan writes:
In 1914, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, constituted the entire universe â€” alone, stagnant, and small. Cosmological research still relied fundamentally on classical conceptions of gravity developed in the seventeenth century. Modern physics and the triumphs of general relativity have shifted humanityâ€™s entire comprehension of space and time. Now we see the universe as a dynamic place, expanding at an accelerating rate, whose principal mysterious constituents, dark matter and dark energy, are unseen. The remainder, all the elements in the periodic table, the matter that constitutes stars and us, contributes a mere 4 percent of the total inventory of the universe.
Art by Bhajju Shyam from Creation, an illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian myths
Astrophysics, Natarajan notes, enlists the tools of science and reason in investigating the same questions that our ancestors tried to answer through mythology:
Cosmology, perhaps more essentially than any other scientific discipline, has transformed not only our conception of the universe but also our place in it. This need to locate ourselves and explain natural phenomena seems primordial. Ancient creation myths shared striking similarities across cultures and helped humans deal with the uncertainty of violent natural phenomena. These supernatural explanations evoke a belief in an invisible and yet more powerful reality, and besides, they rely deeply on channeling our sense of wonder at the natural world. The complex human imagination enabled ancient civilizations to envision entities that were not immediately present but still felt real. Take for instance Enki, the Sumerian god of water whose wrath unleashed floods, or the Hindu god of rain and thunderstorms, Indra, whose bow was the rainbow stretched across the sky with a lightning bolt as his arrow. The most powerful myths are the ones that force us to take huge leaps of imagination but, at the same time, help us to remain rooted.
Where science differs from mythology is that its findings are rooted into culture through rigorous testing against observable reality rather than through mere assertion. Natarajan writes:
The beauty of science is that while a theory is always provisional, it represents the best evidence and explanation that we have at any moment. Though prone to revision, science is based on replicable evidence, which privileges scientific over all other possible explanations.
Although science as a human endeavor is not entirely objective, it still offers the best prescription for weighing evidence and making sense of the natural world. Shifting and incomplete as it may be, science is self-correcting. It is the best method we have to navigate and make sense of this wondrous universe of ours. For centuries, science has helped us chart our relationship to the natural world. And like any good map, it also points the way forward.
But although the path to answers is decidedly different, there is a profound parallel in the underlying objects of curiosity. Natarajan considers her own formative bewitchment with the mystery of the cosmos and the invisible thread by which it links her childhood in India, stargazing and trying to map the cosmos by programming a now-antique Commodore 64, to her adult life as an astrophysicist doing cutting-edge research at some of the worldâ€™s most renowned academic institutions:
At its heart, my research as a theoretical astrophysicist, mapping dark matter and understanding the formation of black holes, is driven by the same sense of wonder and search for explanation of the universe that the ancients probably felt. I am still engaged in exploring the meanings of maps and how they anchor us, matters that first intrigued me as a girl in Delhi. My work exploits the bending of light from distant galaxies, gravitational lensing, to map the invisible dark matter that causes these deflections. I also investigate the formation and growth of the universeâ€™s most bizarre and enigmatic objects, black holes.
An artistâ€™s rendering of a black hole named Cygnus X-1, which formed when a large star caved in and began pulling matter from blue star beside it. (Image: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
In fact, one of the most fascinating portions of the book explores the history of how the term â€œblack holeâ€ â€” a term now at the forefront of a new era of gravitational astronomy â€” came to be, from its dawn as a metaphor for abomination and oblivion to its current use in science. Natarajan maps the winding road of the lexicon:
1807 drawing of The Black Hole of Calcutta by James Cundee
Predating its adoption by physics, the phrase â€œblack holeâ€ has a long literary history of denoting a dark dungeon. As early as 1844, Edgar Allan Poe used it in his short story The Premature Burial and as recently as 1997, Thomas Pynchon referred to the Black Hole of Calcutta in his postmodernist novel Mason & Dixon. Its use in science can be traced back to the influential physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized it but didnâ€™t originate it â€” the originator, as is often the case with linguistic invention, was an ordinary person whom history has rendered anonymous. In her enchanting book Black Hole Blues, astrophysicist Janna Levin relays the origin story: Weary of using the tedious â€œcompletely collapsed gravitational object,â€ Wheeler hungered for a more concise term; during a lecture he delivered in 1967, an audience member shouted: â€œHow about black hole?â€ Wheeler took to the phrase and went on to insert it into lectures and papers until it became the dominant vocabulary.
Natarajan notes the inadvertent perfection of this spontaneously generated term:
What is perhaps most surprising is just how well some of these descriptions fit an astrophysical object that had not yet been observed. In astronomy, a black hole is a physical location of no return.
Natarajan traces the route of this astrophysically perfect term from the grim and gritty prisons of Calcutta to the ivory towers of Cambridge, England:
In 1783, when an English country parson, John Michell, first proposed the idea of a â€œdark star,â€ he could never have imagined that we would one day detect them. Michell, a polymath born in 1724, studied at Cambridge and later taught Hebrew, Greek, mathematics, and geology there. Although no portraits of him exist, a contemporary described him as â€œa little short man, of black complexion, and fat.â€ A man of the cloth, he moved from Cambridge to a parish in Thornhill, near Leeds. Despite his religious commitments and duties, he was very much at the leading edge of science, and his reputation for originality was such that many of the active scientists of the day, the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Cavendish, visited and maintained regular correspondence with him. They had much to discuss; Michellâ€™s scientific contributions include describing the strength of magnetic fields and developing a theory for how earthquakes propagate through faults on the earthâ€™s surface.
In a letter to Henry Cavendish dated November 27, 1783, Michell anticipated that such â€œdark starsâ€ would be observable only by the impact they had on bodies revolving around them.
But as Newtonâ€™s particle theory of light fell out of favor, Michellâ€™s concept of dark stars no longer made sense. It would be another century and a half until Einsteinâ€™s theory of general relativity made room within the canon of scientific understanding for the possibility of such nonluminous astronomical objects.
Natarajan considers the presently indispensable role of black holes in the unfolding cosmic puzzle and puzzlement of our understanding:
Today we know that black holes exist in the centers of most, if not all, galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, harbors one such black hole four million times the mass of our sunâ€¦ Fortunately, our solar system is way too far from the center of the Milky Way for us to feel the presence of or be affected by its central black hole.
Astronomers now believe that black holes, despite their odd behaviors, are an inevitable consequence of the standard physics that describes the evolution of stars. The theory of stellar evolution predicts that stars born fifteen to twenty times more massive than our sun, after exhausting their fuel supply of hydrogen, will end their lives as black holes. Black holes may have exotic properties, but they are important constituents of the universe, playing a significant role in the assembly and evolution of galaxies.
This nonlinear and bumpy path from ideation to acceptance, Natarajan argues, is emblematic of how major scientific discoveries tend to progress and how the grand human sensemaking journey unfolds:
We are living in a disorienting universe, whose expansion is accelerating. And at no other period in human history have we had to contend head on so frequently with the provisionality of our understanding. We have a cosmic map that is eternally in flux. The fact that by their nature scientific truths are subject to refinement and revision is now an inescapable part of our reality. Our world view has shifted sharply in the past hundred years, rewriting the very sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we are headed.