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Aldous Huxley on love, knowledge vs. understanding, and the antidote to our existential helplessness; Neil Gaiman's tribute to a forgotten visionary

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NOTE: This newsletter might be cut short by your email program. [View it in full](.  If a friend forwarded it to you and you'd like your very own newsletter, [subscribe here]( — it's free.  Need to modify your subscription? You can [change your email address]( or [unsubscribe](. [Brain Pickings]( [Welcome] Hello {NAME}! This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal [Brain Pickings]( by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Keith Haring on creativity and empathy, how hummingbirds hover between science and magic, the mystery behind how NYC became known as The Big Apple — you can catch up [right here](. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a [donation]( – for a decade and a half, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU. [Love Is the Last Word: Aldous Huxley on Knowledge vs. Understanding and the Antidote to Our Existential Helplessness]( [thedivinewithin_huxley.jpg?w=680]( understand anything — another person’s experience of reality, another fundamental law of physics — is to restructure our existing knowledge, shifting and broadening our prior frames of reference to accommodate a new awareness. And yet we have a habit of confusing our knowledge — which is always limited and incomplete: a model of the cathedral of reality, built from primary-colored blocks of fact — with the actuality of things; we have a habit of mistaking the model for the thing itself, mistaking our partial awareness for a totality of understanding. Thoreau recognized this when he contemplated our blinding preconceptions and lamented that [“we hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”]( Generations after Thoreau and generations before neuroscience began illuminating [the blind spots of consciousness]( Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963) explored this eternal confusion of concepts in “Knowledge and Understanding” — one of the twenty-six uncommonly insightful essays collected in [The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment]( ([public library](. [aldoushuxley_square.jpg?w=680] Aldous Huxley Huxley writes: [2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png]Knowledge is acquired when we succeed in fitting a new experience into the system of concepts based upon our old experiences. Understanding comes when we liberate ourselves from the old and so make possible a direct, unmediated contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment, of our existence. Because the units of knowledge are concepts, and concepts can be conveyed and transmitted in words and symbols, knowledge itself can be passed between persons. Understanding, on the other hand, is intimate and subjective, not a conceptual container but an aura of immediacy cast upon an experience — which means it cannot be transmitted and transacted like knowledge. Our forebears devised ways of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next — in words and symbols, in stories and equations — which ensured the survival of our species by preserving and passing down the results of experience. But knowing the results of an experience is not the same as understanding the experience itself. Complicating the matter is the added subtlety that we may understand the words and symbols by which we tell each other about our experience, but still miss the immediacy of the reality those concepts are intended to convey. Huxley writes: [2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png]Understanding is not conceptual, and therefore cannot be passed on. It is an immediate experience, and immediate experience can only be talked about (very inadequately), never shared. Nobody can actually feel another’s pain or grief, another’s love or joy or hunger. And similarly nobody can experience another’s understanding of a given event or situation… We must always remember that knowledge of understanding is not the same thing as the understanding, which is the raw material of that knowledge. It is as different from understanding as the doctor’s prescription for penicillin is different from penicillin. Understanding is not inherited, nor can it be laboriously acquired. It is something which, when circumstances are favorable, comes to us, so to say, of its own accord. All of us are knowers, all the time; it is only occasionally and in spite of ourselves that we understand the mystery of given reality. [downadownderry_dorothylathrop17.jpg?resize=680%2C801] Art by [Dorothy Lathrop]( 1922. (Available [as a print]( A century before Huxley, William James listed ineffability as the first of [the four features of mystical experiences](. But in some sense, all experience is ultimately mystical, for experience can only be understood in its immediacy and not known as a concept. (Half a century after Huxley’s generation swung open the doors of perception beyond concept with their psychedelic inquiries into the mysteries and mechanics of consciousness — and swung shut the scientific establishment’s openness to serious clinical research into the field with their unprotocoled playhouse of recreational neurochemistry — science is finally documenting [the ineffable contact with raw reality]( as the primary payoff, both clinical and existential, of psychoactive substances.) At the heart of Huxley’s essay is the observation that a great deal of human suffering stems from our tendency to mistake conceptual knowledge for understanding, “homemade concepts for given reality.” Such suffering can therefore be allayed by replacing the confusion with clarity — with a total awareness of reality, unfiltered by the “meaningless pseudoknowledge” that arises from our reflexive and all too human habits of “over-simplification, over-generalization, and over-abstraction.” Such total awareness, Huxley observes, can produce an initial wave of panic at the two elemental facts it reveals: that we are “profoundly ignorant” — that is, forever lacking complete knowledge of reality; and that we are “impotent to the point of helplessness” — that is, what we are (which we call personality) and what we do (which we call choice) are merely the life of the universe living itself through us. (Anyone able to think [calmly, deeply, and undefensively about free will]( will readily recognize this.) [margaretcook_leavesofgrass21.jpg?resize=680%2C915] Art by Margaret C. Cook from a [rare 1913 edition]( of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available [as a print]( And yet beyond the initial wave of panic lies a profound and fathomless sea of serenity — a buoyant peacefulness and gladsome accord with the universe, available upon surrender to this total awareness, upon the release of the [narrative enterprise]( the [identity-intoxication]( the conditioned reflex we call a self. Huxley writes: [2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png]This discovery may seem at first rather humiliating and even depressing. But if I wholeheartedly accept them, the facts become a source of peace, a reason for serenity and cheerfulness. […] In my ignorance I am sure that I am eternally I. This conviction is rooted in emotionally charged memory. Only when, in the words of St. John of the Cross, the memory has been emptied, can I escape from the sense of my watertight separateness and so prepare myself for the understanding, moment by moment, of reality on all its levels. But the memory cannot be emptied by an act of will, or by systematic discipline or by concentration — even by concentration on the idea of emptiness. It can be emptied only by total awareness. Thus, if I am aware of my distractions — which are mostly emotionally charged memories or fantasies based upon such memories — the mental whirligig will automatically come to a stop and the memory will be emptied, at least for a moment or two. Again, if I become totally aware of my envy, my resentment, my uncharitableness, these feelings will be replaced, during the time of my awareness, by a more realistic reaction to the events taking place around me. My awareness, of course, must be uncontaminated by approval or condemnation. Value judgments are conditioned, verbalized reactions to primary reactions. Total awareness is a primary, choiceless, impartial response to the present situation as a whole. [margaretcook_leavesofgrass19.jpg?resize=680%2C874] Art by Margaret C. Cook for [Leaves of Grass](. (Available [as a print]( Huxley notes that all of the world’s great spiritual traditions and all the celebrated mystics have attempted to articulate this total awareness, to transmit it to other consciousnesses in the vessel of concepts — concepts destined to enter other consciousnesses via the primary portal of common sense, and destined therefore to be reflexively rejected. In consonance with Carl Sagan’s admonition that common sense [blinds us to the reality of the universe]( and Vladimir Nabokov’s admonition that it [blunts our sense of wonder]( Huxley writes: [2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png]Common sense is not based on total awareness; it is a product of convention, or organized memories of other people’s words, of personal experiences limited by passion and value judgments, of hallowed notions and naked self-interest. Total awareness opens the way to understanding, and when any given situation is understood, the nature of all reality is made manifest, and the nonsensical utterances of the mystics are seen to be true, or at least as nearly true as it is possible for a verbal expression of the ineffable to be. One in all and all in One; samsara and nirvana are the same; multiplicity is unity, and unity is not so much one as not-two; all things are void, and yet all things are the Dharma — Body of the Buddha — and so on. So far as conceptual knowledge is concerned, such phrases are completely meaningless. It is only when there is understanding that they make sense. For when there is understanding, there is an experienced fusion of the End with the Means, of the Wisdom, which is the timeless realization of Suchness, with the Compassion which is Wisdom in action. In a sentiment the great Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would come to echo half a century later in his [life-broadening teaching that “understanding is love’s other name,”]( Huxley concludes: [2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png]Of all the worn, smudged, dog-eared words in our vocabulary, “love” is surely the grubbiest, smelliest, slimiest. Bawled from a million pulpits, lasciviously crooned through hundreds of millions of loudspeakers, it has become an outrage to good taste and decent feeling, an obscenity which one hesitates to pronounce. And yet it has to be pronounced; for, after all, Love is the last word. [margaretcook_leavesofgrass17.jpg] Art by Margaret C. Cook for [Leaves of Grass](. (Available [as a print]( Complement this fragment of Huxley’s wholly illuminating and illuminated [The Divine Within]( — which also gave us his meditation on [mind-body integration and how to get out of your own shadow]( — with his contemporary Erich Fromm on [the six steps to unselfish understanding]( and the pioneering nineteenth-century psychiatrist Maurice Bucke, whose work greatly influenced Huxley, on [the six steps to cosmic consciousness]( then dive into what modern neuroscience is revealing about [the central mystery of consciousness](. [Forward to a friend]( Online]( [Like on Facebook]( donating=loving For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a donation. Your support makes all the difference. monthly donation You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.  one-time donation Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount. [Start Now]( [Give Now]( Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7 [The Tree House: A Tender Wordless Story by a Dutch Father-Daughter Artist Duo]( [thetreehouse_tolman-1.jpg?fit=320%2C438]( “Words are events, they do things, change things… transform both speaker and hearer… feed energy back and forth and amplify it… feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her superb meditation on [the magic of human communication](. But words have limits, for they are the currency of concepts, yet so much of what we try to communicate to one another — so much of our emotional reality — lies in [the realm of immediate experience beyond concept](. Bach’s Goldberg Variations or a Rothko painting can color our consciousness with a feeling-tone that reaches beyond words to touch us, to transform us, to feed energy back and forth in ineffable ways. At its best, even poetry, though rendered in words, paints images that speak directly to our senses, sings in feeling-tones that harmonize our innermost experience. Poetry, after all, [began with music]( and music remains the most powerful instrument we have devised for conveying raw emotional reality — something the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay readily and memorably acknowledged when she proclaimed that she would rather die than live without music and exclaimed, [“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is”]( the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks found echoes of her sentiment in the science, observing music’s [“unique power to express inner states or feelings [and] pierce the heart directly.”]( Great picture-books achieve the same thing — which is why Maurice Sendak, perhaps the most poetic picture-book maker of all time, so ardently insisted on [musicality as the key to great storytelling](. Among the rarest triumphs of the genre is the wordless 2009 masterpiece [The Tree House]( ([public library]( by Dutch father-daughter artist duo Ronald Tolman, a sculptor, painter, and graphic artist, and Marije Tolman, a graphic designer and children’s book illustrator. [thetreehouse_tolman1.jpg?resize=680%2C457]( [thetreehouse_tolman21.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( The silent, symphonic story begins with a polar bear swimming gladsomely toward a solitary tree rising from the Arctic waters — a tree already signaling magical realism with its habitational improbability, its magic magnified by the wondrous treehouse poking through its branches. [thetreehouse_tolman23.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( As the bear settles blissfully onto the platform at the foot of the treehouse, it watches another bear, brown and friendly, approach in a boat. [thetreehouse_tolman22.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( With smiling curiosity about their new home, the two bears explore the treehouse together, then settle into a quiet companionship. [thetreehouse_tolman24.jpg?resize=680%2C443]( Absorbed in their books, they don’t notice the flamboyance of flamingos rushing toward the treehouse in a tidal wave of pink. [thetreehouse_tolman25.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( [thetreehouse_tolman4.jpg?resize=680%2C454]( [thetreehouse_tolman26.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( [thetreehouse_tolman5.jpg?resize=680%2C454]( Soon, other creatures follow — the pandas and the peacock and the storks and the hippo. The rhino first rams into the tree trunk, testing the sturdiness of the structure before sprawling contentedly on the treehouse platform as the pandas play in the branches and the polar bear tenderly cradles a baby owl on its paw. [thetreehouse_tolman6.jpg?resize=680%2C457]( [thetreehouse_tolman27.jpg?resize=680%2C436]( [thetreehouse_tolman7.jpg?resize=680%2C456]( [thetreehouse_tolman28.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( Like a great poem, this pictorial lyric lends itself to multiple conceptual readings. I watch my own interpretation branch off from the other central themes — solitude, camaraderie, loneliness, change — into the ecological: Trees are growing in the melted Arctic and vulnerable creatures are seeking refuge in the ramshackle safehouse of humanity, turning to us who have put them in peril to save them from perishing. But humans are also the only creatures absent from the story — the treehouse seems like it was built a long time, abandoned, the cracks in it gaping unrepaired. [thetreehouse_tolman8.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( [thetreehouse_tolman29.jpg?resize=680%2C457]( In the warm wordless silence of the story, I read a subtle admonition — unless we make wiser and more generous choices in our regard for the rest of nature, a posthuman future is the only possible future for an ecologically harmonious planet. [thetreehouse_tolman3.jpg?resize=680%2C456]( [thetreehouse_tolman30.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( [thetreehouse_tolman9.jpg?resize=680%2C457]( On the final spread, with all the other creatures vanished — back to their homes, or back to the stardust of nonsurvival — the two bears are left sitting side by side atop the empty treehouse, staring solemnly at the Moon, radiating the tender ecological counterpart to that wonderful line from artist Louise Bourgeois’s diary: [“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.”]( [thetreehouse_tolman2.jpg?resize=680%2C455]( [thetreehouse_tolman31.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( It occurs to me that an ecological ethic is itself a matter of filling our creaturely coexistence — which is always bounded by the finitude of our creaturely existence — with enough trust and love to make the precious improbability of life as gladsome as possible for all beings sharing this miraculous island of spacetime. [thetreehouse_tolman20.jpg?resize=680%2C453]( It is a pity that a mere decade after its birth, a book as uncommonly soulful as [The Tree House]( can fall out of print in the world’s most ecologically impactful industrial nation — dead of negligence, dead by the commodification of culture that saturates the atmosphere of our epoch. Perhaps one day, some American publisher of sufficient moral courage and a creative ear for the unscreaming masterpieces of thought and feeling will bring it back from extinction. Meanwhile, a U.K. edition is [available online]( from an independent English publisher and a couple of lovely prints from it are [available]( on Marije Tolman’s website. [Forward to a friend]( Online]( [Like on Facebook]( [In Transit: Neil Gaiman Reads His Touching Tribute to the Lonely Genius Arthur Eddington, Who Confirmed Einstein’s Relativity]( “You have got a boy mixed of most kindly elements, as perhaps Shakespeare might say. His rapidly and clearly working mind has not in the least spoiled his character,” a school principal wrote at the end of the nineteenth century to the mother of a lanky quiet teenager who would grow up to be the great English astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (December 28, 1882–November 22, 1944) and who would catapult Albert Einstein into celebrity by confirming his relativity theory in his [historic eclipse expedition]( of May 29, 1919. The centennial of that landmark event, which revolutionized science and united a war-torn humanity under one sky of cosmic truth, was the subject of the third [Universe in Verse]( — the charitable celebration of science through poetry I host each spring at [Pioneer Works]( — and as has been our annual tradition, we had the great honor of an original poem for the occasion by one of the great storytellers of our time: Neil Gaiman. [arthureddington.jpg?resize=680%2C768] Arthur Eddington Born into a family descended from the first Quakers and stretching back four generations of farmers, Stanley — as his mother and sister always called him — learned the multiplication table before he could read and tasked himself with counting the letters of the Bible. By the age of ten, this unusual child who was and would remain very much his own person had observed most of the sky with a 3-inch telescope his headmaster had loaned him. At twenty, after winning a series of mathematics competitions and scholarships, Eddington entered Trinity College, where he was immediately immersed in the cult of Newton. His peers would later remember him as extremely quiet and reserved, exuding formidable powers of concentration. (Later in life, his awkwardness and aloofness would make some of his students perceive him as arrogant.) In 1904, while Einstein was finalizing his special relativity, the 22-year-old Eddington became the first second-year Trinity student to rise to the top of the undergraduate student body in mathematics — a position known as Senior Wrangler and regarded at the time as “the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.” [eclipse1919.jpg?resize=680%2C383] Two of Eddington’s photographs from his [historic eclipse observation]( proving Einstein right and Newton wrong. At Trinity, Eddington met Charles Trimble. A classmate who also came from a working-class background, this pensive-looking youth with gentle features and neatly combed black hair soon became his most intimate friend. Eddington was an avid cyclist and usually rode alone, but he began going on long rides with Charles, talking about mathematics and literature. Only in Charles’s company, he deviated from his Quaker discipline and took the occasional cheerful drink, smoked the occasional cigarette, went to the theater and the newborn cinema. Charles eventually took a mathematics post and spiraled into mental illness. Eddington never married, never had another intimate bond. He lived out his days with his sister, Winifred, who also never married. I picture him [Turing-like]( — in his genius, in his misapprehended awkwardness, in his loneliness and heartbreak. That invisible private side to the public genius is what Gaiman takes up with empathic perceptiveness and great tenderness in his poem, celebrating what he calls these “twin suns” of Eddington’s life and, through the diffraction that is all great art, celebrating the twin suns of the public self and the private self, of genius and loneliness, of intellectual heroism and emotional heartbreak, that shine in varying degrees on every human life. [975a4aea-ff3f-3bb7-05fe-f83f2aa37c15.png]( [2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png]IN TRANSIT (for Arthur Eddington) by Neil Gaiman 1. To find the many in the one he sweated under foreign skies to see the stars behind the sun. So space and time were now undone reality was undisguised. We found the many in the one. There is no photograph, not one, that shows the mind behind the eyes. He saw the stars behind the sun. Not with a sword, or knife, or gun, a simple picture severed ties. He found the many in the one. Light bends around us. So we run, as gravity reclassifies the stars we saw behind the sun. To see the world beyond the skies, to know the mind behind the eyes, To find the many in the one he showed us stars behind the sun. 2. Unfucked, or anyway retiring, in the awkward sense. Retirement will never be an option. The gruff gentleman with the cap who understands what the numbers mean remembers a bicycle ride when he was younger. The smoke of the cigarettes he does not smoke kicks at his lungs mixing with the buzz of the booze he doesn’t ever drink a convivial pint after the ride into the country gave him such a thirst. And afterwards they lay on their back in the stubble staring up at the stars. Together. All the stars Countable as the words in a Bible, countable as the hairs on his friend’s head, all accountable, and that is why they never truly touched. The shadow of prison or disgrace perhaps moving between them like the shadow of an eclipse. And, in another life, at another time, to see the stars behind the sun, he takes his photographs fighting the cloud cover. Becoming the thing that happened in Principe. when he proved that the German was right, that light had weight, half a year after the Armistice. A populariser, but not courting popularity. Somewhen a boy is counting stars. Somewhen a man is photographing light. Somewhen his finger strokes the stubble on another’s cheek, and for a moment everything is relative. Complement with Gaiman’s superb original poems from the first two years of The Universe in Verse — [“The Mushroom Hunters”]( (2017), a subversive celebration of the history of women in science, which won the Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem; and [“After Silence”]( (2018), a tribute to the life and legacy of Rachel Carson — then revisit the touching, improbable story of [how Eddington confirmed relativity](. For more wonder and beauty from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading [“A Brave and Startling Truth”]( by Maya Angelou, [“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”]( by Walt Whitman, and [“Planetarium”]( by Adrienne Rich, Regina Spektor reading [“Theories of Everything”]( by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading [“Hubble Photographs”]( by Adrienne Rich, and astronomer Natalie Batalha reading [“Renascence”]( by Edna St. Vincent Millay. [Forward to a friend]( Online]( [Like on Facebook]( donating=loving For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a donation. Your support makes all the difference. monthly donation You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.  one-time donation Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount. [Start Now]( [Give Now]( Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7 A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT: [Vintage Science Face Masks Benefiting the Nature Conservancy (New Designs Added)]( [vintagesciencefacemasks.jpg]( ALSO, NEW CHILDREN’S BOOK BY YOURS TRULY: [The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story]( [thesnailwiththerightheart_0000.jpg]( [---] You're receiving this email because you subscribed on Brain Pickings. This weekly newsletter comes out on Sundays and offers the week's most unmissable articles. Brain Pickings NOT A MAILING ADDRESS 159 Pioneer StreetBrooklyn, NY 11231 [Add us to your address book]( [unsubscribe from this list](   [update subscription preferences](

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