NON-FICTION: ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

September 29, 2019

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Johannes Kepler, a 17th century astronomer who discovered the laws of planetary motion, is one of the fascinating personalities Maria Popova writes about in her book | Wikipedia Commons
Johannes Kepler, a 17th century astronomer who discovered the laws of planetary motion, is one of the fascinating personalities Maria Popova writes about in her book | Wikipedia Commons

Maria Popova needs no introduction for those of us who subscribe to what has now become a famous blog, Brain Pickings. A few years ago, a friend from Indianapolis invited me to explore Popova’s blog. I found it idiosyncratic in approach, ambitious in format and of high literary and philosophical quality. In all honesty, I never believed that a blog could offer so much. Popova not only provokes thinking and reflection, but also expands our minds to think in terms of time as endured through centuries of contemplation and intellectual struggles of some of the greatest minds in history.

Popova started Brain Pickings a few years ago with a motivation that one must nurture each other through what one is nurtured from — in this case, knowledge that cultivates wisdom, as opposed to the mere accumulation of information that bewilders. For anyone who constantly battles for clarity with our contemporary era’s incessant reliance on all forms of information throughout our waking and sleeping hours, Popova’s blog comes as a refreshing surprise. It comes as if from a kindred soul who has declared outright war on the industrialised normalisation of thoughtlessness, superficial information at the expense of cultivating knowledge and, more importantly, on the stigmatisation of solitude, boredom and melancholy — all of which are indispensable components of our creative lives.

No wonder Popova’s blog found a loyal readership which has supported it for all these years. The Library of Congress has classified Brain Pickings as “culturally valuable material” — which indeed it is for all of us who understand culture according to Matthew Arnold’s definition of “the best that has been thought.” While one could argue that the blog mostly caters to the Western classics and thinking, I believe it can be enriched further if Popova expands her scope to include the lives and achievements of non-Western minds, perhaps in collaboration with someone who could add to the blog’s depth and breadth.

An insightful writer contemplates knowledge that cultivates wisdom, as opposed to the mere accumulation of information that bewilders

Be that as it may, after her blog’s continuing success, Popova has also come out with a book, titled Figuring. In this giant volume, Popova lengthens the reach of her interests in the form of an extended essay that spans through all the pages of the book. While the chapters are separated by inspirational titles, Figuring doesn’t seem to have any neat beginnings and ends. It begins with her rather unusual introduction, in which she introduces the reader to all the questions directing the spirit of her writing: “All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail of my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floorboards on to which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers... all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small ‘i’, the ‘I’ lowered from the pedestal of ego. How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness?”

Indeed, what she points out in this passage is the outcome of cultivating wisdom through knowledge, namely the humbling of oneself before the entirety of the cosmos and the myriad possibilities of human intellect. And yet, Figuring is not about the wonders of great scientific and artistic minds; it is something more private and less emulative, something that only comes through the elusive interactions and encoded letters one writes to close friends or in one’s diary, the emotional lives and how they understand or even give meaning to the complexity of existence.

Most people discussed in this book are either queer or women whose work transcends the limitations and taboos that defined their eras. Following the author’s introduction, the book takes off with the chapter ‘Only the Dreamer Wakes’. It narrates the story of Johannes Kepler, a 17th century astronomer who discovered the laws of planetary motion among other things and developed his scientific methods at a time when — as Popova puts it — “God is mightier than nature, Devil more real and more omnipresent than gravity.”

Kepler’s story and his remarkable journey of scientific inquiry are woven with another remarkable astronomer and mathematician of the 19th century, Maria Mitchell. At the age of 12, Mitchell was besotted with the wonders of the cosmos and sturdy mathematical certainty. It was a time when women could not vote, weren’t entitled to formal education and a time when no woman had ever been hired by the United States government for any technical job. “Mitchell won’t live up to reap the vote, but would become many firsts: America’s first professional woman astronomer, the first woman admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first woman to be employed by the US government for a ‘specialised non-domestic skill’ — as a ‘computer of Venus’— a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.”

Even so, Mitchell’s genius and pioneering contributions to science, both as a woman and as a scientist, were not at all complemented with a peaceful inner life. She — as many others discussed in the book — lived a heartbreaking life of private relationships, on which Popova dwells at length in the chapter ‘What is Lost and What is Gained’.

In the chapter ‘The Much that Calls for More’, Popova tells us of “a new kind of woman.” Margaret Fuller was a fascinating woman who, from an early age, yearned for full actualisation of her potential. At the age of six, she was fluent in reading Latin and, by age 12, she conversed with her father on philosophy and pure mathematics. As Popova mentions, Fuller would later describe herself as “the much that calls for more”, which rightly so was manifested in the unfolding of her short but illustrious career. We know Fuller today as the pioneer of the women’s emancipation movement in America and the author of a groundbreaking book, Woman in the 19th Century.

But among her many achievements are also being the first female journalist and a foreign war correspondent for a major New York newspaper, and an advocate of prison reform and ‘negro’ voting rights at a time when it was inconceivable for a woman to have a say in domestic matters, much less in the political arena. Yet, despite the fact that Fuller was a woman in a largely patriarchal working environment, her grit and unshakable confidence made her one of the world’s most important persons: she changed the course of history for women and minorities to have more rights and dignity. Fuller wrote in her memoir, “In an environment like mine, what may have seemed too lofty or ambitious in my character was absolutely needed to keep the heart from breaking and enthusiasm from extinction ... nothing more widely distinguishes man from man than the energy of will.”

While every chapter in Figuring is remarkably insightful and humbling, the experience of reading them makes one wonder how far we have come; not only as women and men who can transcend and challenge their social and material limitations, but also to choose to live a life as they imagine it — a freedom most people did not have just a century and a half ago. The question of freedom brings to mind the origins of our civic and ethical consciousness, that most of us are allowed to voice and fight for today.

The passionate biographical sketches in Popova’s book, that weave the narrative of interconnected histories and what bind us all together across time and age, are an important reminder for us to reflect on the struggles which these extraordinary and trendsetting minds had to engage with in order for us to have a better world. Such a reflection only penetrates our lives when a storyteller such as Popova weaves a story around several exciting characters over the span of about four centuries and shakes us out of our relatively privileged lifestyles — which we have inherited on the shoulders of several men and women who fought for the freedoms we have today.

The reviewer is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Canada. Her research focuses on the literary and intellectual traditions of Persian and Urdu languages in pre-modern North India

Figuring
By Maria Popova
Pantheon, US
ISBN: 978-1524748135
592pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 29th, 2019