Love and limerence, Nathaniel Hawthorne on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning, Julia Perry on the universal language of music

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — the geometry of grief, women in trees, 95-year-old artist Etel Adnan on how to live, how to die, and what gives meaning to our lives — you can catch up right here. If you missed my atypically personal essay about the name-change, that is here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Life, Death, and What Fills the Interlude with Meaning: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Stirring Diary Reflections on His Dying Mother and His Five-Year-Old Daughter

It is said that Orlando, inspired by the passionate real-life love Virginia Woolf shared with Vita Sackville-West, is “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — said by Vita’s own son. But the most charming love letter in literature might be quite shorter and older and inspired by a very different kind of love — the purest, tenderest love of a parent for their young child.

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841

Fatherless since the age of four, achingly introverted, a man of “great, genial, comprehending silences” considered “handsomer than Lord Byron,” known to duck behind trees and rocks to avoid speaking with townspeople, Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) was an old bachelor of thirty-eight when he married Sophia Peabody — an intellectually voracious and artistically gifted old maid of thirty-three, a linchpin figure in Figuring, and sister to the titanic visionary Elizabeth Peabody, who had coined the term Transcendentalism.

When their first child — a daughter — was born in 1844, Hawthorne was a struggling writer about to turn forty. Seven years earlier, his first book — Twice-Told Tales, a retelling of classic anonymous stories — had hardly gotten into the hands of readers when the Panic of 1837 smote the young country as its first Great Depression. And so the young author had hardly made his name even among the most literary of his contemporaries — what Longfellow lauded as a “sweet, sweet book” had left the highly informed and discerning Margaret Fuller impressed, but with the impression that it was written by “somebody in Salem” assumed to be a woman.

Una and the Lion by Walter Bell Scott, 1860. (National Galleries Scotland.)

Baby Una, named for the beautiful and fierce young daughter of the dragon-imprisoned king and queen in the 1590 English epic poem The Faerie Queene, instantly filled Hawthorne with “a very sober and serious kind of happiness that springs from the birth of a child.” Una would later become the model for the heroine’s daughter in The Scarlet Letter — the 1850 novel that lifted Hawthorne out of poverty, abruptly ending his “many good years” as “the obscurest man of letters in America,” per his own recollection, to render him one of his country’s most celebrated artists.

Four years before that overnight success a lifetime in the making, when Una turned two and a second child was about to join the family, Hawthorne took a day-job as surveyor for the Customs House in Salem. There he toiled for three years, at the near-total expense of his writing. During that creatively deadening period, his love for his children sustained him, fed his famished artistic soul, reawakened him to life. He recorded these tender, vitalizing observations of the children’s daily doings and unfurling beings in a family notebook he shared with Sophia, posthumously included in the affectionate biography Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (public library) by their second child, Una’s brother Julian.

Una Hawthorne

In the bleak midwinter of 1849, five weeks before Una’s fifth birthday, Hawthorne writes in the notebook:

Her beauty is the most flitting, transitory, most uncertain and unaccountable affair, that ever had a real existence; it beams out when nobody expects it; it has mysteriously passed away when you think yourself sure of it. If you glance sideways at her, you perhaps think it is illuminating her face, but, turning full round to enjoy it, it is gone again. When really visible, it is rare and precious as the vision of an angel. It is a transfiguration, — a grace, delicacy, or ethereal fineness, — which at once, in my secret soul, makes me give up all severe opinions that I may have begun to form about her. It is but fair to conclude that on these occasions we see her real soul. When she seems less lovely, we merely see something external. But, in truth, one manifestation belongs to her as much as another; for, before the establishment of principles, what is character but the series and succession of moods?

This latter insight, far predating the dawn of psychology as we know it, touches the eternal depths of human nature — as adults, we are always at our most childish when we allow the ceaselessly shifting weather systems of our moods to override our moral precepts, thrusting us back in time to those primal impulses of reflexive reaction, cutting us off from the capacity for reflective response that is the mark of maturity.

Una’s “real soul,” her father observes, is one of uncommon complementarity, in which all the polar potentialities of human nature coexist and are harmonized:

The sentiment of a picture, tale, or poem is seldom lost upon her; and when her feelings are thus interested, she will not hear to have them interfered with by any ludicrous remark or other discordance. Yet she has, often, a rhinoceros-armor against sentiment or tenderness; you would think she were marble or adamant. It seems to me that, like many sensitive people, her sensibilities are more readily awakened by fiction than realities.

Una’s almost otherworldly syncopation of reason and emotion, of sympathy and stoicism, comes alive most vividly in a midsummer notebook entry Hawthorne penned while his mother was fast approaching “the drift called the infinite.”

Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved — Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss.

Finding himself the strange fulcrum of the seesaw between life and death, Hawthorne observes his small daughter take a lively, compassionate interest in his dying mother’s suffering, begging to be let into the bedchamber to be at her grandmother’s side, role-playing convalescent and caretaker with her little brother. Hawthorne writes:

I know not what she supposes to be the final result to which grandmamma is approaching… There is something that almost frightens me about the child, — I know not whether elfish or angelic, but, at all events, supernatural. She steps so boldly into the midst of everything, shrinks from nothing, has such a comprehension of everything, seems at times to have but little delicacy, and anon shows that she possesses the finest essence of it, — now so hard, now so tender; now so perfectly unreasonable, soon again so wise. In short, I now and then catch an aspect of her in which I cannot believe her to be my own human child, but a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting the house where I dwell.

The next day — forty-five years and twenty-seven days after she had given birth to him — his mother died, with Hawthorne and his sisters at her side. The loss savaged him with grief. Sophia recounted that she saw him, this quiet monolith of composure, come “near a brain fever.” But Hawthorne was his daughter’s father, his own seemingly unfeeling exterior armoring a tender and sensitive soul — perhaps that is why this duality so frightened him in Una. (Children, after all — like anyone we love — are mirrors for understanding ourselves, disquieting us most when they reflect what we most fear or struggle to comprehend in ourselves.)

Art by Walter Crane for Hawthorne’s Wonder-Book for Girls & Boys. (Available as a print.)

As soon as everyone else left the room, the armor came undone:

I found the tears slowly gathering in my eyes. I tried to keep them down, but it would not be; I kept filling up, till, for a few moments, I shook with sobs… Surely it is the darkest hour I ever lived.

Ten days after his mother’s death, Hawthorne was bluntly fired from his job at the Customs House when the new Whig administration took office. He began writing The Scarlet Letter that day, completing it with the same astonishing rapidity — six months — that John Steinbeck, who also worked a series of soul-hollowing jobs, would complete The Grapes of Wrath a century later.

Published the year of Darwin’s bittersweet reckoning with his own daughter’s mortality and sold by private subscription a century and a half before Patreon, The Scarlet Letter raised $500 for Hawthorne and his family, which helped them leave the sadnesses of Salem, sadnesses that had haunted him long before his season of losses — so much so that he had added the “w” in his surname to sever the association with his ancestor John Hathorne, the leading judge in the Salem witch trial.

With the income from The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne moved the family to a small red house in the Berkshires. It was there that Herman Melville fell in love with him, dedicating Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.

Nathaniel Hawthorne in his final years. (Library of Congress.)

Years after her father’s death, Una recovered his final manuscript — the unfinished novel Septimius Felton; or, the Elixir of Life — and, with the help of her friend Robert Browning, had it published in serial form in The Atlantic Monthly. She died five years later, at the age her mother had married her father, returning far too young to the supra-human mystery her father had always perceived in her — the mystery the sole possible meaning and redemption of which he had contoured long ago, when he and Una were both alive and his mother was no more. In the notebook entry recounting that darkest hour of his life at his mother’s deathbed in the high summer of 1849, he had written:

For a long time I knelt there, holding her hand… Afterwards I stood by the open window and looked through the crevice of the curtain. The shouts, laughter, and cries of the two children had come up into the chamber from the open air, making a strange contrast with the death-bed scene. And now, through the crevice of the curtain, I saw my little Una of the golden locks, looking very beautiful, and so full of spirit and life that she was life itself. And then I looked at my poor dying mother, and seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it. Oh, what a mockery, if what I saw were all, — let the interval between extreme youth and dying age be filled up with what happiness it might!

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Love and Limerence: How Psychologist Dorothy Tennov Revolutionized Attachment Theory with Her Revelatory Research into the Confusions of Loving

“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will,” Stendhal wrote in his landmark 1822 “crystallization” model of how we fall in and out of love. What he was actually describing, however — in those Cartesian epochs before it was acceptable or even conceivable that matters of feeling could be functions of mental activity and subjects of the reasoned study we call science — was limerence. A century and a half later, James Baldwin shone a sidewise gleam on limerence in his lament that “people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents.” Except limerence is the profound unmooring masquerading as the mooring post.

Anyone who has ever experienced limerence — a staggering more-than-third of the population, although everyone undergoing it feels alienated, alone, and abnormal — feels the instant relief of recognition. Anyone who has never experienced it feels baffled that a state so illogical can so possess otherwise rational and responsible people with no distinct psychopathology. Anyone who has found themselves on the receiving end of it — a “limerent object” — has shared in being at first flattered, then frustrated, then even furious at being so unpeeled from the reality of themselves in the ensnared eyes of the other.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Psychologist and philosopher of science Dorothy Tennov (August 29, 1928–February 3, 2007) coined the term limerence in the 1970s, drawing on a decade of research: data from thousands of questionnaires she administered, centuries of autobiographies and published personal journals, and several hundred case studies of people she interviewed from a wilderness of backgrounds and life-situations, all revealing a strikingly similar experience. Although she should have won a Nobel Prize for it — if the prize itself recognized the value of psychology to human welfare on a par with awarded disciplines like economics and physiology — she was largely dismissed and derided at the time she presented it, a time when the patriarchy of psychology was still ensnared by Freud’s fraudulent authoritarianism. Although her work became foundational to attachment theory, she died a footnote in the literature of her field.

Tennov detailed her revelatory findings in the 1979 book Love and Limerence (public library), in which she describes limerence as “an uncontrollable, biologically determined, inherently irrational, instinct-like reaction” that gnaws at the foundation of our vain beliefs about free will, unique among human experience in the total control it assumes of one’s thought process and the total helplessness of the thinker, no matter their degree of intelligence, emotional maturity, self-awareness, psychological stability, or force of will. Indeed, the single most crucial feature of limerence Tennov found is “its intrusiveness, its invasion of consciousness against our will.” (In this respect, I find, its closest kin is grief — that mental mouse that “chooses Wainscot in the Breast for His Shy House — and baffles quest.”)

Tennov writes:

People have been trying to control limerence without much success for as far back as records go, but it is remarkably tenacious, involuntary, and resistant to external influence once it takes hold… Limerence is unaffected by the intensity of our desire to call it into or out of existence at our wills… It can override self-welfare, and its power over life seems neither diminished with age nor less for one sex than for the other.

Drawing on her vast sample of “informants” — a term honoring the purpose of this research as the integration of information into greater understanding of what it means to be human, which I find to be a lovely improvement over the pathologizing “patients” or the dehumanizing “subjects” used by most psychologists and clinicians — Tennov distills the most elemental characteristics of limerence:

  • intrusive thinking about the limerent object, or “LO”
  • acute longing for reciprocation
  • dependency of mood on LO’s actions or, more accurately, your interpretation of LO’s actions with respect to the probability of reciprocation
  • inability to react limerently to more than one person at a time (exceptions occur only when limerence is at low ebb — early on or in the last fading)
  • some fleeting and transient relief from unrequited limerent passion through vivid imagination of action by LO that means reciprocation
  • fear of rejection and sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness in LO’s presence, especially in the beginning and whenever uncertainty strikes
  • intensification through adversity (at least, up to a point)
  • acute sensitivity to any act or thought or condition that can be interpreted favorably, and an extraordinary ability to devise or invent “reasonable” explanations for why the neutrality that the disinterested observer might see is in fact a sign of hidden passion in the LO
  • an aching of the “heart” (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong
  • buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when reciprocation seems evident
  • a general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background
  • a remarkable ability to emphasize what is truly admirable in LO and to avoid dwelling on the negative, even to respond with a compassion for the negative and render it, emotionally if not perceptually, into another positive attribute

Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1926 edition of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. (Available as a print.)

This total takeover of the will is what sets limerence apart from attraction, romantic fantasy, or a mere crush — takeover that begins with a level of stealth that reminds me of the famous parasitic wasp, mind-controlling its caterpillar victim into self-destruction. Tennov writes:

The onset of limerence has a voluntary feel about it. We go readily and willfully toward its promises of joy. It is only later that images of LO intrude unbidden and the mind suddenly cannot be set elsewhere the way a wayward volume might be returned to the bookshelf… Then there comes the time when you have had enough and want to finish it. Rational bases for hopefulness have been exhausted. The intrusions and literal aches of unfulfilled desire and precious wasted moments of life force the recognition that control may not be total. You even wonder about the past when control seemed possible, if not assured. Uncertainty increases. You wonder if you had the control you thought you had and whether you ever will again.

[…]

Whatever factors cause an individual to “select” a specific LO, limerence cements the reaction and locks the emotional gates against further intrusion. This exclusivity, which always occurs in limerence, weakens the effect of physical attractiveness, since the most beautiful individual in the world cannot compete with LO once limerence has taken hold.

Even so, and crucially so, Tennov is careful to make clear that although limerence is at odds with rationality, although it can be painful to the point of agony for the limerent and uncomfortable to the point of exasperation for the LO at whom its glaring beam of attention and need is directed, it is not a psychopathology, nor does it have correlation or consistent co-occurrence with any known mental illnesses. Rather, it is a style of attachment, the origins of which are still unclear and the course of which is nearly identical in all limerents — people otherwise reasonable and high-functioning. It strikes indiscriminately across age, race, gender, orientation, and calling, though it does seem to afflict the creative disproportionately, perhaps because the very process of limerence is in a sense a creative process — a process of sustained attention and selective amplification. (Indeed, an understanding of limerence suddenly casts a new light upon some of the world’s greatest works of art: So many classic love songs are heard anew as hymns of limerence, so many classic love poems are read anew as limerent elegies, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration — the hundreds Emily Dickinson wrote to, for, and about her lifelong LO being a supreme example.)

Tennov also draws a distinction between limerence and projection:

Crystallization fashions an image of “perfections” from LO’s actual attractive features, the process… being one of emphasis rather than complete invention. In the laboratory, it was found that prolonged exposure to the imprinting object or person was unnecessary. In fact, the attachment could be undermined by too much familiarity.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s visionary 19th-century illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play about limerence at its deadliest. (Available as a print.)

When seen through the lens of these thousands of unambiguous and near-identical case studies — which illuminate limerence as an involuntary reaction to a stimuli still unclear, governed by emotional mechanisms still unclear but clearly and consistently at work — Tennov notes that “it becomes as illogical to favor (or not to favor) limerence as it is to favor (or not favor) eating, elimination, or sneezing.” She writes:

Limerence is not the product of human decision: It is something that happens to us. Its intrusive cognitive components, the obsessional quality that may feel voluntary at the moment but that defies control, seem to be the aspect of limerence in which it differs most from other states.

The most arresting characteristic of limerence — and the one most disabling to the sufferer — is that it takes hold only in conditions that sustain both hope and uncertainty, in a ratio that must not skew too far in either direction, or else limerence dissolves. Tennov contours the paradoxical demand:

For the process to develop fully, some form of uncertainty or doubt, or even some threat to reciprocation appears necessary. There is considerable evidence that an externally imposed obstacle, such as Romeo and Juliet met in the resistance of family and society, may also serve.

[…]

Too early a declaration on the limerent’s part or, on the other hand, too early evidence of reciprocation on LO’s part may prevent the development of the full limerent reaction. Something must happen to break a totally positive interaction. Not that totally positive reactions are without highly redeeming features in themselves; it is only that they stop the progression to full or maximum limerence.

She adds:

However unappealing it may be in a universe conceived as orderly and humane, the fact is undeniable; fear of rejection may cause pain, but it also enhances desire.

[…]

Limerence can live a long life sustained by crumbs. Indeed, overfeeding is perhaps the best way to end it.

A further subtlety of this dual requirement of hope and uncertainty is that — for all of its irrationality, for all of its improbable optimisms and willful blindnesses — limerence, unlike delusion, lives in the locus of the possible. It is, in fact, sustained by that slender thread of possibility fraying from the loom of the improbable. Tennov writes:

Limerent fantasy is rooted in reality — that is, in what the limerent person interprets as reality. Your limerent daydreams may be unlikely, even highly unlikely, but they retain fidelity to the possible.

Light distribution on soap bubble from a 19th-century French science textbook. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

She examines the elementary particles and fundamental forces of limerence:

Limerence is, above all else, mental activity. It is an interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. You admire, you are physically attracted, you see, or think you see (or deem it possible to see under “suitable” conditions), the hint of possible reciprocity, and the process is set in motion.

[…]

Because limerent fantasy depends on how you actually perceive reality, its content, which leads up to and renders plausible the ecstatic finale, varies not only from person to person, but from day to day as new knowledge becomes available.

Across all the limerents Tennov studied, the process follows a basic life-cycle and results in a set number of possible outcomes:

Limerence may begin as a barely perceptible feeling of increased interest in a particular person but one which if nurtured by appropriate conditions can grow to enormous intensity. In most cases, it also declines, eventually to zero or to a low level. At this low level, limerence is either transformed through reciprocation or it is transferred to another person, who then becomes the object of a new limerent passion. Under the best of conditions, the waning of limerence through mutuality is accompanied by the growth of the emotional response more suitably described as love.

The object of limerent desire, Tennov notes again and again, is not physical intimacy but emotional reciprocity — sex with the LO factors in only to the extent that the limerent interprets it as a symbol of reciprocity. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of the condition is that no reciprocity of love, whatever its nature or magnitude, can slake the longing for reciprocity of limerence. In fact, limerence most commonly develops in actual and not imagined relationships, often very close ones — deep friendships, or even love-relationships, in which one person is limerent toward the other but the other is nonlimerent.

The complexity, confusion, and suffering limerence inflicts are most intense in relationships where other factors — genuine friendship, shared experience, mutual artistic or intellectual admiration, kindred calling — exist rather independently of limerence, but have been subsumed by it. In such relationships, both the limerent and the LO can suffer greatly in the effort to disentangle one context from the other in order to salvage and reframe in a non-limerent context what is at bottom a deep and valuable connection. This I note both as a synthesis of Tennov’s research and as a lived record of my own experience.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto — a tender French picture-book about the earliest confusions of limerence and soul-friendship.

Tennov highlights the difference between limerent and non-limerent attachment, which might share some major surface manifestations but spring from profoundly different emotional needs:

The person who is not limerent toward you may feel great affection and concern for you, even tenderness, and possibly sexual desire as well. A relationship that includes no limerence may be a far more important one in your life, when all is said and done, than any relationship in which you experienced the strivings of limerent passion. Limerence is not in any way preeminent among types of human attractions or interactions; but when limerence is in full force, it eclipses other relationships.

This asymmetry of feeling creates an asymmetry of responsibility, tilted in the other direction — toward the non-limerent person better capable of willful action and conscientious choice than the disabled limerent. In my own experience, the thoughtfulness, truthfulness, and tenderness with which a person exercises that responsibility — or does not — is one of the most revealing tests of character. Tennov writes:

Knowledge of the limerent state clearly suggests that the nonlimerent LO has certain responsibilities of an ethical kind. Better understanding of what the limerent person is undergoing and how your actions as LO influence that response will help to diminish the pain that the limerent person is experiencing, as well as the suffocating attention that is unpleasant for you.

The most heartbreaking aspect of limerence, the one that best highlights its disabling infestation of the will, is the excruciating self-awareness that haloes it — often so acute as to call to mind the out-of-body experience reported by coma victims who find themselves fully aware of what is going on in the room, even observing their own motionless body as though from some higher vantage point above the hospital bed.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With his permission, Tennov quotes at length from the diaries of one such exceptionally self-aware young man — Fred, one her psychology students, who grew limerent toward a woman he encountered during a research fellowship in France. Writing in the bleak pit of winter, after several months of limerence, Fred records with astonishing lucidity the respite afforded by a temporary disruption of the vital hope/uncertainty ratio that sustains limerence:

I feel a large impassable gap between us across which I must look ridiculous. Thus it is that my image of her image of me as reflected in her behavior and my own, not a change in her qualities (her attractiveness, for example), has produced this new condition of relative indifference towards Laura. I am afraid that this relief is temporary, however, and I will return to being more intensely stricken, but it shows the dampening effect that clear rejection can have. At least it is giving me an interlude in which I can get some work done.

Six tortuous limerent months later, at the peak of summer, he writes in another diary entry that captures the most terrifying aspect not only of limerence but of all love, at some fundamental level:

It seems to me that being romantically attracted to Laura means that I am bending my image of her until it is distorted. Things that might produce an unpleasant picture, I simply do not see. When she appears by relatively objective standards, beautiful and capable, I look long and hard. But when she is not at her best, when I catch her face in an unflattering angle, I turn my eyes away. If she were in love with me, she would do the same, and we might both be aware of the process in the other because we could feel it in ourselves. If that is true, “loving back” is actually furthering a deception. Only the best angles are allowed to show or be seen. To do anything else is to increase the risk of the dreaded rejection. But it is a disservice to a person not to perceive them the way they really are.

Another of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Salome. (Available as a print.)

I hear echoes here of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle, sobering admonition that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” rooted in his teaching that “understanding is love’s other name.” To understand a person is to endeavor to accurately perceive their experience, their sorrows, their joys, their deepest needs as they really are. Limerence, in this sense, is the resignation of understanding.

Tennov identifies only three things that can reliably end limerence:

  • consummation: the bliss of reciprocation is gradually either blended into a lasting love or replaced by less positive feelings
  • starvation: even limerent sensitivity to signs of hope is useless against the onslaught of evidence that LO does not return the limerence
  • transformation: limerence is transferred to a new LO

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

But while limerence can be debilitating to its sufferer and stressful to the point of trauma for its object, its umbra of inadvertent harm reaches beyond the limerent and the LO — most commonly, and most vulnerably, to the children of limerent parents. Tennov shares the case study of one woman who reflected ruefully in midlife:

Today my children are grown and gone. I’m lucky if they get here on Christmas and call on Mother’s Day. I can tell you that I’d give anything to be back in the tiny apartment with my babies. The ironic and really tragic thing is that when my children were little, I was all wrapped up in my love affairs and unable to give them the time and attention I wish I could look back on.

I remember the summer that Amelia turned three. She was an adorable child. Everyone commented. I was sitting on the porch. I had just received Jeremy’s farewell letter and I was miserable over the rejection. For some reason I remember that Amelia tried to get up on my lap. She wanted me to read her a story. The painful part of the memory is that I turned her away and preferred to sit alone thinking of that horrible man than to care for and enjoy my little girl. How I wish I could get those days back again.

This case study struck me with particular resonance, for I have been that little girl in my own childhood and I have observed the mother’s tendencies in myself as an adult — a disquieting correlation that contours one of the many unmapped territories for further research that Tennov left in her wake: the question of heredity and developmental modeling in the origin of limerence.

Indeed, Tennov ends her revelatory Love and Limerence with optimism for future research, buoyed by a bold defiance of the dated idea that scientific knowledge of reality diminishes its wonder — an idea all the more pervasive in the study of feeling due to our millennia-deep mythologies of love as a separate species of experience. In a sentiment evocative of Ode to a Flower — Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s classic meditation on knowledge and mystery — Tennov argues that scientific inquiry will not “rob us of the ecstasy of reciprocation or of the artistic creations which limerence tends so often to inspire,” and writes:

I do not believe that to know limerence is to destroy it any more than to understand the physics of ionization is to destroy the beauty of the Paris sky.

[…]

Limerence theory is not merely a step toward understanding romantic love; it is also a step toward understanding how we can transcend those aspects of our inborn behavioral tendencies that inhibit our progress in the direction of self-determination… It may not be in contemplation of outer space that the greatest discoveries and explorations of the coming centuries will occur, but in our finally deciding to heed the dictum of self-understanding.

In an insight of tremendous foresight, presaging the scientific discoveries and still-unfolding mindset reorientation of the half-century since, she adds:

We have watched the field of psychology succumb to invisible pressures to conform to what is now beginning to be recognized as an outdated and inhibiting philosophy, an inordinate and ultimately stultifying disinclination to view ourselves as biological creatures. I believe it is time to reject that philosophy in favor of a new humility which bends to the innermost voices of our fundamental nature, and, in so doing, to shape that nature in accordance with truly human values which can only be discovered when we learn truly what it means to be human.

Trailblazing Composer Julia Perry on Music as the Universal Language of Love and Mutual Understanding

Julia Perry (March 25, 1924–April 25, 1979) studied at Juilliard, studied in Paris, spent more than a decade composing a haunting opera based on the Salem witch trials, wrote an operatic ballet based on Oscar Wilde’s almost unbearably tender book The Selfish Giant and a stunning orchestral requiem for Vivaldi, and went on to fuse the European classical tradition with African spirituals in extraordinary, deeply original music spanning nearly every classical genre, pulsating with an indiscriminate love of all that is human, soulful, and therefore beautiful.

Julia Perry

The fourth of five daughters to a Kentucky schoolteacher and a pianist-physician, Julia — a cheerful tomboy, fiercely extroverted — was attending a school for gifted children by the age of ten, studying voice and violin, riding her bicycle everywhere, and unspooling her rich dramatic soprano in the town’s chamber music concerts. She was sixteen when her elder sister and musical muse — a gifted pianist and cellist — was killed in a train accident, of which Julia never spoke but which (how could it not) marked her deeply; music (how could it not) became her surviving connection to her sister as it offered its universal salve for grief.

She was not yet thirty when her magnum opus, the Stabat Mater, was being widely performed by European and American orchestras. In 1965, her Short Piece for Orchestra became the first composition by a woman of color to be performed by The New York Philharmonic and only the third by any woman. Even after a stroke paralyzed her right hand, Julia Perry taught herself to write with the left so she could go on making music, which she did even at the hospital, composing the last of her twelve symphonies — Symphony No. 12, “Simple Symphony” — there.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. (Available as a print.)

A woman of color and genius in a pre-Civil-Rights white man’s world, she scored the arc of history with her prescient words, doing for the common language of music what Einstein, brilliant and persecuted, had done for the common language of science eight years earlier in the midst of a World War, in the midst of exile.

In 1949, Perry wrote:

Music is an all-embracing, universal language. Music has a unifying effect on the peoples of the world, because they all understand and love it. In music they find common meeting ground. And when they find themselves enjoying and loving the same music, they find themselves loving one another… Music has a great role to play in establishing the brotherhood of man.

In an era before the Civil Rights movement brought this notion of humanistic brotherhood to the fore of our collective conscience, an era before our language itself could accommodate the notion that this “brother”-hood includes women and instead rendered every woman a “man,” Julia Perry saw how music touches the central mystery of aliveness more deeply and more purely than any of the human labels we impose on life, or on each other, on these miraculous triumphs over night and nothingness that we each are.

Complement with Perry’s German contemporary Joseph Pieper on how music saves our souls, her English contemporary Aldous Huxley on its transcendent power, and her American colleague Aaron Copland (who was also taught by Nadia Boulanger — the first female conductor of The New York Philharmonic, Perry’s teacher in Paris) on how to be a gifted listener, then savor this stunning 2021 performance of Perry’s work by the Experiential Orchestra (who have previously done the same civilizational service — the vital work of resistance to the selective erasure of genius and beauty — for another forgotten, trailblazing composer: the deaf visionary Ethel Smyth).

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In 2021, I spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) going. For fiftten years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor has made your own life more livable this year, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT:

Something small but exciting: Last year, while escaping lockdown by time-travel, I delighted in restoring gorgeous artworks from centuries-old natural history, botany, and astronomy books I’d come upon in my writing process. On a whim, I thought they’d make wondrous, unusual face-masks, and so I made some using society6 — a lovely service I’d previously used to make art prints for myself and friends. To honor the values and passions of the long-dead artists and scientists behind these works, I decided to donate my share of the revenues (10% of the product cost) to the Nature Conservancy. To my astonishment, this whim-project raised thousands of dollars for the stewardship of the very plants, animals, and natural phenomena depicted on the masks.

Moved by the response, the folks at society6 offered to match my donation if I curated a gift guide of other things they make — prints, puzzles, pillows, coasters, placemats, cutting boards, stationery cards, fanny packs (!) — featuring these restored science-artworks. And so here we are, with an offering of unusual gifts for your most beloved human animals as we steward this beautiful planet together for generations of animals to come. Get your paws on them here:

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Older messages

Uncommon presents from the past — gifts for the science-lover and nature-ecstatic in your life, benefitting The Nature Conservancy

Sunday, November 28, 2021

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RE-DELIVERY: The geometry of grief, women in trees, 95-year-old artist Etel Adnan on how to live, how to die, and what gives meaning to our lives

Monday, November 22, 2021

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Gravity, grace, and what binds us when we love; how to move through life when your parents are dying; the science of can and can't

Sunday, November 14, 2021

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Drawing a tree to see yourself; how the parallels between quantum physics and Hindu philosophy illuminate the central truth of being; viva Corita Kent

Sunday, November 7, 2021

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Every loss reveals what we're made of; David Whyte's poems of presence with wonder; Michael Pollan on the radical roots of the flying-witch broomstick

Sunday, October 31, 2021

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Read a Girl #44: “Yes Please”, Amy Poehler

Monday, July 4, 2022

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