When my atheist engineer grandfather died, my atheist engineer grandmother leaned over the body in the hospice bed that had contained half a century of shared life and love, cradled the cranium in which his stubborn and sensitive mind had dwelt, and whispered into the halogen-lit ether:
“Where did you go, my darling?”
Whatever our beliefs, these sensemaking playthings of the mind, when the moment of material undoing comes, we — creatures of moment and matter — simply cannot fathom how something as exquisite as the universe of thought and feeling inside us can vanish into nothingness.
Even if we understand that dying is the token of our existential luckiness, even if we understand that we are borrowed stardust, bound to be returned to the universe that made it — a universe itself slouching toward nothingness as its stars are slowly burning out their energy to leave a cold austere darkness of pure spacetime — this understanding blurs into an anxious disembodied abstraction as the body slouches toward dissolution. Animated by electrical impulses and temporal interactions of matter, our finite minds simply cannot grasp a timeless and infinite inanimacy — a void beyond being.
Pillars of Creation, Eagle Nebula, Messier 16. Infrared photograph. NASA / Hubble Space Telescope. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)
Even Walt Whitman, who could hold such multitudes of contradiction, could not grasp the void. “I will make poems of my body and of mortality,” he vowed as a young man as he reverenced our shared materiality in his timeless declamation that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” It was easy, from the shimmering platform of his prime, to look forward to becoming “the uncut hair of graves” upon returning his own atoms to the grassy ground one day.
But then, when that day loomed near as he grew old and infirm, “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul” suddenly could not fathom the total disbanding of his atomic selfhood, suddenly came to “laugh at what you call dissolution.”
And then he did dissolve, leaving us his immortal verses, verses penned when his particles sang with the electric cohesion of youth and of health, verses that traced with their fleshy finger the faint contour of an elemental truth: “What invigorates life invigorates death.”
“Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death.” Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)
I wish I could have given my grandmother, and given the dying Whitman, the infinitely invigorating Mr g: A Novel About the Creation (public library) by the poetic physicist Alan Lightman — a magical-realist serenade to science, coursing with symphonic truth about our search for meaning, our hunger for beauty, and what makes our tender, transient lives worth living.
Toward the end of the novel, Mr g watches, with heartache unknown in the Void predating the existence of universes and of life, an old woman on her deathbed, the film of her long and painful and beautiful life unspooling from the reel of memory, leaving her grief-stricken by its terminus, shuddering with defiant disbelief that this is all.
“How can a creature of substance and mass fathom a thing without substance or mass?” wonders Mr g as he sorrows watching her succumb to the very laws he created. “How can a creature who will certainly die have an understanding of things that will exist forever?”
And then, as a faint smile washes across her face, she does die. Lightman writes:
At that moment, there were 3,147,740,103,497,276,498,750,208,327 atoms in her body. Of her total mass, 63.7 percent was oxygen, 21.0 percent carbon, 10.1 percent hydrogen, 2.6 percent nitrogen, 1.4 percent calcium, 1.1 percent phosphorous, plus a smattering of the ninety-odd other chemical elements created in stars.
In the cremation, her water evaporated. Her carbon and nitrogen combined with oxygen to make gaseous carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which floated skyward and mingled with the air. Most of her calcium and phosphorous baked into a reddish brown residue and scattered in soil and in wind.
But then we see that every atom belonging to her — or, rather, temporarily borrowed by her — truly does belong to everything and everyone, just as you and I are now inhaling the same oxygen atoms that once inflated Walt Whitman’s lungs with the lust for life:
Released from their temporary confinement, her atoms slowly spread out and diffused through the atmosphere. In sixty days’ time, they could be found in every handful of air on the planet. In one hundred days, some of her atoms, the vaporous water, had condensed into liquid and returned to the surface as rain, to be drunk and ingested by animals and plants. Some of her atoms were absorbed by light-utilizing organisms and transformed into tissues and tubules and leaves. Some were breathed in by oxygen creatures, incorporated into organs and bone.
Pectanthis Asteroides — one of the otherworldly drawings of jellyfish by the 19th-century German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology. (Available as a print.)
In a passage evocative of the central sentiment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s spare, stunning poem “Kinship,” he adds:
Pregnant women ate animals and plants made of her atoms. A year later, babies contained some of her atoms… Several years after her death, millions of children contained some of her atoms. And their children would contain some of her atoms as well. Their minds contained part of her mind.
Will these millions of children, for generations upon future generations, know that some of their atoms cycled through this woman? It is not likely. Will they feel what she felt in her life, will their memories have flickering strokes of her memories, will they recall that moment long ago when she stood by the window, guilt ridden and confused, and watched as the tadr bird circled the cistern? No, it is not possible. Will they have some faint sense of her glimpse of the Void? No, it is not possible. It is not possible. But I will let them have their own brief glimpse of the Void, just at the moment they pass from living to dead, from animate to inanimate, from consciousness to that which has no consciousness. For a moment, they will understand infinity.
And the individual atoms, cycled through her body and then cycled through wind and water and soil, cycled through generations and generations of living creatures and minds, will repeat and connect and make a whole out of parts. Although without memory, they make a memory. Although impermanent, they make a permanence. Although scattered, they make a totality.
Here we are, you and me, Walt and Alan, my grandmother who is and my grandfather who is no more — each of us a trembling totality, made of particles both absolutely vulnerable and absolutely indestructible, hungering for absolutes in a universe of relatives, hungering for permanence in a universe of ceaseless change, famished for meaning, for beauty, for emblems of existence.
Out of these hungers, out of these contradictions, we make everything that invigorates life with aliveness: our art and our music, our poems and our mathematics, our novels and our loves.
Decades into his long life, the poet Robert Graves defined love as “a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth in a way that… makes both of you light up when you recognize the quality in the other.” A generation later, the poetic playwright Tom Stoppard defined it as “knowledge of each other… knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” This unmasked fact is the antidote to the most dangerous fiction the Romantics bequeathed us — their model of love as union between lover and beloved, a kind of fusion of selves, with its connotation of mutual completion rather than mutual recognition of and rejoicing in two parallel completenesses.
Such gladsome recognition of the other’s otherness is the foundation of love and the foundation of morality — both requiring not a bridging of selves but an unselfing, both vulnerable to same fundamental misconception that fissures the very foundation upon which they rest. Almost every religious, spiritual, and contemplative tradition in the history of our species, when stripped of its mystical and counterscientific aspects, holds at its center an ethic of love. But also central to almost every tradition, especially of the West, is a dangerous warping of love in the hands of the self.
Most commonly known as the Golden Rule, it mistakes the reality of the self for the only reality, taking one’s own wishes, desires, and longings as universal and presuming that the other shares those precisely — negating the sovereign reality of the other, negating the possibility that a very different person might want something very different done unto them.
The remedy for this malady of selfing is to remember that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, each with its singular longings for and visions of beauty, goodness, and gladness. Nothing reminds us of this more readily than art, with its invitation to step into the intimate realities of other lives — the word “empathy,” after all, originated in the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art — and no one has irradiated that reminder more luminously than the uncommon philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999).
Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)
Long before her 1970 classic The Sovereignty of the Good, with its lovely conception of art as “an occasion for unselfing,” Murdoch began developing these ideas in an essay titled “The Sublime and the Good,” originally published in the Chicago Review in 1959 and later included in the altogether superb posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).
Art and morals are… one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.
In the same era when, across the Atlantic, Alan Watts was cautioning that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others” as he was introducing Eastern teachings in the West, Murdoch builds on the parallels between art and morality through the multiple dimensions of love — the personal and the political, the individual and the communal:
The enemies of art and of morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis. One may fail to see the individual… because we are ourselves sunk in a social whole which we allow uncritically to determine our reactions, or because we see each other exclusively as so determined. Or we may fail to see the individual because we are completely enclosed in a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own. Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination… The exercise of overcoming one’s self, of the expulsion of fantasy and convention… is indeed exhilarating. It is also, if we perform it properly which we hardly ever do, painful.
“Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you.” Maurice Sendak’s little-known 1960 illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit.
In a sentiment that calls to mind James Baldwin’s reflection on love and his haunting observation that “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,” Murdoch adds:
The tragic freedom implied by love is this: that we all have an indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others. Tragic, because there is no prefabricated harmony, and others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves… Freedom is exercised in the confrontation by each other, in the context of an infinitely extensible work of imaginative understanding, of two irreducibly dissimilar individuals. Love is the imaginative recognition of, that is respect for, this otherness.
Complement this fragment of Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance and the key to great storytelling — with her almost unbearably beautiful love letters, then revisit Tolstoy on love and morality.
“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore,” the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote as she reckoned with the ocean and the meaning of life, “we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.” Fifteen years earlier, she had invited the human imagination into the wonders of the underwater world — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — in an unexampled essay that later bloomed into her 1951 book The Sea Around Us, which won her the National Book Award and rendered her the most venerated science writer on the landmass.
Carson dedicated the book to the pioneering explorer, marine biologist, ornithologist, and Wildlife Conservation Society naturalist William Beebe, who had gone deeper than any human had gone before in his epoch-making 1930s dives in the Bathysphere — the spherical submersible Beebe dreamt up with the deep-sea diver and engineer Otis Barton, his sole companion inside the miniature globe reaching for the bottom of the world.
William Beebe inside the Bathysphere (Wildlife Conservation Society Photo Collection)
It had only been a generation since the German oceanographer Carl Chun’s pioneering Valdiva expedition had emerged with stunningly illustrated evidence defying humanity’s shallow imagination, which had long deemed life below 300 fathoms impossible. But for all the wonders the Valdiva saw, it could not escape the blind spots of its epoch — the creatures it discovered were abducted from their underwater homes and dredged up for the scientists to study on the surface, lifeless.
The Bathysphere reined in a new era of closer and more compassionate study, making Beebe the first scientist to observe deep-sea wildlife in their habitat, unharmed in their alien aliveness, moving silent and splendid amid a world he saw as “stranger than any imagination could have conceived,” irradiated by an “indefinable translucent blue quite unlike anything” known in the upper world.
Previously unknown giant dragonfish (Bathysphaera intacta) circling the Bathysphere. Else Bostelmann, Bermuda, 1934. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)
Upon returning from his first dive in the Bathysphere in 1930, Beebe exulted on the pages of the New York Zoological Society Bulletin:
Here, under a pressure which, if loosened, in a fraction of a second would make amorphous tissue of a human being, breathing our own homemade atmosphere, sending a few comforting words chasing up and down a string of hose, here I was privileged to sit and try to crystallize something of value, seeing through inadequate eyes and interpreting by a mind wholly unequal to the task.
Despite his lyrical gift with language, Beebe knew that words could only reach so far in conveying the complexity and wonder of the undersea world to humans whose eyes would never see it and whose imagination had not begun to fathom it.
“Adequate presentation of what I saw on these dives is one of the most difficult things I ever attempted,” he reflected, likening the splendid irreducibility of it all to that of asking a foreigner who has spent a few hours in New York City to describe America.
A century after Walt Whitman imagined the “wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths” of the unimaginable “world below the brine,” what opened the terrestrial imagination to the realities of that unseen and unfathomed world was the artwork of Else Bolstelmann (1882–1961) — some of it preserved in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s wonderful digital collections and featured in a Drawing Center exhibition; some, along with her surviving papers, brought to light by oceanographer Edith Widder in her heroic resuscitation of Bostelmann’s forgotten story; some hunted down and restored in my own dives into out-of-print publications and antiquarian collections.
Saber-toothed viper fish (Chauliodus sloanei) chasing the larvae of ocean sunfish (Mona mona), Bermuda, 1934. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)
Born in Germany, where she was already an established artist before marrying an American cellist and emigrating to New York in her late twenties, Bostelmann was approaching fifty when she heard that the National Geographic Society was sponsoring a trailblazing oceanographic expedition to explore the wonders of the deep, launching from Beebe’s research station off the coast of Bermuda’s marvelously named Nonsuch Island.
A single mother widowed for nearly a decade, keen to put her artistic gift of beauty in the service of our search for scientific truth, she got a hold of Beebe via the New York Zoological Society at the Bronx Zoo, offering her time and talent to his endeavor. Beebe — who believed in the power of the fine arts to render the mysteries of nature and the abstractions of science real — was instantly taken with her exuberant precision, with the striking colors emanating from an unfaltering fidelity to form, and hired her as scientific artist for the expedition.
In Bermuda, Else Bostelmann went on to create more than three hundred stunning plates of marine creatures, many of them previously unseen by human eyes. Two centuries after a Dutch engraver and atlas-maker gave the world the half-imagined fantastical fishes of the first marine encyclopedia illustrated in color, Bostelmann brought to life the whimsy of reality.
Leather-fish (Monacanthus ciliatus), Bermuda, 1930.
Previously unknown species (Saccopharynx harrisoni), Bermuda, 1931.
Spookfish (Opisthoproctidae), Bermuda, 1930s. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)
Astonishingly, Bostelmann never submerged in the Bathysphere herself — she later recalled that because she was the single mother of a teenage daughter, Beebe could not bring himself to put her in danger. (Not an unreasonable worry, given that on one of the unpeopled test submersions, something went awry and the Bathysphere filled with water, certain to have vanquished any human life therein.)
Going only by Beebe’s verbal descriptions, dictated from the underwater wonderland via a telephone line inside the hose by which the Bathysphere dangled from the ship, she became the marine biologist’s prosthetic eye, a human periscope in reverse, bringing to life the strange and wondrous creatures of the deep — flying snails and whiskered shrimp and saber-toothed fish — in watercolor, gouache, and pencil.
Else Bostelmann at work in her surface studio.
Upon his return to the surface, Beebe recalled that the two of them would go into an “artistic huddle” and slowly refine the “proportions, size, color, lights,” and other details of his “brain fish,” integrating his memory of the sight with the artwork, until a “splendid finished painting” emerged.
Spiked and tentacled and bioluminescent, monstrous and magical with their prehistoric jaws and their otherworldly colors, Bostelmann and Beebe’s co-created creatures peer out of her paintings with their perpetually wonder-stricken lidless eyes and ever-hungry mouths. She gave them titles like Big Bad Wolves of an Abyssal Chamber of Horrors and grew especially enchanted by the saber-toothed viper fish. She delighted in their strangeness, in their marvelous monstrosity, in her role as imagist of the deep sublime.
Saber-toothed viper fish approaching shrimp for attack, Bermuda, 1930s. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)
Saber-toothed viperfish attacking shrimp, Bermuda, 1930s.
Big Bad Wolves of an Abyssal Chamber of Horrors, Bermuda, 1934.
Illustrating Beebe’s books and essays for the general public, and paying for her daughter’s education, Bostelmann’s artwork made its way into magazines and museums, into National Geographic and the New York Academy of Sciences, inspiring generations of scientists and awakening millions of ordinary people to the otherworldly enchantments of our home planet.
Post-larval tropical fish, Bermuda, 1930s.
Black swallower fish
Black swallower fish with stomach contents
Five-lined constellation fish (Bathysidus pentagrammus), Bermuda, 1932.
Blue and orange nudibranch, Bermuda, 1931.
Flying pelagic snails, Bermuda, 1930s.
In an era when women — including trained scientists like Carson — were still not allowed on government research vessels, Bostelmann was one of several female artists and scientific collaborators who accompanied Beebe on his expeditions. That Beebe — widely remembered as a man of warmhearted sincerity and generosity of spirit — put women in leadership positions no doubt speaks to his values, an epoch ahead of his era. But he was also a pragmatist — in assembling his team, he sought “adaptable scientific students” willing to go along with his daring ideas and he found that women often had those qualities. When Theodore Roosevelt visited Beebe’s “little party of naturalists,” he found them partaking of that “rare combination of working had at a task in which their souls delighted, and also taking part in a thrilling kind of picnic.” Science, at its best, is indeed just that — a feast of knowledge on a flying picnic-blanket of wonder.
Predatory fish chasing small squid, Bermuda, 1930s.
Bathylagus glacialis eating plankton, Bermuda, 1930.
But as much as Bostelmann cherished her rare access to the world’s unseen wonders, she could not reconcile this reverie for the grandeur of life with the cruelties of science, as commonly practiced in her day. The animals she drew from “specimens” ranged from smaller than a pea to longer than a foot — each a “mythic creature drawn up from the murky, unexplored depths of the ocean,” each revealing “a new world of undreamt beauty” under the microscope, yet each robbed of life on the way to her desk. As she watched them emerge from the rose-tinted waters in the trawl nets at sunset, she sorrowed for the “little captives” and eulogized their lot with uncommon compassion. More than half a century before Thomas Nagel’s classic What Is It Like to Be a Bat? challenged our human consciousness — and conscience — to imagine the creaturely experience of creatures radically unlike us but also aglow with sentience and sensitivity, Bostelmann wrote:
The fish have made a long journey up to my table and, far from their home in eternal night, they have found here an unsought destiny. For hours, perhaps, they had been pulled along in one of the long silk nets trailing behind the stern of a sea going tug. From the net there was no way of escape, nor from the Mason jar fastened at the very end of the net. Thus, from the depths of an everlasting night — about 1000 fathoms — and an ice cold temperature, through an enormous change of pressure, they had been drawn up into a sun-flooded world where they could not possibly adjust themselves. For these reasons they lay lifeless before me.
And so she decided to draw from life, at the bottom of the ocean where life dwelled.
Although Bostelmann never submerged in the Bathysphere, she took dives of her own closer to the surface, clad in sneakers, a red bathing suit, and the era’s cutting-edge aquanaut equipment, which a mere century later appears to us as a specimen from the Atlantis of time, as exotic as Lancelot’s armor. (Being an artist above all else, she actually preferred the shallower waters, as she found that below 25 feet the world lost much of its color, particularly the fiery reds and oranges she so loved — those longer-wavelength colors easiest for water molecules to absorb and snatch from human eyes, leaving only glimmers of the shortest-wave blues and purples in the deep ocean.)
Writing with ravishing poetry of sentiment, in a language not her native, Bostelmann described her rapturous first encounter with what she called the “submarine fairyland,” into which she descended from a rickety forty-foot metal ladder with a sixteen-pound copper diving helmet pressing down on her shoulders:
I felt suddenly suspended in a maze of turquoise-green color as I swayed uncertainly back and forth on the ladder… Through the glass window of the helmet, I still saw the coastline with its white sand, its leaning cedars, and its little houses among which was my island home. But all were now distorted in a very unnatural way by the surface ripples. Hesitantly, step by step, I went downward, thrilled with the expectancy of the vast unknown.
Saber-toothed viper fish attacking small ocean sunfish, Bermuda, 1930s. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)
At around ten feet below, a sudden pain pierced her ears, making it unthinkable to go a step further. But as she looked around, the wonder of it all — “a magnificent valley with peaks of tall coral reefs, swaying sea-plumes, slender gorgonians, purple sea-fans” — dissolved any awareness of the pain, and down she went, until her feet touched “the softest, whitest sand imaginable in which the gentle current had designed symmetrical ripples.”
She had arrived. The surface shimmered six fathoms above her, only about the height of a two-story house, yet a world apart. Hers was the magical realism of reality’s magic, the origami of time, folding past and future into a single form of absolute aliveness:
I had descended to fairyland… I felt as though I were viewing a grand stage setting. Vertical sunbeams broke through the absolute brightness of these levels. Spellbound, I feasted my eyes on fantastic coral formations which, only a short distance way, aded into blue shadowy silhouettes, building themselves up into columns and castles of unknown architecture. Bridges, as I approached them, proved to be bent-over sea-plumes; slender corals reared in the near distance like phantom towers. Everywhere absolute stillness — yet ceaseless activity. For all these formations are colonies of tiny living creatures which, during untold years, have been building their coral dwellings one upon another, the new upon the old.
There, Else Bostelmann set about drawing from life.
On her first dive, she took a small zinc engraver’s plate with a steel pencil attached to it, hoping to record the rough contours of the life-forms she saw. This quickly proved a doomed endeavor — she could barely bend her head without losing her air supply, and the underwater pressure made her hands move at glacial speed as she attempted to drag the pencil over the plate.
Next, with the science-informed confidence that oil paint would retain both its consistency and its brilliancy because it couldn’t mix with water, she tried taking real paint and brushes down below — tying her paintbrushes to one handle of a wash-tub, squeezing paint colors on its bottom as if it were a palette, and tying a string to the other handle to drag the entire contraption behind her as she dove with the canvas under her other arm.
This, too, ended up “quite amusing” a flop: First, she realized she could only paint by laying her supplies onto the ocean floor and awkwardly kneeling over them; then, reaching for the blue paint but dipping her paint in the green, she realized that her human eyes were not adapted to judging even these most proximate distances accurately underwater; finally, upon reaching back to the palette for the correct color, she realized that in her discombobulation, she had forgotten to tie it and the current had carried it away.
But she persisted. After many dives and much experimentation, she finally arrived at her proper underwater studio setup: Using a music stand as an easel, she tied a stretched canvas onto it and had another crew member lower it by rope from the boat after her descent. To her palette, filled with the colors of the rainbow and weighed down with lead, she tied her paintbrushes and delighted in watching their wooden handles float felicitously upright, bobbing in the gentle current.
Else Bostelmann’s cartoon of her underwater studio, Christian Science Monitor, July 18, 1935.
With this improbable and inventive system, Bostelmann captured the essential form and color of what she saw, which she then developed in finer detail at her surface studio, managing thus to “record correct colors of unbelievable charm from some of Nature’s grandest compositions.” Nothing like it had been attempted before, and nothing like it has been accomplished since.
By the end of the 1930s — a decade that marked a Copernican revolution in our understanding of life in the bluest regions of our pale blue dot — Bostelmann wrote of the submarine fairyland she had rendered real and rapturous for the oversea world:
All this artistic beauty of the wonder world of the shallow waters, as well as of the mysterious realms of the deep ocean, has existed for aeons of time all unknown to us. But now we can utilize it, bring it within reach of our modern life, enjoy it as part of our daily existence.
Nothing in the upper world can compare with the luxury of this nether realm of the sea, with its colors, its atmosphere of mystery, of poise, and tranquility. No modern adventure can surpass the supreme joy of exploring its unique grandeur.
Complement with the daring life and art of pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements, who a generation earlier did for mountain flowers what Bostelmann did for undersea fauna, then revisit the story of how the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel turned his personal tragedy into transcendent art in his otherworldly visual studies of jellyfish, in the course of which he coined the word ecology.