Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Call it Self or Call it Soul

I am reading When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson, partly because I love her writing, partly because when I was a child I read books, too, and partly to counter the blue effects of The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa.

In Pessoa, the disquiet goes on and on. In Robinson, it is given a name, a context in literature, and a buoying calm: "lacrimae rerum, the tears in things." She is citing Virgil, the Aeneid, and reminding us that the ancients saw, knew, and intuited so much. Why do we ever reduce or dismiss them?

So I am still reading Pessoa, experiencing his tenderness alongside his sadness in Lisbon, but now I am feeling uplifted, comforted, and calmed by Robinson, who remains remarkably afloat on a sea of tears, even in the face of our potential destruction from the unintended consequences of our actions. Which the ancients took on, repeatedly, in literature. New threats: bacteria, nuclear fission; old source: human nature, hubris.

Meanwhile, there's a new poetry feature up today at Escape Into Life, which references good old Walt Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass, singer of "Song of Myself." Laura Madeline Wiseman has continued to imagine him in poetry and in love. Beautiful photos there and here by Sebastien Tabuteaud.

I read a lot of science, and my husband is educating himself on quantum physics. This morning, I read to him from Robinson's books of essays:

"Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes "soul" would do nicely."

I have a feeling Walt Whitman would have liked Marilynne Robinson, so "elegant and capable" a soul. She continues, later in the paragraph: "At this point of dynamic convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered. And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness."

That's self-awareness, not self-consciousness (in a negative sense), nor self-absorption. Self-awareness takes its place among other humans, being generously aware of them, too.

Pessoa felt his alienation. Whitman felt his connection, though one of a kind. Hmm.


7 comments:

Maureen said...

Interesting to think of pairing Whitman and Robinson.

Wonderful feature at EIL.

Jennifer Jackson said...

Extraordinary blog, Kathleen. Part of my research explores representations of subjectivity, especially as "self" or "soul" seem about to be transfigured or replaced by neuroscience and its many insights. I work on Richard Powers' novels and writers mapping posthuman possibilities, among others, but am often drawn to Robinson or Annie Dillard, who leave.room for recognizably human hopes and worries.

I don't know Pessoa's work but will pursue.

Thank you for providing such thoughtful writing as I avoid grading essays! I learned about you through Mark Rennie, a high school friend from long ago. I believe we're both in IL

Kathleen said...

Thank you, Maureen and Jennifer, for your thoughts and comments. I love how we have come together here in the blend of connections and interests!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Didn't know about the Robinson book. Will add it to the list ASAP! Love her.

Going over to EIL now.

Kathleen said...

Thanks, Sandy. I admire and enjoy Robinson's essays. She is learned, calm, reasonable, and compassionate, always.

nene said...

yes, I will also add to my reading list, Ms Marilyn Robinson. I'm also reading Fernando Pessoa's, The Book of Disquiet. His writing is wonderful, his life's introspection and reflection is 'disquieting'.

I referred my nephew to EIL. He is an artist, different mediums, just moved near me in Michigan from Los Angeles.

Gracias for all your references.

Kathleen said...

Thanks, nene. Glad to hear of all this!