Popova on Woolf

I’m still absorbing yesterday’s Terrible Poem Breakdown and its use of the Druid. I still kind of like the poem! Undeniably terrible, but even so. Terrible poems with druids are not all bad. (Please don’t try to prove me wrong, poets!)

Running through some research on the druids, I came across Maria Popova’s look at Virginia Woolf’s visit to Stonehenge:

In August of 1903, young Woolf journeyed to visit Stonehenge — the legendary prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, which archaeologists believe was built sometime between 3000 BC and 2000 BC by a culture that left no written records and which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved writer on imitation and the arts, the glory of the human mind, and the joy of music and dance — comes 21-year-old Woolf’s beautiful account of visiting the mysterious monument.

Fans of Woolf will enjoy this book – and with passages like these who can blame them!

There are theories I know — without end; & we, naturally, made a great many fresh, & indisputable discoveries of our own. The most attractive, & I suppose most likely, is that some forgotten people built here a Temple where they worshipped the sun; there is a rugged pillar someway out side the circle whose peak makes exactly that point on the rim of the earth where the sun rises in the summer solstice. And there is a fallen stone in the middle, longer & larger than the other hewn rocks it lies among which may have been an altar — & the moment the sun rose the Priest of that savage people slaughtered his victim here in honour of the Sun God. We certainly saw the dent of his axe in the stone. Set up the pillars though in some other shape, & we have an entirely fresh picture; but the thing that remains in ones mind, whatever one does, is the stupendous mystery of it all. Man has done nothing to change Salisbury plain since these stones were set here; they have seen sunrise & moonrise over those identical swells & ridges for — I know not how many thousand years.

This is Woolf at her best: wondrous and awestruck, yet fully in command of her own intelligence and perspicacity. I want to visit Stonehenge! And to read Virginia Woolf all over again! Thank you, Maria Popova.

And now, for someone around my age, and for whom Stonehenge can only conjure up one possible thing (and those of you who know who you are know exactly what that is, and have been smiling for several paragraphs), this passage by Woolf:

I suddenly looked ahead, & saw with the start with which one sees in real life what ones eye has always known in pictures, the famous circle of Stonehenge. Pictures give one no idea of size; & I had imagined something on a much larger scale.

Oh YES, Virginia!!!

Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins know exactly how you feel.

Popova on Lightman

Just when I get beyond my fear of falling into a black hole, along comes Maria Popova to throw me back into a cosmic tailspin.

In the title essay of his excellent The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, which also gave us this beautiful meditation on science and spirituality, Alan Lightman points to fine-tuning — the notion that the basic forces propelling our universe appear to be fine-tuned in such a way as to make the existence of life possible — as a centerpiece of how modern scientists have attempted to answer these age-old question [of why our world exists and what nothing is].

So far so good. Here’s where I start to get uneasy:

The most compelling example of fine-tuning is dark energy — an invisible and unexpected cosmological force that hides in empty space and works against the universe’s slowing expansion, a sort of “cosmic accelerator pedal” that is speeding up its expansion and causing galaxies to drift away from one another.

Don’t… like… dark… energy… (takes deep breath). Too much is unexplained! And having its foot on the accelerator pedal… well, that just seems malicious to me. Things fall apart! The center does not hold! And the universe is stuffed with something we don’t understand!

Popova quotes Lightman:

On one thing most physicists agree. If the amount of dark energy in our universe were only a little bit different than what it actually is, then life could never have emerged. A little larger, and the universe would have accelerated so rapidly that matter in the young universe could never have pulled itself together to form stars and hence complex atoms made in stars. And, going into negative values of dark energy, a little smaller and the universe would have decelerated so rapidly that it would have recollapsed before there was time to form even the simplest atoms.

Huh. Maybe I’ll read the Lightman book, which Popova praises to the, ahem, skies:

[E]xquisitely mind-bending read in its entirety, the kind that will leave you at once educated and disoriented, but above all able to embrace and celebrate the profound uncertainty that propels rather than hinders human knowledge.

Certainly a ringing endorsement from one of my favorite ringing endorsementers.

Then again, just look at that title. The accidental universe? The world I thought I knew? No thanks!

Certainty is hard to come by in this world, Mr. Lightman. I’ll take my share and get out.

Popova on Schopenhauer

The great Maria Popova takes a look at our favorite dismal crank Schopenhauer.  (If you haven’t read Schopenhauer, start reading! Unless you’re one of those people who view cloudy days as a personal offense against your nature.)

Popova’s article looks at Schopenhauer through a particular lens, asking whether he “presaged” today’s Internet writing on headline-and-slideshow sites like Buzzfeed. That’s her particular angle, but there’s more to it than that. Schopenhauer’s views on art and literature are just as relevant to the economics of self-publishing as they are to the economics of blogging and websites.

Popova focuses on this:

The subjects may be of such a nature as to be accessible and well known to everybody; but the form in which they are expounded, what has been thought about them, gives the book its value, and this depends upon the author. Therefore if a book, from this point of view, is excellent and without a rival, so also is its author. From this it follows that the merit of a writer worth reading is all the greater the less he is dependent on matter — and the better known and worn out this matter, the greater will be his merit. The three great Grecian tragedians, for instance, all worked at the same subject.


It is on form that we are dependent, where the matter is accessible to every one or very well known; and it is what has been thought about the matter that will give any value to the achievement; it will only be an eminent man who will be able to write anything that is worth reading. For the others will only think what is possible for every other man to think. They give the impress of their own mind; but every one already possesses the original of this impression.

That’s an interesting look at a site like Buzzfeed. But what does this mean for the self-publishing author, who tirelessly puts out content, crafting one’s own covers, using today’s publishing models to put out a particular vision? Any hope that the public will find it? That it will catch on, even in spite of not having marketing experts or a professional gloss? Well, maybe…

However, the public is very much more interested in matter than in form, and it is for this very reason that it is behindhand in any high degree of culture.

Or maybe the point is not to play a short game:

The deplorable condition of the literature of to-day … is due to the fact that books are written for the sake of earning money. Every one who is in want of money sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it.