… that today is Paranoid Schizophrenic Duck Day? In 1996, according to the comic strip, “Mother Goose and Grimm,” after years of therapy, Daffy Duck finally changed his name to Paranoid Schizophrenic Duck. 😉
Today’s Inspirational Quote:
“Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.”
DHANANJAY PARKHE! This is Brain Pickings midweek pick-me-up, drawn from my fifteen-year archive of ideas unblunted by time, resurfaced as timeless nourishment for heart, mind, and spirit. (If you don’t yet subscribe to the standard Sunday newsletter of new pieces published each week, you can sign up here — it’s free.) If you missed last week’s archival resurrection — poignant parenting advice from Kahlil Gibran — you can catch up right here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – all these years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
“We’re all intrinsically of the same substance,” astrophysicist Janna Levin wrote in her exquisite inquiry into whether the universe is infinite or finite. “The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.” How, then, do we set aside this instinctual absurdity in order to grapple with the concept of infinity, which pushes our creaturely powers of comprehension past their limit so violently?
That’s what the mathematician and writer Lillian R. Lieber (July 26, 1886–July 11, 1986) set out to explore more than half a century earlier in the unusual and wonderful 1953 gem Infinity: Beyond the Beyond the Beyond (public library) — one of seventeen marvelous books she published in her hundred years, inviting the common reader into science with uncommon ingenuity and irresistible warmth. Emanating from Lieber’s discussion of infinity is a larger message about what it means, and what it takes, to be a finite but complete and balanced human being.
Lillian R. Lieber
Lieber belongs to the “enchanter” category of great writers and was among the first generation of women mathematicians to hold academic positions in her role chairing the Department of Mathematics at Long Island University. She had a peculiar style resembling poetry, though she insisted it was not free verse but, rather, a deliberate way of breaking lines in order to speed up reading and intensify comprehension. (Curiously, I find her style to have precisely the opposite effect, which is why I’ve enjoyed it so tremendously — it does what poetry does, which is slow down the spinning world and dilate the pupil of attention so that the infinite becomes comprehensible.)
Populating her books is the character of T.C. Mits, “the Celebrated Man-in-the-Street,” and his mate, Wits, “the Woman-in-the-Street.” Accompanying Lieber’s writing are original line drawings by her own mate, the illustrator Hugh Gray Lieber.
Lieber’s work was so influential in elevating the popular science genre that even Albert Einstein himself heartily praised her book on relativity, yet many of her books have fallen out of print — no doubt because the depth, complexity, and visionary insurgency of her style don’t conform to the morass of formulaic mediocrity passing for popular science writing today.
Lieber frames the premise of Infinity in the charming opening verse — or, as she insisted, decidedly not-verse — of the second chapter:
Of course you know that the Infinite is a subject which has always been of the deepest interest to all people — to the religious, to poets, to philosophers, to mathematicians, as well as to T.C. Mits (The Celebrated Man-in-the-Street) and to his mate, Wits (the Woman-in-the-Street). And it probably interests you, or you would not be reading this book.
But it is in the first chapter, titled “Our Good Friend, Sam,” that Lieber’s genius for science, metaphor, and wordplay shines most brilliantly as she takes on everything from the symbiotic relationship between art and science to free will to the vital difference between common sense and truth to the evils of antisemitism and all exclusionary ideologies. (It is self-evident to point out that Lieber, a Jewish woman writing shortly after WWII in a climate of acute antisemitism and sexism, was, like any artist, bringing all of herself to her art.)
For those who have not met SAM before, I wish to summarize VERY BRIEFLY what his old acquaintances may already know, and then to tell to all of you MORE about him. In the first place, the name “SAM” was first derived from Science, Art, Mathematics; but I now find the following interpretation much more helpful: the “S” stands for OUR CONTACT WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD; please note that I do NOT say that “S” represents “facts” or “reality”, for the only knowledge we can have of the outside world is through our own senses or “extended” senses — like microscopes and telescopes et al which help us to see better, or radios, etc., which help us to hear sounds which we would otherwise not be aware of at all, and so on and so on.
But of course there may be many, many more things in the world which we do not yet perceive either directly through our senses or with the aid of our wonderful inventions. And so it would be Quite arrogant to speak as if we knew what the outside world “really” is. That is why I wish to give to “S” the more modest interpretation and emphasize that it represents merely that PART of the OUTSIDE world which we are able to contact, — and therefore even “S” has a “human” element in it.
Next: the “A” in SAM represents our INTUITION, our emotions, — loves, hates, fears, etc. — and of course is also a “human” element.
And the “M” represents our ability to draw inferences, and hence includes mathematics, logic, “common sense”, and other ways in which we mentally derive the “consequences” before they hit us. So the “M” too is a “human” element.
Thus SAM is entirely human though not an individual human being.
Furthermore, a Scientist utilizes the SAM within him, for he must make “observations” (“S”), he must use his “intuition” (“A”) to help him formulate a good set of basic postUlates, from which his “reasoning powers” (“M”) will then help him to derive conclusions which in turn must again be “tested” (“S” again!) to see if they are “correct”.
Perhaps you are thinking that SAM and the Scientist are really one and the same, and that all I am doing is to recommend that we all become Scientists! But you will soon see that this is not the case at all. For, in the first place, it too often happens, — alas and alack! — that when a Scientist is not actually engaged in doing his scientific work, he may “slip” and not use his “S”, his “A”, and his “M”, so carefully, will bear watching, like the rest of us.
So, you see, being a SAMite and being a Scientist are NOT one and the same.
Besides, a SAMite may not be a Scientist at all, but an Artist! For an Artist, too, must use his “S” in order to “observe” the world, his “A” (“intuition”) to sense some basic ways to translate his “observations”, and his “M” to derive his “results” in the form of drawings, music, and so on. Thus an Artist, too, WHEN AT HIS BEST, is a SAMite.
Perhaps Lieber’s most interesting, layered, and timelessly relevant discussion is of the concept of freedom, its misconceptions and mutations, and its implication for our private, public, and political lives:
Now consider a person who is SOMETIMES or OFTEN like this: SaM. He is evidently relying very heavily on his “intuition”, his “hunches”, his “emotions”, hardly checking to see whether the “observations” of the outside world (“S”) and his own reasoning powers (“M”) show his “hunch” to be correct or not! And so, precious as our “intuition” may be, it can go terribly “haywire” if not checked and double-checked by “S” and “M”. Thus, a person who habitually behaves like this is allowing his “S” and “M” to become practically atrophied, and is the wild, “over-emotional” type, who is not only a nuisance to have around, but is hurting himself and not allowing himself to become adjusted to the world he lives in. Such a person, with an exaggerated “A”, and atrophied “S” and “M”, has a feeling of “freedom”, of not being held down by “S” and “M” (“facts” and “reason”) ; but, as you can easily see this makes for Anarchy, for a lack of “self-control” — and can lead to fatty degeneration from feeling “free” to eat all he wants; to the D.T.’s from feeling “free” to drink all he wants; to accidents because he feels “free” to drive as fast as he wants and to “hog” the road; to a sadistic lack of consideration for others by feeling “free” to kick them in the teeth for “nuttin’”; to antisocial “black market” practices from a similar feeling of “freedom”, giving “free” reign to the “A” without the necessary consideration of “facts” (“S”) and “reason” (“M”). Needless to say this is a PATHOLOGICAL FREEDOM as against a NORMAL, HEALTHY FREEDOM of the well-balanced SAM which is so necessary in society in which EACH individual must be guided by the SAM within himself in order to avoid conflict with the SAM in someone else. This is something that a bully does not understand — that if he acts like a pathological sAm, he induces sAmite-ism in others, as in mob violence; this is indeed a horrible “ism” that can destroy a society as well as individuals in it.
Lieber proceeds to build on this taxonomy of psychological imbalances, reminiscent of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal ‘s taxonomy of the “diseases of the will.” She turns to the next imbalance — the person blinded by isolated facts, unable to integrate them into an understanding of the big picture:
Similarly, there is the Sam type: he may be called the “tourist” type — running around seeing this and that but without the “imagination” (“A”) or the reasoning power (“M”) to put his observations together with either heart (“A”) or mind (“M”), but is concerned only with ISOLATED BITS OF INFORMATION: he is like the man who, seeing a crowd had gathered, wanted to know what happened. and, when someone told him “Ein Mann hat sich dem Kopf zerbrochen” (It happened to be in Germany), corrected the speaker’s grammar and said “DEN Kopf!” He knew his bit of grammar, but what an inadequate reaction under the circumstances. don’t you think?
Next comes the flawed rationalizer, who misuses the tools of logic against reason:
And there is also the saM type — one who can reason (“M”) but starts with perhaps some postulate (“A”) favoring murder. Such a man would make a wonderfully “rational” homicidal maniac or crook who could plan you a murder calmly and rationally enough to surprise any who are not familiar with this sAM type of pathological case.
Lieber returns to the core purpose of her SAM metaphor and its relationship to the central question of the book:
Thus SAM gives us a way of examining our own behavior and that of others, taking into account the “facts” (“S”), and using imagination and sympathy (“A”) in a rational way (“M”).
Are you perhaps thinking, “Well, this may be interesting, but why all this talk about SAM, when you are writing a book about Infinity?” To which the answer is: The yearning for Infinity, for Immortality, is an “intuitive” yearning (“A”): we look for support for it in the physical world (“S”), we try to reason about it (“M”), — but only when we turn the full light of SAM upon it are we able to make genuine progress in considering Infinity.
In a brilliant and necessary caveat reminiscent of mathematician Kurt Gödel’s world-changing incompleteness theorems, which unsettled some of our most elemental assumptions by demonstrating the limits of logic turned unto itself, Lieber adds:
There is only one more point I must make here: Namely, that even being a well-balanced SAMite — and not a pathological anti-SAMite like SAM, etc. etc. — is NECESSARY but NOT SUFFICIENT. You will probably agree that it is further necessary to have our SAM up-to-date. For he is a GROWING boy, and what was good enough for him in 1800 is utterly inadequate in 1953; and unless the “S” is up-to-date and the postulates (“A”) and reasoning (“M”) are appropriately MODERN, we cannot make proper ADJUSTMENT in the world TODAY. And ADJUSTMENT is what we must have. For adjustment means SURVIVAL, and that is a MINIMUM demand — for, without survival we need not bother to study anything we just won’t be here to tell the tale.
In a passage of piercing pertinence today, as we watch various oppressive ideologies and tyrannical regimes engulf the globe, Lieber concludes by returning to the subject of freedom, its malformations, and its redemptions:
And so let me summarize by saying that the ANTI-SAMITES hurt not only themselves, by getting “ulcers”, nervous breakdowns, drinking excessively, etc. etc., but hurt others also, for from their ranks are recruited those who advocate war and destruction, the homicidal maniacs, the greedy crooks, the gamblers, the drunken drivers, the liars, et al.
Just a word more about FREEDOM — you have seen above the pathological idea of freedom, but when you consider this important concept from SAM’s WEll-BALANCED viewpoint, you will see that, from this point of view, the “feeling” of freedom (“A”), being supported on one side by “S” (the “facts” of the outside world), and on the other by “M” (“sweet reasonableness”) — is definitely NOT the ANARCHICAL freedom of SAM, but is a sort of CONTROLLED FREEDOM — controlled by facts and reason and is therefore SELF-controlled (by the SAM within us) and hence implies VOLUNTARY COOPERATION rather than FORCE. Thus anyone who demands “freedom unlimited” as his right, is a pathological SAM, a destructive creature; whereas, in mathematics you will find the CONTROLLED FREEDOM of SAM and you will feel refreshed to see how genuine progress can be made with this kind of freedom.
Boyfriends and girlfriends are gonna come and go, but this is for life. — Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) to Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) in “Friends”
You’re like the only person who’s ever gotten what I’m about. — Nick Andopolis (Jason Segal) to Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) in “Freaks and Geeks”
It’s my responsibility as your best friend to make sure you do exciting things, even when you don’t want to. — Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy) to Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) in “Gilmore Girls”
I need you to text me every 30 seconds saying that everything is gonna be okay. — Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to Ann Perkins in “Parks and Recreation”
You’re not normal. I love you, but you’re a pod. — Jerry Seinfeld to Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) in “Seinfeld”
Milhouse: Bart, I don’t want you to see me cry. Bart: Oh, come on, I’ve seen you cry a million times. — Milhouse Van Houten and Bart Simpson in “The Simpsons”
Derek is the love of my life, but you’re my soulmate. — Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) to Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) in “Grey’s Anatomy”
Friendships don’t magically last 40 years. You have to invest in them. — Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) to Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) in “Sex and the City”
This is a hug, OK? This is a hug! And this is when you hug someone, when you care about them and you want them to know that! — Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) to Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) in “Boy Meets World”
My best friend is Shirley Feeney, the best in all the land. Whenever we’re in trouble, we face it hand in hand. We laugh when we are happy, we cry when we are sad. We talk when we are lonely, just to know her makes me glad. If I had one wish in life, I know what it would be. I’d have Shirl as my best friend, for all eternity. — Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall) to the crowd at The Buttered Cocoon in “Laverne & Shirley”
Different authors take different approaches to ending their novels. The prolific Joyce Carol Oates, for example, believes “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” Novelist and playwright Colm Tóibín, on the other hand, suggests that “Ending a novel is almost like putting a child to sleep — it can’t be done abruptly.” Science-fiction author Frank Herbert, meanwhile, keeps it simple: “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
Whatever the approach, nailing the ending is arguably the trickiest part of any story: If an author comes up short with their finale, the reader will be left unsatisfied at best, or angry at worst. The following closing lines are often considered among the finest in literature, whether they are happy or sad, hopeful or hopeless, and in some cases simply heart-wrenching. And, yes: spoiler alert.
He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.
– “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley, 1818
Regretful of his actions and companionless after the loss of his creator, the Monster states his intention to kill himself, now that he is reconciled with death. He pushes himself off on an ice raft into the darkness of the Arctic Ocean, to die alone in isolation. But wait: No one actually sees the Monster die. Is he still out there? It’s a sad ending, but it’s a classic horror finale.
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
– “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, 1884
So here we stand, at the end of a great adventure, with Huck ready to set off on further escapades rather than go back to Aunt Sally and be civilized. It seems simple at first, but the ending of Huckleberry Finn is ambiguous, a fact that has led to much commentary and analysis. Is Huck simply fated to a life on the frontier and a potentially futile quest for American freedom? Will he end up a cog in the idea of Manifest Destiny, perhaps playing a part in the subjugation of Native Americans? Is he no real hero at all, just a morally conflicted boy? Twain leaves this for the reader to decide.
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
– “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, 1899
Heart of Darkness ends geographically where it began: with the crew of the Nellie anchored on the River Thames, looking at London. The ominous ending, however, brings about a symbolic reversal. The journey into the Congo was supposedly a trip into the heart of darkness, but now Conrad presents London as that dark core, a center of European imperialism and moral bankruptcy.
I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another… then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
– “Ulysses” by James Joyce, 1922
Joyce’s epic experimental work ends with a sentence that’s actually 3,687 words long, which is a bit long to include here in its entirety. It is the end of Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness soliloquy, which, like the novel itself, is near impenetrable for some readers and one of the greatest things ever written for others. In these final lines, Molly reminisces about when she first met Leopold Bloom and knew she was in love with him, accepting him with an enthusiastic “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
– “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Arguably the most famous closing line in literature, these words bring the reader back to the theme of memories of the past and their relationship with dreams of the future. And, specifically, the American dream, about which the novel is cynical. It’s a downbeat ending, finishing with a continued struggle, the boat going against the current, never able to move beyond the past.
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
– “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, 1927
Woolf’s modernist masterpiece unfolds through the shifting perspectives of each character’s consciousness. Through their thoughts and observations, we see the vast spaces that must be crossed to connect with another human. But while the characters’ attempts to bring about any order to life fall short, it is Lily’s final, exhausted brush stroke that sets down her vision, bringing a semblance of order and permanency through art.
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
– “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, 1945
The 19th-century British politician, Lord Acton, famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This concept is echoed in the last line of Animal Farm, as the farm animals watch the humans and pigs eat dinner together. They can no longer tell the pigs and humans apart: The pigs have become as oppressive as the human farmers, corrupted by their newfound power. It’s a bleak commentary on political systems.
He loved Big Brother.
– “1984” by George Orwell, 1949
Orwell ends 1984 with one of the most devastating final lines in literature. The rebel Winston Smith, finally broken, looks at an image of Big Brother and experiences a sense of victory because he now loves his oppressor. It is an unbearably bleak ending — but is there some hope? Margaret Atwood, author of the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, has a slightly more optimistic theory.
Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
– “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger, 1951
The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is still struggling with alienation, angst, and communication right up until the end. But there seems to be a small ray of hope in the very last sentence. Rather than dismiss everyone who he has come across during the novel, Holden now acknowledges that he does value — and miss — some people.
The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.
– “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, 1961
For some 450 pages, Yossarian is caught in the Catch-22: the maddening idea that a soldier can’t plead insanity to escape the war, because wanting to escape the war is completely sane. With the final line, however, Yossarian finally breaks free.