A Symphony of Voices
On Maria Popova’s Figuring, an elaborate, never-ending vortex
of intellectual six-degrees-of-separation.
By Catherine Johnson
“The stories we tell about our own lives, to others but especially to ourselves, we tell in order to make our lives livable,” writes Maria Popova in her new book, Figuring. At its core this book is precisely that: a beautifully woven collage of stories about how we tell stories—how we construct the narratives of individuals and humanity at large in order to make our relative millisecond of existence worthwhile. I have the urge to declare: never have we needed a reality-check, a sense of perspective, quite like we do in this current moment. Figuring both satisfies this need and refutes its very premise, reminding us that the desire for perspective is perennial; it never goes out of style.
It’s the kind of tome you want to read with highlighter in hand, because there’s an aphoristic gem on nearly every page. This will come as no surprise to readers of Popova’s popular blog “Brain Pickings,” which she describes as “an inventory of the meaningful life.” Like the blog, Figuring is as much a symphony of others’ voices as it is Popova’s, and provides the same constellation of distilled wisdom from artists, scientists, philosophers—really, anyone who has anything interesting to say about what it means to be on this planet—that maps humanity’s search for meaning. Poets are put into conversation with scientists whose work illuminates art that dovetails with a novel…and so on. It’s an elaborate, never-ending vortex of intellectual six-degrees-of-separation.
This is fun—at first. But over the course of 500-plus pages, Popova’s constant quoting will either delight or frustrate its readers. Figuring is both grandiose and nuanced. While most of the book is straight-up biography and recounts the lives of a select few trailblazing thinkers and makers—astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer Margaret Fuller, poet Emily Dickinson, and environmentalist Rachel Carson—the cast of supporting characters is vast—from Milton and Beethoven to Kierkegaard, James Baldwin, and Frederick Douglass to Kurt Cobain and Ursula K. Le Guin. And the backdrop for this saga is nothing short of the universe itself, from the Big Bang to now. Out of this chaos Popova creates a picture of humankind in the cosmos that breaches our traditional paths of truth seeking, or, as she puts it:
Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth—not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once...Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of ‘biography’ but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams. Lives interweave other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life.
For those, like myself, who struggle to keep dates and centuries straight, Popova offers an alternative to the conventional chronology of history. She resists dichotomies and linearity at every turn, reminding us that that chronological way of understanding the world limits our appreciation of its complexity and interconnectedness, distorts our sense of the past, and fools us into thinking it is a stable, knowable thing:
We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records, for history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.
Popova celebrates this mode of knowing while simultaneously questioning and undermining it, never allowing it to assume the kind of authority we’re used to granting history books and biographers. She tempers her own role as storyteller by pulling back the curtain and reminding us that this is an ongoing journey, one that is never finished and will always be incomplete. The omniscient third person of history is continually interrupted by her own first person in the midst of discovery—sitting in libraries, parsing documents, reading journals and letters. She points to the gaps and holes, filling in the mysteries with her own imagination.
What we don’t know about life is echoed in what we don’t know about the figures we celebrate, and Popova resists the temptation to lionize and idealize her subjects. Galileo, for example, Popova says, “who was right about so much, was also wrong about so much—something worth remembering as we train ourselves in the cultural acrobatics of nuanced appreciation without idolatry.” While Figuring is nothing if not meticulously researched, Popova won’t let us forget how much we don’t know, how much guesswork is involved in meaning-making, how our heroes are just as much our own creation as theirs. This is particularly emphasized as Popova investigates her subject’s love lives (and triangles): Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert (and Austin Dickinson), Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. Despite the love letters and poems and diary entries that remain from these romances, Popova pauses to remark:
It is almost banal to say, yet it needs to be said: No one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people...The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable...can’t begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.
This might sound like the kind of postmodern deconstruction of truth that’s so fun to criticize these days. But Popova’s prose—perhaps a touch too elevated for its own good at times, and which risks sounding like she’s trying too hard to emulate her Transcendentalist forbearers—still rings with sincerity. I found Figuring to be a salve for irony and disillusionment without being empty inspiration. Just as she leads us to marvel at the courage, integrity, and grit of the book’s (mostly female) protagonists, diluting complacency and calling us to action (without explicitly uttering the word resist), it’s never at the expense of what some might consider a cold, painful fact: in the cosmic grand scheme of things, we are barely a blip in time. Figuring does what some of the best literature aims to do, which is to force us to acknowledge two seemingly incompatible truths at once: that individuals are both immensely powerful and utterly insignificant. Or as James Baldwin wrote:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength.
This is, of course, no easy task. But as Popova shows us, we are lucky to have a few figures to guide the way.
Catherine Johnson’s work has been published in Oregon Humanities, STORGY, Portland Monthly Magazine, Nowhere Travel Magazine, Elephant Journal, District Lines, and is forthcoming in Scabland Books’ anthology Evergreen: Fairy Tales, Essays & Fables from the Dark Northwest. She blogs at The Bullet and the Butterfly and is a graduate from the MFA program in Nonfiction Creative Writing at Portland State University. Catherine lives and teaches writing in Portland, Oregon.