Muriel Rukeyser on the Wellspring of Aliveness and the Shared Source of Our Confusion and Our Power in Times of Turmoil

It is such fragile work, such dedicated work, the work of contouring the personhoods of individuals who have inscribed the world with absolutely nothing less than revolutions of the mind, yet have left only faint traces of themselves as individuals, unselved initially by the nature of their innovative concepts– vast, abstract, lightyears beyond the solipsisms of the self– and after that unselved again by the selective cumulative memory we mistake for history and its perennial failure at a foothold in the abstract beyond personhoods, beyond identities, beyond the narrow and unimaginative bounds of so-called human interest. There is quiet heroism to this work of rescuing from obscurity and erasure lives understanding which helps understand the whole ages in which they were lived and the fundaments of sensemaking the following dates have taken as givens.

Like Eddington, Gibbs was a quiet, reserved genius– “quiet, inhibited, remote,” Rukeyser tells us– queer by all affordable reduction; he never wed and lived out his life in his siblings home. Like Newton, who achieved the greatest leap in science within the solitude of his pester quarantine, Gibbs imagined his transformation within the chamber of the mind, within a dense privacy– “in silence, in seclusion, in the years of rejection straight after the Civil War, when abstract work was desired least of all, when the cry was for application and invention and the tools that would broaden the great growing fortunes of the diamond young boys.” And yet there he was, living “closer than any innovator, any poet, any scientific employee in pure creativity to the life of the inventive and organizing spirit of America.”

Such is the work Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913– February 12, 1980) made with Willard Gibbs: American Genius (public library).

Muriel RukeyserRukeysers own genius came abloom in the dawn of her twenties, when her launching poetry collection, Theory of Flight, earned her the Yale Younger Poets Award– Americas longest-running literary distinction. She was not yet thirty when she composed her shocking more-than-biography of the dad of physical chemistry, Willard Gibbs (February 11, 1839– April 28, 1903)– this world-shifting and odd bridge figure in between classical mechanics and quantum physics, commemorated as the best mind of the 19th century, lauded by Einstein as one of the most initial and essential thinkers America ever produced, prophesied to outlive in remembrance all of his contemporaries other than perhaps Lincoln, yet nearly entirely forgotten by Rukeysers time.

Willard Gibbs, 1855. (Beinecke Rare Book & & Manuscript Library, Yale University.) Rukeysers enchantment with Gibbs became the crucible for her long-lasting stewardship of the parallels in between poetry and science, her astute and abiding insight into how they help hold “the giant clusters of event and significance that every day appear” and in doing so “equip our creativities to handle our lives.”

Released in 1942, Rukeysers majestic 446-page masterwork of antierasure grew from the seed of a fascination very first sprouted with her poem “Gibbs,” written as WWII was beginning to cast its umbra of terror over all that is intense and gorgeous in the human spirit, unpeeling from the hallways of time the image of every genius who ever lived as an irrelevance to this apotheosis of dumb damage. It is constantly the poets job to protect the relevance of radiance, whatever its shape and subject, therefore she did. From the life of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser drew something bigger, vaster, more glowing than his life, than any life– a celebration of life itself, of the living mind and its deathless creativity and the power of that creativity to irradiate the world with the wonder of possibility. It is the connective tissue of her idea, the poetic musculature of context and principle propping up the skeleton of the dead scientists life, that renders Rukeysers book a revelation from the opening page:

Whatever has actually happened, whatever is going to happen worldwide, it is the living minute which contains the amount of the enjoyment, this minute in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future. Here is all the developing greatness of the imagine the world, the pure flash of temporary imagination, the vision of life lived outside of victory or defeat, in continuous accomplishment and defeat, in the present, alive. All the crafts of subtlety, all the effort, all the solitude and death, the thin and blazing threads of reason, the spill of true blessing, the passion behind these silences– all the development turns to one end: the fertilizing of the moment, so that there might be more life.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.) Writing from within the savage profligacy of a specific moment in a world unworlded by its most harmful war yet, Rukeyser demands the irrepressible aliveness that consecrates today, any present, and that springs from the indivisibility of the life of the body and the life of the mind:

Spring, and the years, the wars, and the concepts turned down, the swarming and confidential individuals turned down, and the sluggish climb of believed to be more whole, the few accepted flames of reality in a darkness of battle and more rejection and further fight. We know the darkness of the past, we have a conscious body of knowledge– and under it, the black country of a lost and squandered and confidential world … jungle-land, inefficient as nature, prodigal.
The hidden life of the senses, the vibrant, speculative life of the mind. The man over his table, glass shine of the test-tubes shown in the eyes; the lady looking into her thought of the child not yet born … We see, in this minute of the world, the lives of many people brought to a time of stress.

In a sentiment which Octavio Paz (whom Rukeyser equated) would pertain to echo a number of years later on in his observation that “there is something revealing in the persistence with which an individuals will question itself throughout particular periods of its growth,” she includes:

Male *, the secret; guy, the pure force; male, the taproot of naked vision, the source himself, will look in such a moment for much deeper sources, for the sources of power that can bring a fuller life to a desperate time. And the root of such power, of such invention, is in the creative lives of particular men and females, reacting in their way and with their correct kinds of love to the desires of history– that is, to the desires of the individuals at that moment, nevertheless disguised, dark and however premature.

For Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs was among those individuals; for me, the people whose lives and enjoys I contoured in Figuring were, and individuals in whose lives and likes I have stayed in the years considering that: Mary Shelley, Walt Whitman, Rukeyser herself.

Rukeyser keeps in mind that however strenuous our scholarship, it is constantly at bottom an anticipation to attempt to “resolve the personality” and reanimate the lives and worlds of the long-gone individuals whose work has actually shaped our own lives and our understanding of the world. In a passage to which I relate in the marrow of my being, she adds:

When one is a female, when one is composing poems, when one is drawn through a passion to know people today and the web in which they, suffering, find themselves, to learn the people, to dissect the web, one offers with the procedures themselves. To see and state the complete catastrophe that the individuals have actually brought on themselves by letting these processes slip out of control of the people. To find sources, in our own people, in the living people.

In consonance with my long time conviction that history is not what took place, however what endures the shipwrecks of judgment and chance, Rukeyser grieves the erasure of a lot of such titans of spirit from our cumulative selective memory, mourns their loss “through waste and recklessness,” and offers the single most accurate and poignant diagnosis I have actually ever experienced of what ails our systems of remembrance and sensemaking, which are eventually our systems of future-making:

This recklessness is complicated and specialized. It is a primary sign of the disease of our schools, which let the kinds of knowledge fall away from each other, and waste understanding, and time, and people. All our training plays into this; our arts do; and our federal government. It is a disease of company, it makes more waste and war.

Both in her option of subject (a guy of such singular, specialized, abstract genius) and in her treatment of it (so extensive in scholarship, so rapturous in breadth of belief), Rukeysers Willard Gibbs stands as a strong remedy to this cultural recklessness– and falls as one, having died out of print by these extremely forces, these abiding symbols of the ahistorical and segregationist impulses developing in the puerile bosom of our species, which might, just might, one day mature to grow out of. Up until then, we have the poets– in the largest Baldwinian sense– to salve our collective amnesia with their vibrant benedictions of immortal reality.

From the life of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser drew something larger, vaster, more glowing than his life, than any life– a celebration of life itself, of the living mind and its deathless creativity and the power of that creativity to irradiate the world with the marvel of possibility. Writing from within the savage wastefulness of a specific minute in a world unworlded by its most damaging war yet, Rukeyser insists on the irrepressible aliveness that consecrates the present, any present, and that springs from the indivisibility of the life of the body and the life of the mind:

The surprise life of the senses, the vivid, speculative life of the mind. The guy over his table, glass shine of the test-tubes reflected in the eyes; the female staring into her idea of the child not yet born … We see, in this moment of the world, the lives of numerous people brought to a time of stress. And the root of such power, of such invention, is in the creative lives of specific men and females, reacting in their way and with their correct kinds of love to the dreams of history– that is, to the wishes of the individuals at that minute, however disguised, dark and however premature.