The Twin Root of Our Confusion and Our Power in Times of Turmoil: Muriel Rukeyser on the Wellspring of Aliveness

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

It is such delicate work, such devoted work, the work of contouring the personhoods of persons who have inscribed the world with nothing less than revolutions of the mind, yet have actually left just faint traces of themselves as persons, unselved first by the nature of their revolutionary ideas– vast, abstract, lightyears beyond the solipsisms of the self– and then unselved once again by the selective collective memory we error for history and its perennial failure at a grip 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 assists understand the entire eras in which they were lived and the fundaments of sensemaking the following dates have taken as givens.

Like Eddington, Gibbs was a peaceful, reserved genius– “silent, inhibited, remote,” Rukeyser tells us– queer by all reasonable reduction; he never married and lived out his life in his siss house. Like Newton, who achieved the best leap in science within the solitude of his plague quarantine, Gibbs imagined his revolution within the chamber of the mind, within a thick privacy– “in silence, in seclusion, in the years of rejection directly after the Civil War, when abstract work was desired least of all, when the cry was for application and development and the tools that would broaden the terrific growing fortunes of the diamond boys.” And yet there he was, living “closer than any inventor, any poet, any scientific worker in pure imagination to the life of the inventive and arranging spirit of America.”

Such is the work Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913– February 12, 1980) made with Willard Gibbs: American Genius (town 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 accolade. She was not yet thirty when she composed her staggering 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, celebrated as the greatest mind of the 19th century, lauded by Einstein as one of the most original and important thinkers America ever produced, prophesied to outlast in remembrance all of his contemporaries except possibly Lincoln, yet practically totally forgotten by Rukeysers time.

Published 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 starting to cast its umbra of fear over all that is gorgeous and intense in the human spirit, unpeeling from the corridors of time the image of every genius who ever lived as an irrelevance to this apotheosis of dumb destruction. It is constantly the poets job to protect the relevance of glow, whatever its shape and subject, and so she did. From the life of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser drew something larger, vaster, more radiant than his life, than any life– a celebration of life itself, of the living mind and its deathless imagination and the power of that imagination to irradiate the world with the marvel of possibility. It is the connective tissue of her thought, the poetic musculature of context and principle propping up the skeleton of the dead researchers life, that renders Rukeysers book a discovery from the opening page:

Whatever has happened, whatever is going to occur worldwide, it is the living moment which contains the amount of the excitement, this minute in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future. Here is all the establishing greatness of the dream of the world, the pure flash of momentary imagination, the vision of life lived beyond triumph or defeat, in continual victory and defeat, in the present, alive. All the crafts of subtlety, all the effort, all the isolation and death, the thin and blazing threads of reason, the spill of true blessing, the enthusiasm behind these silences– all the development relies on one end: the fertilizing of the minute, so that there may be more life.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.) Composing from within the savage wastefulness of a specific moment in a world unworlded by its most devastating war yet, Rukeyser insists on 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 ideas declined, the swarming and confidential people declined, and the sluggish climb of believed to be more entire, the few accepted flames of truth in a darkness of fight and more rejection and further battle. We know the darkness of the past, we have a mindful body of knowledge– and under it, the black nation of a lost and squandered and anonymous world … jungle-land, inefficient as nature, prodigal.
The hidden life of the senses, the brilliant, speculative life of the mind. The male over his table, glass shine of the test-tubes reflected in the eyes; the lady staring into her idea of the kid not yet born … We see, in this minute of the world, the lives of numerous individuals brought to a time of tension.

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

It is at this minute that we turn … In the creativities which tapped that energy, in the energy itself and its release, we see our power. Male *, the mystery; man, the pure force; male, the taproot of naked vision, the source himself, will search in such a moment for deeper sources, for the sources of power that can bring a fuller life to a desperate time. We removed the old life, lowering to the root. And the root of such power, of such innovation, is in the imaginative lives of certain males and females, responding in their way and with their appropriate type of love to the wishes of history– that is, to the dreams of individuals at that minute, however disguised, however premature and dark.

For Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs was one of those individuals; for me, the individuals whose lives and likes I contoured in Figuring were, and the individuals in whose lives and likes I have actually stayed in the years because: Mary Shelley, Walt Whitman, Rukeyser herself.

Rukeyser keeps in mind that nevertheless extensive our scholarship, it is always at bottom a presumption to try to “resolve the personality” and reanimate the lives and worlds of the long-gone people whose work has actually formed our own lives and our understanding of the world. In a passage to which I relate in the marrow of my being, she includes:

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

In consonance with my long time conviction that history is not what occurred, but what makes it through the shipwrecks of judgment and possibility, Rukeyser mourns the erasure of so numerous such titans of spirit from our collective selective memory, mourns their loss “through waste and recklessness,” and provides the single most exact and poignant medical diagnosis I have ever experienced of what ails our systems of remembrance and sensemaking, which are eventually our systems of future-making:

Both in her option of subject (a male of such particular, 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 bold remedy to this cultural carelessness– and falls as one, having perished out of print by these extremely forces, these abiding emblems of the segregationist and ahistorical impulses occurring in the puerile bosom of our species, which might, simply might, one day fully grown to outgrow. Until then, we have the poets– in the largest Baldwinian sense– to salve our cumulative amnesia with their strong benedictions of immortal fact.

This negligence is made complex and specialized. It is a main symptom of the disease of our schools, which let the type of understanding fall away from each other, and waste knowledge, and time, and individuals. All our training plays into this; our arts do; and our government. It is a disease of company, it makes more waste and war.

From the life of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser drew something larger, vaster, more radiant than his life, than any life– an event 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. Writing from within the savage profligacy of a specific minute in a world unworlded by its most destructive war yet, Rukeyser firmly 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 concealed life of the senses, the vibrant, speculative life of the mind. The guy over his table, glass shine of the test-tubes shown in the eyes; the woman staring into her thought of the kid not yet born … We see, in this moment of the world, the lives of numerous individuals brought to a time of tension. And the root of such power, of such invention, is in the imaginative lives of particular males and ladies, reacting in their method and with their proper kinds of love to the dreams of history– that is, to the wishes of the individuals at that moment, nevertheless camouflaged, nevertheless early and dark.