Discovering the Secrets of the Universe the 19th Century Way

I’m still reading Figuring by Maria Popova. Yeah, I know I’ve mentioned this book a few times, but it’s long and my progress has been slow.

Popova’s timeline mostly focuses on the mid-19th century and is about the lives of the scientists and writers of the time who were women, queer, or both. The book is both complicated and complex. It’s complicated because it illuminates dozens of intertwined lives with innumerable connections and asides. It’s complex because, thematically, it’s about where science and poetry intersect. It gets almost metaphysical in its reverence for the places where we are on the edges of human understanding.

She tells stories of people who were successful in their own lifetimes, such as Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller, and Rachel Carson, but were forgotten by history. She has a section on Emily Dickinson, who barely published anything while she was alive, but was well-published after she died (against her will. She asked her sister to burn her papers after her death—she didn’t).

This book has shown me a completely new perspective on western culture and history. I’d always thought that the Victorians were repressed, God-fearing, and never had a single unleased thought without following it with self-flagellation. I learned that there were people who lived openly in same-sex relationships (not a lot, but they were there) and many artists and intellectuals were outspoken abolitionists and feminists. Many people weren’t religious.

This was the beginning of a world where people’s first concern wasn’t always survival, and they started asking with optimistic enthusiasm, “Who do we want to be? What kind of society do we want to build?” The thing that struck me was how thoughtful their answers were. They knew that the world was changing.

We made a lot of social progress between the mid-1800s and the 1920s, and I can’t help but think that once the white men in power realized that they were losing control, they went about destroying everything with two world wars. So, when it was all over, everyone was so beaten up and scared, those same white men could dictate how to live and pretend that their tight social controls were a return to something idyllic, but that ideal never existed in the first place. That made me think about how desperate and crazy people get when they are afraid of losing power.

Anyway, I was also really struck by how there was far less knowledge in the world back then. So, it was normal for a well-educated person to know most of recorded western history, including that of western philosophy, literature, and science. People had true liberal arts educations.

Obviously, I don’t like the part where they taught everything from a singular perspective, but a limitation on knowledge meant that educated people learned about everything. So many of these historic figures made intellectual connections between various fields because their educations covered all subjects.

It also made me wonder about the communal pain of not sharing a paradigm. By that, I mean something as simple as bonding over a poem or book everyone has read. Not that long ago, we bonded over TV shows or whatever cultural phenomenon happened to be on our collective brains because it had been on the news and we all got the same news. Now, there’s very little (that’s positive) that captures all of our attention because there’s just so much out there. There’s so much to know (including conspiracy theories that no one should know), and we all have access to all of it.

I love that the internet circumvents so many of the traditional gatekeepers that have kept people from making stuff and putting it out into the world. It has caused us a lot of growing pains, but it’s something that we’ve long needed.

I definitely don’t want to go back to a world where a handful of rich, white men get to decide what everyone else knows. I just wonder how we can still create community when there are so many different lenses through which we can view the world. How do we find commonality?

Anyway, I’m about to log off, but I’d like to mention that the publisher I sent my manuscript to rejected me. It’s too raw for me to say much else than that, but if you’re in the habit of sending good vibes, send some my way.

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