Figuring.jpg

Figuring

Maria Popova

 Popova’s years-in-the-making book asks a singular question:

“How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?”

Her answer, true to form, is a cartographic, sprawling study of the lives of others, glued together (like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, sealing together broken pottery with a graceful gold) by her own scant but stunning voice:

“Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love?”

 

She brings undersung historical figures to the fore, like sculptor Harriet Hosmer, or astronomer Maria Mitchell. She praises Margaret Fuller as the only transcendentalist to truly mix her mind with the world as it was, pushing towards what she thought it might become:

“Of the Transcendentalists, Fuller was the only one who left the sanctuary of nature and tested her ideas against the real world, using her pen to bring life as it was being lived a little closer to life as she believed it ought to be lived in a just society.”

The read is immersive, enriching, and as her essays always have, leaves me wanting to hear more of her voice. I scan the pages for where she surfaces from her submersion in the lives of others to deliver her own findings.

But I think this deep submersion is part of what makes her insights so sharp, so sturdy. They are not self-indulgent, they arise from a rich tapestry of being no individual alone can weave.