The Mind Has a Mind of Its Own: On Maria Popova’s “Figuring”

By Janet SternburgMay 22, 2019

The Mind Has a Mind of Its Own: On Maria Popova’s “Figuring”

Figuring by Maria Popova

NOTE THE ABSENCE of a subtitle. This book is not for those who need to know in advance what a book is about. The readers who will love this book — count me among them — delight in walking on paths that branch without a defined destination. They are not perturbed by offshoots that others might call digressions but instead feel themselves to be held in trustworthy hands that will not leave them stranded.

Figuring does not lend itself to summary; to do so would be an injustice to author Maria Popova’s themes and methods that are inextricably linked throughout the book. I can, however, say simply that Popova’s central concern is the question of how humans make meaning. Popova writes that “[m]eaning is not what we find but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.” The lives, the seeds, the principles are what inform this unusual and original book.

Popova’s way to meaning is through figuring, a word she uses for her distinctive practice of creating linkages, adjacencies, and intersections among disparate individuals and ideas. There are too many threads to tease out in the space of a review. Instead, I want to direct attention to Popova’s underlying pattern of warp and woof. One chapter, “Shadowing the Light of Immortality,” takes the warp as its subject matter, here the development of early photography from portraiture to astronomy. In passages akin to biography and history-writing, she conjures Daguerre at work, trying “to transmute the ephemerality of light and shadow into the permanence of a paper image.” In these pages, too, Frederick Douglass sits for his iconic photographic portrait, and hails Daguerre as a maker of modernity, turning the world “into a picture gallery.” The woof is a crossing direction of philosophical speculation. Popova understands that the desire for permanence is an “ineradicable human longing,” but also acknowledges that the wish can never be satisfied. “We say,” she writes, “that photographs ‘immortalize’ and yet they do the very opposite […] forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be.” Even as Popova is a cartographer of connection, depicting terrains that are “mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries,” she is poignantly aware that time erases any map of certitude.

She sustains her enterprise over Figuring’s more than 500 pages by uncovering an aesthetic and ethical imperative by which many of her subjects live. Describing the 19th-century writer and activist Margaret Fuller, Popova writes, “[S]he refused to sever […] truth and beauty in the cocreation of meaning.” This sentence opens a door to the book. Refusal to sever is a stance set against division, against any kind of splitting that diminishes how we perceive and act in the world. Co-creation (not as it is currently used for an economic strategy) is the inseparability that is consequent to the refusal to divide: a belief that one part of the whole cannot flourish without the other. Beauty, however alluring in the short term, needs a foundation of truth if it is to go below its surface; truth, however undeniable, turns dry in the absence of its partner. Lastly, the “she” of the sentence is the thinking woman. Women play a special role in this book, exemplifying a quality that Popova finds essential to the sculpting of personhood: dedication to one’s vocation. Maria Mitchell, a thinking woman if there ever was one, witnessed an eclipse when she was 12 years old, and was so enthralled that she chose astronomy for her life’s purpose. She would go to the roof of her family home on Nantucket Island equipped with a merely adequate telescope but with a mind capable of complex mathematical calculations. After 17 years of faithful observations, she saw an unusual speck in the sky. Maria Mitchell had discovered a comet. With greater scope for travel, she saw firsthand the obstacles faced by women. Initially denied entrance to the Papal Observatory in Rome (she eventually was allowed to enter), Mitchell resolved to build her own observatory back in Nantucket. That observatory, still in use, has always been open to all. Julia Ward Howe, Mitchell’s first biographer (as well as the poet who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), called her a “sister planet.” Men, from Kepler to Emerson to Einstein, are strong presences, but Figuring is fundamentally a book of sister planets.

I disagree with some of Popova’s unquestioning enthusiasms, for example her whole-hearted embrace of writer and activist Margaret Fuller, who was surely magnificent but whose letters reveal a penchant for self-dramatizing and aggrandizing that I find off-putting, e.g., “Mine is a great nature as yet in many regions an untrodden wild, full of wild beasts and reptiles not yet tamed and classed, but also of rare butterflies, exquisite and grand vegetation respondent to the sun and stars.” Oh my. Popova has an unusual capacity for rapture, a quality that has fueled the success of Brain Pickings, her blog celebrating all that is beautiful and meaningful but which, on occasion, has led me to reader fatigue. More important, in both blog and book she possesses a generous spirit that allows one to see figures in larger frames. About Fuller, she writes that “her constancy of selfhood sprang from her willingness to accept all her former selves and exclude none.” Popova takes that arguable proposition (sometimes it’s a better idea to exclude a few selves!) and transforms it into a fruitful vision of the integrity of the individual. “However divided we may feel within ourselves, it is the sum total of our warring fractions [sic] that makes us who we are — fragmentary but indivisible.” In the spirit of Popova, I suggest widening that indivisibility to include the polity, its states — oppositional or like-minded — quintessentially part of the whole.

“Beauty magnetizes curiosity and wonder”: Popova writes here of Mitchell, one of the book’s first figures. The same could be said to describe Rachel Carson, the final figure. In her classic early book, The Sea Around Us, Carson shines her scientific and poetic gifts on the beauty of nature. Later, she shines that light on the unbeautiful — on pesticides, or as she called them, biocides, “the chemical barrage […] hurled against the fabric of life.” Popova writes that in so doing, Carson finds “a different kind of beauty — the beauty of moral courage.” Carson’s modesty would, I think, prevent her from seeing herself this way. Rather, she writes that “[i]t was something I believed in so deeply that there was no other course.” So simple a statement, but at its heart is the commitment to stay the course for what one loves. In Silent Spring, her seminal, scrupulously researched book, she challenged industrial and commercial interests, which in turn waged a vicious campaign against her. To her finely honed sensibility, she was forced to add the rough realization that science could be held hostage to economics and politics. Eventually she prevailed, at least in the short term. In the long term, Carson articulated — and lived — the founding precepts of today’s environmental movement: all species are connected in a web of mutuality in which each affects the other.

In her later years, Carson was almost always in pain, recovering from one physical insult only to be felled by another, finally by the metastatic cancer that shortened her lifespan. She persevered even as she mourned the loss of time she needed to complete her work. More time — the cry of those undergoing life-threatening illnesses or feeling the pressures of aging. I look to Carson for wisdom, finding it in a letter she wrote to the woman she loved in which she expressed the poetry of life as a spiritual antidote to the pressures of time.

[S]uddenly, the tension of four years was broken and I let the tears come. […] [L]ast summer […] I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it.

Maria Mitchell makes me want to cheer. Rachel Carson does too, and also moves me to tears.

The arc of Figuring begins in the 17th century and ends in the 20th. I want to stretch that arc a little forward, to the 21st century. I think now of the Wertheim sisters, twins who founded the Institute For Figuring, using that word to mean the joining of mathematics, science, and art to demonstrate abstract concepts in material form. I think, too, of their signature project, the Crochet Coral Reef, based on a mathematician’s discovery that hyperbolic geometry could be modeled by crochet, and further by the sisters’ realization that examples could be found in in the living organisms of coral reefs. They launched a project that taught hundreds of people to crochet, creating reefs of stunning beauty that also serve to call attention to the damage inflicted by global warming. I think too of Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs, a music theater piece that takes its inspiration from the most basic unit of biological life and its ability to communicate with others of its kind: the cells working together to regulate the activities of the whole organism. Whether based on coral reef or cells, these recent projects take an individual unit and cast it into communal existence. Conceived by artist-scientists, these undertakings are in a continuum with their sister planets of the 19th century, even as they are representative of our own time. They are dispersed in location but also cooperative, inclusive, and interdependent. Stretching the arc a little further, I want to note that I am writing this review during the week in which the world saw the first photograph of a black hole, made possible by telescopes throughout the globe, working together in the pursuit of an image.

Figuring is an inspiriting book. Popova stands on the side of a truth that cannot be found in conventional linear narratives. “We hunger for straightforward stories of improbable achievement against towering cultural odds, stories that excise the trifles, the messiness, the inconsistencies of personhood that mark every human life.” I want to cheer again. Yes, we are messy and inconsistent, all of us — as well as something grander. “We are not merely mirrors to reflect our own times to those more distant. The mind has a mind of its own and by it illuminates what it recreates.” Writing about Margaret Fuller, Popova could be writing about herself when she offers a “notion of critical reflection as a creative act.” Figuring is entirely a creative act. We are not left stranded.

The many lines of Figuring gather together not in resolution but in lyricism. The book ends with an aria poetic in language and panoptic in scope, touching on creation, destruction, the role of chance, and finally on mortality, the sure knowledge that “I will die. You will die. The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us. What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.” A book, however, is one of the few conveyances that can defeat time simply because one can turn its pages back to the beginning, as I do now. Figuring’s first paragraph moves in a cosmic sweep from the “olive firmament of a certain forearm I love,” to “every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger,” to “the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band,” unwinding all the way back to the first three words that usher in this book, an annunciatory chord that gives Figuring its core and its meaning: All of it.


Janet Sternburg is a writer and fine arts photographer. Recent books include White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine (Hawthorne Books) and the monograph Overspilling World: The Photographs of Janet Sternburg (Distanz Verlag, Berlin). This past September, USC Fisher Museum of Art presented her solo exhibition, “Limbus.”

LARB Contributor

Janet Sternburg is the author of White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine(Hawthorne Books, reviewed in LARB here). Her previous memoir, Phantom Limb (American Lives, University of Nebraska) is also at the intersection of personal life and neuroscience. Other books include Optic Nerve: Photopoems (Red Hen Press) and the two volumes of The Writer on Her Work (W.W. Norton). A fine art photographer. Sternburg has exhibited her work in solo shows in Berlin, Korea, New York, Mexico, Los Angeles, and Milan.  Her photography publications include Aperture and two monographs, both  published by Distanz Verlag (Berlin): Overspilling World: The Photographs of Janet Sternburg (2016), and this month, I've Been Walking: Janet Sternburg Los Angeles Photographs (September, 2021).


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