Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

Since at least the 1960s—when millions of college students carried a copy of Hermann Hesse’s classic tale of Buddhist spirituality, Siddhartha, in their back pockets—Western society has often turned to the East in search of ancient wisdom associated with Indian religious traditions and religious practices as diverse as yoga, tantric sex and meditation. Although attention to these Indian religions suddenly flourished, very few of their admirers thought of them as dynamic, evolving spiritual traditions, capable of adapting to the changing needs of a rapidly developing society.

Now, in Nine Lives—a kind of follow-up to his stunning From the Holy Mountain—William Dalrymple brilliantly narrates the lives of nine people, from a prison warden to a Jain nun to a prostitute, to offer us a portrait of the ways in which India’s religious identity—far from being a deep well of unchanging wisdom—is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at lightning speed.

In Kannur, for example, Dalrymple meets Hari Das, a prison warden and well-digger. For nine months of the year, Das—whose job places him among the dalits, or “untouchables”—polices inmates; but for three months, between December and March, during the theyyam dancing season, the caste system is turned upside down as an untouchable turns into a Brahmin, or priest. Das transforms into the god Vishnu (the role he plays in these annual religious rituals), and everything in his life changes as he brings blessings to the villagers and exorcises evil spirits.

In a number of other compelling stories, Dalrymple’s first-rate book pulls back the curtain on modern Indian society and reveals how deeply the spiritual is etched in people’s lives and the creative ways in which these people are adapting their religious practices to momentous and rapid social changes.

Since at least the 1960s—when millions of college students carried a copy of Hermann Hesse’s classic tale of Buddhist spirituality, Siddhartha, in their back pockets—Western society has often turned to the East in search of ancient wisdom associated with Indian religious traditions and religious practices as diverse as yoga, tantric sex and meditation. Although attention […]

Stephen Greenblatt, perhaps best known for his Shakespeare biography Will in the World, now takes readers on a journey to the philosophical heart of the Renaissance in his latest book, The Swerve.

At the center of your book is the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius and his poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). What led you to focus on this poem?
I’m fascinated by the fact that the great ancient speculations about the nature of the material world—the existence of atoms, the creation of the universe through random collisions, the absence of a providential design, the absurdity of any fear of the gods—were carried by a magnificent poem.

What do you mean by “the swerve”?
Lucretius uses the term (his favorite Latin word for it was clinamen, as in the root of English words like inclination, declination, etc.) to describe a shift in the direction of the atoms. It only takes the tiniest such swerve—as in the famous example of the wings of butterfly—to bring about enormous and unexpected changes. For Lucretius the existence of such swerves is what makes human freedom possible—since otherwise, everything would move in lockstep.

The Swerve takes up in many ways from your groundbreaking earlier book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. What led you to write this new book now?
You are certainly right that in one way or another I’ve been thinking for many years about the strange events that lead from one cultural epoch to another. How does a whole culture alter its deepest assumptions about the world? What happens to change the way men and women live their lives? Such questions are at once tantalizing and very difficult to answer—so I’ve returned to them again and again.

The other hero of your book is a little-known Florentine notary and papal secretary named Poggio Bracciolini. How did Poggio discover Lucretius’ manuscript, and how did he preserve it?
Poggio was a book-hunter, the greatest of his age, perhaps the greatest who ever lived. He discovered a 9th-century manuscript of the poem in the library of a German monastery. He ordered a scribe to transcribe it and send the transcription to Florence, where it was copied more carefully by a learned friend.

Did you follow in Poggio’s footsteps in your research? What were some of your favorite places for research?
I did spend time in some of the places dear to Poggio: his birthplace Terranuova (now Terranuova Bracciolini), though that is now, thanks to World War II damage, a sad relic of what it once was; nearby Arezzo; his beloved Florence (including Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library); the Vatican. My favorite place for the writing was the elegant library of the American Academy in Rome, on the top of the Janiculum Hill overlooking the whole city.

Did you learn anything that surprised you while writing The Swerve?
I was constantly surprised: by the way in which ancient books were copied; by the organization of the great classical libraries; by the monastic cult of pain; by the vitriolic loathing of early humanists; by the intellectual daring of a few Renaissance readers of Lucretius who were willing to risk persecution and death.

You first read Lucretius on a summer vacation from college. What led you to pick up the poem after all these years?
I had actually had it in mind to work on Lucretius for many years, but I always held back because I felt I did not know enough. I still don’t, but I knew that I was running out of time!

How has “On the Nature of Things” influenced the thinking of writers and artists beyond the Renaissance?
Probably the most direct influence was on the writers and artists of the Enlightenment, people like Diderot or Voltaire or Locke who were able to encounter the excitement of the poem without so intense a fear of imprisonment and death. But the influence has extended well beyond the 18th century. For example, in the modern era, Lucretius was a powerful influence on the great Portuguese poet Pessoa, the Italian novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and the French intellectual Michel Foucault.

What does Lucretius have to say to us today?
I will not try to say in a sentence or two everything that it has taken me a whole book to write. But perhaps at the center of what Lucretius has to say—to me at least—is a calm acceptance of mortality conjoined with the enhanced experience of wonder and pleasure.

What’s next for you?
At the moment I’m writing a short book about Shakespeare and the idea of life—a book influenced more by contemporary evolutionary biology than by the ancient Lucretius.

Stephen Greenblatt, perhaps best known for his Shakespeare biography Will in the World, now takes readers on a journey to the philosophical heart of the Renaissance in his latest book, The Swerve. At the center of your book is the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius and his poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of […]

Rob Dunn’s Never Home Alone will change the way you look at your house. Our homes—no matter how much we scrub, spray and clean—are a rich, biodiverse environment, filled with insects, bacteria and life that has yet to even be discovered. Dunn explores the life that can be found in our homes not with disgust, but with wonder. You will no doubt be surprised by how helpful this unseen world can be to us and how dangerous our obsession with sterility can be. We asked Dunn a few questions about microbial misconceptions, beneficial molds and dog mouths.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research into the biodiversity of our homes?
I’ve been working on homes for more than 10 years now and, again and again, the thing that surprises me is how little we know. Every day we breathe in thousands of species from the air in our homes. A few of them are dangerous (very few). A few are extraordinarily beneficial. Most don’t have names and have never been studied by anyone, ever. When I was a graduate student, scientists talked about completely inventorying a tropical rainforest, finding and studying every species. That would be an amazing accomplishment, but it is a century away. We still don’t know all of the species in the average house. I know these things, and yet, each time some totally new phenomenon emerges (we recently found extreme and strange microbe species in salt shakers, for instance) I am surprised. Gobsmacked by wonder.

Why did you decide to write this book now?
We have spent 10 years studying the life in homes, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the public perception about such life and what we were learning were totally at odds. It seemed time to share what we were beginning to understand. I could have waited 20 years, until we knew more, but I wanted to share this particular moment when we have begun to see, through the haze of our collective ignorance, an outline of what is going on, but many of the individual mysteries remain to be resolved. I wanted to share some of those mysteries so that readers could begin to help study them, too.

For example, the timing is perfect for us to engage readers in helping us to study the animals in houses around the world.

What good are household critters like meal moths and camel crickets to us?
Nature can be extraordinarily useful, and we have done such a bad job searching for nature’s values to humanity that we can find totally new values even in species living right around us. The first antibiotics, of course, came from bread molds. Bread molds saved us from some of the deadliest pathogens! Until we realized their value they were just there, an ordinary problem in the pantry. By the same token, meal moths (another problem in the pantry, albeit a rather beautiful one to my aesthetic) have proved to have bacteria in their guts that have transformed, totally transformed, agriculture. Wasps, of the sort that nest on eaves and in windows, have proven to have novel yeasts in their guts that make totally new kinds of beers. And in camel crickets, we have found bacteria that are able to break down waste from the paper pulp industry. All of this is to say that if we pay attention to the species around us all the time, literally underfoot, they can often offer societal solutions that in their benefits vastly outweigh any nuisance we might perceive. In part, this is because any species can offer such value, but also because some of the unique features of the species in our houses may make them more likely than chance to have such values.

Is there any real harm in letting our dogs lick us on our mouths?
Ah, tricky question. Depends on what your dog licked before it licked you. If your dog licks feces and then licks your mouth, well, it probably isn’t great. That said, at the same time we know that in some cases, children are missing key gut microbes that they can receive from dogs, and the process of such “acquisition” is probably just such a smooch.

You point out that “favoring biodiversity is like making bread or kimchi.” What do you mean by that?
In making fermented foods, such as sourdough bread or kimchi, we have found ways to favor communities of organisms that contain wild species. But they are wild species that are living in a way that simultaneously excludes pathogens. The acid produced by the microbes in kimchi or sourdough starters kills pathogens. The alcohol in beer kills pathogens. These foods are both biodiverse and self-regulating. We need to develop ways to favor communities of species around us that are wild and wondrous and, ideally, like these foods, also help to keep the less wondrous (at least from our perspective) species at bay. Bakers and cooks are better at this than modern medicine is. We can learn from the deliciousness they have wrought.

You mention “rebooting and rewilding” our gut. Can you talk a little more about that?
Fecal transplants are becoming common. They vary in their details. But basically what happens is that someone is given a dose of antibiotics and then an “offering” of the fecal microbes of another, healthier, person. This rewilds their gut with microbes that might have gone missing because of overuse of antibiotics or for other reasons. It is incredibly effective in a number of medical contexts, but it is also, of course, primitive. We don’t yet know which species of microbes we need, which ones are going missing, and so we regrow the whole forest. It is both a huge advance—a life-saving advance—and a measure of our humility before the grandeur of nature.

Can you talk a little bit about how our mania for keeping our houses clean can make us sick?
It is really pretty simple. If we clean, madly, obsessively, constantly, as many of us do, we never, ever, ever, ever kill all of the life around us. Instead, we kill the most susceptible life. We kill species that are the ones most likely to benefit us (or to be benign). What we leave behind are the toughest, weediest, most problematic species. We inadvertently garden dangerous species, species resistant to antibiotics and pesticides, species we can’t control. When you see a hyper-sterile environment, scrubbed recently with antimicrobial wipes (for instance), what you should think is not “clean” but instead “haven for resistance.”

What lessons would you like readers to take from your book?
Our lives only make sense in light of nature, we only make sense when we remember that we are ALWAYS embedded in nature. We can try to create sterile lives lived amidst sterile homes. But we will fail and, in our failure, make ourselves ever sicker with evermore unusual chronic diseases. We need to keep deadly pathogens at bay, but most of the life around us is not deadly. Most of the life around us is wondrous, mysterious and potentially beneficial. Open your windows again. Throw out your antimicrobial wipes. Start fermenting food. Embrace biodiversity in your home, and in your backyard, and in your life.

Author photo by Amanda Ward

Dunn’s Never Home Alone will change the way you look at your house. Our homes—no matter how much we scrub, spray and clean—are a rich, biodiverse environment, filled with insects, bacteria and life that has yet to even be discovered. Dunn explores the life that can be found in our homes not with disgust, but with wonder. You will no doubt be surprised by how helpful this unseen world can be to us and how dangerous our obsession with sterility can be. We asked Dunn a few questions about microbial misconceptions, beneficial molds and dog mouths.

Anne Lamott’s latest book is a timely guide to restoring our hope and finding our faith as we wait for a new day to dawn. She shares some ideas for how to get by when the world seems especially dark.


What’s the story behind Dusk, Night, Dawn?
I started writing Dusk, Night, Dawn during the tour for my last book. Everywhere I went, the people in my audiences felt scared and overwhelmed by all the bad news—and this was before COVID-19. So I wanted to share my experiences of going through extremely scary, defeating times without losing my essential isness or my capacity for joy and curiosity.

You got married in 2019, and your attempts to deal with this new relationship dynamic underlie much of Dusk, Night, Dawn. Can you describe some of the ways your marriage affects your outlook on broken relationships and forgiveness?
My husband, Neal, and I have been in quarantine together since right before our one-year anniversary, so things have possibly been a little more insulated than we had been expecting. We’re both pretty easygoing, so that helps a lot, and we both hole up a lot to do our writing, so we have a lot of space apart. 

When you’re mostly stuck in a house together and the other person says or does something hurtful, there’s a lot of incentive to work through it. And Neal is (almost) always willing to talk things over. Both of us believe that Earth is Forgiveness School, so we practice on each other. Some days go better than others.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: If your faith has been challenged, these books will encourage hope, offer guidance and provide glimpses of light amid the shadows.


In one chapter, you use the image of Soul Windex. Can you describe Soul Windex and how we use it?
Our vision gets so smudged by all the endless and meaningless data that come at us, and by toxic obsessions, cravings, resentments, etc. So Soul Windex is a new way of paying attention to what is real and of real value, so that we are spritzed awake. Think of it as an energetic equivalent to the fluid you clean your windshield with. It’s usually found in nature or in being of service to those in need.

You write about the tricky concept of sin in this book. Can you define sin? How does your definition of sin differ from the traditional Christian definition?
The origin of the word sin is an archery term for missing the mark. So I don’t see sin so much as drug cartels and porn shops, but rather all the isms—racism, sexism, ageism and so forth. 

How do you describe forgiveness?
Forgiveness is when you decide not to hit back—when your heart softens ever so slightly toward someone who has harmed you or someone you love, or your country. It doesn’t mean you have to have lunch with the person, but it usually involves seeing them as having acted badly from a place of feeling damaged and empty, not from evil.

Do you feel hopeful about the future?
Yes, I have so much hope for the future! Our young people are so incredibly passionate about climate change and have access (because of us older people!) to the greatest scientific knowledge that could ever be. I never lose hope in science or in most people’s essential goodness. 

"Even though it gets darker and darker, the light will return in the morning. It always has, it always will."

How do we recover our faith in life?
Basically we start where we are; we start where our butts are. We do kind things for others, and we pay more attention to all the beauty and goodness that surround us. We make gratitude lists of everything that blesses us, that gives us feelings of safety and nurture, pleasure and relief. And on some level, I think we decide to keep the faith.

What will readers be surprised to learn about from Dusk, Night, Dawn?
How really hilarious so much of life can be, if you have a couple of best friends; how much of life still works, no matter what a disaster the Earth or a family is; and how much light can be found almost anywhere we look, no matter how dark and scary the world can be.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Anne Lamott narrates the audiobook for Dusk, Night, Dawn.


What’s the significance of the title Dusk, Night, Dawn?
I discovered that twilight means both dusk, the trippy light before evening, and dawn, that mystical light before morning breaks. And I have felt very strongly for the last few years that this is the darkest the world has ever been—but we have come through so much, with the little pilot light inside us still burning, and even though it gets darker and darker, the light will return in the morning. It always has, it always will.

 

Photo credit: Sam Lamott

Anne Lamott’s latest book is a timely guide to restoring our hope and finding our faith as we wait for a new day to dawn. She shares some ideas for how to get by when the world seems especially dark.

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