Few months ago I suddenly got the urge to look up one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle, online. I knew she was elderly, but I figured that perhaps she might have some contact information posted on the Web that I could use to write to her. One of the pages I found did include an address, only it wasn’t hers specifically — she’d apparently been living in a nursing home for several years following a stroke in 2002.
I was glad to learn that she was still alive (albeit somewhat worried about her health), but I didn’t end up writing to her. My hesitation was due to a combination of procrastination, cynically figuring that my letter might not get to her at all if other people were managing her administrative affairs, and not really being sure what to write in the first place.
I wrote down the address anyway and stashed it in a drawer, imagining that perhaps at some point in the future I’d pull it out again and give writing a letter a try despite my doubts about L’Engle actually receiving it.
Sadly, though, Madeleine L’Engle died on Thursday, September 6, 2007. Now I have no way to thank her personally for what her books have given me over the years. So instead I am writing this, hoping that it will express some sense of how A Wrinkle In Time and its sequels continue to inspire me in thinking, writing, and dreaming.
While I realize that this writing doesn’t exactly mesh with my usual subject matter, I figure it’s plenty appropriate considering that L’Engle’s books are part of the reason I write publicly to begin with.
Madeleine L’Engle was a prolific author — she began writing in early childhood and published over 60 books over the course of her life. While she is most well known for her fiction, she also wrote poetry and a number of spiritually-themed books (L’Engle identified as Christian, however, she was most assuredly not a fundamentalist, and noted that fundamentalists tended to dislike and fear her works because they saw spirituality as a “closed system”, whereas she saw it as an “open system”.) Most of her fiction ended up being grouped by the industry into the childrens’ market, however, she resisted classification as a “childrens’ author”, and she refused to (much to her credit) “write down” to her readership. She did not believe in underestimating what children (or adults, for that matter) would be able to grasp, and wrote accordingly.
I haven’t read all L’Engle’s books, and some of them likely veer off into directions that I wouldn’t find all that compelling, but I will probably seek out at least a few more and read them eventually. Here, I will focus on the three books of L’Engle’s that I’ve owned copies of since childhood, and read more times than I can count: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
A Wrinkle In Time, arguably her most celebrated work of all, was rejected by numerous publishers prior to being published in 1962 — the manuscript, with its elements of science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy, was thought to be far too strange (and far too challenging) for the market. However, someone finally decided to take a chance on the novel, and it ended up winning the 1963 Newberry Medal. From that point onward it worked its way into school libraries and bookstores and consequently into the minds of several generations of curious young (and old) readers.
As a fifth-grader I read Wrinkle primarily as a straightforward sci-fi adventure story, featuring one of the first female protagonists (Meg Murry) that I’d ever actually been able to relate to. In particular, I found compelling the book’s introduction of the concept of tesseract — the geometrical element of a fantastic travelling method using the “folding” of spacetime, which allows people to traverse extreme distances instantaneously. I remember spending long, intense moments staring at the pages in the book showing a diagram of an ant crawling along the hem of one character’s skirt, utilizing a fold in the skirt to “skip over” a length of the garment’s fabric.
I also remember reading (over and over again) the section of the book where the characters describe how “squaring” a line produces a square, and how squaring the second dimension produces a cube. The book uses the convention of describing the fourth dimension as time, and the fifth dimension as the tesseract — a construct integrating space and time in such a way as to allow the wormhole-like transit method used by the protagonists throughout Wrinkle to visit multiple planets (and still return home in time for supper).
Of course, certain fantastic liberties are taken with the tesseract concept in Wrinkle, but the underlying idea of how different spatial dimensions relate and build on one another is sound. I literally never looked at the world the same way again after reading Wrinkle — while I’d certainly been aware of the existence of lines, squares, and cubes before, I’d never thought of them as so profoundly significant in terms of the very structure of reality. I developed a very strong interest in the concept of “dimensions”, eventually going on to greatly enjoy another book which explored the concept more deeply — The Fourth Dimension, by Rudy Rucker.
The first sequel to Wrinkle, A Wind In The Door, was published in 1973 and continued the chronicles of the quirky Murry family (particularly Meg and her youngest brother Charles Wallace). Where Wrinkle charts its course through outer space, Wind plumbs the depths of inner space as the characters race to find the cause of a mysterious, deadly illness threatening the life of Charles Wallace and countless others.
Wind is more abstract and difficult than Wrinkle in some respects; the reader is introduced to worlds and landscapes constructed entirely of thought, to a creature who is at once singular and plural, to journeys that flagrantly disregard usual notions of scale and proportion. As with Wrinkle, however, Wind takes an element of real science (in this case mitochondria, which are the small, energy-generating organelles in living cells) and uses it as a springboard for an intricate and compelling fantasy tale.
One of Wind‘s opening pages describes young Charles Wallace’s first day in first grade as follows:
“Your parents are scientists, aren’t they?” [The teacher] did not wait for an answer. “Let’s see what you have to tell us.”
Charles Wallace (“You should have known better!” Meg scolded him that night) stood and said, “What I’m interested in right now are the farandolae and the mitochondria.”
“What was that, Charles? The mighty what”
“Mitochondria. They and the farandolae come from the prokaryocytes —”
“Well, billions of years ago they probably swam into what eventually became our eukaryotic cells and they’ve just stayed there. They have their own DNA and RNA, which means they’re quite separate from us. They have a symbiotic relationship with us, and the amazing thing is that we’re completely dependent on them for our oxygen.”
“Now, Charles, suppose you stop making silly things up, and the next time I call on you, don’t try to show off. Now, George, you tell the class something . . . “
In addition to feeling Charles’s pain and frustration at being accused of “showing off” merely by talking about his favorite interest, I found myself after reading this passage utterly fascinated by the notion of little parts of our cells having started out as discrete organisms. I remember fairly bursting with excitement by the time we got to the “organelles” section of seventh-grade science, because I knew that we were going to get to learn about real mitochondria (which function somewhat differently from mitochondria as described in the book, but which are definitely actual organelles).
I knew that there were not really tiny blue shrimp-mouse creatures (I never said Wind wasn’t a weird book!) living in our mitochondria, but I was plenty interested in learning how the little organelles actually did work. Certainly, A Wind in the Door had a hand in helping forge my present interest in the technical side of longevity medicine (since one potentially important areaof aging research directly involves mitochondria).
A Wind in the Door spends a lot of time playing with concepts of scale — flips back and forth between immense and miniscule, inside and outside, cosmic and mundane. If I had to sum up the book in one sentence, that sentence would probably be, Yes, the little things matter..
A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978. This book takes place chronologically about nine years after the events described in A Wind in the Door — Meg is twentysomething and married by this point in time, and Charles Wallace is fifteen.
Planet initially finds the Murry family, united for a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner — all seems well and ordinary until Mr. Murry receives a phone call from the President informing him of a possible impending nuclear threat. Considering the time in which Planet was written, this is not a surprising plot point. Charles Wallace’s ensuing quest is prompted by a surprise charge from the usually taciturn Mrs. O’Keefe (Calvin’s mother), who ridiculously (or so it seems) proclaims that Charles may be able to mitigate the nuclear threat.
Rather than using a concept like mathematics or mitochondria as a jumping-off point for its explorations of character and meaning, Planet instead dips into history and geography, drawing upon such half-legendary notions as the idea of Welshmen visiting the New World (even before the Vikings supposedly did) and intermarrying with Native Americans. Planet is therefore a bit heavier on the fantasy and lighter on the sci-fi than either of its predescessors (one of the main characters in Planet is a unicorn), but it still plays curious games with time and space.
Planet is intensely atmospheric, intensely odd, and bit on the dark side. The first time I read Planet, I found certain sections almost too intense to process — this book delves deeply into the family history and ancestry of some of the characters, and there’s a fair bit of dysfunction and violence revealed in that exploration. Mostly this has to do with Meg’s husband Calvin O’Keefe’s lineage, though Charles Wallace ends up intertwined in this historical thread when the unicorn Gaudior takes him back in time (and into the bodies and minds of various young men throughout the ages).
As mentioned earlier, Madeleine L’Engle considered herself Christian, and some who read her books seem to see specifically Christian symbology everywhere (though fundamentalists, predictably, see much of her work as heretical). She was fairly outspoken regarding her own personal faith throughout her life, but not in the sense of preaching to (or trying to “convert”) others; she seemed to be one of those who believed that everyone had to find their own path to understanging reality’s less tangible aspects.
With regard to reality’s more tangible aspects, L’Engle clearly held the utmost respect for science, and for scientists; many of her major characters are top-notch physicists and biologists, and Meg Murry is brilliant in mathematics. The characters in Wrinkle, Wind, and Planet may make the occasional religious reference, but not obtrusively so, and none of the protagonists seem to be strict churchgoers.
In many respects, L’Engle’s themes are actually highly subversive and even transgressive to the point where I would challenge any fellow atheist to read Wrinkle and its sequels and come away with nothing of value. Any author that managed to publish a book in 1962 wherein the protagonist was simultaneously a girl and good at math (and in which said protagonist’s mother was a double PhD in biology who spent more time staring into an electron microscope than dutifully tidying up) is obviously no “Focus on the Family” sycophant. I think it would be just as much of a shame to pigeonhole L’Engle’s writing into being “for Christians” as it would be to pigeonhole it into being “for children”.
In reading her books, one gets the distinct sense that L’Engle had no patience with people who let their personal fears and prejudices masquerade as morality. Yes, L’Engle was Christian, but she did not write (or think) according to anyone’s dogma; her concept of God seemed to be more of the “awe at the sheer magnificence of existence” sort than of the “grumpy bearded fellow waggling his finger at homosexuals and wearers of mixed fabric” sort.
All that said, despite the fact that her stated beliefs differed from mine, I’ve always felt much in common with L’Engle on philosophical matters. There is nothing in Wrinkle, Wind, or Planetthat threatens rationality or discourages inquiry. Plus, despite what some contemporary debates might have you believe, there’s a lot more to a person’s worldview than simply the fact of whether or not they believe in God(s).
Good and Evil
L’Engle’s books, like many fantasy novels, concern themselves quite a bit with the struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
In Wrinkle, evil is described in the form of a dark shadow that covers the earth, a shadow which has been there so long that most people interpret its presence as normal.
The exact nature of this shadow is not explained in Wrinkle; it is described generically as being “the powers of darkness”, and its influence is creepily illustrated through the description of the horrible planet, Camazotz, on which Meg’s physicist father is initially imprisoned (he and a colleague accidentally ended up there in the course of one of their top-secret physics experiments).
Camazotz is a nightmare of enforced conformity and bureaucracy; children are expected to all bounce balls and jump rope in precise rhythm, and if any of them deviate even slightly from this, they are subjected to painful behavioral treatments. Everything requires paperwork. Anyone who so much as catches a cold is “put to sleep” (i.e., murdered) so as to spare them any “suffering”.
In short, Camazotz is a lazy philosopher’s utility maximizer gone horribly wrong. L’Engle aptly demonstrates in Wrinkle that evil is not necessarily the sort of thing one can identify by looking for stereotypes of mindless malice, but the sort of thing that can come about when people oversimplify reality to such a degree that their efficiency drive becomes destructive. Ethical negligence can be just as terrible in its effect as a deliberate breaching of ethics. And when malice does emerge, it can be the effect of (rather than the root cause of) the power imbalances that ensue from this negligence.
L’Engle’s literary concept of evil is developed in further detail in Wind and Planet, and personified in the form of the Echthroi (Εχθροί) — a term which means “the enemy”. The echthroi seem to be the embodiment of destructive nihilism. And despite having neither form nor voice, they are some of the scariest “villains” I’ve ever encountered in fiction.
In Wind, the echthroi are portrayed as the perpetrators of a phenomenon called “Xing”, which is basically the active negation of someone else’s personhood. Humans, other sentient creatures, and echthroi alike can X others — the echthroi are (like The Nothing from The Neverending Story, and The First Evil from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) the fundamental force which is served and strengthened by evil acts even as it inspires the hate and despair that prompt such acts.
The echthroi (and the “Xing” concept) are frightening on that visceral level that anyone who has ever faced a bully will surely recognize. The negating impulse inherent in bullying is shown to be the very same brand of evil that results in people being burned as witches, or deemed “inconvenient” (e.g., because they stand in the way of someone’s ambition for the throne), or tossed aside as insignificant or useless due to some perceived imperfection.
The concept of good as expressed in Wrinkle, Wind, and Planet is a very active one — good is not a passive quality, or simply a feeling, but something people do. In many respects, this characterization of good is practically synonymous with love. Not love in the sense of infatuation or even romance, but rather, in the sense of actively respecting someone’s personhood and helping them to find their own way of seeing joy in existence.
L’Engle’s characters tend to learn about love through breaking out of the common delusion that love happens according to a formula or a set of token symbols. Often, love involves learning things you’d rather not learn, and in risking losing your sense of comfort in the world for the sake of knowing what is actually true.
While Wrinkle, Wind, and Planet make occasional references to gods of every stripe from Abrahamic to Celtic to Native American, L’Engle does not rely on these superlative entities to transmit the idea of what goodness is. Rather, she relies on the personal journeys of her characters (flaws and all), in order to demonstrate that being good is not about being all-powerful, but about making certain observations about reality and acting accordingly.
One of the fantasy elements in Wind that I think bears particular mention here is the notion of people having particular vocations, or “callings”. Meg Murry, for instance, is a “Namer” (whereas two of her brothers are “Teachers”). Another character (Proginoskes, who is nonhuman, looks like “a drive of dragons”, and is either immortal or extremely long-lived) describes how he once had the task of memorizing all the names of all the stars in all the galaxies. The point of this exercise was to “help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be”.
I am almost reluctant to try to describe the personal significance this Naming concept has for me, because I am afraid that no matter how I try, it still might come across as trite. But I am going to attempt it anyway, because a lot of L’Engle’s goodness mythos is intimately tied to many of the notions of uniqueness, self, and identity that figure prominently in my own writing and thinking along these lines. The little anecdote about naming stars above might sound simple, but in my own private symbology (that I rarely, if ever, find the ability to describe in words), it is anything but.
Acknowledging the “little things” — the small and seemingly mundane details of existence — is a personal habit that borders on the sacred for me. When I leave work in the evening, I am often beside myself with joy as a result of seeing the tributaries of a particular crack in the asphalt, or of seeing a splash of patterned light (filtered through the windblown leaves of a tree) race across the ground as a breeze cools my face. And in some weird sense, I feel very much at these times as if I am exchanging information with the universe-at-large — I am existing and perceiving the little things that make it up, and at the same time, those things are responding to my presence via the diversion of air current around my nose and the whisper of photons glancing off my retinas.
I know it might sound silly, but I guess I feel like there should be people who know the names of stars, and of leaves, and of sidewalk cracks, for that matter. As someone who used to read the dictionary for fun, and who still enjoys memorizing the ingredients label of every food or toiletry item that comes into my home, I can see perfectly the logic of memorizing stars.
I see the sum total of conscious minds in the universe as a sort of network through which information is processed into joy and beauty and art and music and mathematics (and all those other delightful forms into which we can now channel the energies evolution has serendipitously gifted us with). And the more different kinds of minds there are, the more the totality of sentience gets to experience of what there is to experience.
In short, it is all well and good to raise your eyes toward a fireworks display with your neighbors, but do not necessarily believe that the youngster watching a caterpillar slowly inch along the ground during the light show is “missing out”.
So, while I strongly support the right of all persons to self-configure to the greatest degree possible, I think it is also important to avoid establishing overly nihilistic concepts of self that dismiss personal uniqueness (and the constraints that all of us face inasmuch as we can never be all things at once) as “essentialism” or “identity politics”.
When Meg Murry learns to appreciate herself for who she is rather than pining to be someone else, this does not mean that she stagnates or tries to define herself according to a particular hairstyle, or on the basis that she wears glasses. It simply means that she learns to look within herself and see how to use the reality of how she is configured to accomplish her goals and grow up into a more competent and confident individual. Not according to the status quo, but according to a more personalized (and in many ways, more rigorous) set of standards.
Regardless of how someone gets to be the way they are — whether they are born that way, or whether they become that way as a result of experience or development, or whether they choose to alter themselves over the course of their life — they still exist in a particular form at every point. And there is a kind of art and skill to being able to know the ins and outs of one’s form deeply. L’Engle’s characters’ journeys often involve coming to this level of self-awareness, and it is a great strength of her books that this is accomplished without recourse to platitudes or cliches.
Now, to explain the title of this article, and its connection to my writing. The title of my blog, Existence is Wonderful is basically my attempt at shorthand in expressing That Joy In Existence Without Which The Universe Would Fall Apart and Collapse.
This is a phrase that is repeated throughout A Swiftly Tilting Planet — it is the stated meaning of the names of two characters (Ananda, a dog, and Gaudior, a unicorn). It is also the fundamental essence of Charles Wallace’s quest in that story: to help the world recognize joy again. In Planet, the nuclear threat that drives the plot is representative of that basic, chill despair that sets in when a person decides that nothing means anything and that it therefore doesn’t matter if it all goes away.
With that in mind, part of what I aim to do when I write — whether it be about life extension, or neurological variation, or any of the other topics I cover fairly regularly — is to get the message across that the universe is simply teeming with meaning and opportunities to experience joy.
Just because life won’t grab you by the collar and tell you what it means doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean anything.
I believe that it is far better to see the pursuit of meaning and joy as a creative process than as a passive one.
And toward that end, I will continue to publicly express the sentiment that existence is, undoubtedly and infinitely, wonderful.