Open Questions in Uncertain Times: Laura Sewell Matter and Anne Goldman on Stargazing in the Atomic Age (Part 2)

Anne Goldman’s new essay collection, Stargazing in the Atomic Age, is now out from Georgia Review Books, an imprint of the University of Georgia Press. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls Goldman’s book “A beguiling meditation on Jewish achievements that shine brightly against a dark background.” Earlier versions of three of its pieces, including the title essay, first appeared in The Georgia Review. Here, Goldman shares some of the stories behind the book in a conversation with fellow GR contributor Laura Sewell Matter, who is herself the author of many memorable essays. Catch up on Part 1 of the interview if you missed it.



LSM: I found this line from your book’s title essay inspiring: “Creation does not issue from bitterness or a sense of affliction but rather a grateful understanding of the poised, interrelated forces at work in the world’s design.”

AG: One of the great things about essay writing, for me, is that the genre is so capacious. You can begin with the world, and slowly make your way through the world. If you’re writing a novel, you have to construct your scenes with more precision and more deliberation. If you’re a poet, you’re in essence creating an elixir, or concocting a scent made of words that will allow readers, once they take in those words, to have a kind of recollection—the same kind of recollection that scent brings with it. But for me, the essay is different, more like the paintings of Mughal masters in India in which the entire world seems to be present. If you take enough time enough to look at each area of these small, gemlike paintings, you can find a variety of plants and a variety of what we think of as sentient creatures, animals that move and breathe, along with people and landscapes and architectural spaces. So it is for me, that the patterns, when you take in the world this way, emerge more slowly than they might if you were creating a poem or a novel. The details initially seem isolated. But then there’s a time, as I continue to write, that I begin to see what you’re calling the fractal, or recurring curves in thinking, and that is supremely satisfying. There is nothing to match that, for me.

LSM: “Wonderful World” seems stylistically distinct from the other essays in the collection, in that you employed scenes from the point of view of your subject (in a third-person voice, acknowledging that speculation was entailed in these imaginative reconstructions). What made you choose this approach with Mandelbrot? What did you discover or experience, in doing so?

AG: This is astute of you. I think all of the essays draw upon speculation, but often in parentheses, in a sentence here or there. Several of these essays were published first, and in slightly different form, in the pages of The Georgia Review. Stephen Corey, recently retired as editor, and the most discerning professional writer-reader with whom I have ever worked, always made sure I reminded readers explicitly and frequently where speculation begins and ends in any paragraph. The only other essay in the book that draws in a sustained way on speculation to build a world as a novelist would is that portion of the essay on Primo Levi and Dante that is given over to the Middle Ages. There was something so storied about Mandelbrot’s life in Europe—so much narrative action—that I decided to make use of some of the techniques of fiction. In part, too, I wrote this essay more recently and wanted to push against my own self-imposed limits as an essayist by giving myself a bigger toolbox.

LSM: In the title essay, “Stargazing in the Atomic Age,” you give a fascinating treatment of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, acknowledging the ironies of how they were drawn into the spiraling violence of World War II and contemplating the correlations between science and religion. “Nazis destroyed European Jewry, and then the remnants of European Jewry became destroyers of worlds.” You also explore the theological and cultural aspects of Judaism that seem to inspire or explain or at least influence the vigorous intellectualism and creativity of the figures throughout this book, writing, “I have neither studied Talmud nor sat for more than two hours at a time listening to rabbinical sermons. But it is to thousands of years of these scholarly traditions that my own pleasure in learning in part originates. Effortless as the body’s memory, and as poised, the gift of intellectual brashness opens to a kind of secular faith.” Questioning and searching are essential qualities of Judaism, just as they are essential qualities of scientists, artists—and of course essayists.

AG: This essay, which I wrote first, functions for me as a kind of overture in that it yokes artists and scientists directly. I wanted to explore, to the best of my ability as a non-scientist, how physicists approach the physical world, and to find connections with what we see in painting, and what we hear in music, and what we read of in literature. 

LSM: I infer from this that you are not and have never been a religious, practicing Jew, but a person who identifies culturally and ancestrally as Jewish. But how do you think these religious values have made their way into your own life, specifically, and Jewish cultural tradition more broadly?

AG: I don’t practice religious ritual in any specific sense. I do have faith in faith—faith not in religion as institution but in a sense of awareness of looking toward something beyond ourselves that cannot be explained and which humbles us in a productive way. As a writer, I like hovering close to the numinous. I think many other secular people—artists and scientists—do, too. To pose a searching question is to edge toward mystery. Asking questions, that is, is not only an effort to resolve unsurety, but also to approach what is not illuminated. I think of chiaroscuro in painting and the tenderness with which light bathes objects and bodies. We wouldn’t feel this tenderness without the darkness surrounding it. I picture Rembrandt’s self portraits, in which there is sometimes a striking divide between what is enshadowed and what is seen. Religion, and what people used to call metaphysics, are ways to approach that understanding we all obtain of the relation between illumination and mystery. If we possessed a different kind of visual perception—if, like cats, we could see color in the dark, then maybe we wouldn’t require the unseen world. But the fact is that we’re biologically constructed in such a way that we see two worlds and understand two worlds every single day, the world of daylight and the world of darkness. And still there remains a strangeness to me to witness the changes that come with each dawn and every twilight. As for specifically Jewish cultural tradition, when I finished the first essay in this collection, I was privileged to have a very distinguished scientist, Miquel Salmeron, and a remarkable rabbi read it (Alan Lew, author of, among other books,One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi). Alan, who like Miquel was encouraging about the piece, pointed out with the utmost gentleness that broadly speaking, the skeptical tradition in Jewish thinking is one of two such traditions. The other embraces mysticism. In the piece about physicists, I wanted to explore what skepticism can do. That said, I think the book also acknowledges the power of mysticism.

LSM: If I could summarize the book in a simple declarative sentence, I might say: creativity has always been the Jewish answer to adversity. Am I on the right track?

AG: Yes, definitely. I think creativity has consistently been one of the Jewish answers to adversity. But really, creativity is the human answer to adversity, bracketing those people whose curiosity has been beaten down or extinguished by pain—emotional and/or physical—and poverty. For some people it’s too hard to hope, because they’re in such terrifically difficult circumstances, and they have been for years, or decades. But I believe that we are born as curious and expressive creatures, creatures with the urge to communicate. And this desire, when it is fostered, sharpens thinking. I focused upon Jews in this book because they’re familiar to me, and close to hand. (Also because a surprising number of Jewish artists and intellectuals in the modern period prefer to “pass” intellectually, rather than to foreground their cultural history—a response to the continuing pressures of anti-Semitism, I think, usually.) I love reading about the accomplishments of people in underrepresented groups—groups of people whose achievements have historically been overlooked. This gives me hope. And for immigrants and refugees in specific, the fracturing of the familiar that comes with the wrench of leaving and resettling can produce some astonishing leaps in thinking.

LSM: Gershwin’s music is so quintessentially American, I never paused to considered that he was a first-generation American, a child of immigrants, and outsider—but of course, it brings me a deeper appreciation of the sheer creative force of his work and reminds me that some of his famous works, such as Porgy and Bess, are about the sort of dislocation and search for a creative place of belonging—themes throughout these essays.

AG: Gershwin in this way reminds me very much of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. James Gatz is very clearly coded as Jewish, I would argue, and is an outsider not only because he is born poor, but because he stands at a distance from the midwestern Christianity that is part of the context we absorb without realizing it from Nick Carraway. So a quintessentially American novel is made at least in part by invoking a character who throws what it is to be “American” into relief.

LSM: These questions in the Gershwin essay stand out for me: “What is about music that allows the untutored alongside the professional to become receptive to such things, part memory and part want? How can waves of air create such nuanced shades of feeling?”

AG: This essay is one especially close to my heart—because it invokes music, and music is the language of feeling, and because it let me restore—for a time—a missing family member. My brother David followed in my father’s footsteps and became a doctor. During his first year of residency at UCLA, he came down with what he assumed was a minor respiratory illness. He was diagnosed with lung cancer within weeks and died at thirty-one nine months later, having never been a smoker. My father’s specialty as a scientist was in pulmonary physiology. The strangeness and difficulty of this congruence stays with me. Of course, my father’s expertise allowed David to spend his last months at home as comfortably as possible. But when my brother died, and the crystalline balance that held the six of us together ruptured, all of our bonds frayed. Such was the case in Gershwin’s family, too, after George died. Despite the sadness, there was a sweetness for me in writing this essay, because it allowed me to think about my brother and to try to find a way not to be so angry about the fact that his life, which was so beautiful, was so brief. 

LSM: “Questions of Transport” is an essay about your tour of Dante’s Inferno, with Primo Levi as your guide (echoing the image of Dante touring the Inferno itself with Virgil as his guide—nice fractal pattern there). You marvel at the exultant tone in which Levi was able to recount his recitation of the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno while in Auschwitz, in This is a Man—marveling as much that Levi found consolation in a medieval Christian writer, as that he was capable of exultancy in such circumstances. But it is a story about human connections across time and space and despite religious and cultural divides. Really, it is an appreciation of the act of reading itself and how words can bridge those chasms that separate us. “A book brings other voices near my ear,” you wrote. This essay seemed to me to be the “ars poetica of the collection.

AG: I love historical fiction, and I think in some sense we could argue that any fiction becomes a historical fiction if it stays in print long enough. It’s astonishing and consoling to me that we can read, in translation, the words engraved over three millennia ago in stone on New Kingdom stelae in Egypt, for instance. Even in translation, across that much time, we possess the same kind of emotional responses to the world they did (at least, those whose thoughts were chiseled into stone a trip to a museum or a search online makes available to us). Knowing that we play variations of a theme with respect to these feelings seems a kind of grace. It’s so easy to feel isolated with respect to our feelings, especially when these are difficult. I think Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing,” which is a story about the grief of parents who lose a child, shows with breathtaking skill how splintering grief can be. Often we assume grief unites. But the Carver story suggests that we experience loss in such different ways, even if we’re intimates. I guess what I’m leading toward here is that we complicate the language we often use in contemporary discussions of empathy, discussions that have become a little unsubtle. I’m not suggesting that reading is some kind of anodyne, or some kind of anesthetic, and that all you have to do is read a book about someone who you see as unlike you, and this act is enough to make you cleave to a character, fictional or nonfictional. I think, rather, that if we read enough, and if we read of people in all of their mottled, spotted, and dappled emotional compositions, then we confirm the range and nuance of feeling, and we recognize the same range in ourselves. Perhaps this allows an opportunity to forgive and understand—even if the insight is only a momentary one. I’m not suggesting that slipping out of your own skin, as Lorene Cary frames this so well in her memoir Black Ice, and sliding into someone else’s, inevitably brings immediate insight. But we are each foreign to each other, and in a sense, as readers, we are all a little like young children—children too young to understand the import of what they overhear adults saying, but able, still, to begin to recognize the rising and falling cadences in the voices. Eventually, we realize our voices possess that same range and that same amplitude.

I think one of the other ways of getting at what reading and writing can do as connecting device was brought home to me by the poet Robert Hass, who taught for many years at Berkeley, where, on days when I was not teaching at Sonoma State up the road, I sat in on some of his classes. He taught Shakespeare a few years before he retired from teaching, and at one point he suggested to the students that when you read a line of Shakespeare’s poetry, with its breath marks and cadences and enjambments, you’re essentially speaking in the same breath as Shakespeare did when he wrote that line. This has stayed with me as one of many extraordinary insights Hass makes as casually as other people set the table. To further this and say that we all breathe may seem a point so obvious it goes beyond the banal, and maybe I’m just more cognizant of this reflexive, unthinking fact than others, because when I was very young, my father taught me what the diaphragm was, and how it is involved in the act of breathing, and how the intercostal muscles in the ribs work, and how the lungs look. So breathing is an overdetermined metaphor for me—no less because my brother died of lung cancer and my father took care of him, and I resort to it fairly frequently in these essays. But still, just like the voice, the breath is inflected and can almost be said to communicate feeling. Sometimes people’s breathing is raspier or ragged; sometimes it’s too quick, if they’re anxious. Sometimes it’s slow and measured and soothing, as when you watch your child sleep, or a partner sleep, and you see that slow rise and fall of the chest and are comforted. The arts—the movement of the body starting and stopping in space that is dance, as well as the art of music, which depends as much on rests and pauses as on notes and sounds, and the art of words, constellations of varied sets of lines and sentences—these things bring us back to breathing, which keeps us alive. 

LSM: Who are the readers you imagine, or hope to find, through writing these essays?

AG: I think, initially, most of us who write creatively probably begin by trying to illuminate something for ourselves. So that putting words down on paper is a little bit like taking a flashlight, or a cell phone light, if you will, and waving it around a room that is unfamiliar, or perhaps that is familiar but unlit, and trying to pick your way as you imagine recreating the shapes in that dark room. And then there’s wanting confirmation—at the most basic level, to be reminded you have an existence—so that when you experience delight or see something beautiful or mull over a problem you want to deepen your understanding by sharing it with someone else. So I’m grateful for any and all readers. It’s always a lovely thing when someone writes to say that something you’ve written resonates with them. It’s like raising a hand and then seeing another wave back, from far away. I want to thank those who do read the book, in advance, for making that gesture of the hand.


Stargazing in the Atomic Age is available to order now.




Anne Goldman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, the Guardian, The Georgia Review, the Gettysburg Review, and the Southwest Review, among other venues. Her essays have been named as notable in Best American Essays, Best American Science and Nature Writing, and the Best American Travel Writing. Nominated for a National Magazine Award, she is the recipient of fellowships from the Ahmanson/Getty Foundation and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Goldman is Professor of English at Sonoma State University. She is at work upon a second nonfiction manuscript, “An Aria for Insects and Other Essays.”

Laura Sewell Matter is an essayist and teacher who lives in New Mexico. Her work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction and published in various literary journals, including The Georgia Review.