Brain Pickings

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions

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“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude.”

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag lamented in her journal. “People who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger,” the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky admonished the young. And yet despite the vast creative and psychological benefits of boredom, we have grown so afraid of it that we have unlearned — or refused to learn altogether — the essential art of being alone, so very necessary for contemplation and creative work.

The great French artist and dedicated diarist Eugène Delacroix (April 26, 1798–August 13, 1863) examined this paradox with enormous elegance and prescience two centuries before our present epidemic of compulsive sociality and allergy to solitude.

As he approached his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix began to formulate what would become a defining concern of his youth and one of increasing urgency for us today, amid our age of exponentially swelling social demands and distractions — the challenge of mediating between the allure of social life and the “fertile solitude” necessary for creative work, which Hemingway grimly extolled in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Eugène Delacroix, self-portrait, 1837

Writing in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (public library) in early January of 1824, the young artist addresses himself directly, as he often does in the diary:

Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.

By the end of March, he is fully consumed by the polarizing pull of these conflicting needs for sociality and solitude. (A century and a half later, the great Wendell Berry captured their yin-yang beautifully when he wrote that in solitude “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives.”) In his growing contempt for the vulgarity of the art world’s posturing and the charade of networking, Delacroix finds himself doubly tormented by this polarity:

I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone. Moreover, I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? … The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotions to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way an d thus the impression is weakened for both.

The first Sunday of April, shortly before his twenty-sixth birthday, he revisits the subject with greater resolve:

Everything tells me that I need to live a more solitary life. The loveliest and most precious moments of my life are slipping away in amusements which, in truth, bring me nothing but boredom. The possibility, or the constant expectation, of being interrupted is already beginning to weaken what little strength I have left after wasting my time for hours the night before. When my memory has nothing important to feed on, it pines and dies. My mind is continually occupied in useless scheming. Countless valuable ideas miscarry because there is no continuity in my thoughts. They burn me up and lay my mind to waste. The enemy is within my gates, in my very heart; I feel his hand everywhere.

Two decades before Kierkegaard’s memorable case for the value of being “idle” in one’s own company and a century before Bertrand Russell’s incisive insistence on the rewards of “fruitful monotony,” young Delacroix exhorts himself:

Think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction. Think of having peace of mind and a reliable memory, of the self-control that a well-ordained life will bring, of health not undermined by endless concessions to the passing excesses which other people’s society entails, of uninterrupted work, and plenty of it.

Illustration by Carson Ellis from her book 'Home.' Click image for more.

The Journal of Eugène Delacroix is a magnificent read in its entirety — a treasure trove of insight on art and life from one of the most luminous and creatively restless minds in history. (A word of caution here: The 1995 Phaidon edition by Hubert Wellington, while affordable and more readily available, is printed on paper so woefully thin it is nearly translucent, making reading difficult and unpleasant — to say nothing of underlining, even the gentlest form of which practically tears the page. The 1995 Princeton University Press edition by Michele Hannosh, while out of print and prohibitively expensive, is far superior — pleasurably printed, intelligently edited, and a true masterwork of scholarship reconstructing missing documents. Perhaps a smart publisher invested in cultural preservation will consider bringing it back into print.)

For a complementary perspective, see Wendell Berry on despair and solitude, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why “productive solitude” is essential for the healthy psyche, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone in our age of inescapable togetherness, then revisit famous writers and artists — including Delacroix himself — on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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Thinking with Animals: From Aesop to Darwin to YouTube

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How metaphors of nonhuman beings help us give shape to the human experience and make sense of our inner lives.

We think in metaphors — they are our bridge of meaning between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Anthropomorphism — the tendency to project human qualities onto nonhuman beings and objects — is perhaps the most common of all metaphorical modes. In our earliest conscious experiences, we are surrounded by toy animals and immersed in children’s books rife with animal characters — in fact, cognitive scientists now know that the development of metaphorical thinking in children is what gives rise to the imagination, so imagining animals as ourselves and projecting ourselves onto animals is a developmental achievement for the human mind. But using animals as a mode of clarifying the human experience is something that permeates every stage of life and every epoch of our civilization, from ancient creation myths to Aesop’s fables to Orwell’s allegorical masterwork Animal Farm to Lolcats and its conceptual predecessor. We are drawn to YouTube videos of animals not just because they are cute or comical, but because they are contextually cute or comical — implicit anthropomorphism juxtaposes their nonhumanness with the expectations of a human context, putting into practice Arthur Koestler’s pioneering biosciation theory of how humor works.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

The fascinating complexities and hidden dynamics of our human dance with nonhuman metaphors is what Max Planck Institute director Lorraine Daston and science historian Gregg Mitman explore in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (public library) — a wildly stimulating anthology of essays that began as a workshop at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science held in May of 2001, exploring our metaphor-riddled relationship with animals from a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, anthropological, political, economic, scientific, and artistic, from ancient India to the Victorian laboratory to the internet.

Daston and Mitman write:

We are animals; we think with animals. What could be more natural? The children’s section of every bookstore overflows with stories about animal heroes and villains; cartoons and animated feature films show the adventures of Bambi, Mickey Mouse, and the Road Runner to rapt audiences… From Aristotle to Darwin down to the present, naturalists have credited bees with monarchies, ants with honesty, and dogs with tender consciences.

They go on to examine how thinking with animals in both senses of the phrase — on the one hand, the kinship of thought and feeling between us and other creatures; on the other, our tendency to use other animals in symbolizing and dramatizing aspects of the human experience — transforms us.

They trace the root of our paradoxical attitude toward thinking with animals — the automatic readiness with which we employ anthropomorphism despite continuing to view the term as one of intellectual and moral reproach:

Originally, the word referred to the attribution of human form to gods, forbidden by several religions as blasphemous. Something of the religious taboo still clings to secular, modern instances of anthropomorphism, even if it is animals rather than divinities that are being humanized.

[…]

In the sciences, to impute human thoughts or emotions to electrons, genes, ants, or even other primates is to invite suspicions of sloppy thinking.

One can’t help but think of the resistance Jane Goodall faced from the scientific establishment for naming rather than numbering the chimps she studied as she embarked on a career that would render her one of the most important scientists of the past century. Had Goodall not learned to think with animals as a child, thanks to her toy chimpanzee named Jubilee, she would have never dreamt the childhood dream that she spent her life turning into a reality.

Illustration by Patrick McDonnell from 'Me... Jane,' a picture book about Goodall's formative years. Click image for more.

Daston and Mittman capture the history of this paradox elegantly:

Despite the official ban on anthropomorphism in science, thinking with animals permeated practice in the field and the lab. Both animal and human were transformed in the process.

Of course, this stubborn resistance to letting other animals encroach on our status as self-appointed supreme beings isn’t limited to science — it has a long cultural history and is central to our understanding of what it means to be human. What Margaret Mead observed of our intraspecies divides — “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out,” she told James Baldwin in their magnificent forgotten conversation on race and identity — is also true of the human identity, which is dependent upon enforcing the interspecies divide.

And yet, Daston and Mitman note, even though evolutionary theory has made it increasingly difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line between humans and other animals, there is more to our cultural conflictedness about anthropocentrism:

There is a moral as well an intellectual element to critiques of anthropomorphism. On this view, to imagine that animals think like humans or to cast animals in human roles is a form of self-centered narcissism: one looks outward to the world and sees only one’s own reflection mirrored therein. Considered from a moral standpoint, anthropomorphism sometimes seems dangerously allied to anthropocentrism: humans project their own thoughts and feelings onto other animal species because they egotistically believe themselves to be the center of the universe. But anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism can just as easily tug in opposite directions: for example, the Judeo-Christian tradition that humans were the pinnacle of Creation also encouraged claims that humans, being endowed by God with reason and immortal souls, were superior to and qualitatively different from animals. In this theological context, it made no sense to try to think with soulless animals.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

But even if, in an age when we’ve left behind Decartes’s notion of animals as mere soulless “automata” and we’re beginning to recognize the complexities of animal consciousness, there is a different kind of arrogance in projecting our own souls onto nonhuman animals:

Even if anthropomorphism is decoupled from anthropocentrism, the former can still be criticized as arrogant and unimaginative. To assimilate the behavior of a herd of elephants to, say, that of a large, middle-class, American family or to dress up a pet terrier in a tutu strikes these critics as a kind of species provincialism, an almost pathological failure to register the wondrous variety of the natural world — a provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home.

At the heart of the matter seems to be a larger kind of arrogance: We tend to accept and honor otherness, be it in our fellow humans or in our fellow species, for as long as it’s convenient — as long as it doesn’t require us to reformulate our us-ness and revise our own way of being in the world. But once it does, all bets are off. This is why we’ve made such profoundly insufficient progress on enduring issues of racial justice and why we sign Facebook petitions for animal rights while buying products mired in animal testing and cruelty. Drawing that increasingly artificial hard-and-fast line between human and nonhuman consciousness is what allows us to continue considering ourselves moral beings; refusing to widen our circle of empathy and sympathy to other creatures is what allows us to go on fancying ourselves empathetic and sympathetic people even as we harm nonhuman animals, directly and indirectly, with our daily choices.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Orwell's 'Animal Farm.' Click image for more.

Daston and Mitman capture this poignantly:

Should animals be treated as moral persons, with rights like those accorded to human beings? If so, would animal rights imply that humans ought to embrace vegetarianism, stop wearing fur and leather clothing, and abandon experiments on animals that do not serve the animals’ own interests, for the same reasons that cannibalism and instrumental experiments on humans should be rejected as ethically repugnant?

[…]

Since many (though not all) of the arguments pro and contra in this debate hinge upon the degree of analogy between humans and other animal species, and more particularly on the analogy between thoughts and feelings, the ancient and almost universal practice of thinking with animals has taken on new significance.

In a sentiment that calls to mind John Berger’s provocative 1980 essay Why Look at Animals, they add:

The question raises important issues of representation and agency. Thinking with animals is not the same as thinking about them.

[…]

The outcome of all of them depends crucially not only on how we think about animals but whether, and above all how, we think with them.

Illustration for Aesop's Fables by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for more.

To be sure, our motives for thinking with animals aren’t purely philosophical — they are often quite practical. Images of animals in visual communication create moods and, ultimately, sell products. Daston and Mittman write:

Pets enhance the health and happiness of their owners [and] animal personalities move the public and politicians more effectively than wildlife statistics… Striking images of animals are in great demand by global advertisers because — in contrast to equally striking images of humans — age, race, class, and culture do not interfere with identification and the desire to acquire… No wonder that anthropomorphism has been assiduously cultivated: money, love, and power are all to be had by thinking with animals.

And yet anthropocentrism isn’t always an act of solipsism — it can also be the very opposite: an effort at self-transcendence, evoking Alan Watts’s assertion that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” Daston and Mittman offer a counterpoint to the common critique of anthropocentrism:

In certain historical and cultural contexts, the longing to think with animals becomes the opposite of the arrogant egotism decried by critics of anthropomorphism. Instead of projection of one’s own way of thinking and feeling onto other minds, submersion of self in the genuinely other is fervently attempted—but never achieved. It is a virtuoso but doomed act of complete empathy… This extreme form of thinking with animals is the impossible but irresistible desire to jump out of one’s own skin, exchange one’s brain, plunge into another way of being.

Illustration by Bhajju Shyam from 'Creation,' a visual cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths. Click image for more.

But whichever direction we lean isn, selfishness or self-transcendence, the allure of thinking with animals remains undeniable — something the authors argue is rooted in “the active reality of animals”:

Plants are beautiful, endlessly varied, and marvels of organic adaptation. Yet they radiate none of the magnetism animals do for humans. Even the most enthusiastic fancier of orchids or ferns rarely tries to think with them, in either sense of the phrase… Unlike dolls or robots or any other product of human skill, however ingenious, animals are not our marionettes, our automata (which originally meant “puppet” in Greek). They are symbols with a life of their own. We use them to perform our thoughts, feelings, and fantasies because, alone of all our myriad symbols, they can perform; they can do what is to be done. We may orchestrate their performance, but complete mastery is illusion. Eyes peer through the human mask to reveal another life, mysterious — like us or unlike us? Their animated gaze moves us to think.

Thinking with Animals is a tremendous read in its entirety, spanning from the curious “science” of medieval angelology to Kafka to how the Victorian elite sparked the fashion of pet ownership. Complement it with Laurel Braitman’s empathetic inquiry into the mental life of nonhuman animals, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2014, and Jon Mooallem’s moving paean to wildlife, then treat yourself to one of the loveliest animal-charactered allegories of our time, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird.

Thanks, Laurel

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The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility

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“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

“Nothing any good isn’t hard,” F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted in his letter of advice on writing to his fifteen-year-old daughter upon her enrollment in high school. That uncomfortable yet strangely emboldening counsel is what Cheryl Strayed offers — with greater poeticism and much better grammar — to a despairing young writer in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), the ample soul-satisfactions of which have been previously extolled here.

Long before Wild — her magnificent memoir of learning, oh, just about every dimension of the art of living while hiking more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail — was turned into a major motion picture, Strayed wielded her art as an advice columnist for The Rumpus, simply known as Sugar. Among the thousands of Dear Sugar letters she received was one from a self-described “pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six” named Elissa Bassist, a “writer who can’t write,” a “high-functioning head case, one who jokes enough that most people don’t know the truth.” “The truth,” she tells Sugar, “[is that] I am sick with panic that I cannot — will not — override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Like all the letters Strayed answered as Sugar, this one is profoundly personal yet speaks to the artist’s universal dance with the fear — the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.

What makes Strayed’s advice so vitalizing is that it is never dispensed as a holier-than-thou dictum; rather, it weaves tapestry of no-bullshit solace from the beautifully tattered threads of her own experience, messy and alive. This is exactly what she hands to Bassist, under the title “Write Like a Motherfucker.”

Invoking the time right before she wrote her first book, when she too was a twenty-something writer plagued by the same fear that she was “lazy and lame,” Strayed recounts how she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked”; in other words, she got off the nail. With an eye to Flannery O’Connor’s famous proclamation that “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” which Strayed had inscribed across the chalkboard in her living room at the time, she writes:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote… And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Echoing Voltaire’s memorable admonition from his letter of advice on how to write well“beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose” — and Bukowski’s lament that “bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Strayed adds:

I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

Strayed directs her tough-love incisiveness at Bassist’s paradoxical blend of self-pitying defeatism and grandiose entitlement — something not uncommon in young artists, who forget that “anything worthwhile takes a long time,” and a kernel of truth in the otherwise overly flat and ungenerously applied cultural archetype of the millennial:

Buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce.

Pointing to Bassist’s litany of women writers who ended their own lives — perhaps Plath, Sexton, Woolf — Strayed calls the young writer out on perpetuating the dangerous mythology of creativity and mental illness. Reminding her — reminding all of us — that the stories we tell ourselves shape our horizons of possibility, Strayed reality-checks this perilous narrowing of attention:

In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.

You know what is?

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured.

[…]

The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you—,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

[…]

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

In this excerpt from her altogether fantastic 2012 conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, with Bassist in the audience, Strayed elaborates on the art of motherfuckitude:

But being a motherfucker, it’s a way of life, really… It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.

[…]

I think there are a lot of writers who can’t write, or they think they can’t write… I understand that feeling, I think every writer has wrestled with those anxieties and that self-loathing, and yet ultimately in order to succeed in anything we all have to in essence embrace humility, rather.

[…]

A lot of people think that to be a motherfucker is to be a person who is the dominant figure. But I actually think that true motherfuckerhood … really has to do with being humble. And it’s only when you can get out of your own ego that you can actually do what is necessary to do — in a relationship, in your professional life, as a parent, in any of those ways. It has to do with humility — doing the work.

Tiny Beautiful Things, it bears repeating, is nothing short of necessary to the liver of modern life. Complement this particular fragment with Dani Shapiro on the plight of the artist and this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

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The Storm Whale: A Tender Illustrated Story of Loneliness, Loss, Single-Parenting, and the Redemptive Power of Love

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A sweet celebration of what it takes to feel at home in one’s own life.

Psychologists have found that presence is the key to great parenting and yet also maintain that growing a capacity for fertile solitude is a developmental achievement for the child.

London-based illustrator and animation director Benji Davies reconciles these two contradictory demands with enormous tenderness and thoughtfulness in The Storm Whale (public library) — a beautiful belated addition to the best children’s books of 2014. A quiet meditation on what happens when solitude becomes loneliness, the story welcomes the challenges and rewards of single-parenting, celebrating the redemptive power of attentive love.

Noi is a little boy who lives by the sea with his fisherman-father and their six cats. Like in the touching Davey McGravy and My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — two of the most unusual and wonderful books that help children grieve — there is no mother in the picture. With great subtlety, Davies invites the reader to sense the presence of loss in the salty air of this small and sensitive child’s life.

Every day at dawn, Noi’s father departs for a long day of work on his fishing boat and doesn’t come home until dark.

One morning, after a violent storm sweeps the island, Noi goes down to the beach and spots something curious in the distance.

As he got closer, Noi could not believe his eyes. It was a little whale washed up on the sand.

Knowing that the whale can’t live out of the water but unsure how he can help, Noi decides to cart the stranded creature to his house and make it feel at home — in the bathtub.

He told stories about life on the island. The whale was an excellent listener.

But Noi knows the secret companionship won’t last long and fears that his dad, upon coming home, would be furious about the whale in the bathroom.

The little boy manages tho keep the secret all through the evening, even sneaking a few fish from the dinner table to the tub, but the father eventually discovers his son’s betubbed friend — a moment dramatic not for its volatility but for the quiet wistfulness to which it awakens the fisherman.

Noi’s dad wasn’t angry.

He had been so busy, he hadn’t noticed that Noi was lonely.

But he said they must take the whale back to the sea, where it belonged.

Despite knowing it was the right thing to do, Noi has a hard time saying goodbye but is glad to have his loving father there.

As the two return to their daily lives, the little boy keeps thinking about his whale-friend, hoping to see him again.

In the final scene, Noi and his father head to a picnic atop the cliff and the little boy’s wish comes true — he spots the baby animal alongside a grown whale in the ocean, waving a friendly tail. But the joyful moment is underpinned by subtle solemnity — one can’t help the pensive awareness that the little boy watching the two tails on the horizon, the larger most likely the whale-mother’s, is about to return to his own motherless home.

The ending motif calls to mind two of the best children’s books of our century, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird and Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown: a bittersweet separation — bitter, for the protagonist says farewell to his unlikely new friend; sweet, for each world is restored to its natural order — followed by a redemptive partial reunion, allowing the two worlds that had intersected for a blink to continue moving along their autonomous orbits while bowing to each other’s gladdening gravity.

Complement the infinitely warm and wonderful The Storm Whale with a vintage counterpart — the 1949 treasure Little Boy Brown, perhaps the greatest ode to loneliness ever written. For a different kind of homage to single-parenting, see Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely Pecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

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A Questionnaire for the Immodest and Curious: Clever Puzzles, Riddles, and Word Games from Nabokov’s Love Letters to His Wife

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“Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.”

Despite his enormous intellectual and creative achievements, Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) considered one private event the most significant of his life: meeting 21-year-old Véra Slonim in 1923. For the remaining half-century of his life, she became not only his beloved wife but also one of creative history’s greatest unsung heroes, acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

Found in Letters to Véra (public library) — that spectacular collection of Nabokov’s passionate love letters to his wife, which also gave us literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning and was among the best biographies of 2014 — are a number of riddles, quizzes, and word puzzles the young author devised and included in his missives to Véra in the summer of 1926 as she was recovering from illness at a sanatorium in Germany. Their existence is a testament to the many dimensions of great love — intense passion coupled with creative communion, intellectual stimulation, and a shared capacity for delight.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

Since the couple corresponded in Russian, most of the word riddles and crossword puzzles are hard to appreciate in English and require transliteration to grasp Nabokov’s almost mathematical genius of language. But in a letter from mid-July of that year — which he ends with his characteristic epistolary fervor: “Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.” — 27-year-old Nabokov includes this universally delightful hand-drawn visual riddle:

You must find in this person:

  1. another face
  2. a mouse
  3. a bunny
  4. a chick
  5. a pony
  6. Mrs. Tufty in a new hat
  7. a little monkey

In another letter from early July, he offers the following list of words for a riddle:

Riddle in transliteration:

Lomota, igumen, tetka, Kolya, Maron, versifikator, Leta, chugun, tropinka, landysh, Ipokrena

Riddle in English:

Aching, abbot, aunt, Kolya, Maro, versifier, Lethe, cast iron, little path, lily of the valley, Hippokrene

He then gives the following instruction:

Make ten new words out of the syllables of the words above, with these meanings:

  1. A place where science meets ignorance
  2. an engine
  3. a city in Russia
  4. a historic personage
  5. a good woman
  6. a part of a cart
  7. beatitude of the diaphragm
  8. the first architect (see the Bible)
  9. a lazybones
  10. a woman’s name

In a testament to what a perfect intellectual match Véra Nabokov was for her brilliant husband, Penguin editor Gennady Barbtarlo writes:

With few exceptions, Véra Nabokov seems to have solved them all by return post.

But what posed little trouble for [her] in 1926, who likely had no reference books to consult, proved quite a challenge to his beGoogled editors next century. it took putting together three heads to crack these puzzles, with some solutions remaining questionable.

Barbtarlo and his team offer the following solution to the riddle:

Answers in transliteration:

  1. universitet
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. matrona
  6. dyshlo
  7. ikota
  8. Kain
  9. gulyaka
  10. Filomena

Answers in English

  1. university
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. Matron
  6. pole [of a carriage]
  7. hiccups
  8. Cain
  9. idler
  10. Philomena

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

But the most delightful of all is a “questionnaire for the immodest and curious” Nabokov sent in a letter from mid-July — a kind of personality test partway between the famous Proust Questionnaire of the late 19th century and the chain-email quizzes of the early 21st century:

A questionnaire for the immodest and curious
(not obligatory for anyone)

  1. Name, patronymic, last name
  2. Pen-name, or a preferred pen-name
  3. Age and preferred age
  4. Attitude to marriage
  5. Attitude to children
  6. Profession and preferred profession
  7. What century would you like to live in?
  8. What city would you like to live in?
  9. From what age do you remember yourself and your first memory?
  10. Which of the existing religions is closest to your world-view?
  11. What kind of literature do you like the most? What literary genre?
  12. Your favorite books
  13. Your favorite art
  14. Your favorite artwork
  15. Your attitude to technology
  16. Do you appreciate philosophy? As a form of scholarship, as a pastime
  17. Do you believe in progress?
  18. Your favorite aphorism
  19. Your favorite language
  20. On what foundations does the world stand?
  21. What miracle would you perform if you had a chance?
  22. What would you do if you suddenly got a lot of money?
  23. Your attitude to modern woman
  24. Your attitude to modern man
  25. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a woman?
  26. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a man?
  27. What gives you the keenest pleasure?
  28. What gives you the keenest suffering?
  29. Are you a jealous person?
  30. Your attitude to lies
  31. Do you believe in love?
  32. Your attitude to drugs
  33. Your most memorable dream
  34. Do you believe in fate and predestination?
  35. Your next reincarnation?
  36. Are you afraid of death?
  37. Would you like man to become immortal?
  38. Your attitude to suicide:
  39. Are you an anti-Semite? Yes. No. Why?
  40. “Do you like cheese”?
  41. Your favorite mode of transportation
  42. Your attitude to solitude
  43. Your attitude to our circle
  44. Think of a name for it
  45. Favorite menu

That Véra’s response is not included in the otherwise delicious Letters to Véra is a pity but understandable — some of the non-binary questions, like those about attitude to suicide, solitude, marriage, and immortality, would take any sensitive and intelligent person thousands of words and many hours to answer with the appropriate nuance. Still, one can’t help fantasizing about both Véra’s answers and the prospect of deploying this questionnaire on some of the most fascinating minds of our time.

Complement with Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, then revisit the celebrated author on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, the attributes of a good reader, and the story of what his butterfly studies reveal about the nature of creativity.

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