Brain Pickings

Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero

By:

“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves.”

One need only look at the canon of quiet champions behind creative icons to be reminded of how deeply and lastingly a young person setting out on a creative path can be touched by a simple word of encouragement from one of his or her heroes — one of the “spiritual and mental ancestors” we choose for ourselves, which are essential to our identity. Would Whitman be Whitman without Emerson’s generous letter? Would Sendak be Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support? Would Bukowski have remained a mere postal worker without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to be come a full-time writer? Would young Hermann Hesse have sunk into resignation without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters?

Among the beneficiaries of these small yet life-changing kindnesses was teenage James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

His first published work — a laudatory review of Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken — appeared in the influential Fortnightly Review in the spring of 1900. Joyce was only eighteen. Ibsen, who had just suffered a series of strokes, was deeply touched by the article’s benevolent sentiment. He wrote to his English translator, the prominent Scottish drama critic William Archer, to express appreciation for Joyce’s review. Archer then wrote to the young author, passing along Ibsen’s words of gratitude.

Joyce, already high on the honor of being published in the prestigious journal, was elevated to absolute elation by the knowledge that not one but two of his literary idols had not only paid attention to his work but had appreciated it. On April 28, five days after receiving Archer’s letter, he sent the following reply, found in Joyce: Selected Letters (public library):

Dear Sir I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life. Faithfully yours

Jas A. Joyce

But the exchange was no fleeting gratification. Almost a year later, in March of 1901, Joyce sent Ibsen a beautiful letter for the playwright’s seventy-third birthday.

Having just turned nineteen, Joyce writes:

I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held as high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

And yet Joyce, perhaps gripped with youth’s dual capacity for profound admiration and stubborn pride, is quick to redact any impression of excessive adulation while assuring Ibsen that his veneration comes from a place more sincere than the vanity of superficial idolatry:

Do not think me a hero-worshipper — I am not so. And when I spoke of you in debating societies and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

But for all his precocious mastery of thought and language, Joyce is still very much a teenager — to him, a 73-year-old is so ancient as to be practically dead. In a rather morbid passage, Joyce assumes the role of a mortality-hypnotist and writes:

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing dark for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it… But I am sure that higher and holier enlightenment lies — onward.

Ibsen lived another five years, but the play young Joyce had reviewed was his last, which renders Joyce’s closing words triply touching:

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly, because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting. Faithfully yours,

James A. Joyce

Perhaps Ibsen’s assuring words were what gave young Joyce “the faith in the soul” of which he wrote in his magnificent letter to Lady Gregory the following year.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, which is a treasure trove in its hefty totality, with Isaac Asimov’s heartwarming fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s wonderful letter to George Eliot.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

R. Crumb Illustrates Kafka

By:

…and why “Kafkaesque” doesn’t mean what you think it does.

After revolutionizing album covers in the 1960s and 1970s, legendary cartoonist and counterculture icon R. Crumb (b. August 30, 1943) sought out his creative kin in another realm of art, traversing the boundaries of life and death to embark on a series of posthumous “collaborations” with some of literature’s most revered irreverents. He illustrated two short books by Bukowski, visualized Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory exegesis, and adapted Sartre into a comic.

But his greatest, most grimly glorious contribution to the literary canon came with the 2007 release of Kafka (public library) — a succinct and illuminating biography by David Zane Mairowitz, covering everything from Kafka’s the troubled relationship with his emotionally abusive father to his fear of women to his lifelong love affair with his own death to the cultural misunderstandings in which the term “Kafkaesque” is mired.

In one particularly poignant passage, Mairowitz examines Kafka’s conflicted sense of identity — a function of the core human tendencies Margaret Mead and James Baldwin so elegantly captured decades earlier — and considers the author’s coping mechanisms amid Prague’s anti-Semitic cultural climate:

Franz Kafka was never one of those harassed or beaten up on the streets because he was, or simply looked like, a Jew. Yet, however much he may have retired into himself and pushed these events out of direct reach, it would have been impossible, as for most Jews, to absent himself intellectually from the collective fate.

Like all assimilated Jews, one of the things he had to “assimilate” was a measure of “healthy anti-Semitism.” Most Jews of that time (or any other) absorbed the daily menace of anti-Semitism and turned it inward toward themselves. Kafka was no exception to feelings of Jewish self-hatred.

But sooner or later, even the most hateful of Jewish self-hatreds has to turn around and laugh at itself. In Kafka, the duality of dark melancholy and hilarious self-abasement is nearly always at work. “Kafkaesque” is usually swollen with notions of terror and bitter anguish. But Kafka’s stories, however grim, are nearly always also … funny.

Mairowitz and Crumb also explore how Kafka’s relationship with his tyrannical father — whom 36-year-old Franz eventually attempted to confront in a harrowing letter — shaped his writing, including his most famous work, “The Metamorphosis.”

These grim parallels between Kafka’s lived experience and his fictional worlds continued until his death, even through his final moments — in June of 1924, while dying of tuberculosis-induced starvation, he was busy correcting the galley-proofs for his story collection A Hunger Artist, the publication of which several months later he never lived to see.

Complement the Crumb-crusted Kafka with the celebrated author on what books do for the human soul, his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters, and My First Kafka, a most unusual and imaginative adaptation of Kafka for kids.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Grandmother’s Glass Eye: Elizabeth Bishop on How Poetry Pretends Life into Reality

By:

On the glorious “difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real.”

Long before poet Elizabeth Bishop (February 8, 1911–October 6, 1979) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, long before she served as Poet Laureate of the United States, she peered forward into the path that would become her calling and contemplated why poetry — that manifestation of the “wild, silky part of ourselves,” the product of a mind “miraculously attuned and illuminated” — exists in the first place.

In a short, penetrating essay on the poetry of W.H. Auden titled “Mechanics of Pretense,” penned when Bishop was barely twenty-three and found in the altogether fantastic Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (public library), she writes:

Much can be done by means of pretense. Children pretend to speak a foreign language or inscribe its imitation alphabet in their school books, and inspired by the same motives, grow up to become linguists, grammarians, and travelers. Lord Byron, looking in the mirror, pretended to be the Byronic man, and the Byronic man, with his curls and collars, came into existence by the hundred. The growth of the small nation into the empire contains infinities of such pretense, gradually turning to the infinite realities of empire.

This necessary transmutation of pretense into reality, Bishop argues, is a chief purpose of poetry:

One of the causes of poetry must be … the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact; there is something out of proportion between them, and what is being said in words is not at all what is being said in “things.” To connect this disproportion a pretense is at first necessary. By “pretending” the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the “things” it must deal with, the language is forced into being. It is learned by one person, by a few, by all who can become interested in that poet’s poetry.

But as this imaginary language is elaborated and is understood by more people, it begins to work two ways at once. “Things” gave rise to the language; now the language arouses an independent life in the “things,” first dimly perceived in them only by the poet.

This interplay between poetry and “things” is something 25-year-old Bishop touches on a year later, in a 1936 letter to Marianne Moore, in which she reflects Wallace Stevens’s newly released book of poetry, Owl’s Clover:

What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book … is that it is such a display of ideas at work — making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.

And yet this way of thinking is not one that comes naturally to the human mind. Many years later, in a lecture on poetry prepared in Rio in the 1960s but never presented, the draft of which is also included in this volume, Bishop writes:

Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet’s energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he’s up to and what he’s saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances.

She then offers the most exquisite metaphor for poetry’s lifeline of a tightrope between pretense and reality, between natural and unnatural:

My maternal grandmother had a glass eye. It fascinated me as a child, and the idea of it has fascinated me all my life. She was religious, in the Puritanical Protestant sense and didn’t believe in looking into mirrors very much. Quite often the glass eye looked heaven-ward, or off at an angle, while the real eye looked at you.

[…]

Off and on I have written out a poem called “Grandmother’s Glass Eye” which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye.

Complement the wholly wonderful Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box with Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry and Muriel Rukeyser on why we fear it, then treat yourself to Amanda Palmer’s bewitching reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.”

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.