Brain Pickings

Love, Forgiveness, the Pride of the Protest, and What Makes a Compelling Heroine: Dostoyevsky’s Beautiful Eulogy for George Sand

By:

A warm celebration of the art of crafting “characters of the most sincere forgiveness and love.”

On June 8, 1876, the great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, took her last breath five weeks before her seventy-second birthday. Over the course of her long and prolific career, she had touched millions of readers and influenced generations of writers. Among them was beloved Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky — a young man at the time of Sand’s literary debut, which had profoundly shaped his sensibility as a writer.

When he read about Sand’s death in the newspaper, Dostoyevsky was moved to write one of the warmest eulogies in literary history, on par with Susan Sontag’s remembrance of Borges and JFK’s of Robert Frost. It was eventually included in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same superb collection that gave us Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and his arrival at the meaning of life in a dream. Despite a certain patina of datedness — this was an era when a woman writer was always a “poetess” — the eulogy emanates a tenacious timelessness, not only in celebrating Sand but also in serving as a genial testament to the circles of influence ripping through creative culture.

With the intention “merely to say a few farewell words to the deceased at her fresh grave,” Dostoyevsky laments that the most recent issue of his periodical had gone to press just before the announcement of Sand’s death:

I had no time to say even a word about this death. And yet, only having read about it, I understood what that name has meant in my life; how many delights, how much veneration this poetess has evoked in me at the time, and how many joys, how much happiness she has given me! I am putting down every one of these words unhesitatingly because this was literally the case.

With an eye to Sand’s idealism as a “service rendered to mankind as a whole,” Dostoyevsky considers how many others were as touched by her work and spirit as he was:

I imagine that much as I, then a young lad, everybody in those days was impressed with the chaste, sublime purity of the characters and of the ideals, and the modest charm of the austere, reserved tone of the narrative — and such a woman wears trousers and engages in debauch!

Pointing out that Sand become more popular with the Russian public than even Dickens, Dostoyevsky — who had served eight years in a Siberian prison camp for reading banned books — considers her singular allure to the national spirit at a time of severe ideological despotism in Russia:

The reader managed to extract even from novels everything against which he was being guarded… George Sand was one of the most brilliant, stern and just representatives of that category of the contemporaneous Western new men who, when they appeared, started with a direct negation of those “positive” acquisitions which brought to a close the activities of the bloody French — more correctly, European — revolution of the end of the past century.

Sand’s work, he argues, attested to the idea that “the renovation of humanity must be radical and social” and was a centerpiece not only of women’s emancipation but of the broader socialist movement toward freedom:

Her sermons were by no means confined to woman alone… George Sand belonged to the whole movement, and not to the mere sermons of women’s rights. True, being a woman herself, she naturally preferred to portray heroines rather than heroes, and, of course, women of the whole world should now don mourning garb in her memory, because one of their loftiest and most beautiful representatives has passed away, and, in addition, an almost unprecedented woman by reason of the power of her mind and talent — a name which has become historical and which is destined not to be forgotten…

George Sand by Nadar, 1864

In a sentiment triply poignant against the contemporary fact that books featuring female protagonists rarely receive literary acclaim, Dostoyevsky considers the compassionate idealism that made Sand’s heroines so widely resonant and bewitching:

Her heroines represented a type of such elevated moral purity that it could not have been conceived without an immense ethical quest in the soul of the poetess herself; without the confession of the most complete duty; without the comprehension and admission of most sublime beauty and mercy, patience and justice. True, side by side with mercy, patience and the acknowledgement of the obligations of duty, there was the extraordinary pride of the quest and of the protest; yet it was precisely that pride which was so precious because it sprang from the most sublime truth, without which mankind could never have retained its place on so lofty a moral height. This pride is not rancor quad même, based upon the idea that I am better than you, and you are worse than me; nay, this is merely a feeling of the most chaste impossibility of compromise with untruth and vice, although — I repeat — this feeling precludes neither all-forgiveness nor mercy.

[…]

In a contemporary peasant girl she suddenly resurrects before the reader the image of the historical Joan of Arc, and graphically justifies the actual possibility of that majestic and miraculous event. This is typically Georgesandesque task, since no one but she among contemporary poets bore in the soul so pure an ideal… A straightforward, honest, but inexperienced, character of a young feminine creature is pictured, one possessing that proud chastity which is neither afraid of, nor can even be contaminated by, contact with vice — even if that creature should accidentally find herself in the very den of vice. The want of magnanimous sacrifice (supposedly specifically expected from her) startles the youthful girl’s heart, and unhesitatingly, without sparing herself, disinterestedly, self-sacrificingly and fearlessly, she suddenly takes the most perilous and fatal step. That which she sees and encounters does not in the least confuse or intimidate her; on the contrary, it forthwith increases courage in the youthful heart which, at this juncture, for the first time, realizes the full measure of its strength — the strength of innocence, honesty and purity; it doubles the energy, reveals new paths and new horizons to a mind which up to that time had not known itself, a vigorous and fresh mind not yet soiled with the compromise of life.

To be sure, Dostoyevsky points out, Sand’s archetype of the courageous and independent woman-protagonist was not met without resistance by those who admonished against “the future poison of woman’s protest, of woman’s emancipation.” But her very devotion to unsettling the era’s limiting norms and envisioning a more expansive version of humanity is also what rendered Sand immortal:

George Sand … was one of the most clairvoyant foreseers (if this flourishing term be permitted) of a happy future awaiting mankind, in the realization of whose ideals she had confidently and magnanimously believed all her life — this because she herself was able to conceive this ideal in her soul. The preservation of this faith to the end is usually the lot of the lofty souls, of all genuine friends of humanity… She based her socialism, her convictions, her hopes and her ideals upon the moral feeling of man, upon the spiritual thirst of mankind and its longing for perfection and purity, and not upon “ant-necessity.” All her life she believed absolutely in human personality … elevating and broadening this concept in each one of her works.

[…]

As to the pride of her quests and of her protest — I repeat — this pride never precluded mercy, forgiveness of offense, or even boundless patience based upon compassion for the offender himself. On the contrary, time and again, in her works George Sand has been captivated by the beauty of these truths and on more than one occasion she has portrayed characters of the most sincere forgiveness and love.

A Writer’s Diary contains much more of Dostoyevsky’s warmth, idealism, and compassionate genius. Complement this particular piece with John F. Kennedy’s eulogy to Robert Frost and Susan Sontag’s breathtaking remembrance of Borges.

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.

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s Letters to Her Mother on the Joy of Living and Writing as Salvation for the Soul

By:

“I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light…”

Whether because we are wired by our cognitive circuitry or conditioned by our culture of cynicism, we tend to be profoundly incapable of recognizing that contradictory emotions, beliefs, states, and dispositions can coexist within a single person, at different times and even at the same time, complementing and enriching one another rather than canceling each other out. Can a life be lived with wholehearted exuberance and end by heartbreaking despair, without the fact of the latter negating the truth of the former? Hardly anything poses this question more acutely than the short, exuberant, and tragic life of beloved poet Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963).

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize and before her journals were published, the world got its first glimpse of the turbulent and wildly creative inner landscape this troubled genius inhabited — Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library). Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

In the introduction, Plath’s mother speaks of the “psychic osmosis” she shared with young Sylvia and cites a journal entry — for the beloved poet was among history’s most dedicated diarists — in which her 17-year-old daughter writes:

Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.

In a sentiment calling to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” teenage Plath adds:

At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.

Illustration by Quentin Blake from Plath's 'The Bed Book,' a children's book written for her own kids. Click image for more.

Plath did get married and did have kids. To this, a necessary addendum: The hubristic assumption that her marriage was the cause of her tragedy — an assumption tragically common in our age of snap judgments and superficial impressions masquerading as informed opinions, with which people don’t hesitate to impale others whenever Plath and Hughes are mentioned — is a disservice to the seething cauldron of complexity that is a human life, to say nothing of the double complexity of human relationships; it is also an assumption that fails to account for the still barely understood neurochemistry of creativity and mental illness.

What is clear is that at seventeen, Plath is tussling with precisely those complexities that make a person, feeling out the boundaries of the self, that resident-alien of body and mind:

I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

And yet, echoing Van Gogh — another complicated artist with a tragic end, who wrote to his brother: “Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Plath wonders whether her reach for perfection will ever bear fruit and show on the outside:

Never, never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul — my paintings, my poems, my stories — all poor reflections…

Facing the overwhelming crossroads of young adulthood, Plath marvels at this unrepeatable moment in time:

There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…

That cause became writing, a sense of purpose that came naturally to Plath as she let her life speak. She captures its pull beautifully in one of her earliest poems, written around the same time, which her mother includes in the introduction to the book:

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason? …

I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.

Plath soon headed to Smith College, where her dedication to writing grew so all-consuming that it was immortalized in a cartoon pinned to the College Hall Bulletin Board, which read under the caption “Teen-age Triumphs”:

BORN TO WRITE

Sylvia Plath, 17, really works at her writing… A national magazine has published two of her brain children! — the real test for being a writer.

For her part, Plath loved the opportunity to live up to the cartoon’s proclamation. She wrote in a letter to her mother:

Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy

And work, work, work she did — a few months later, she got that coveted Mademoiselle internship, which catapulted her into the world of professional writing. In a 1955 letter to her mother, which captures biographer Andrew Wilson’s apt assertion that Plath was “an addict of experience,” she writes:

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

In July of 1956, Plath articulates her inescapable calling in another letter to her mother from a trip to Paris with her husband, Ted Hughes, whom she had met that February in their famous first encounter and had married by June. Twenty-three-year-old Plath writes:

Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…

Letters Home is a bottomless treasure chest of insight into this luminous spirit caught in a troubled mind. Complement it with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her beautiful reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and her unseeen drawings, collected by her own daughter.

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.

The Value of a Compassionate Lie

By:

A poignant reminder that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is the greatest art of all.

“Anybody who travels knows,” Pico Iyer observed in his altogether marvelous On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, “that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re traveling in order to be moved.” Few have captured this aspect of travel as a mode of intimacy with oneself more enchantingly than writer and documentary photographer Michael Katakis in The Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile (public library) — a slim, absolutely magnificent collection of journal entries, which I picked up on the recommendation of voracious reader and traveler extraordinaire Karen Barbarossa, chronicling twenty-five years of Katakis mapping his inner world as he traverses the outer.

Although every page emanates enormous wisdom, one particular diary entry stopped my breath with how swiftly it sliced through my most fundamental convictions as a person who despises deception and prizes truth above almost all moral goods. And yet here was Katakis, reminding me in an incredibly poignant and beautiful way that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is perhaps the greatest art and most difficult moral feat of all.

Women husking in Sierra Leone (Photograph: Michael Katakis)

Writing from Sierra Leone in July of 1988 — a time of growing violence and unrest, shortly before the country erupted into its decade-long Civil War — Katakis describes an encounter with a most unexpected visitor, which taught him a most unexpected and invaluable truth:

On the veranda sat a small nicely dressed man in his twenties I’d guessed. He rose to greet me with an extended hand and held a large box in the other. He seemed familiar and at first did not speak.

After establishing that they had met some time ago in another city, the young man grows increasingly nervous and agitated, eventually blurting out that he has come to ask questions. Katakis recounts:

With that he set the large box on the table opening it carefully so as not to further stress the already broken spine. The contents, which he began to, and there is no other word for it, tenderly remove, were drawings and charts of the stars as well as old and yellowed newspaper clippings with stories about the American space program. There were stories about Mercury, Apollo and the names of some astronauts including John Glenn which were circled in red. The young man’s hand drawings of Saturn and Mars were remarkable and on some of the pages there were a series of equations that I took to mean latitude and longitude but could not be sure. He went on turning page after page. In another place and time he would have been a student or perhaps a professor of astronomy I thought. His passion for the subject was startling…

I told him that this was fantastic but my compliment was either ignored or not heard as he arranged more pages on the table. He then asked me his questions. They were about propulsion systems and temperatures on planets. Questions about Haley’s comet and other astronauts’ names and how the space program had developed after he had lost track. How far was the end of the galaxy and how long would it take to reach it and then questions about the theory of relativity. I was dumbfounded and could only manage a silly, insecure smile in response, and then, I made one of the greatest mistakes of my life. I told the truth. I said, “You have studied this so much and it’s amazing but I’m afraid that you know much more about this than I do. I am learning from you and I can’t answer your questions. I simply don’t know.”

Early drawings of Saturn by pioneering astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, from 'Cosmigraphics.' Click image for more.

A quarter century after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead made her elegant distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” Katakis — whose wife, Kris Hardin, was also an influential anthropologist — illustrates Mead’s point with silken sensitivity to the invisible dimensions of the human spirit:

The look on his face cut deep and in an instant I realized that he had not come for facts at all. He had come for new words to dream by. Perhaps my words would have carried him until August or September and maybe well past. He might have lay in the tall grass at night staring at the stars remembering the veranda where we had talked and ponder what was said. Perhaps he would have fallen into deep sleeps and dreamt of stars and in those dreams he might have taken flight far from his life of questions with no answers and loneliness. But that was not to be for I made the terrible mistake of admitting my ignorance and removing myself from our delicate charade.

I learned in that moment, when I took everything from him, the importance of lying, not merely telling an untruth but lying, with passion and flourish like an actor on a stage claiming to know that which they do not know, for the lie that keeps hope and dreams intact is preferable to a truth that removes them. Lies and truths are easy to come by but dreams that sustain people through difficult lives are not. I wish I could take back the day.

The Traveller is full of dreamsome sustenance from cover to cover. Complement this particular piece of nourishment with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

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.

The Big Green Book: Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak’s Little-Known and Lovely Vintage Children’s Book About the Magic of Reading

By:

A subversive celebration of how books transform us.

In 1962, the revered British poet and novelist Robert Graves was sixty-seven, with his greatest works long behind him; Maurice Sendak was an insecure young artist of thirty-four, with Where the Wild Things Are — his greatest work, which would turn him into a household name for generations to come — still a year ahead.

Mere months earlier, Sendak had illustrated Tolstoy, and now he was about to join forces with one of the greatest living authors of his own era: He was tasked with illustrating The Big Green Book (public library), Graves only children’s book — a wondrous and subversive story about the magic of reading.

That the protagonist is named Jack, like Sendak’s beloved brother, would have only added to the felicitous allure of the collaboration.

Little Jack is an orphan living with his aunt and uncle, who are “not very nice to him” because they take him on long walks when he wants to be left alone to play, and with their big old dog — a rather familiar dog — who likes chasing rabbits so much that the family frequently has rabbit pie for dinner.

One day, Jack climbs into the attic to play and discovers a big green book, which turns out to be full of magic spells.

As his eyes grow “bigger and bigger” with wonder, his magical find makes literal Rebecca Solnit’s memorable metaphor for the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Jack’s heart magically migrates from his little-boy chest into a little-old-man chest as he transmogrifies into a miniature Merlin-like personage, with a big beard and a tattered robe.

The story is delightfully nonsensical, but in a Lewis Carroll kind of way — nonsense undergirded by existential insight and deep human truth. It’s hard, for instance, not to feel Graves’s wistfulness at the incomprehensibly swift passage of life when he, in his late sixties, writes of little Jack’s magical transmutation:

Soon he found he was not a little boy any more — he was an old man with a long beard.

And when the aunt and uncle, now fretting over Jack’s disappearance, decide that they must ask “that ragged old man” whether he has seen the little boy anywhere, it’s hard not to feel thrust into the middle of the immutable mystery of personal identity — how is it, really, that you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of staggering physical and psychological changes? The ragged old man, Graves writes, “was really Jack all the time” — miraculously, so are we. And when the old man answers the uncle’s question, it’s impossible for the heart not to swell with Graves’s wistfulness once more:

A little boy was here only a minute ago… Now he’s disappeared.

The little old man convinces the aunt and uncle to stick around for a game of cards. With the help of his newfound magic, he proceeds to beat them over and over again. They start out playing for just a couple of dollars, but double the stakes each new game, hoping to recover their losses, only to lose again — until they owe the little sorcerer their house, their garden, and even their rabbit-chasing dog. (Three decades later, Sendak would dust off the symbolism of playing cards as a manipulation tool in his darkest children’s book, also starring a protagonist named Jack.)

Just as they’re about to take the little old man to the house, for him to claim his winnings, he performs one last spell — the rabbit being chased by the dog suddenly turns around, punches the dog in the nose, and reverses the chase.

At the house, under the pretext that he is taking a look at his new property, the little old man goes back to the attic and transmogrifies into Jack.

When the little boy joins his aunt and uncle outside, they begin telling him about the mysterious little man who now owned their lives, but Jack points out that there is no such person in sight, convincing them — in one final mind-muddling prank — that they had dreamt it all, making them feel “very silly” for it.

Life returns to normal, except for the dog, whose fresh fear of rabbits endures and ensures that the family is never to have rabbit pie again — a sweet, subtle reminder that although we inevitably return to the real world when the reading experience ends, books always transform us and leave traces of themselves in our real selves, to be carried forward beyond the last page.

Complement the wholly magical The Big Green Book with Sendak’s illustrations for The Nutcracker, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Melville’s Pierre, and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, then revisit his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

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.