Brain Pickings

A Living Obituary: Faulkner’s Beautiful Epitaph for Himself

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“He made the books and he died.”

By the time 64-year-old William Faulkner took his last breath on July 6, 1962, he had been a little-known Jazz Age artist, a world-famous sage of literature, the author of an obscure children’s book with a curious back-story, the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Nobel laureate whose prize acceptance speech is itself a supreme work of art.

Perhaps because of this prolific and diverse body of work, or perhaps because he was as deliberate about how he lived his life, Faulkner was remarkably deliberate about how he would be remembered after his death.

While working on The Portable Faulkner in 1946, legendary editor Malcolm Cowley had pressed the author for biographical details, but the request was met with resistance. Three years later, Life magazine asked Cowley to write a piece on Faulkner. But after encountering Cowley’s biographical essay on Hemingway for a similar Life assignment, Faulkner grew reaffirmed in his resistance to being the subject of an intrusive biography.

In a 1949 letter to Cowley, penned a few months before Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize and found in Selected Letters of William Faulkner (public library), the 51-year-old author writes his own epitaph in what is essentially a beautiful living obituary:

I am more convinced and determined than ever that this is not for me. I will protest to the last: no photographs, no recorded documents. It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.

Faulkner’s resistance springs from the same source as Anaïs Nin’s refusal to be profiled and our present concerns about privacy — the fear that because no life is really a single and linear story, compressing its ever-evolving complexity into a static set of biographical details or data points does a grave disservice to what Walt Whitman called the multitudes comprising each of us. Any attempt at a neatly packaged public understanding therefore engenders in the private individual a deep sense of being misunderstood.

Assuage Faulkner’s concern with Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Faulkner on the meaning of life, the writer’s responsibility to society, and his little-known children’s book.

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Teenage Sylvia Plath’s First Tragic Poem, with a Touching Remembrance by Her Mother

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“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things,” Sylvia Plath observed in a BBC interview shortly before she took her own life. But the seed of those dark emotions started sprouting many years earlier, when Plath was still a teenager — quite a common life-stage for the first onset of depression.

In the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us teenage Sylvia’s letters on the joy of living — her mother, Aurelia Plath, shares young Sylvia’s first poem marked by tragic undertones. The inspiration for it is a testament to the poet’s universal task of dramatizing the ordinary and transmuting it into the profound: One afternoon, Sylvia had just finished drawing a pastel still-life and was showing it to her grandmother when the doorbell rang; the grandmother took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it.

That evening, Plath penned her first tragic poem. She was fourteen.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Plath’s English teacher showed the poem to a colleague, who — unaware of the rather comically benign incident that inspired the poem — exclaimed: “Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.” But even more precocious than the emotional richness of the poem was young Sylvia’s response when Aurelia relayed the teacher’s remark to her — the teenage poet “smiled impishly,” as her mother recalls, and said:

Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.

And yet those tragic undertones were more than mere dramatic flair — they would come to dominate both Plath’s poetry and her journals.

But the eclipse of her inner April sun was gradual. In letter to her mother from early 1955, also included in the volume, 23-year-old Plath dangles her feet over the precipice of the abyss that would eventually consume her — she is aware that the abyss exists but still regards it as a curious phenomenon rather than a mortal threat, a challenge that can be overcome with sufficient optimism and discipline:

I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.

But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy.

We now know, of course, that clinical depression is not something one can simply will away “with bravo and philosophy.” But Plath’s letter does intuit much of what scientists have since confirmed about depression: its hereditary nature and the role of rumination — that tendency to “lie awake at nights hating [oneself] for stupidities” — as a major cognitive vulnerability factor in depression.

Above all, Plath’s prolific creative output and her tragic end attest to what is perhaps the finest line in mental health: While ordinary melancholy enriches our capacity for creativity, depression — its severe clinical counterpart — crushes the creative spirit. And yet our cultural narrative about artists who lose their lives to mental illness is woefully devoid of nuance — to romanticize suicide is as fraught as to dismiss an entire body of work on account of the artist’s tragic end. It is possible — nay, necessary — to recognize that while suicide is indeed an unspeakable tragedy, without their creative restlessness, without their capacity for “the sharp, sweet pain that only joy can hold,” artists like Plath and Van Gogh and Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace would have likely succumbed to their tragic neurochemistry much sooner. To celebrate their art, then, is to celebrate not the malady that led to their deaths but the gift that enriched and extended their lives.

Complement the altogether revelatory Letters Home with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her little-known children’s book, and her reading of the breath-stopping poem “The Birthday Present” shortly after her last birthday.

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The Central Mystery of Quantum Mechanics, Animated

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How a lineage of scientists pieced together the puzzle revealing the dual nature of the universe.

Ever since Heisenberg stood on the shoulders of giants to pave the way for quantum mechanics, this captivating branch of science and its central fact — that light can behave both as a particle and as a wave — has challenged us to grapple with the perplexing duality of the universe, inspiring everything from critical questions about the future of science to mind-bending meditations at the intersection of theology and astrophysics to philosophical children’s books.

That central mystery of quantum mechanics is what particle physicist Chad Orzel, author of the illuminating and intelligently entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (public library), explores in this animated primer from TED Ed.

Orzel writes in the book:

Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects — tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring… Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday… Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces… The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about.

He points out that quantum mechanics is woven into the very fabric of modern life:

Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.

Quantum theory’s effect on science goes beyond the merely practical — it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.

Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don’t have definite properties until you measure them. It’s a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where “virtual particles” pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.

Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it’s science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale. The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications.

Those consequences and applications are what Orzel goes on to explore in the wholly fascinating How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. Complement it with Alice in Quantumland, an allegorical explanation of quantum mechanics inspired by Lewis Carroll, then revisit TED Ed’s stimulating animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

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The Magic Box: A Whimsical Vintage Children’s Book for Grownups About Life, Death, and How To Be More Alive Every Day

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“This book was written outside the cemetery wall … in memory of life, the wonder & pain of it & the unspeakable worthwhileness of every second of it.”

“Death is our friend,” wrote Rilke in a beautiful 1923 letter, “precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” And yet most of us spend our days dreading this inevitable and natural conclusion to the human journey, casting death as life’s ultimate and most hateful antagonist — a fear that invariably contracts our aliveness.

How to have a more expansive and enlivening relationship with our mortality is what writer Joseph Pintauro and artist Norman Laliberté explore half a century after Rilke in the 1970 treasure The Magic Box (public library) — a most unusual and wonderful children’s book for adults about life and death, the seasonality of being, and the beauty that springs from our impermanence.

A grownup counterpart to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death, this vintage gem is part of a marvelous limited-edition set by Pintauro and Laliberté called The Rainbow Box — a collection of four such psychedelic art books, one for each season of the year: this one for autumn, The Peace Box for winter, The Rabbit Box for spring, and A Box of Sun for summer.

The Magic Box presents a series of short, vitalizing meditations on mortality, illustrated with beautiful typographic art and collage incorporating Victorian engravings reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s only children’s book. The back cover captures Pintauro’s charming tone of earnest, uncynical irreverence:

this book will scare you if you are stupid

if you are not stupid it will make you happy

Stupidity aside, if you are sensitive and wholehearted, it will most definitely make you rapturous with delight — here is a peek inside:

Complement The Magic Box, immeasurably wonderful in its entirety, with Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness and a very different contemporary take on the seasonality of life: Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s breathtaking The River.

Thanks, Ghazal

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