Brain Pickings

The Sea: A Sweet Wordless Story about Pursuit and Surrender, Dread and Desire, Disappointment and Triumph

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From the compound to the cosmos, a playful celebration of life’s complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints.

French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Long before her masterwork The Lion and the Bird, one of the best children’s books of 2014 and among the very best I’ve ever encountered, Dubuc made her picture-book debut with another imaginative, insightful, bewitchingly illustrated wordless story: La Mer, “translated” and published in English as The Sea (public library) — a kindred tale that laid the foundation for The Lion and the Bird, and yet one that touches an entirely different part of the soul.

The cat casts a mischievous eye on the pet fish, which transmogrifies into a winged creature as it takes flight from the feisty feline. A playful pursuit unfolds — first in the house, then the neighborhood, then the forest, then the stars and the moon. Finally, the two emerge on the other end of town and the fish, no longer winged, plunges triumphantly into the sea as the cat peers wistfully into the sunset — perhaps disappointed to have lost, perhaps missing his unlikely playmate.

What emerges is a parable about complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints — pursuit and surrender, desire and dread, disappointment and triumph — and a reminder that there is a ground layer of existential kinship in even those relationships that appear most antagonistic on the surface.

Dubuc’s greatest point of genius is her mastery of rhythm. She is an artisan of silence as a storytelling device — punctuating the story are perfectly placed pauses and moments of stillness that only amplify the authority of the action.

Echoing Picasso’s incisive dictum that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Dubuc tells the wonderful Picturebook Makers:

When I’m searching for a new book idea, I usually write continuously in a notebook, as if I were talking to it. It’s a little bit like automatic writing, where you write everything that comes into your mind, without censoring yourself. That is how my brain feels free to create stories.

A master of wordless narrative, Dubuc sees her stories in pictures before she commits them to words in her notebook — in a way, language reverts to how it originally evolved and becomes a temporary translator between thought and image.

In the same interview, invoking what scientists know about why we think with animal metaphors, Dubuc reflects:

I don’t like to draw humans; I haven’t found a way to draw them that satisfies me yet. I think that when drawing animals, I give myself more freedom of interpretation than I do with humans.

The Sea is an absolute masterpiece from cover to cover. Complement it with Dubuc’s follow-up gem, The Lion and the Bird, then see this fascinating read on the psychology of why animal allegories enchant the human soul.

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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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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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