Brain Pickings

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Female Psychoanalyst, on Human Nature in Letters to Freud


“The main thing is that life-faith is essentially and vitally present, by means of which we survive.”

Russian-born poet, essayist, and intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) created for herself a freedom that modern women have come to expect, at a time when such freedom was practically impossible. She became a philosopher in an era when women were neither expected nor even allowed to study philosophy and was a muse to Rilke, who wrote her passionate love letters and dedicated his Book of Hours to her, and to Nietzsche, who set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to her and whose Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by her.

At the age of fifty, suddenly seeing the human problems she had previously examined through the lens of philosophy now best addressed by the young science of psychology, Andreas-Salomé became the world’s first female psychoanalyst. In the fall of 1911, she attended the Weimar Psycho-Analytical Congress and befriended Freud, whom she had first met a decade and a half earlier, soon becoming at once his muse, his disciple, and his intellectual peer. “Hoping that one day I shall have the opportunity of having a private conversation with you,” Freud wrote to her shortly after they met. The dream was consummated in their ensuing prolific correspondence, collected in Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé: Letters (public library), where the two discussed each other’s papers and patients, exchanged views on everything from narcissism to anxiety to masturbation, traded perspectives on working methods, and pondered the psychology of the artist. They graced each other not only with admiring friendship — she addressed him by “Dear Professor” and he thanked her for the “pertinent and stimulating discussion” — but also with the assuring kinship of a shared dedication to the deepest human concerns: love, creativity, spirituality, death, the meaning of life.

But as much as their correspondence reveals a deep mutuality of values and ideas, it also sheds light on some meaningful psychological contrasts, the starkest of which is their divergent perspectives on human nature and the dominant hues of the human spirit. And what more powerful and poignant a trigger for contemplating these issues than bearing witness to humanity at its worst? In one of her earliest letters to Andreas-Salomé, penned on the cusp of WWI as two of his sons had entered the army, a pessimistic Freud writes:

I do not doubt that mankind will survive even this war, but I know for certain that for me and my contemporaries the world will never again be a happy place. It is too hideous. And the saddest thing about it is that it is exactly the way that we should have expected people to behave from our knowledge of psycho-analysis. Because of this attitude to mankind I have never been able to agree with your blithe optimism. My secret conclusion has always been: since we can only regard the highest present civilization as burdened with an enormous hypocrisy, it follows that we are organically unfitted for it. We have to abdicate, and the Great Unknown, He or It, lurking behind Fate will someday repeat this experiment with another race.

But decades later, as that “experiment” was indeed repeated in another world war, Freud’s views would change as he tussles with the subject in his little-known correspondence with Einstein — a change perhaps precipitated by Andreas-Salomé’s unflinching optimism about the human spirit. Indeed, in her response to Freud, she argues for the inherent duality of good and evil in each of us and for the choice we have, as individuals and a civilization, as to which half we feed — a choice that is essentially the ur-divide between hope and cynicism:

At one point it touches both your and my attitude to the distress of our time and what you called my optimism, which now seems so sadly shipwrecked. And yet I believe that behind every individual human activities and the territory which can be reached through psycho-analysis there lies an abyss where the most valuable and nastiest impulses inextricably condition each other and render impossible any final judgment. This remarkable mixture remains a fact not only for the once surmounted stage of earliest development (of the race as well as of the individual), but ever anew and for everyone this remarkable unity is a fact — calculated to cast down the arrogant, but also to exalt the lowly of heart. It is true that this makes no difference to our loathing for or our delight in a particular piece of human conduct, and a time like the present can consequently deal a death-blow to joy and confidence; but nevertheless one knows from oneself that one can only go on living in such an ultimate faith, and the same ought to apply to everyone else. Ought to: but of course it doesn’t, not in these days. However the fact that it ought to … that alone helps me a little.

In another letter, Andreas-Salomé adds:

The main thing is that life-faith is essentially and vitally present, by means of which we survive.

But these ideas about human nature predate Andreas-Salomé’s foray into psychoanalysis and crystallized decades earlier, during her days as a poet and philosopher. In fact, they shine most brightly in an 1882 poem titled “Hymn to Life,” which so inspired Nietzsche — her lover at the time — that he set it to music. The sentiment at its heart reverberates through her letters to Freud many years later.


Surely, a friend loves a friend the way
That I love you, enigmatic life —
Whether I rejoiced or wept with you,
Whether you gave me joy or pain.
I love you with all your harms;
And if you must destroy me,
I wrest myself from your arms,
As a friend tears himself away from a friend’s breast.

I embrace you with all my strength!
Let all your flames ignite me,
Let me in the ardor of the struggle
Probe your enigma ever deeper.

To live and think millennia!
Enclose me now in both your arms:
If you have no more joy to give me —
Well then—there still remains your pain.

The whole of Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé: Letters is a forgotten treasure of formative ideas on the human psyche. Complement it with Rilke on the tenacity of the human spirit and Tolstoy’s little-known correspondence with Gandhi on love, violence, and why we hurt each other.

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Joan Didion’s Favorite Recipes


Chicken hash for Patti Smith, parsley salad for forty guests, and other edible fragments of a life that feminized the literary myth.

I have a voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks, particularly ones at the intersection of cuisine and literature — from vintage treasures like The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook and Found Meals of the Lost Generation to loving homages like The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and those real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books to creative twists like Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction. How irresistible, then, to devour the recipes and menus that Joan Didion, one of the greatest writers of our time, holds most dear. “Part of Didion’s innovation was to feminize the literary myth,” Nathan Heller wrote in his beautiful essay on the writer’s living legacy — and her relationship with cuisine was an epicenter of that revolution.

As a supporter of the Didion documentary, I was treated to a copy of the author’s personal cookbook — a florilegium of sorts, assembling handwritten recipes, culinary clippings from various magazines and books, and menus of meals she served while entertaining at her home, to guests like Patti Smith (chicken hash with roasted yellow peppers and baguettes) and Richard Roth (baked ham with mustard and Alice Waters’s coleslaw).

Tucked into the recipes and menus are subtle clues to Didion’s life and social circle — sometimes amusing (parsley salad for 35 to 40?), sometimes poignant (fewer and fewer guests listed on the menus as the years roll by), always deeply human (cross-outs, inconsistent punctuation).

Recipes, by their very nature, are also strangely reflective of Didion’s stylistic signature as a writer — a directness at once unembellished and undry.

Here are a few favorites.

(for 6)

2 lbs lean stew beef.

brown + put in stewpot w/ 1 c bouillon, 2 qt water, clove, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic, 1 chopped onion.

Simmer 1 hr.


4.5 peeled + grated beets,
1 cut-up potato (large)
3/4 head shredded cabbage.
Juice a couple of beets. (Brown Sugar)
Dill weed.
Simmer another hour.
Serve with bowl of sour cream.

(Serves 8)

2 (9 oz.) pkgs. frozen artichoke hearts
1 T. lemon juice
1/4 cup butter
dash white pepper
1 t. onion salt
1/2 t. prepared mustard
3/4 t. salt
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup reserved artichoke liquid
1 1/2 cups hot milk
1 egg slightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 T. dry bread crumbs

Heat oven to 450 F.
Cook artichokes according to pkg. directions adding lemon juice to water. Drain, reserving 1/2cup liquid. Place artichokes in a single layer in a 9-inch shallow casserole.

Sauce: melt butter, add spices and flower, stir until smooth. Gradually add artichoke liquid and milk. Cook, stirring, until thick. Remove from heat, add egg and half of cheese. Blend. Pour over artichokes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese, bread crumbs and paprika.

Bake for 15 minutes.


Sauté 1 onion, chopped, in 2 T olive oil, until soft.

Add 1 c rice, stir to coat, add 1/3 c white wine, let evaporate — add, bit by bit, 5 cups broth (1 can beef broth plus water to 5c).


For 1 pound of crabmeat:

Melt 4 T butter, sauté 1/4 tp 1/2 cup chopped celery and 3 chopped scallions. Stir in 1/2 t dry mustard, 1 T flour, cayenne and salt. Add 1 container heavy cream, thicken a bit, stir in crabmeat.

Pour into baking dish, finish with dried bread crumbs, Parmesan, and paprika. In oven 15 minutes, finish under broiler until brown.


For a pound of pasta,

a cup and a half (about one ounce) of basil leaves, loosely packed
a handful of parsley leaves
1/8 ¼ cup pine nuts
several garlic cloves
a teaspoon of red pepper flakes
a quarter ½ cup olive oil

Blend together, gradually adding oil and then mixing in pepper flakes.

(for pound of pasta)

1 stick butter, 1 t red pepper flakes, 1 c vodka, 1 8-oz can tomato sauce, 1 tomato, 1 c heavy cream

(For 12)

  1. Melt 1 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water in saucepan + cook until golden. Line 12 cups with this caramelized sugar + let it set.
  2. Scald 4 cups milk with long piece of vanilla bean. Meanwhile, beat together 6 eggs, 4 additional egg yolks, and 1 cup sugar.
  3. Remove vanilla bean + trickle hot milk into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour this mixture with care over caramel in cups.
  4. Place cups in pan of hot water + into 350° oven for 20-25 min, until point of knife comes out of center clean. (water must not boil.) Chill + unmold.


2 1/2 cups Bisquick
3 T sugar
3 T melted butter
1/2 cup milk

Knead 8-10 times —
Roll 1/2 in thick — cut — ungreased pan — 10 min at 425°.


8 bunches Italian parsley
Blend 16 T olive oil with one head parsley until smooth
Blend in 4 T balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper
When ready to serve place parsley in 1 1/3 C grated parmesan in bowl, toss with dressing

Complement with a reading list of Didion’s all-time favorite books and her sublime meditations on grief and self-respect, then treat yourself to The Modern Art Cookbook, Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic gastronomy, Patti Smith’s lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and a few favorite recipes of favorite poets.

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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.

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Robert Walser, the Art of Walking, and Our Daily Dance of Posturing and Sincerity


“It is not with pleasures and with joys that a man grows proud. Proud and gay in the roots of his soul he becomes only through trial bravely undergone.”

“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life,” Maira Kalman wrote in her magnificent illustrated memoir. In our recent conversation about, oh, life itself, Kalman introduced me to The Walk — a most unusual and rewarding 1917 piece by Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser. It was eventually translated into English by Christopher Middleton in 1955 — the only work of Walser’s published in English during his lifetime — and included in his altogether fantastic Selected Stories (public library).

The introduction to this volume, by none other than Susan Sontag, is itself a deeply enjoyable masterwork of prose. Sontag likens Walser to “a Paul Klee in prose — as delicate, as sly, as haunted,” “a cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett: a good-humored, sweet Beckett,” “the missing link between Kleist and Kafka, who admired him greatly.” She writes:

The variety of mental weather in Walser’s stories and sketches, their elegance and their unpredictable lengths remind me of the free, first-person forms that abound in classical Japanese literature: pillow book, poetic diary, “essays in idleness.” But any true lover of Walser will want to disregard the net of comparisons that one can throw over his work… Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small — as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable… He had the depressive’s fascination with stasis, and with the way time distends, is consumed; and spent much of his life obsessively turning time into space: his walks.

And yet:

This non-doer was, of course, a proud, stupendously productive writer, who secreted work, much of it written in his astonishing micro-script, without pause. What Walser says about inaction, renunciation of effort, effortlessness, is a program, an anti-romantic one, of the artist’s activity.


Walser’s art assumes depression and terror, in order (mostly) to accept it — ironize over it, lighten it… In Walser’s fictions one is (as in so much of modern art) always inside a head, but this universe — and this despair — is anything but solipsistic. It is charged with compassion: awareness of the creatureliness of life, of the fellowship of sadness.


Walser’s virtues are those of the most mature, most civilized art. He is a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer.

Walser himself captures the bewitching heartbreak of his work in a reflection from the late 1920s, also included in the collection, in which he describes himself as “a kind of artisan novelist” and writes:

If I am well-disposed, that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines the content of which people understand at once. If you liked, you could call me a writer who goes to work with a lathe. My writing is wallpapering. One or two kindly people venture to think of me as a poet, which indulgence and manners allow me to concede. My prose pieces are, to my mind, nothing more nor less than parts of a long, plotless, realistic story. For me, the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.

Nowhere does this realistic story of self — Walser’s as much as the reader’s — come more fully alive than in The Walk, a piece that ironizes pretense, ironizes sincerity, yet leaves the reader with something sincere, unpretentious, and unironic.

The novella’s beginning calls to mind Thoreau’s assertion that “every walk is a sort of crusade” as Walser paints the perfect backdrop for the perfect walk:

I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street. I might add that on the stairs I encountered a woman who looked like a Spaniard, a Peruvian, or a Creole. She presented to the eye a certain pallid, faded majesty. But I must strictly forbid myself a delay of even two seconds with this Brazilian lady, or whatever she might be; for I may waste neither space nor time. As far as I can remember as I write this down, I found myself, as I walked into the open, bright, and cheerful street, in a romantically adventurous state of mind, which pleased me profoundly. The morning world spread out before my eyes appeared as beautiful to me as if I saw it for the first time. Everything I saw made upon me a delightful impression of friendliness, of goodliness, and of youth. I quickly forgot that up in my room I had only just a moment before been brooding gloomily over a blank sheet of paper. All sorrow, all pain, and all grave thoughts were as vanished, although I vividly sensed a certain seriousness, a tone, still before me and behind me. I was tense with eager expectation of whatever might encounter me or cross my way on my walk. My steps were measured and calm, and, as far as I know, I presented, as I went on my way, a fairly dignified appearance. My feelings I like to conceal from the eyes of my fellow men, of course without any fearful strain to do so — such strain I would consider a great error, and a mighty stupidity.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'My Favorite Things.' Click image for more.

On his walk, Walser’s narrator encounters a series of characters, caricatures almost, who nonetheless belie some elemental truth about the human experience. In one particularly beautiful passage, Walser writes:

The famous scholar’s gait was like an iron law; world history and the afterglow of long-gone heroic deeds flashed out of Professor Meili’s adamant eyes, secreted behind his bushy brows. His hat was like an irremovable ruler. Secret rulers are the most proud and most implacable. Yet, on the whole, Professor Meili carried himself with a tenderness, as if he needed in no way whatsoever to make apparent what quantities of power and gravity he personified, and his figure appeared to me, in spite of all its severity and adamance, sympathetic, because I permitted myself the thought that men who do not smile in a sweet and beautiful way are honourable and trustworthy. As is well known, there are rascals who play at being kind and good, but who have a terrible talent for smiling obligingly and politely, over the crimes which they commit.

Over and over, the reader is swayed by Walser’s defining dance of artifice and authenticity as he parodies the various forms of posturing in which we engage daily. In a passage that calls to mind Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” Walser serenades the grandeur of detail:

Two summer or straw hats catch my eye. The thing about the straw hats is this: it is that I suddenly see two hats in the bright, gentle air, and under the hats stand two fairly prosperous-looking gentlemen, who seem to be bidding each other good morning by means of an elegant, courteous doffing and waving of hats. The hats at this occasion are evidently more important than their wearers and owners. Nevertheless, the writer is very humbly asked to be wary of such definitely superfluous mockery and fooling. He is called upon to behave with sobriety, and it is hoped that he understands this, once and for all.

Indeed, Walser parodies the particular artifice of tastemaking and the peculiar brand of such “superfluous mockery and fooling” of which the literary establishment itself is culpable. Folded into his parody is the strangely comforting assurance that there is nothing new or singular in our present-day concerns about commercial book publishing being more concerned with moving copies than with moving minds. A century ago, Walser writes:

An extremely splendid, abundant book shop came pleasantly under my eye, and I felt the impulse and desire to bestow upon it a short and fleeting visit, I did not hesitate to step in, with an obvious good grace, while I permitted myself of course to consider that in me appeared far rather an inspector, or bookkeeper, a collector of information, and a sensitive connoisseur, than a favorite and welcome, wealthy book buyer and good client.

After a measured exchange of pretensions, the narrator asks the bookseller for guidance on the book that enjoys “the highest place in the estimation of the reading public” — in other words, the ultimate bestseller. Walser writes:

This delicious fruit of the spirit he carried carefully and solemnly, as if carrying a relic charged with sanctifying magic. His face was enraptured; his manner radiated the deepest awe; and with that smile on his lips which only believers and those who are inspirited to the deepest core can smile, he laid before me in the most winning way that which he had brought.


“Thank you very much,” said I cold-bloodedly, left the book, which had been most absolutely widely distributed because it had unconditionally to have been read, as I chose, where it was, and softly withdrew, without wasting another word. “Uncultivated and ignorant man!” shouted the bookseller after me, for he was most justifiably and deeply vexed. But I let him have his say, and walked at my ease on my way…

The narrator’s walk then takes him to the next manifestation of artifice and posturing — that of financial legalese and fine print. He finds himself at the bank, where he is met with the usual schmoozery. The bank manager addresses him:

It is … good that you have come. Only today we were about to communicate to you in writing what can now be communicated to you orally, namely something which will be for you without a doubt a gladdening piece of information, that we are instructed by a society, or circle, of what are evidently well-disposed, good-natured, philanthropic ladies, not to place to your debit but, on the contrary, and this will doubtless be fundamentally more welcome to you, to credit your account with One Thousand Francs, a transaction which we hereby confirm, and of which you, if you would be so good, will at once take mental or any other form of note which may suit you… Now rub your hands for joy, rub them! and be glad that some noble and kind benefactresses, moved by the sublime thought that to dam up a man’s grief is beautiful, and to allay his distress is good, conceived the idea that a poor and unsuccessful poet (for you are this, are you not?) might require assistance. On the fact that certain persons were found whose will was to condescend to remember you, and on this occasion of evidence that not all people regard with indifference the existence of a poet held repeatedly in contempt, we congratulate you.

In a sentiment that evokes Nietzsche on the power of difficulty, the narrator — who at this point we find out is thirty — responds:

The assumption, which you just now voiced so frankly, that I might be poor, could however rest upon a basis of acute and accurate observation. But it suffices entirely that I myself know what I know, and that it is I myself who am best informed about my own person. Appearances often deceive, good sir, and the delivery of a judgment upon a man is best left to the man in question. Nobody can know as well as I do this person who has seen and experienced all sorts of things… I believe that it is a fine thing to struggle for life. It is not with pleasures and with joys that a man grows proud. Proud and gay in the roots of his soul he becomes only through trial bravely undergone, and through suffering patiently endured…

What honest man was never in his life without sustenance? And what human being has ever seen as the years pass his hopes, plans, and dreams completely undestroyed? Where is the soul whose longings and daring aspirations, whose sweet and lofty imaginings of happiness have been fulfilled without that soul’s having had to deduct a discount?

Indeed, such is the gift of Walser’s fictional walk — in it, we are reminded that to walk the walk of life itself with balance requires countering cynicism with sincerity in order to live with truth and not behind appearances. Decades before the golden age of consumerism, Walser’s narrator admonishes against the “loathsome boasting and swaggering” of our affinity for appearances, to which consumer culture is perhaps our greatest conduit:

What sort of a world of swindle are we beginning, or have already begun, to live in, when the municipality, the neighbors, and public opinion not only tolerate but unhappily, it is clear, even applaud that which injures every good sense, every sense of reason and good office, every sense of beauty and probity, that which is morbidly puffed up… Do golden, far-shining loathsomely glittering letters stand in any acceptable, honorably justified relation, in any healthy affinitive proportion to … bread? Not in the least! But loathsome boasting and swaggering began in some corner, in some nook of the world, at some time or other, advanced step by step like a lamentable and disastrous flood, bearing garbage, filth, and foolishness along with them, spreading these throughout the world, and they have affected also my respectable baker, spoiled his earlier good taste, and undermined his inborn decency. I would give much, I would give my left arm, or left leg, if by such a sacrifice I could help recall the fine old sense of sincerity, the old sufficiency, and restore to country and to people the respectability and modesty which have been plentifully lost, to the sorrow of all men who seek honesty… To the devil with every miserable desire to seem more than one is.

In a sense, then, the walk itself becomes a meditative practice of returning to what one is. Walser writes:

Without walking and the contemplation of nature which is connected with it, without this equally delicious and admonishing search, I deem myself lost, and I am lost. With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters. The highest and the lowest, the most serious and the most hilarious things are to him equally beloved, beautiful, and valuable. He must bring with him no sort of sentimentally sensitive self-love or quickness to take offense. Unselfish and unegoistic, he must let his careful eye wander and stroll where it will; only he must be continuously able in the contemplation and observation of things to efface himself, and to put behind him, little consider, and forget like a brave, zealous, and joyfully self-immolating front-line soldier, himself, his private complaints, needs, wants, and sacrifices. If he does not, then he walks only half attentive, with only half his spirit, and that is worth nothing.

Installation from Maira Kalman's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum show, 'Maira Kalman Selects'

The Walk is a deeply enjoyable read in its entirety, as are the remaining pieces in Walser’s Selected Stories. Complement it with a very different but no less enjoyable take on walking — Thoreau’s manifesto for the spirit of sauntering.

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.