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Posts Tagged ‘books’

10 SEPTEMBER, 2012

A Breakup Letter from Simone de Beauvoir

By:

“I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me.”

As a lover of letters, especially exquisite love letters, I find myself enamored with Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) by Anna Holmes — a moving, rigorously researched collection of breakup letters from women across ten centuries, known and unknown, including favorites like Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath, and divided thematically — the tell-offs, the “just friends,” the marriage refusals, the unsent letters, and more. (Bonus points: The foreword is by none other than Francine Prose.)

One of the most stirring letters in the anthology comes from French writer, feminist, intellectual, and existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, author of the cult-classic treatise The Second Sex. In 1947, while visiting Chicago, she began an affair with Nelson Algren, best-known for The Man with the Golden Arm, and the two sustained a long-distance relationship across the Atlantic for a number years. But the strain of separation eventually took its toll on Algren and, in 1950, he became withdrawn from the relationship, wanting someone permanent in his life. (He eventually remarried his ex-wife, Amanda Kontowicz, in 1953.)

This letter, which de Beauvoir penned in September of 1950 en route back to Paris after visiting a withdrawn Algren in Chicago, is saturated with the palpable tension between the urgency of her longing and the ease which she tries to create for this man she still loves. To give space when what one most yearns for is closeness, that is both the great test and great tragedy of love.

I am better at dry sadness than at cold anger, for I remained dry eyed until now, as dry as smoked fish, but my heart is a kind of dirty soft custard inside.

[…]

I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away fro myself, not really believing you are now so far, so far, you so near. I want to tell you only two things before leaving, and then I’ll not speak about it any more, I promise. First, I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you — not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. When you’ll wish it, just tell. I shall not assume that you love me anew, not even that you have to sleep with me, and we have not to stay together such a long time — just as you feel, and when you feel. But know that i’ll always long for your asking me. No, I cannot think that I shall not see you again. I have lost your love and it was (it is) painful, but shall not lose you. Anyhow, you have me so much, Nelson, what you gave me meant so much, that you could never take it back. And then your tenderness and friendship were so precious to me that I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me. I do hope this tenderness and friendship will never, never desert me. As for me, it is baffling to say so and I feel ashamed, but it is the only true truth: I just love as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms, that means with my whole self and all my dirty heart; I cannot do less. But that will not bother you, honey, and don’t make writing letters of any kind a duty, just write when you feel like it, knowing every time it will make me very happy.

Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.

Your own Simone

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The First Ads for Famous Books

By:

Because even genius needs share of voice to succeed.

In Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements (public library), New York Times book critic Dwight Garner offers “a visual survey of book advertisements, plucked from yellowing newspapers, journals and magazines large and small, from across the United States during the twentieth century” — more than 300 of them, to be precise, including some of modern history’s most beloved literary classics by favorite authors like Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, Anaïs Nin, and Ray Bradbury. What emerges is a curious alternative history of literature and its parallel evolution alongside twentieth-century communication arts and advertising. But, perhaps most importantly, it serves as a necessary antidote to the genius myth, demonstrating that icons are very much made, not merely celebrated for their “God”-given talent.

1925

1926

1926

1934

1948

1948

1954

Garner writes of the new visual language of the 60s:

Author photographs, in the 1960s, were increasingly put to bold use. Susan Sontag pops out of a 1963 ad for her first novel, The Benefactor, glancing provocatively from the page as if she were an intellectual Cleopatra.

1963

1966

1969

1970

1970

1971

1971

1974

1985

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Why We Cry: The Science of Sobbing and Emotional Tearing

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Why it’s easier to prevent a crying spell than to stop one already underway.

The human body is an extraordinary machine, and our behavior an incessant source of fascination. In Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond (public library), psychology and neuroscience professor Robert R. Provine undertakes an “analysis and celebration of undervalued, informative, and sometimes disreputable human behavior” by applying the lens of anthropologically-inspired, observational “Small Science” — “small because it does not require fancy equipment and a big budget, not because it’s trivial” — to a wealth of clinical research into the biology, physiology, and neuropsychology of our bodily behaviors.

Take, for instance, the science of what we call “crying,” a uniquely human capacity — a grab-bag term that consists of “vocal crying,” or sobbing, and “emotional tearing,” our quiet waterworks. Provine explains:

As an adult, you cry much less than when young, and your crying is more often subdued, teary weeping than the demonstrative, vocal sobbing of childhood. . . [T]he trauma that causes your crying is now more often emotional than physical. However, whether intentional or not, as adult or child, you cry to solicit assistance, whether physical aid or emotional solace. Paradoxically, your adult cry for help is more private than the noisy, promiscuous pronouncement of childhood, often occurring at home, where it finds a select audience. The developmental shift from vocal crying to visual tearing favors the face-to-face encounters of an intimate setting. The maturation of inhibitory control gives adults the ability to select where and when crying occurs, or to inhibit it altogether, options less available to children.

To better illustrate the physiology of crying, Provine contrasts it with that of laughing, pointing out that the two are complementary behaviors and understanding one helps understand the other.

Specialists may argue whether there is a typical cry or laugh, but enough is known about these vocalizations to provide vivid contrasts. A cry is a sustained, voiced utterance, usually of around one second or more (reports vary), the duration of an outward breath. Think of a baby’s ‘waaa.’ . . . Cries repeat at intervals of about one second, roughly the duration of one respiratory cycle . . . A laugh, in contrast, is a chopped (not sustained), usually voiced exhalation, as in ‘ha-ha-ha,’ in which each syllable (‘ha’) lasts about 1/15 second and repeats every 1/5 second.

One curious feature crying and laughing have in common, which any human being with a beating heart can attest to:

Crying and laughing both show strong perseveration, the tendency to maintain a behavior once it has started. These acts don’t have an on-off switch, a trait responsible for some quirks of human behavior. Whether baby or adult, it’s easier to prevent a bout of crying than to stop it once under way. Crying causes more crying. Likewise, laughter causes more laughter, a reason why headliners at comedy clubs want other performers to warm up the audience, and why you may be immobilized by a laughing fit that can’t be quelled by heroic attempts at self-control. In fact, voluntary control has little to do with starting or stopping most crying or laughing.

So, if vocal crying evolved to attract help, what’s the evolutionary purpose of quiet tears? For one, they contain lysozyme, the body’s own antiseptic, which sanitizes and lubricates the eye. But, Provine argues, there might be something much more interesting and neurobiologically profound at work:

Several lines of evidence suggest that the NGF [nerve growth factor] in tears has medicinal functions. The NGF concentration in tears, cornea, and lacrimal glands increases after corneal wounding, suggesting that NGF plays a part in healing. More directly, the topical application of NGF promotes the healing of corneal ulcers and may increase tear production in dry eye . . . Although more of a scientific long shot, I suggest that tears bearing NGF have an anti-depressive effect that may modulate as well as signal mood.

Non-emotional, healing tears may have originally signaled trauma to the eyes, eliciting caregiving by tribe members or inhibiting physical aggression by adversaries. This primal signal may have later evolved through ritualization to become a sign of emotional as well as physical distress. In this evolutionary scenario, the visual and possibly chemical signals of emotional tears may be secondary consequences of lacrimal secretions that originally evolved in the service of ocular maintenance and healing.

If anything, Provine points to this as a direction of curiosity for future research:

Emotional tearing is a uniquely human and relatively modern evolutionary innovation that may have left fresh biological tracks of its genesis. The contrast of the human lacrimal system with that of our tearless primate relatives may reveal a path to emotional tearfulness that involves NGF. NGF may be both a healing agent found in tears and a neurotrophin that plays a central role in shaping the neurologic circuitry essential for emotional tearing during development and evolution. A lesson of NGF research is that pursuit of the scientific trail can lead to serendipitous discoveries both broad and deep. Emotional tears may provide an exciting new chapter in the NGF saga, and vice versa.

The rest of Curious Behavior goes on to explore such seemingly mundane but, in fact, utterly fascinating phenomena as yawning, sneezing, coughing, tickling, nausea, and, yes, farting and belching.

Photograph via Flickr Commons

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