Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

27 FEBRUARY, 2015

26-Year-Old Frida Kahlo’s Compassionate Letter to 46-Year-Old Georgia O’Keeffe

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“I would like to tell you every thing that happened to me since the last time we saw each other, but most of them are sad and you mustn’t know sad things now.”

There is something uncommonly heartening about bearing witness to the virtuous cycle of support and mutual appreciation between two creative luminaries — elevating epistolary exchanges like those between Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. They seem to remind us that, contrary to the toxic myth of the solitary genius, creative culture is propelled by the power of scenius, by the goodwill and generosity of kindred spirits, by tangible reminders that we belong to a human enterprise larger than we are.

One of the most touching such exchanges was between two of the greatest artists and most remarkable women the world has ever known — Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. Both were prolific letter writers — Kahlo in her passionate illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera, and O’Keeffe in her equally passionate love letters to Alfred Stieglitz, her lifelong correspondence with her best friend, and her emboldening missives to Sherwood Anderson. But what Kahlo wrote to O’Keeffe in 1933 was a wholly different kind of epistolary and human magic.

Even though the Mexican painter had herself been dealt an unfair hand — including a miscarriage just a few months earlier, her mother’s recent death, and more than thirty operations over the course of her life after a serious traffic accident during adolescence sent an iron rod through her stomach and uterus — Kahlo didn’t hesitate to reach out with a beam of compassion during O’Keeffe’s moment of crisis. Shortly after the American painter was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and instructed by doctors not to paint for a year, Kahlo sent her an epitome of what Virginia Woolf so aptly called “the humane art.”

In a letter from March 1, 1933, preserved by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, Kahlo writes:

Georgia,

Was wonderful to hear your voice again. Every day since I called you and many times before months ago I wanted to write you a letter. I wrote you many, but every one seemed more stupid and empty and I torn them up. I can’t write in English all that I would like to tell, especially to you. I am sending this one because I promised it to you. I felt terrible when Sybil Brown told me that you were sick but I still don’t know what is the matter with you. Please Georgia dear if you can’t write, ask Stieglitz to do it for you and let me know how are you feeling will you? I’ll be in Detroit two more weeks. I would like to tell you every thing that happened to me since the last time we saw each other, but most of them are sad and you mustn’t know sad things now. After all I shouldn’t complain because I have been happy in many ways though. Diego is good to me, and you can’t imagine how happy he has been working on the frescoes here. I have been painting a little too and that helped. I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the color of your eyes. I will see you soon. I am sure that in New York I will be much happier. If you still in the hospital when I come back I will bring you flowers, but it is so difficult to find the ones I would like for you. I would be so happy if you could write me even two words. I like you very much Georgia.

Frieda

What’s especially interesting is the simultaneous mirroring and reversing of circumstances pertaining to the relationship between art and mental health. Kahlo had actually first begun painting while recovering, immobile in bed, from the brutal accident that nearly killed her. At the time of their 1933 correspondence, O’Keeffe was doing the opposite — recovering in bed from brutally overextending herself in art. But this wasn’t the only reversal between the two. Citing the letter in her book Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own (public library), Sharyn Rohlfsen Udal — who suggests that Kahlo, with her long history of affairs with both men and women, may have been interested in something more than friendship with O’Keeffe — writes:

The next confirmed record of the O’Keeffe–Kahlo contact was through their mutual friend Rose Covarrubias, who took O’Keeffe to visit Kahlo (confined to her bed in Coyoacan after a year-long hospitalization) twice during O’Keeffe’s 1951 visit to Mexico. It is an interesting reversal of roles from the 1933 contact, when it was O’Keeffe who was ill, Kahlo the solicitous visitor.

And that, perhaps, is the point — a palpable reminder that the history of arts and letters is strewn with these barely visible threads of mutuality, generosity, and goodwill, which stand as the most steadfast support structure for the creative spirit.

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27 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Unity of Dread and Bliss: Rilke on How Our Fear of the Unexplainable Robs Us of Joy

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“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his spectacular lecture-turned-book on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” More than a decade earlier, in delivering the same annual Gifford Lecture, Hannah Arendt argued that our appetite for “unanswerable questions” is what defines our humanity. But it was another great mind, not a scientist but a poet, who delivered this message with the most luminous immediacy many decades earlier: Rainer Maria Rilke.

In an exquisite passage from his Letters to a Young Poet — a secular masterwork with the timeless resonance of scripture, and the source of Rilke’s wisdom on what love asks of us and how to live the questions — later included in Joanna Macy’s infinitely ennobling A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library), the poet writes in 1904:

The tendency of people to be fearful of those experiences they call apparitions or assign to the “spirit world,” including death, has done infinite harm to life. All these things so naturally related to us have been driven away through our daily resistance to them, to the point where our capacity to sense them has atrophied… Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens. For it is not only sluggishness that makes human relations so unspeakably monotonous, it is the aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.

Nearly two decades later, he revisits this slippery subject from another angle in a letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy:

The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted — yes, even rejoiced in — what has struck him with terror — he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence. He withdraws to the edge; when things play out, he will be neither alive nor dead.

To discover the unity of dread and bliss, these two faces of the same divinity (indeed, they reveal themselves as a single face that presents itself differently according to the way in which we see it): that is the essential meaning…

Complement the magnificent A Year with Rilke — which spans from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, and includes fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose — with Rilke on how befriending death can help us live more fully and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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26 FEBRUARY, 2015

The Well of Being: An Extraordinary Children’s Book for Grownups about the Art of Living with Openhearted Immediacy

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A lyrical invitation to awaken from the trance of the limiting stories we tell ourselves and just live.

“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe,” Henry Miller wrote in his magnificent meditation on the meaning of existence, “that we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.” Paradoxically enough, the fragment of the universe we seem least equipped to grasp is the truth of who we ourselves are. Who are we, really, when we silence the ego’s shrill commands about who we should be, and simply listen to the song of life as it sings itself through us?

That’s what French-born, Baltimore-based artist Jean-Pierre Weill explores in The Well of Being (public library) — an extraordinary “children’s book for adults,” three years in the making, that peers into the depths of the human experience and the meaning of our existence, tracing how the stories we tell ourselves to construct our personae obscure the truth of our personhood, and how we can untell them in order to just be.

Succumbing neither to religiosity nor to scientism, neither to myth nor to materialism, Weill dances across the Big Bang, the teachings of the 18th-century Italian philosopher and mystic Ramchal, evolution, 9/11, and life’s most poetic and philosophical dimensions. He tells the lyrical story of a man — an androgynous being who “represents Everyman and also Everywoman,” as Weill explains in the endnotes — moving from the origin of the universe to the perplexities of growing up to the mystery of being alive. At the center of it is the unity of life and the connectedness of the universe, “our encounter with One, well-being.”

What emerges from Weill’s ethereal watercolors and enchanting words is a secular scripture, at once grounding and elevating — a gentle prod to awaken from the trance of our daily circumstances and live with openhearted immediacy, a message partway between Seneca’s exhortation to stop living in expectancy and Mary Oliver’s invitation to begin belonging to this world.

I see that you’re reading.

As the train is late let me take you on an excursion to the place we long for.

I ask of you one thing: bring attention to your thoughts, those that take you from this book, quiet them… and value this listening as if it were a mysterious gift yours for the taking.

Let us string a bead of thought, an article of faith.

Our existence is not an accident but a mystery… We can entrust ourselves to this mystery, for we are part of it. Indeed we are it.

I don’t say there isn’t much work to do, for there is.

And some tracks lead to excruciating darkness, where a person can tumble from the sky on a clear September morning.

Yet is the world not whole? Is it not beautiful?

For now, let’s consider well-being a choice, something you can try on and wear. When we put on the hat and coat of well-being we incline towards joy without special occasion.

At the heart of the lyrical story is the somewhat discomfiting yet necessary reminder that although our self-delusions are an adaptive crutch and the masks we wear are a protective survival mechanism, unless we learn to revise our inner storytelling and let ourselves be seen, we will continue to keep ourselves small with the stories we tell ourselves.

Weill writes:

We organize our circumstances into stories, stories we pick up along the way and carry with us.

Stories that declare, I’m lacking.

Why me? stories.

I’m alone, stories.

What will I amount to? stories.

Stories about who we should be.

Or think we are.

They are interior maps whose familiar roads we travel. Over and over. Yet when we apprehend these maps, these stories, these patterns … we awaken and rise, as it were, to a new perspective, to new possibilities.

Complement the immeasurably wonderful The Well of Being with Seth Godin’s very different and yet similar-in-spirit “children’s book for grownups” about creative courage and living with vulnerability, then revisit Dostoyevsky’s existential epiphany and drink from Anne Lamott’s well of being with her soul-stretching inquiry into how we find meaning in a crazy world.

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.





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