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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

14 JULY, 2015

How a Dream Came True: Young Jane Goodall’s Exuberant Letters and Diary Entries from Africa

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How the beloved scientist transformed a childhood fantasy into the rugged reality of revolutionary work.

When Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) was a little girl, she was given a stuffed toy chimpanzee, whom she named Jubilee. From that moment on, little Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, but she especially enjoyed sitting with him on a tree branch in her family’s backyard, where she would read the Tarzan novels for hours on end. Like most children, Jane transformed the toy and the books into raw material for dreams — in her case, the dream of going to Africa to study the curious lives of monkeys. Unlike most children, she spent the next two decades turning that childhood dream into a reality by becoming the world’s most influential primatologist and the most celebrated woman in science since Marie Curie.

When she boarded the S.S. Kenya Castle one chilly spring day, 22-year-old Goodall was burning with exuberant enthusiasm for the work she was heading to Kenya to do. But she had no idea that this work, at first met with enormous resistance, would revolutionize not only our understanding of chimpanzees — her lifelong locus of curiosity and expertise — but our understanding of the complexities of all animal consciousness.

Jane Goodall with the young chimp Flint at Gombe (Photograph: Hugo van Lawick, Goodall's first husband, courtesy of Jane Goodall Institute)

In a letter to her family penned aboard the Kenya Castle in March of 1957, found in the altogether magnificent Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters (public library), Goodall writes:

Darling Family,

It is now 4 p.m. on Thursday and I still find it difficult to believe that I am on my way to Africa. That is the thing — AFRICA. It is easy to imagine I am going for a long sea voyage, but not that names like Mombasa, Nairobi, South Kinangop, Nakuru, etc., are going to become reality.

The first page of Goodall's letter to her family from aboard the Kenya Castle

On April 3 — her twenty-third birthday — Goodall finally arrived in the dreamsome reality of Nairobi. Her first letter home brims with uncontainable gusto for the life she was about to begin — a life she had purposefully pursued since childhood:

I really do simply adore Kenya. It’s so wild, uncultivated, primitive, mad, exciting, unpredictable. It is also slightly degrading in its effect on some rather weak characters, but on the whole I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt stirring in my blood.

Illustration by from 'Me ... Jane,' a picture-book about Goodall's childhood. Click image for more.

But the most fateful date in Goodall’s journey came more than three years later: On July 14, 1960, she arrived in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, where she would spend many years conducting the groundbreaking research for which she is celebrated today, and to which she still returns frequently in the course of her tireless environmental conservation work.

It was there that she met, named, and befriended the now-famous David Greybeard — the first chimp to overcome the fear of human contact and the generous gatekeeper who made possible Goodall’s research amid the chimpanzee community.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

On her very first day at Gombe, Goodall saw her first chimp. It was a highly unlikely occurrence — at that point, scientists considered chimpanzees mysterious creatures at once wild and timid, nearly impossible to sight, let alone approach. In a diary entry from that first day, preserved by The Jane Goodall Institute, the young scientist captures the tremendous thrill of that miraculous event — a visceral affirmation that she was indeed living her childhood dream:

We woke at dawn … Left about 9 and arrived about 11. The fisherman were all along the beaches frying their dagga fish. It looked as though patches of sand had been whitewashed. Above, the mountains rose up steeply behind the beaches. The slopes were thickly covered with accacia and other trees… Every so often a stream cascaded down the vallys between the ridges, with its thick fringe of forest — the home of the chimps.

The lake water was so clear I could scarcely believe it.

Our tent was up in no time, in a clearing up from the fisherman’s huts on the stony beach. We had some lunch together, and then Ma and I spent an exhausting and hot afternoon setting things in order. I say exhausting because I had a foul sore throat, turning into a cold.

Then, about 5 o’clock, someone came along to say some people had seen a chimp. So off we went and there was the chimp. It was quite a long way -too far to tell its sex or even see properly what it looked like — but it was a chimp. It moved away as we drew level with the crowd of fishermen gazing at it, and, though we climbed the neighboring slope, we didn’t see it again. However, we went over to the trees & found a fresh nest there. — Whether that day’s of the day before I couldn’t tell. We returned to the beach and walked back.

We all had dinner together, and after long chats, & helplessly endeavoring to hear the news, Ma and I thankfully retired to bed.

Although 26-year-old Goodall was accompanied by her mother at Gombe — a requirement by the park’s chief warden, who was concerned about the young primatologist’s safety, and a reflection of what women scientists had to grapple with in that era — she continued corresponding with her relatives at home. On day three at Gombe, she writes in a picturesque letter to her grandmother Danny and the rest of the family:

We got here, Danny, on your birthday & mentally had tea with you — just after I had seen my first chimpanzee! I could hardly believe I could be lucky enough to see one on my very first day. We were quite far away, but at least close enough to know it was a chimp & not a baboon. There are lots of Baboon here — one Troop comes very close to the tent each morning to watch us. I went out yesterday afternoon to do a little exploring on my own and saw a beautiful bushbuck — a smallish animal, lovely reddish gold colour. He flew away almost from under my feet, barking like a dog.

The country here is quite beautiful, but very rugged. The little stream behind the tent rushes down the steep rock valley, gurgling and splashing down steppes of waterfalls. The water is pure and sweet — doesn’t even have to be boiled. 16 such streams flow down the valleys between the mountain ridges, & along their banks are the forest galleries, the home of the chimps. In between the mountain slopes are fairly bare — really it is ideal country for my job, though at the moment the task seems of a huge magnitude.

To see the passion and perseverance with which Goodall has dedicated her life to the accomplishment of that monumental task is nothing short of breathtaking.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

Complement the altogether exhilarating Africa in My Blood, a trove of Goodall’s contagious enthusiasm and goodness, with the beloved scientist on empathy and our highest human potential, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and a lovely children’s book about her childhood.

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26 JUNE, 2015

Emerson on What Beauty Really Means, How to Cultivate Its True Hallmarks, and Why It Bewitches the Human Imagination

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“The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.”

Creative culture is woven of invisible threads of influence — someone sees something created by another and it sparks something else in their own mind. We can trace some of these influences, but thanks to the psychological phenomenon of cryptomnesia, few of these unconscious impressions are remembered by those who receive them, even fewer recorded, and fewer still retained by posterity — and yet the rare chance to witness the cross-pollination of great minds is nothing short of magical.

Every once in a while, I chance upon one such previously invisible thread of influence and am infinitely delighted to participate however obliquely, across space and time, in the continual weaving of our cultural fabric. This is precisely what happened when I was revisiting Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — the beautiful writings of the trailblazing astronomer who paved the way for women in science.

In a journal entry from November of 1855, seven years after she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 37-year-old Mitchell recounts attending a lecture by Emerson, which “turned at length upon beauty” and impressed her greatly. Embedded in her intellectually smitten account is timeless insight into what makes a great public speech:

Last night I heard Emerson give a lecture. I pity the reporter who attempts to give it to the world. I began to listen with a determination to remember it in order, but it was without method, or order, or system. It was like a beam of light moving in the undulatory waves, meeting with occasional meteors in its path; it was exceedingly captivating. It surprised me that there was not only no commonplace thought, but there was no commonplace expression. If he quoted, he quoted from what we had not read; if he told an anecdote, it was one that had not reached us.

I was tickled to track down this “beam of light” and — at the risk of being that pitiable reporter — to recover the ideas that so moved Mitchell, as articulated by Emerson in the original. Fortunately, I happened to have a copy of his Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, and how to live with maximum aliveness — and struck gold: On page 1093, under the title “Beauty,” there appears the very lecture Mitchell attended.

To picture the great astronomer sitting awestruck in the audience that night only lends Emerson’s already luminous thoughts more electrifying sparkle.

He considers what beauty really means:

Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world. All privilege is that of beauty; for there are many beauties; as, of general nature, of the human face and form, of manners, of brain, or method, moral beauty, or beauty of the soul.

[…]

The question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things. Goethe said, “The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of Nature, which, but for this appearance, had been forever concealed from us.” And the working of this deep instinct makes all the excitement — much of it superficial and absurd enough — about works of art, which leads armies of vain travelers every year to Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Every man values every acquisition he makes in the science of beauty, above his possessions. The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity was served, would remain unsatisfied. But, as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.

And yet Emerson is wary of confining beauty to a concrete definition, which constricts its expansiveness and inevitably damages its essence. Instead of a complete definition, he sets out to enumerate “a few of its qualities,” beginning with simplicity and a certain clarity of feeling:

We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes. It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality.

Art from an animated primer on why bees build perfect hexagons. Click image to watch.

Nature, Emerson argues, is masterful at such unsuperfluous beauty:

Beauty rests on necessities. The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy. The cell of the bee is built at that angle which gives the most strength with the least wax; the bone or the quill of the bird gives the most alar strength, with the least weight. “It is the purgation of superfluities,” said Michelangelo… In rhetoric, this art of omission is a chief secret of power, and, in general, it is proof of high culture, to say the greatest matters in the simplest way.

From this unsuperfluous form springs an elegance and efficiency of function:

Elegance of form in bird or beast, or in the human figure, marks some excellence of structure: or beauty is only an invitation from what belongs to us… It is a rule of largest application, true in a plant, true in a loaf of bread, that in the construction of any fabric or organism, any real increase of fitness to its end, is an increase of beauty… The cat and the deer cannot move or sit inelegantly… The tint of the flower proceeds from its root, and the lusters of the sea-shell begin with its existence.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the ideals of Japanese aesthetics, Emerson adds:

Hence our taste in building rejects paint, and all shifts, and shows the original grain of the wood: refuses pilasters and columns that support nothing, and allows the real supporters of the house honestly to show themselves. Every necessary or organic action pleases the beholder. A man leading a horse to water, a farmer sowing seed, the labors of haymakers in the field, the carpenter building a ship, the smith at his forge, or, whatever useful labor, is becoming to the wise eye… Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond. The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression. Beauty is the moment of transition, as if the form were just ready to flow into other forms.

Illustration from 'Geometrical Psychology,' a series of 19th-century diagrams of consciousness. Click image for more.

But Emerson argues that this flow from one form into another requires a certain elegance of transition — an insight that defies our present fetishism of “disruptive innovation” and instead considers the key to meaningful, lasting works of beauty:

The fashions follow a law of gradation, and are never arbitrary. The new mode is always only a step onward in the same direction as the last mode; and a cultivated eye is prepared for and predicts the new fashion. This fact suggests the reason of all mistakes and offense in our own modes. It is necessary in music, when you strike a discord, to let down the ear by an intermediate note or two to the accord again: and many a good experiment, born of good sense, and destined to succeed, fails, only because it is offensively sudden.

Beauty, Emerson argues, is what lends things their immortality — after all, if he wasn’t the thinker of beautiful thoughts and writer of beautiful words that made awestruck attendees preserve his ideas in their journals, these very writings on beauty wouldn’t be here today. He captures this elegantly:

Beauty is the quality which makes to endure… Burns writes a copy of verses, and sends them to a newspaper, and the human race take charge of them that they shall not perish.

What Neil Gaiman asserted of stories — that they’re symbiotic organisms propagating by evolutionary laws — Emerson asserted of beauty more than a century and a half earlier:

In our cities, an ugly building is soon removed, and is never repeated, but any beautiful building is copied and improved upon, so that all masons and carpenters work to repeat and preserve the agreeable forms, whilst the ugly ones die out.

The pinnacle of beauty, Emerson argues, is the human female form:

The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form. All men are its lovers. Wherever it goes, it creates joy and hilarity, and everything is permitted to it. It reaches its height in woman… A beautiful woman is a practical poet, taming her savage mate, planting tenderness, hope, and eloquence, in all whom she approaches. Some favors of condition must go with it, since a certain serenity is essential, but we love its reproofs and superiorities.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

And yet Emerson is careful to point out that true beauty isn’t something one objectifies — a static quality to behold — but something in dynamic dialogue with the intellect. The true beauty of a woman, as a supreme form of all true beauty, is something far more expansive than her aesthetic attributes:

We all know this magic very well, or can divine it. It does not hurt weak eyes to look into beautiful eyes never so long… They heal us of awkwardness by their words and looks. We observe their intellectual influence on the most serious student. They refine and clear his mind; teach him to put a pleasing method into what is dry and difficult. We talk to them, and wish to be listened to; we fear to fatigue them, and acquire a facility of expression which passes from conversation into habit of style.

[…]

And yet — it is not beauty that inspires the deepest passion. Beauty without grace is the hook without the bait. Beauty, without expression, tires… The radiance of the human form, though sometimes astonishing, is only a burst of beauty for a few years or a few months, at the perfection of youth, and in most, rapidly declines. But we remain lovers of it, only transferring our interest to interior excellence.

Long before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Emerson notes:

The secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.

To this I’ll add a necessary corollary: The key to being interesting is being interested — in the world, in other people, in the seething cauldron of phenomena and experiences and ideas we call life. Curiosity, therefore, is a supreme manifestation of beauty.

Emerson returns to the ineffable aspect of beauty and argues that much of what lends it its luster is precisely this quality of escaping the intellect’s analysis but enchanting the imagination. In a sentiment that calls to mind Stendhal’s theory of why we fall out of love, Emerson writes:

Things are pretty, graceful, rich, elegant, handsome, but, until they speak to the imagination, not yet beautiful. This is the reason why beauty is still escaping out of all analysis. It is not yet possessed, it cannot be handled… It is properly not in the form, but in the mind. It instantly deserts possession, and flies to an object in the horizon. If I could put my hand on the north star, would it be as beautiful? The sea is lovely, but when we bathe in it, the beauty forsakes all the near water. For the imagination and senses cannot be gratified at the same time.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti from Lou Reed's adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven.' Click image for more.

He examines the deepest source of beauty:

The new virtue which constitutes a thing beautiful, is a certain cosmical quality, or, a power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality. Every natural feature — sea, sky, rainbow, flowers, musical tone — has in it somewhat which is not private, but universal, speaks of that central benefit which is the soul of Nature, and thereby is beautiful.

He remarks of the men and women we come to admire:

They have a largeness of suggestion, and their face and manners carry a certain grandeur, like time and justice.

[…]

All beauty points at identity, and whatsoever thing does not express to me the sea and sky, day and night, is somewhat forbidden and wrong. Into every beautiful object, there enters somewhat immeasurable and divine, and just as much into form bounded by outlines, like mountains on the horizon, as into tones of music, or depths of space. Polarized light showed the secret architecture of bodies; and when the second-sight of the mind is opened, now one color or form or gesture, and now another, has a pungency, as if a more interior ray had been emitted, disclosing its deep holdings in the frame of things…

This is that haughty force of beauty, “vis superba formæ,” which the poets praise — under calm and precise outline, the immeasurable and divine: Beauty hiding all wisdom and power in its calm sky.

Centuries after Francis Bacon wrote of beauty as a function of virtue and shortly before social reformer Frederick Douglass pioneered the notion of “aesthetic force” as a powerful agent of change, Emerson arrives at the deepest well from which beauty springs — a kind of moral virtue:

All high beauty has a moral element in it… Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth, and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs. An adorer of truth we cannot choose but obey, and the woman who has shared with us the moral sentiment — her locks must appear to us sublime. Thus there is a climbing scale of culture, from the first agreeable sensation which a sparkling gem or a scarlet stain affords the eye, up through fair outlines and details of the landscape, features of the human face and form, signs and tokens of thought and character in manners, up to the ineffable mysteries of the intellect.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures remains an indispensable read. Follow the invisible threads of cultural influence in this particular portion to Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means and Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness.

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05 JUNE, 2015

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s Letters to Her Mother on the Joy of Living and Writing as Salvation for the Soul

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“I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light…”

Whether because we are wired by our cognitive circuitry or conditioned by our culture of cynicism, we tend to be profoundly incapable of recognizing that contradictory emotions, beliefs, states, and dispositions can coexist within a single person, at different times and even at the same time, complementing and enriching one another rather than canceling each other out. Can a life be lived with wholehearted exuberance and end by heartbreaking despair, without the fact of the latter negating the truth of the former? Hardly anything poses this question more acutely than the short, exuberant, and tragic life of beloved poet Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963).

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize and before her journals were published, the world got its first glimpse of the turbulent and wildly creative inner landscape this troubled genius inhabited — Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library). Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

In the introduction, Plath’s mother speaks of the “psychic osmosis” she shared with young Sylvia and cites a journal entry — for the beloved poet was among history’s most dedicated diarists — in which her 17-year-old daughter writes:

Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.

In a sentiment calling to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable assertion that “a writer is a professional observer,” teenage Plath adds:

At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.

Illustration by Quentin Blake from Plath's 'The Bed Book,' a children's book written for her own kids. Click image for more.

Plath did get married and did have kids. To this, a necessary addendum: The hubristic assumption that her marriage was the cause of her tragedy — an assumption tragically common in our age of snap judgments and superficial impressions masquerading as informed opinions, with which people don’t hesitate to impale others whenever Plath and Hughes are mentioned — is a disservice to the seething cauldron of complexity that is a human life, to say nothing of the double complexity of human relationships; it is also an assumption that fails to account for the still barely understood neurochemistry of creativity and mental illness.

What is clear is that at seventeen, Plath is tussling with precisely those complexities that make a person, feeling out the boundaries of the self, that resident-alien of body and mind:

I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

And yet, echoing Van Gogh — another complicated artist with a tragic end, who wrote to his brother: “Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” — Plath wonders whether her reach for perfection will ever bear fruit and show on the outside:

Never, never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul — my paintings, my poems, my stories — all poor reflections…

Facing the overwhelming crossroads of young adulthood, Plath marvels at this unrepeatable moment in time:

There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…

That cause became writing, a sense of purpose that came naturally to Plath as she let her life speak. She captures its pull beautifully in one of her earliest poems, written around the same time, which her mother includes in the introduction to the book:

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason? …

I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.

Plath soon headed to Smith College, where her dedication to writing grew so all-consuming that it was immortalized in a cartoon pinned to the College Hall Bulletin Board, which read under the caption “Teen-age Triumphs”:

BORN TO WRITE

Sylvia Plath, 17, really works at her writing… A national magazine has published two of her brain children! — the real test for being a writer.

For her part, Plath loved the opportunity to live up to the cartoon’s proclamation. She wrote in a letter to her mother:

Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy

And work, work, work she did — a few months later, she got that coveted Mademoiselle internship, which catapulted her into the world of professional writing. In a 1955 letter to her mother, which captures biographer Andrew Wilson’s apt assertion that Plath was “an addict of experience,” she writes:

Writing is the first love of my life. I have to live well and rich and far to write… I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.

In July of 1956, Plath articulates her inescapable calling in another letter to her mother from a trip to Paris with her husband, Ted Hughes, whom she had met that February in their famous first encounter and had married by June. Twenty-three-year-old Plath writes:

Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…

Letters Home is a bottomless treasure chest of insight into this luminous spirit caught in a troubled mind. Complement it with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her beautiful reading of her poem “A Birthday Present,” and her unseeen drawings, collected by her own daughter.

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05 JUNE, 2015

The Value of a Compassionate Lie

By:

A poignant reminder that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is the greatest art of all.

“Anybody who travels knows,” Pico Iyer observed in his altogether marvelous On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, “that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re traveling in order to be moved.” Few have captured this aspect of travel as a mode of intimacy with oneself more enchantingly than writer and documentary photographer Michael Katakis in The Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile (public library) — a slim, absolutely magnificent collection of journal entries, which I picked up on the recommendation of voracious reader and traveler extraordinaire Karen Barbarossa, chronicling twenty-five years of Katakis mapping his inner world as he traverses the outer.

Although every page emanates enormous wisdom, one particular diary entry stopped my breath with how swiftly it sliced through my most fundamental convictions as a person who despises deception and prizes truth above almost all moral goods. And yet here was Katakis, reminding me in an incredibly poignant and beautiful way that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is perhaps the greatest art and most difficult moral feat of all.

Women husking in Sierra Leone (Photograph: Michael Katakis)

Writing from Sierra Leone in July of 1988 — a time of growing violence and unrest, shortly before the country erupted into its decade-long Civil War — Katakis describes an encounter with a most unexpected visitor, which taught him a most unexpected and invaluable truth:

On the veranda sat a small nicely dressed man in his twenties I’d guessed. He rose to greet me with an extended hand and held a large box in the other. He seemed familiar and at first did not speak.

After establishing that they had met some time ago in another city, the young man grows increasingly nervous and agitated, eventually blurting out that he has come to ask questions. Katakis recounts:

With that he set the large box on the table opening it carefully so as not to further stress the already broken spine. The contents, which he began to, and there is no other word for it, tenderly remove, were drawings and charts of the stars as well as old and yellowed newspaper clippings with stories about the American space program. There were stories about Mercury, Apollo and the names of some astronauts including John Glenn which were circled in red. The young man’s hand drawings of Saturn and Mars were remarkable and on some of the pages there were a series of equations that I took to mean latitude and longitude but could not be sure. He went on turning page after page. In another place and time he would have been a student or perhaps a professor of astronomy I thought. His passion for the subject was startling…

I told him that this was fantastic but my compliment was either ignored or not heard as he arranged more pages on the table. He then asked me his questions. They were about propulsion systems and temperatures on planets. Questions about Haley’s comet and other astronauts’ names and how the space program had developed after he had lost track. How far was the end of the galaxy and how long would it take to reach it and then questions about the theory of relativity. I was dumbfounded and could only manage a silly, insecure smile in response, and then, I made one of the greatest mistakes of my life. I told the truth. I said, “You have studied this so much and it’s amazing but I’m afraid that you know much more about this than I do. I am learning from you and I can’t answer your questions. I simply don’t know.”

Early drawings of Saturn by pioneering astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, from 'Cosmigraphics.' Click image for more.

A quarter century after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead made her elegant distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” Katakis — whose wife, Kris Hardin, was also an influential anthropologist — illustrates Mead’s point with silken sensitivity to the invisible dimensions of the human spirit:

The look on his face cut deep and in an instant I realized that he had not come for facts at all. He had come for new words to dream by. Perhaps my words would have carried him until August or September and maybe well past. He might have lay in the tall grass at night staring at the stars remembering the veranda where we had talked and ponder what was said. Perhaps he would have fallen into deep sleeps and dreamt of stars and in those dreams he might have taken flight far from his life of questions with no answers and loneliness. But that was not to be for I made the terrible mistake of admitting my ignorance and removing myself from our delicate charade.

I learned in that moment, when I took everything from him, the importance of lying, not merely telling an untruth but lying, with passion and flourish like an actor on a stage claiming to know that which they do not know, for the lie that keeps hope and dreams intact is preferable to a truth that removes them. Lies and truths are easy to come by but dreams that sustain people through difficult lives are not. I wish I could take back the day.

The Traveller is full of dreamsome sustenance from cover to cover. Complement this particular piece of nourishment with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

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