Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

08 JULY, 2014

Thoreau on What Skunk-Cabbage Can Teach Us About Optimism and the Meaning of Human Life

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“There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Even though our brains are wired for optimism, our cultural conditioning is to worry about everything. Long before modern psychology shed light on how our minds affect our bodies, one of humanity’s greatest thinkers drew from nature a subtle yet powerful metaphor for the vital importance of cultivating an optimistic outlook about the future.

From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on what success really means, the greatest gift of growing old, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau — comes a beautiful meditation on what winter plants, and skunk-cabbage in particular, can teach us about melancholy, optimism, and the ebb and flow of human life.

Writing in a diary entry on the last day of October in 1857 — a time when climate change hadn’t yet rendered the latter part of New England autumn mild and frostless — Thoreau marvels at the sight of two swamp ferns, still green this late in the year:

You are inclined to approach and raise each frond in succession, moist, trembling, fragile greenness. What means this persistent vitality, invulnerable to frost and wet? They stay as if to keep up the spirits of the cold-blooded frogs which have not yet gone into the mud; that the summer may die with decent and graceful moderation, gradually. Even in them I feel an argument for immortality. Death is so far from being universal. The same destroyer does not destroy all. How valuable they are (with the lycopodiums) for cheerfulness.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

But the greatest source of cheerfulness and hopefulness comes from the skunk-cabbage, a prophet of perseverance and optimism:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! …

See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is a soul-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Henry Builds a Cabin and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, two charming picture-books adapting Thoreau’s philosophy for children.

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25 JUNE, 2014

Happy Birthday, George Orwell: The Beloved Author on Money, Government, and Taxes

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“Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary.”

“It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money,” Michael Lewis advised aspiring writers, “find another one.” More than a century earlier, Tolstoy had issued a similar admonition about money and motives. And yet no matter how much we read up on how to worry less about money, there is a baseline financial security necessary for writing, living, and remaining sane, whatever one’s occupation. When that’s missing, no amount of idealism can neutralize the anguishing practical reality.

From George Orwell: Diaries (public library) — which also gave us 33-year-old Orwell on gender equality in work and housework and his frugal dessert recipes — comes a short entry bemoaning the author’s money troubles. On August 9, 1940 — as World War II is reaching its menacing crescendo — 37-year-old Orwell writes in his diary:

The money situation is becoming completely unbearable… Wrote a long letter to the Income Tax people pointing out that the war had practically put an end to my livelihood while at the same time the government refused to give me any kind of job. The fact which is really relevant to a writer’s position, the impossibility of writing books with this nightmare going on, would have no weight officially… Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary. No one is patriotic about taxes.

As a footnote in the book points out, it’s odd that Orwell was being pursued for taxes so shortly after his state of near-poverty in the 1930s, and at a time when only 20% of the population paid taxes. One possible explanation is that because writers, artists, and others in the creative professions have a greater variability of income year over year, Orwell’s tax challenge may be due to higher earnings in a previous year, such as potential royalties for The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. Another is that the earnings of his then-wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who had started working — rather ironically — at the Censorship Department of London’s Ministry of War at the onset of WWII, would have been considered his for tax purposes.

Whatever the case, one thing is of note — five years before Animal Farm saw light of day, Orwell is already contemplating the disconnect between the ideals of patriotism and the greed of the government.

Complement with Orwell on his motives for writing and the freedom of the press, his 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, and Ralph Steadman’s gorgeous vintage illustrations for Animal Farm.

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16 JUNE, 2014

Albert Camus on Happiness and Love, Illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

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“If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.”

In this new installment of the Brain Pickings artist series, I’ve once again teamed up with the wonderfully talented Wendy MacNaughton, on the heels of our previous collaborations on famous writers’ sleep habits, Susan Sontag’s diary highlights on love and on art, Nellie Bly’s packing list, Gay Talese’s taxonomy of New York cats, and Sylvia Plath’s influences. I asked MacNaughton to illustrate another of my literary heroes’ thoughts on happiness and love, based on my highlights from Notebooks 1951–1959 (public library) — the published diaries of French author, philosopher, and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, which also gave us Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

The artwork is available as a print on Society6 and, as usual, we’re donating 50% of proceeds to A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists. Enjoy!

If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.

When love ceases to be tragic it is something else and the individual again throws himself in search of tragedy.

Betrayal answers betrayal, the mask of love is answered by the disappearance of love.

For me, physical love has always been bound to an irresistible feeling of innocence and joy. Thus, I cannot love in tears but in exaltation.

The loss of love is the loss of all rights, even though one had them all.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.

It is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometimes humiliating, but the suffering of being cannot be, it is life.

The end of their passion consists of loving uselessly at the moment when it is pointless.

At times I feel myself overtaken by an immense tenderness for these people around me who live in the same century.

I have not stopped loving that which is sacred in this world.

Get the print here.

For more literature-inspired art benefiting some favorite organizations, dive into the artist series visual archive. For more of MacNaughton’s own fantastic work, see her book Meanwhile in San Francisco and her illustrations for The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert and Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.

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.