Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

19 AUGUST, 2013

France Is Free: Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway on the Liberation of Paris, August 19, 1944

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“One is stunned before catastrophe, one is stunned by happiness, by peace, by the knowledge of millions of people free from pain and death.”

On August 19, 1944, the Liberation of Paris commenced, marking the beginning of the end of World War II in France. Six days later, on August 25, the occupying German garrison surrendered. That week, in a journal entry found in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the meaning of life, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, how our objects define us, and how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly — the beloved diarist and reconstructionist breaks out of her usual contemplative lyricism and explodes with gorgeous, unfiltered human exuberance over the end of one of history’s greatest inhumanities:

Liberation of France!

JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY. JOY.

Such joy, such happiness at the hope of war ending. Happiness in unison with the world. Delirious happiness.

At such times we are overwhelmed by a collective joy. We feel like shouting, demonstrating in the street. A joy you share with the whole world is almost too great for one human being. One is stunned before catastrophe, one is stunned by happiness, by peace, by the knowledge of millions of people free from pain and death.

August, 1944: American soldiers watch as the Tricolor flies from the Eiffel Tower again. (Image: National Archives)

That same day, Ernest Hemingway — who had been living in Paris as one of the Lost Generation’s famous expats, among whom were Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald — waged a different kind of liberation effort. The Ritz hotel and its famed bar, which Hemingway had come to love as a home and an idyllic drinking spot during his pre-war reign in Paris, had been co-opted as the quarters of German generals in 1940. So, on this fateful August day, Hemingway — arguably the world’s best-known living writer at the time — donned a steel helmet, mounted an army jeep in the dirt roads of the French countryside, and led his small private army as they set out to “liberate” the Ritz.

From Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 (public library) comes this missive Papa sent to his soon-to-be fourth wife, Mary Welsh, offering a much grittier but no less emotionally charged account than Nin’s:

On nineteenth [of August, 1944], made contact with group of Maquis who placed themselves under my command. Because so old and ugly looking I guess. Clothed them with clothing of cavalry recon outfit which had been killed at entrance to Rambouillet. Armed them from Div. Took and held Rambouillet after our recon withdrawn. Ran patrols and furnished gen [intelligence] to French when they advanced. They operated on our gen with much success. Entered Paris by Etoile and Concorde. Fought outfit several times. They did very well. Now very tired. Fortunately in phase of advance Rambouillet Paris had official war historian with us. Otherwise everyone would think was damned lie. Most operation chickenshit as to fighting. But could been bad. Now have rejoined division but have to try to write piece tomorrow. Then will put my people under div orders. Very fine peoples. But temperamental. . . .

I was very scared twice when we were holding (sic) screening, or simply furnishing contact is word, that town with 15 kraut tanks, and 52 cyclists as opposition. Some of the patrols we made would scare you worse than Grimm’s Fairy Tales even if there had been no Krauts [ed: What Hemingway called the Germans]. We checked on tanks with bicycles. Would like to drag down but guess will have to let things ride.

August, 1944: Ernest Hemingway in France with Col. David Bruce at the far left and unidentified companions. (Image: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, JFK Library, Boston)

After a few lines of almost incongruously placed romantic flirtations, Hemingway returns to the war and adds:

Have strong feeling my luck has about run out but am going to try to pass a couple of more times with dice. Have been to all the old places I ever lived in Paris and everything is fine. But it is all so improbable that you feel like you have died and it is all a dream.

(As charmingly deranged as all of this may be, of course, it comes as wholly unsurprising given Hemingway’s penchant for sorting out his emotional vulnerabilities with shotguns.)

Complement with Henry Miller, Nin’s longtime lover and literary confidante, on war and the future of humanity.

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14 AUGUST, 2013

Happy Birthday, Paul Barstch: Toast with a Cocktail Recipe by the Pioneering Zoologist and Explorer

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“A bandage for the head in the morning would not be out of place.”

Given my soft spot for unusual cookbooks, diaries, and science, I was delighted to discover a vintage cocktail recipe by pioneering zoologist and explorer Paul Bartsch (August 14, 1871–April 24, 1960), who made seminal contributions to the classification of mollusks — the perfect toast to his birthday. The concoction, which I chanced upon in The Smithsonian’s public domain archives, comes from a journal entry dated May 15, 1914, written while Bartsch was aboard the Thomas Barrera Cuban Expedition — something the specificity of the ingredients makes a point to honor:

1 ½ glass of Agua diente

1 ½ glass Hector Cubana (Chapparra M. negreira Sen. C Habana)

½ glass Italian Vermouth

½ glass Dry Gordon Gin

2 glasses Water

Sugar to taste

2 Eggs

Pinch of lemon peel

Shake with ice, and, like my beverage, consume with a receptive mind, to say nothing about the tummy.

But Bartsch’s morning-after cautionary suggestion, presented with a scientist’s typical wry humor, is the best part:

It may be added here that a bandage for the head in the morning would not be out of place, and an ice cap comes in mighty handy.

Pair with a toast inspired by Alice in Wonderland, then regain gastric stability with some recipes from The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook.

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13 AUGUST, 2013

Religion vs. Humanism: Isaac Asimov on Science and Spirituality

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“The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death.”

Science and religion have a long history of friction as diametric opposites. But some of humanity’s greatest minds have found in science itself a rich source of spirituality, from Albert Einstein’s meditation on whether scientists pray to Richard Feynman’s ode to the universe to Carl Sagan on the reverence of science to Bucky Fuller’s scientific rendition of The Lord’s Prayer to Richard Dawkins on the magic of reality.

Here comes a wonderful addition from the mind of beloved science fiction author Isaac Asimov, found in the altogether indispensable It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a revealing selection of Asimov’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, a decade after his death.

Asimov succinctly recapitulates his philosophy:

I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.

Indeed, rather than suspending his conviction in the ether of vacant self-righteousness, it is with amiable reason and clever logic that Asimov responds to his inquisitors: Shortly after writing Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, he appeared on the David Frost Show and delivered his irreverent wit in full brilliance when badgered with the G-question. The author recounts:

[Frost] said, with neither warning nor preamble, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

“That rather took my breath away. It was a dreadful way of putting a person on the spot. To answer honestly, “No,” with millions of people watching, could arouse a great deal of controversy I didn’t feel much need of. Yet I couldn’t lie, either. I played for time, in order to find a way out.

He said, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

And I said, “Whose?”

He said, a little impatiently, “Come, come, Dr. Asimov, you know very well whose. Do you believe in the Western God, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition?”

Still playing for time, I said, “I haven’t given it much thought.”

Frost said, “I can’t believe that, Dr. Asimov.” He then nailed me to the wall by saying, “Surely a man of your diverse intellectual interests and wide-ranging curiosity must have tried to find God?”

(Eureka! I had it! The very nails had given me my opening!) I said, smiling pleasantly, “God is much more intelligent than I am — let him try to find me.”

Painting by Rowena Morrill

Above all, however, Asimov was an unrelenting humanist:

I’ve never been particularly careful about what label I placed on my beliefs. I believe in the scientific method and the rule of reason as a way of understanding the natural Universe. I don’t believe in the existence of entities that cannot be reached by such a method and such a rule and that are therefore “supernatural.” I certainly don’t believe in the mythologies of our society, in Heaven and Hell, in God and angels, in Satan and demons. I’ve thought of myself as an “atheist,” but that simply described what I didn’t believe in, not what I did.

Gradually, though, I became aware that there was a movement called “humanism,” which used that name because, to put it most simply, Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills.

He revisits the subject of self-classification in a letter to a friend, articulating the same gripe with the label “atheist” that Brian Cox would come to echo decades later, and writes:

Have I told you that I prefer “rationalism” to “atheism”? The word “atheist,” meaning “no God,” is negative and defeatist. It says what you don’t believe and puts you in an eternal position of defense. “Rationalism” on the other hand states what you DO believe; that, that which can be understood in the light of reason. The question of God and other mystical objects-of-faith are outside reason and therefore play no part in rationalism and you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending that which you rule out of your philosophy altogether.

Speaking to the core belief that the unknown is a source of wonder rather than fear, a fundamental driver of science, Asimov allows for the possibility that his own convictions about the nonexistence of “god” might be wrong, with a playful wink at Bertrand Russell:

There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven. And what if I’m mistaken? The question was asked of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and outspoken atheist. “What if you died,” he was asked, “and found yourself face to face with God? What then?”

And the doughty old champion said, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.’”

But Asimov’s philosophy shines with its fullest heart in these beautiful words penned at the end of his life, at once validating and invalidating the mortality paradox:

The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.

It’s Been a Good Life is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov on science and creativity in education and the author’s endearing fan mail to young Carl Sagan.

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