Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

12 JUNE, 2014

19-Year-Old Sylvia Plath on the Transcendent Simplicity and Reverence of Nature

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“No matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.”

Carl Sagan believed that nature itself is a source of spiritual awe. Alan Lightman captured this beautifully in his account of a secular transcendent experience. And yet it’s not the scientists but the poets and writers who are best able to capture that sense of earthly reverence, from Virginia Woolf’s intoxicating account of visiting Stonehenge to Hans Christian Andersen’s chronicle of climbing Vesuvius.

From The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness — comes an achingly beautiful meditation on the transcendent simplicity of nature, spurred by the feeling awakened in Plath by “an anonymous part of the Massachusetts coastline.”

In July of 1951, a few months before her 19th birthday, she writes in her diary:

On a relatively unfrequented, stony beach there is a great rock which juts out over the sea. After a climb, an ascent from one jagged foothold to another, a natural shelf is reached where one person can stretch at length, and stare down into the tide rising and falling below, or beyond to the bay, where sails catch light, then shadow, then light, as they tack far out near the horizon. The sun has burned these rocks, and the great continuous ebb and flow of the tide has crumbled the boulders, battered them, worn them down to the smooth sun-scalded stones on the beach which rattle and shift underfoot as one walks over them. A serene sense of the slow inevitability of the gradual changes in the earth’s crust comes over me; a consuming love, not of a god, but of the clean unbroken sense that the rocks, which are nameless, the waves which are nameless, the ragged grass, which is nameless, are all defined momentarily through the consciousness of the being who observes them. With the sun burning into rock and flesh, and the wind ruffling grass and hair, there is an awareness that the blind immense unconscious impersonal and neutral forces will endure, and that the fragile, miraculously knit organism which interprets them, endows them with meaning, will move about for a little, then falter, fail, and decompose at last into the anonomous [sic] soil, voiceless, faceless, without identity.

From this experience I emerged whole and clean, bitten to the bone by sun, washed pure by the icy sharpness of salt water, dried and bleached to the smooth tranquillity that comes from dwelling among primal things.

From this experience also, a faith arises to carry back to a human world of small lusts and deceitful pettiness. A faith, naïve and child like perhaps, born as it is from the infinite simplicity of nature. It is a feeling that no matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Plath’s little-known drawings, her verses for kids illustrated by Quentin Blake, and her moving reading of “A Birthday Present.”

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11 JUNE, 2014

Anaïs Nin on Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Rights: A Prescient Lament from 1940

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“Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.”

Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) was a woman who rejected the options handed down to her by life and instead lived by her own rules. She was also modern history’s most dedicated diarist, beginning at the age of eleven and writing until her death, for a total of sixteen volumes of published journals exploring everything from love to self-publishing to why emotional excess is essential to creativity to the meaning of life.

In 1923, when Nin was only twenty, she married the Swiss banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Guiler. They decided on an open marriage, of which both took ample advantage over the decades. But the biological cards aren’t stacked evenly for men and women in such arrangements, especially two decades before the invention of the birth control pill: In the summer of 1940, while in a highly involved relationship with one of her lovers, Nin found herself pregnant — by her husband. The circumstances were less than ideal: Not only were Nin and her husband already in dire financial straits, but World War II had just broken out, engulfing the world in hopelessness and destruction. Meanwhile, Gonzalo, Nin’s lover, was a highly temperamental and explosive man intensely jealous of Nin’s relationship with her husband, particularly their physical intimacy. Amid these circumstances, Nin and Guiler decided on an abortion.

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 (public library) — which also gave us Nin on the elusive nature of joy — comes the author’s moving account of the complexities surrounding women’s reproductive rights and exposes how little progress we’ve made on the subject in more than seven decades.

She recounts the day of the abortion procedure, performed on August 21, 1940, by a doctor who operated on her without anesthesia despite first assuring her otherwise:

I arrived at nine-thirty and was strapped like an insane person, wrists tied, arms, waist, legs — a strange sensation of utter helplessness. Then the doctor came in. As he began to work, he found the womb dilating so easily that he continued the operation in spite of the terrific pain. And so in six minutes of torture, I had done what is usually done with ether! But it was over. I couldn’t believe it.

And yet the most important encounter at the clinic wasn’t a medical one but a deeply human one. Nin writes:

The only wonderful moment in all this was when I was lying on a little cot in the doctor’s office and another woman came in. The nurse pulled the curtain so that I could not see her. She was made to undress and lie down, to relax. The nurse left us.

Soon I heard a whisper to me: “How was it?” I reassured her — told her how I had been able to bear it without ether, so it would be nothing with ether.

She said: “How long were you pregnant?”

“Three months.”

“I only two — but I’m scared. My husband is away. He doesn’t know. He must never know.”

I couldn’t explain to her that my husband knew, but that my lover had to be deceived and made to believe I had no relations with Hugh. Lying there whispering about the pain, I had never felt such a strong kinship with woman — woman — this one I could not see, or identify, the one who was also lying on a cot, filled with primitive fear and an obscure sense of murder, or guilt, and of an unfair struggle against nature — an unequal struggle with all the man-made laws against us, endangering our lives, exposing us to inexperienced maneuvers, to being economically cheated and morally condemned — woman is truly the victim now, beyond the help of her courage and aliveness. How much there is to be said against the ban on abortion. What a tragedy this incident becomes for the woman. At this moment she is hunted down, really. The doctor is ashamed, deep down, but falsely so. Society condemns him. Everything goes on in an atmosphere of crime and trickery. And the poor woman who was whispering to me, afterwards, I heard her say to the doctor: “Oh, doctor, I’m so grateful to you, so grateful!” That woman moved me so much. I wanted to know her. I wanted to pull the curtain and see her. But I realized she was all women — the humility, the thoughtfulness, the fear and the childlike moment of utter defenselessness. A pregnant woman is already a being in anguish. Each pregnancy is an obscure conflict. The break is not simple. You are tearing away a fragment of flesh and blood. Added to this deeper conflict is the anguish, the quest for the doctor, the fight against exploitation, the atmosphere of underworld bootlegging, a racket. The abortion is made a humiliation and a crime. Why should it be? Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.

Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1947 is masterwork of candor, insight, and raw humanity in its entirety. Complement this particular excerpt with Italo Calvino on abortion and the meaning of life, writing 35 years after Nin.

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26 MAY, 2014

Thoreau on the Greatest Gift of Growing Old

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How happiness feeds on the hard-earned blessing of making fewer apologies for our existence.

“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” Karl De Schweinitz wrote in his 1924 guide to the art of living, and as with any art, genius-level mastery at it is only accomplished through hours upon hours of deliberate practice. It’s a truth that Henry David Thoreau, one of the great masters of the art of living, illustrates in a particularly beautiful passage 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, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau.

Writing in the afternoon of October 20 of 1857, shortly after his fortieth birthday, Thoreau does what he does best, drawing from an everyday encounter a profound existential parable:

I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.

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

But perhaps the greatest gift of old age is that of unselfconsciousness — 150 years after Thoreau, in reflecting on her long career of interviewing creative icons, Debbie Millman observed that the only two people not plagued by the characteristic self-doubt of creators were Milton Glaser and Massimo Vignelli who, not coincidentally, were both in their eighties. Thoreau, too, arrives at the same appreciation in considering the old man:

This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy… If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement it with these sweet and poignant illustrated adaptations of Thoreau’s life and thought, then treat yourself to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s exquisite reading of John Masefield’s “On Growing Old.”

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