Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

26 MAY, 2014

Thoreau on the Greatest Gift of Growing Old

By:

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.”

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.

14 MAY, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates on Wonder, Consciousness, and the Art of Beholding Beauty

By:

“How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, and scientists, private as they are, are often reminders not only of their humanity but of our own, brimming with deeply and widely resonant insights on our shared struggles and yearnings. Such is the case of The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library) — a chronicle of Oates’s characteristically self-reflexive, sometimes self-conscious, but always intensely intelligent and perceptive meditations on literature and life.

One of her most beautiful reflections, penned on a cold December morning in 1977 — a pivotal time in Oates’s life, shortly before her 40th birthday and a few months prior to her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Letters — falls somewhere between Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Snowed in at her home in Windsor, Oates contemplates the “blue wild snow-glaring world outside” and marvels:

How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.

She watches a “puffy-feathered female cardinal” rustle in the bush outside the window, picking at the bright red berries in a coat of her own colorful plumage as “the male hits the eye like a sudden manifestation of grace, or even of God.” Witnessing this whimsical vignette, Oates pauses to consider her very capacity — our human capacity — to behold such beauty:

Queer, in fact maddening, to think that “beauty” in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist. For though the birds and other creatures “see” one another they don’t, I assume, “see” beauty. And what of certain mollusks that secrete extraordinarily beautiful shells which they themselves never see, since they have no eyes; how on earth can one comprehend that phenomenon…?

…The patterns exist in our mind’s eye, in our human calculating consciousness. Yes, but: they do exist, they are quite real, one is surely not deluded in assuming that seashells do have exquisite patterns. And what is their purpose? Not for camouflage, certainly. In fact they stand out, their colors and designs are so striking.

She ends with a “tentative conclusion” that echoes young Virginia Woolf and shares in Richard Feynman’s awe at the glory evolution, considering the marvels of our consciousness:

All of nature, all of the given “world,” is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it. But all of creation participates. Is this a sentimental notion, is it perhaps romantically far-fetched? I really don’t think so: it’s the only possible conclusion. And that certain creatures evolved their forms of beauty before the world actually had eyes… before it had any “eyes” at all… seems to me evidence (poetic if nothing else) that evolution, or whatever is meant by evolution, already included the highest form of consciousness at the very start: anticipated it, I mean.

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates is a richly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Oates’s 10 tips on writing and her exploration of the divided self of the creative person.

For more beloved writers’ diaries, peek inside those of Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Sontag.

Photograph of Joyce Carol Oates by Marion Ettlinger

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.

04 APRIL, 2014

Young Hans Christian Andersen Climbs Mount Vesuvius During an Eruption and Lives to Tell About It in a Beautiful, Dramatic Account

By:

“The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky…”

Hans Christian Andersen revolutionized storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, driven by a cinematic sensitivity to beauty. In mid-February of 1834, while touring Europe, 29-year-old Andersen arrived in Naples just as the mighty Mount Vesuvius was in the midst of one of its then-regular and dramatic eruptions, three centuries after the first of them had drowned dozens of Italian villages in hot lava and killed an estimated 3,000 people. The flamboyant mesmerism of the event cast a spell that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — the same obscure yet remarkable volume that gave us Andersen’s little-known and lovely sketches — comes his breathtaking account of his visit to Vesuvius and his crazy quest to climb the mount as it was erupting.

18th-century painting of Vesuvius erupting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)

In a diary entry from February 18, Andersen — a true enchanter with a penchant for cinematic storytelling — recounts his first breathtaking impressions of the fiery marvel:

I bought some drawings, walked by the sea pounding against the rocks. — It was the world’s great pulse beat that I heard. The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky… Such shades of colors on the mountains! Just as the sun went down, the red lava was glowing. Some boys played soldiers on the beach, and tramps in their brown hooded coats sat on the rocks watching them.

It may seem like a wild and rather unsafe notion today, but the eruption of Vesuvius, a regular occurrence since the middle of the 17th century, was quite the tourist attraction in Andersen’s time — so much so, that tour guides hustled for visitors’ attention. Andersen writes on February 21:

They were literally chasing me, underbidding each other… I had to say, in order to get away, that I would come back tomorrow. Then they all asked me to write down their names, and I got away by scribbling something down, and so I walked around in a small side street that seems to have been constructed entirely by lava debris.

But unperturbed by this brush with the materialistic exploitation of such a wonder, he goes on to marvel at nature’s might ablaze before him:

Smoke swirled thickly up out of Vesuvius, and the lava gave off a cloud of steam… At dusk I walked down to the sea. Vesuvius spewed great streams of lava; it blazed into the air; it was like tongues of fire flaring up. This is the most violent I have seen it.

Hans Christian Andersen's diary drawing of the Vesuvius eruption, 1834

Four days later, on February 22, Vesuvius quiets down as Andersen paints another breathtaking vignette:

The moon was shining on the dark blue water, and the waves breaking on the shore looked like a glimmering piece of embroidery. Fire was running in great streams down Vesuvius, but there was almost no smoke to be seen. — I walked out to the lighthouse and saw then in the moonlight a handsome frigate coursing under full sail into the harbor.

But then, two days later, Vesuvius reaches its climax and Andersen beholds it in breathtaking detail as he and a small group of fellow Danes set out to climb the mountain, now shaken by Vesuvius’s frequent huffs and puffs of smoke and lava:

The evening was so infinitely beautiful; the sun set like a ball of fire; the sky was a glimmering gold that shaded over into the ether-blue. The sea was like indigo, and the islands were lying like pale blue clouds on it. It was a magic world that had manifested itself… The mountains were shining so splendidly with the white snow; they lay far off in the blue sky, and close to us we could see all the red lava of Vesuvius.

Nocturnal Eruption of Vesuvius with Bay of Naples by Michael Wutky (1739–1822)

By the time Andersen and his crew reached the hermitage in the mountain, it was almost dark — a perilous detail that only added to the inspired insanity of their expedition. Andersen recounts:

The wind was so biting cold that I had to get off my donkey and walk… Soon the donkeys couldn’t take us any further. We stood before the mountain itself, whose rounded contours were covered with blocks of lava and ash. We were now ascending a fairly steep grade, sinking up over our knees into ash. With every other step we slid backward by one. Large, loose rocks went sliding downward when we stepped on them.

[…]

An hour passed and we were on some sort of plain under the cauldron. Here we caught a sudden glimpse of the moon right over the crater. Coal-black smoke swirled upward; then a ball of fire and gigantic, glowing boulders rolled down onto the plain that we had to cross to get to the lava flow… There was no path at all; we had to walk and crawl between huge pieces of lava… With every eruption the moon was entirely hidden by the pitch-black smoke.

Andersen was a man at once keenly sensitive to beauty, as both his fairy tales and his travel writing attest, and afflicted by great vanity, which reared its head even in these grueling circumstances: “I sang loudly to show how little it was tiring me,” he confesses in the diary. Indeed, the entire endeavor was perhaps a manifestation of youthful vanity for a band of twenty-something men — an exercise to conquer danger for no good reason, except the vainglory of living to tell about it. And their bravado only accelerated as the danger got more intense:

After a while we could feel the heat coming up from underneath us. In order to see the new lava flow we had to cross one that had been flowing the night before; only the outermost crust was black and hard, and red fire was burning in the cracks. We stepped out onto it; it burned our feet through the soles of our shoes. If the crust had broken, we would have sunk into a sea of fire. Then we saw the monstrous stream of fire pouring slowly, thick and red like porridge, down the mountains. The sulphur fumes were so strong; the fire was burning our feet, so that after two minutes we had to go back. All around we saw fissures of fire. There was a whooshing sound coming from the crater, like when all at once a flock of birds starts up from a forest.

Eruption of Vesuvius by Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857)

Ultimately, however, one has to give Andersen the benefit of the doubt and trust that the hazardous undertaking was for the sake of beauty, driven by a longing to get as close as humanly possible to nature’s source, to that fiery frontier of life and death, of beauty and suffering, from which true awe springs. It was beauty, ultimately, that Andersen took away:

The lava looked like colossal, fallen stars. — We rode again over the black lava field. I hung back from the others in order to watch the matchless play of nature.

The voyage to Vesuvius is but a sliver of the richness found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen, an exquisite read in its entirety — a treasure trove that blends breathtaking travel writing with rare insight into the great storyteller’s soul. Complement it with the most beautiful illustrations from 150 years of Andersen fairy tales.

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.