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Posts Tagged ‘history’

28 AUGUST, 2014

Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

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A posthumous diagnosis of the paralyzing mental malady that afflicted one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh — a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) — his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety — something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 — six years after the completion of The Origin of Species — a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children — a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian's 'Darwin: A Graphic Biography.' Click image for more.

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades — during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.

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25 AUGUST, 2014

A Brief History of Romantic Friendship

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“Smashes,” “crushes,” “spoons,” and other curious nineteenth-century relationship varieties.

Thoreau used to lie awake at night and “think of friendship and its possibilities,” while his dear friend Emerson, in contemplating the secret of friendship, marveled, “What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” — language strikingly similar to that of all the great Romantic poets in extolling the union of love. It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love, but what about that strange, wonderful, and often messy neverland between the two and the inevitable discombobulation of our neatly organized relationship structures that happens when romantic love and friendship converge?

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), historian Lilian Faderman chronicles the extraordinary, era-defining rise and fall of precisely that phenomenon — romantic friendship — as an agent of cultural change:

While romantic friendship had had a long history in Western civilization, it took on particular significance in nineteenth-century America, where men’s spheres and women’s spheres became so divided through the task of nation-building. Men saw themselves as needing the assistance of other men to realize their great material passions, and they fostered “muscle values” and “rational values,” to the exclusion of women. Women, left to themselves outside of their household duties, found kindred spirits primarily in each other. They banded together and fostered “heart values.”

Still, given the economic and social demands of life at the time, most of these female bonds were necessarily secondary to women’s familial obligations, whether in a father’s house or a husband’s. But college, Faderman argues, changed all that — access to education swung open the gates to a new world for women and, as pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell memorably marveled in her diary, it allowed women to set their sights much higher than pervious generations had imagined possible.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

What amplified the impact of that progress, beyond the raw material of academia, were young women’s relationships with each other and the ecosystem of those relationships, which created “a healthy and productive separatism.” This allowed them to explore their own boundaries, to build their own hierarchy of values, to try on the roles of leaders in a self-contained universe free from the traditional yardsticks of society and from the pressure of male demands. But there was one especially potent driver of this empowerment — romantic friendships, which were referred to in college slang as “smashes,” “crushes,” or “spoons.”

In 1873, a Yale student newspaper described the phenomenon in terms that bespeak either utter obliviousness to the sexual undertones of these relationships or nonchalant acceptance of them:

When a Vassar girl takes a shine to another, she straightway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of “Ridley’s Mixed Candies,” locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two women become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as — smashed.

Vassar, as it happens, was not only the university where Maria Mitchell had begun teaching as the only woman on the faculty, paving the way for women in science, but also where Edna St. Vincent Millay became “smashed” with another woman and penned for her some of the most enchanting queer love letters of all time.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

The romantic friendship, also well-documented among men, was not only culturally condoned — in fact, William Alger wrote in 1868 that it brought to women “freshness, stimulant charm, noble truths and aspirations” — but also deeply woven into the fabric of college life. Institutions like Vassar and Smith regularly held all-female dances in the early twentieth century. A Cosmopolitan magazine article from 1901 on life in women’s colleges describes Smith’s Freshman Frolic, in which a sophomore girl played “the cavalier” for the freshman girl she escorted:

She sends her flowers, calls for her, fills her order of dance, fetches ices and frappes between dances and takes her to supper… Every “soph” sees her partner home, begs for a flower … and if the freshman has taken advantage of the opportunity and made the desired hit, there are dates for future meetings and jollifications and a good night over the balusters, as lingering and cordial as any the “freshie” has left behind. And if the gallant soph who lives in another hall runs away from her shadow on the way back to her dormitory, it’s nobody’s business but her own.

Despite the reluctance of the era’s writers to detail that aspect, Faderman notes that such courtship rituals often led to “lovemaking,” both in the 19th-century sentimental sense and in the modern meaning of sexual intimacy. She marvels at the fault line between the oblivious and the obvious:

How could such excitements not lead to passionate loves at a time when there was not yet widespread stigma against intense female same-sex relationships?

What’s more, young college women’s romantic friendships were modeled heavily after the relationships between their female professors, who resided on campus, usually in pairs, often forming lifelong love relationships — “marriages,” like that of Charity and Sylvia. They also provided a new model of economic independence — wholly self-supporting, they didn’t need to marry in order to survive.

Once college-educated women began entering the workforce, the romantic friendship took place against a new backdrop, which Katherine Anne Porter once described as “a company of Amazons” — those early professional women, the first generations of female doctors, professors, ministers, union organizers, and social workers. Faderman cites the case of two Englishwomen from the 1890s, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a pair of “romantic friends” who penned some 25 plays and eight books of poetry together under the pseudonym Michael Field, vowing to each other to be “poets and lovers evermore.”

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

But it didn’t take long for the cultural establishment to begin fearing romantic friendships as a threat to the traditional institution of marriage, which was still a pivotal part of society’s economic model. By the early 1900s, Faderman notes, sexologists and other newly anointed “experts” in the social sciences began condemning these relationships, which only a decade earlier had been universally accepted as innocuous and even ennobling. An 1895 book titled Side Talks with Girls cautioned that it was dangerous for a woman to have “a girl-sweetheart” because wasting her love on another woman would leave nothing for “Prince Charming when he comes to claim his bride.” One pseudo-medical text from the beginning of the century admonished against women’s “increasing affection” for one another:

They kiss each other fondly on every occasion. They embrace each other with mutual satisfaction. It is most natural, in the interchange of visits, for them to sleep together. They learn the pleasure of direct contact, and in the course of them fondling they resort to cunni-linguistic practices… After this the normal sex act fails to satisfy [them].

By 1906, one Swiss psychiatrist issued the alarmist statement that “the excess of female inverts exceeds those of the male” and that for female lovers, sexual lust “is their one thought, night and day, almost without interruption.” (That gentleman had clearly missed the memo on lesbian bed death.) And yet through the 1920s, college women were able to enjoy their romantic friendships with varying degrees of freedom and self-consciousness. Faderman cites one particularly amusing 1921 satirical essay from the Oberlin College yearbook, titled “My Heart Leaps Up,” in which the writers deploy delightful irony at the admonitions against romantic friendship:

Crushes are bad and happen only to the very young and very foolish. Once upon a time we were very young, and the bushes on the campus were hung with our bleeding hearts. Cecil’s heart bled indiscriminately. The rest of us specialized more, and the paths of Gertie Hearne, Dosia, Eleanor Marquand, Adelaide, Tip, and others would have been strewn with roses if public opinion had permitted flowers during the War.

The type of person smitten was one of the striking things about the epidemic. For instance, our emotional Betty Mills spent many stolen hours gazing up at Phoebe’s window. The excitable Copey was enamoured successively of all presidents of the Athletic Association, and has had a hard time this year deciding where to bestow her affections.

But there were some cases that were different from these common crushes. We know they were different, because the victims told us so. Only the most jaundiced mind could call by any other name than friendship Nora’s tender feeling toward Gertie Steele, which led her to keep Gertie’s room overflowing with flowers, fruit, candy, pictures, books, and other indispensable articles. (I always thought rather pathetic the story that once Gertie had been exposed to the measles and for a whole week could not be kissed good-night.) We will all admit that only the purest friendship caused Marjorie to knit the shell-pink sweater and gallantly rescue V.K.’s gown from the waste basket…

Of course, all these things happened in our extreme youth.

Willa Cather (right) with Louise Pound, University of Nebraska, early 1890s

(Image: Willa Cather Archive)

While some early-twentieth-century women saw no need to hide their same-sex relationships, Faderman points out that many were already bending down to the culture’s budding pressures against “romantic friendship.” She points to celebrated writer Willa Cather as one particularly appropriate example — early in her college career at the University of Nebraska in the late 19th century, she called herself Dr. William and practically dressed in male drag, but by graduation, despite continuing her romantic relationships with women (one of whom would eventually become the love of her life), she had conformed to a much more feminine presentation.

Willa Cather as a freshman (left) and upon graduation

(Images: Willa Cather Archive)

Indeed, the turn of the twentieth century did eventually beget the death knell of romantic friendship — a phenomenon that, as Faderman notes, “might have been too simple to survive in our complex times anyway.” She writes:

It was also the beginning of a lengthy period of general closing off of most affectional possibilities between women. The precious intimacies that adult females had been allowed to enjoy with each other earlier — sleeping in the same bed, holding hands, exchanging vows of eternal love, writing letters in the language of romance — became increasingly self-conscious and then rare.

Thanks to the influence of Freud and “all his spiritual offspring,” Faderman argues, the late twentieth century became “hyper-sophisticated” about matters of sexuality and love between women was stripped of that older veneer of sexual innocence:

Whether or not two women who find themselves passionately attached choose to identify themselves as lesbian today, they must at least examine the possibility of sexual attraction between them and decide whether or not to act upon it. Such sexual self-consciousness could easily have been avoided in earlier eras.

Of course, Faderman was writing more than two decades before the triumph of marriage equality and its political leap in eliminating an enormous part of that “self-consciousness,” which we owe largely to one particular woman: Edith Windsor, the courageous patron saint of modern love, who fought for the sanctity of the love she shared with her spouse of 42 years, Thea Spier, and for its rightful status as a marriage in the eyes of the law, fighting her case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in Windsor’s favor and deemed DOMA unconstitutional.

Still, it pays to remember that any landmark cultural shift is the product of decades, and often centuries, of incremental strides and cumulative efforts. The remainder of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers chronicles precisely those ordinary stories and imperceptible victories that, together, laid the groundwork for one of the greatest triumphs of human rights and dignity in the past century. Complement it with the sweet story of how two women married each other in early America.

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21 AUGUST, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Rare, Sensual Illustrations for Herman Melville’s Greatest Commercial Failure and Most Personally Beloved Book

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“The strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.”

Something magical happens when a great artist interprets a great author — one need only look at William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, and Salvador Dalí’s literary illustrations for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne. But one of the most extraordinary such “collaborations” across creative culture’s space-time continuum came in the form of a now-rare 1995 Kraken edition of Herman Melville‘s controversial 1852 novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (public library), illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak.

The story of the book itself — an absolute disaster for Melville both critically and financially, and yet one he considered his “kraken book,” a book eclipsing Moby-Dick in its profound potency like the mythic kraken outshines the whale in might — is at least as scandalous as its plot.

In 1850, Melville wrote in a letter that “a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.” The following year, when Moby-Dick was published, the critical reception validated his fear — reviewers eviscerated the book, which Melville considered his greatest work to date, as irreverent and blasphemous. Though Melville’s style was praised by some for its ingenuity, most critics issued scathing remarks about it, including one prominent British reviewer’s assertion that it was an “ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.”

As the reviews were pouring in, Melville wrote in a letter to his friend and great champion Nathaniel Hawthorne in June of 1851:

Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.

He proved heartbreakingly right: It took more than seventy years after Melville died a penniless customs agent for Moby-Dick to be extolled as one of the greatest books of all time.

So when Melville walked into the Harper & Brothers publishing office on January 2, 1852, with a copy of his Pierre manuscript, he was doubly embittered by how deftly reviewers had validated his prior grim fears about criticism. For their part, the Harper brothers were less than eager to publish a new book by an author whose most recent novel had done so dismally. Too polite and political to give Melville an outright rejection, they instead channeled their reservations by offering him a humiliating contract — instead of their standard author royalty rate of 50 cents on the dollar, they offered him 20 cents. This automatically meant that Pierre would have to sell 2.5 as many copies as his other books in order to yield Melville the share he had previously gotten — a share, no less, with which he had still run into considerable debt to the firm.

Desperate and resigned, Melville decided not to pitch the book to other publishers and signed the Harper & Row contract on February 20, 1852.

But then he did something even crazier — something that would seal the book’s tragic fate: He decided to enlarge the original 360-page manuscript with an additional 150 pages, in which he took the already extravagant plot to preposterous lengths. After book XVI, he inserted a section titled “Young America in Literature,” lacing it with his satirical, thinly veiled personal gripes against the literary establishment. (In one particularly vivid passage, he envisioned “the highly improbable event of the near approach of the Millennium, which might establish a different dynasty of taste, and possibly eject the editors.”)

The book all but perished, both in sales and in critical reception. Critics dismissed it as “perhaps, the craziest fiction extant” (The Boston Post) and “a confused phantasmagoria of distorted fancies and conceits, ghostly abstractions and fitful shadows” (New York Literary World) — the latter being the most burning of the bunch, as it was penned by editor Evert Duyckinck, the very friend with whom Melville had shared his prescient lament about criticism two years earlier.

But in the twentieth century, Pierre found its two greatest champions — Melville scholar Herschel Parker and the great Maurice Sendak, who considered it Melville’s greatest novel and who had previously illustrated another literary titan. So when Parker approached the beloved artist about the Kraken edition, Sendak was thrilled — doubly so because the book’s unabashed blend of sensuality, nightmarishness, and ambiguity mirrored his own aesthetic and paralleled the sensibility of his greatest lifelong influence, William Blake.

In fact, Sendak had independently begun working on drawings for Pierre after attending the 1991 Melville Centennial Conference. He found in this unusual, extravagant, almost ludicrous yet remarkably layered text the perfect canvas for equally over-the-top pictorial representation. The resulting drawings — by far the most sexually expressive of any of his work, featuring 27 discernible nipples and 11 male “packages,” three of which unclothed — are unlike anything Sendak created before or since. Bold, unapologetic, and incredibly sensual, the illustrations are also subtly subversive in their treatment of gender identity and stereotypes, from Pierre’s effeminate body-choreography to Isabel’s scrumptiously muscular back à la Venus with Biceps. This subversion was a subject close to Sendak’s heart, as a gay man who came of age decades before marriage equality and shared the last half-century of his life with his partner, Eugene Glynn, but it was nonetheless a subject he never explored directly.

The Kraken edition, however, is remarkable not only in inviting Sendak’s striking drawings, but also in restoring the Melville text to its original form, before his embittered 150-page addition. It is intended, as Parker notes in the introduction, “to supplement (not to rival) the text Harper published.” He writes:

[This edition] will at last make it feasible for lovers of Melville to comprehend his original design for the book and his original achievements in it.” Equally important, this version of Pierre will illuminate Moby-Dick. Even readers who have long loved Moby-Dick will perceive its psychological stature more clearly in the light shed by the book Melville wrote next — the short version of Pierre, surely the finest psychological novel anyone had yet written in English.

Indeed, Pierre‘s psychoemotional subtlety is perhaps best captured in a meta way, in this exquisite Melville line from Book IV of the novel:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.

The Kraken edition of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities is currently out of print but is oh-so-much worth the hunt. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest, most defining illustrations, his little-known posters celebrating books and the love of reading, and his posthumous love letter to the world.

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