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Posts Tagged ‘history’

28 MARCH, 2014

March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media

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A humbling reminder that self-righteousness is the enemy of compassion and judging another human being’s private struggle is a disgrace to our own humanity.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the devastating dawn of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse behind her house never to emerge alive. A relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth had finally claimed her life. She left behind a remarkable body of work — from her poignant diaries to her magnificent essays to her little-known children’s books to “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — and a cohort of heartbroken friends, but the most stirring thing she left behind was her suicide letter to her husband Leonard:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

What made the letter especially heartbreaking, however, wasn’t just that it embodied so excruciatingly modernity’s tragic epidemic but also that its fate reflected the ugliest aspects of media and journalism. In Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), scholar Sybil Oldfield notes that after Woolf’s letter was made public, members of the British press took it upon themselves to bestow upon the beloved author a last judgment — a painfully ungenerous one. On April 27, a month after Woolf’s death, The Sunday Times ran the following self-righteous evisceration by a Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln:

Sir, — I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest on Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was “undoubtedly much more sensitive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world to-day.” What right has anyone to make such an assertion?

If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more “sensitive,” have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil.

Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of “I cannot carry on?”

Mrs. Hicks’s ideals of love and faith, apparently, did not include empathy. Upon reading this, Leonard Woolf was so appalled that he immediately sent to the newspaper an emotionally charged fact-check rebuttal:

I feel that I should not silently allow to remain on record that Virginia Woolf committed suicide because she could not face the “terrible times” through which all of us are going. For this is not true… Then newspapers give her words as:

“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times.”

This is not what she wrote: the words which she wrote are:

“I feel that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”

She had had a mental breakdown about twenty-five years ago; the old symptoms began to return about three weeks before she took her life, and she felt that this time she would not recover. Like everyone else, she felt the general strain of the war, and the return of her illness was partly due to that strain. But the words of her letter and everything which she has ever said prove that she took her life, not because she could not “carry on,” but because she felt she was going mad again and would not this time recover.

But, devastatingly, even Leonard’s rebuttal, too, was twisted out of context. Published under the already misleading headline “I Cannot Carry On” — the then-version of clickbait — the article replaced the phrase “those terrible times,” Virginia’s reference to her first acute bout of depression in her youth, with “these terrible times,” changing the meaning completely and making it a reference to World War II, an interpretation that aligned quite conveniently with the media’s spin of Woolf’s suicide as an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy. To make matters even more lamentable, the Times reprinted the misquotation several days later — the then-version of reblogging or retweeting without critical analysis and fact-checking. Similar attacks, some of which were even unleashed on Woolf’s posthumously published work, continued in the press for more than a year.

The incident is particularly unsettling for two reasons: At its root is a testament to what a cruel and indiscriminate predator depression is, capable of consuming even humanity’s greatest minds, yet the uncompassionate response illustrates just how poorly we understand the condition. Above all, however, embedded in the media’s treatment of Virginia’s suicide is a grotesque reminder that the only thing more morally repugnant than passing judgment on another human being’s private struggle and inner world — than choosing self-righteousness over compassionate understanding — is doing so publicly, especially as a currency of tabloidism. What a spectacular failing of the awareness that it’s far more rewarding to understand than to be right. One can only hope this awareness has evolved for us, both as a culture and as individuals, since Woolf’s time.

Afterwords is a moving read in its entirety — sample it with these letters of condolence from some of Woolf’s famous friends, including T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, and H.G. Wells, then see Patti Smith’s moving remembrance of Virginia.

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26 MARCH, 2014

Viktor Frankl on the Art of Presence as a Lifeboat in Turbulent Times and What Suffering Teaches Us About the Meaning of Life

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“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden.”

The life-story of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, born on March 26, 1905, is one of history’s greatest testaments to the tenacity of the human spirit. In his remarkable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library), previously discussed at length here, Frankl reflects on what his devastating time at Auschwitz taught him about the most essential driver of life — the inextinguishable human hunger for meaning, which separated those who survived from those who perished.

In one particularly poignant passage of the book, Frankl reminds us that the art of presence — an art so central to our everyday well-being — isn’t merely about savoring the pleasant moments of everyday blessedness. Rather, its canvas stretches all the more exquisitely in precisely the opposite circumstances — those most trying and turbulent moments, when the ability to inhabit the present makes all the difference between life and death, both figuratively in matters of the soul and, in Frankl’s Auschwitz experience, literally and bodily:

A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our “provisional existence” as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

To be sure, Frankl is far from advocating for filtering the present through rose-colored glasses in order to soften its intolerable pain. Quite the opposite — much like John Cage came to believe when he discovered Buddhism, Frankl argues that presence comes from leaning into suffering, not from tensing against it:

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Frankl points to commitment, be it to human relationships — “the soft bonds of love [which] are indifferent to life and death,” to use Isaac Asimov’s poetic language — or to purposeful work and cultural contribution, as the essential anchor of presence, the umbilical cord that links those in the most trying of circumstances to their own lives:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a remarkable read, life-changing in the most earnest sense of the phrase. See more of it here, though no annotated excerpt could possibly do justice to the expansive richness of its entirety.

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25 MARCH, 2014

Flannery O’Connor on Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

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“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”

Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) is among the titans of twentieth-century literature (in addition to being a lesser-known satirical cartoonist). In 1960, O’Connor penned an essay titled “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” eventually included in the altogether fantastic posthumous collection of her unpublished lectures, essays, and critical articles, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (public library). While the essay focuses on Southern literature, it touches on a number of bigger questions in all literature, most crucially how the qualifiers and variables attached to a writer — in this case, religion and regional geography — affect the writerliness of the writer. (At the heart of the inquiry is the same concern Margaret Atwood had decades later in examining how and whether being a “woman writer” impacts being a writer.)

In this rare recording, taped at the Dorothy Lamar Blount Lecture Series at Wesleyan College the year the essay was published, O’Connor reads a portion of an early draft of the piece. Highlights from the full final version, including the passage O’Connor reads, below.

I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about. My own approach to literary problems is very like the one Dr. Johnson’s blind housekeeper used when she poured tea — she put her finger inside the cup.

These are not times when writers in this country can very well speak for one another. . . . Today each writer speaks for himself, even though he may not be sure that his work is important enough to justify his doing so.

[…]

When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic. But for this occasion, we may leave such misapplications aside and consider the kind of fiction that may be called grotesque with good reason, because of a directed intention that way on the part of the author.

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.

All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.

[…]

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

(More than half a century later, Neil Gaiman explored the grip of ghosts in a beautiful related meditation.)

O’Connor goes on to consider another explanation for the singular sensibility of the Southern writer:

There is another reason in the Southern situation that makes for a tendency toward the grotesque and this is the prevalence of good Southern writers. I think the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life. When there are many writers all employing the same idiom, all looking out on more or less the same social scene, the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn’t just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.

The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets. . . .

For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.

She reflects on what amplifies the appeal of the grotesque in fiction:

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees.

O’Connor offers a broader meditation on why we read:

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

She follows this with a mirror-image question of why writers write and, echoing Eudora Welty on the poetic of place, ties this back to the regional roots of literature:

I am often told that the model of balance for the novelist should be Dante, who divided his territory up pretty evenly between hell, purgatory, and paradise. There can be no objection to this, but also there can be no reason to assume that the result of doing it in these times will give us the balanced picture that it gave in Dante’s. Dante lived in the thirteenth century, when that balance was achieved in the faith of his age. We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.

[…]

The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to big work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region.

And just for good measure, here is O’Connor reading the title story of her most celebrated collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, published in 1955. The recording, found on the Criterion Collection disc Wise Blood, was long believed to be the only recording of O’Connor reading, though the one above clearly disproves the case.

Mystery and Manners is a terrific tome in its entirety. Complement it with young O’Connor’s little-known satirical cartoons.

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