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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

31 OCTOBER, 2014

William James on Choosing Purpose Over Profit and the Life-Changing Power of a Great Mentor

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“After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.”

William James is celebrated as one of the most influential philosophers of all time. His publication of The Principles of Psychology in 1890 established him as the father of American psychology. His 1901 treatise The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, originally delivered at the prestigious Gifford Lectures, remains one of the most important theological works of all time and inspired Carl Sagan’s superb The Varieties of Scientific Experience. But if James were alive today, his contributions might well be dismissed under the fashionable accusation of privilege — he was born into a wealthy family and his father, a prominent theologian, was independently wealthy himself a century and a half before the term “independently wealthy” entered the vernacular; his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. But he also endured an undue share of physical hardship, suffering from a range of physical ailments since childhood — near-blindness, debilitating back pain, and various skin and stomach conditions — as well as regular bouts of severe, suicidal depression since early adulthood. His life was defined by dualities in deeper ways, too — James was a man straddling two epochs as a scholar of theology in an era when the dogmatic beliefs of the previous generation where past the point of repair and a science-minded skeptic before the golden age of twentieth-century scientific discovery.

And yet despite these vexing dualities, James navigated his life with tremendous faith in the power of personal choice in shaping one’s destiny — which included, as it always has and always will, the discomfiting luxury of making difficult decisions. Nearly four decades before he came to put this conviction into words in his timeless treatise on habit“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” — he enacted it in his own life as he stood on the precipice of a monumental choice, the kind all of us have to make at one point or another, the value of which we only ever appreciate in hindsight.

In 1861, 19-year-old William enrolled into Harvard to study science after a short apprenticeship with the artist William Morris Hunt. But as he immersed himself in the pursuit of a medical degree, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the prospects laid before him by this established path to a “successful” life as a respectable doctor — a life of steady income and steady petrification of his deeper aspirations. He knew he had to confront the trying choice between profit and purpose. (Around the same time, halfway around the world, a young Leo Tolstoy was tussling with a parallel tension between income and ideals.)

In a letter to his cousin Kitty from September of 1863, found in the altogether illuminating The Letters of William James, Vol. 1 (public library; free download), 21-year-old James outlines his choices with equal parts exasperation and snark:

I have four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary… After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre. To study natural science, I know I should like, but the prospect of supporting a family on $600 a year is not one of those rosy dreams of the future with which the young are said to be haunted. Medicine would pay, and I should still be dealing with subjects which interest me — but how much drudgery and of what an unpleasant kind is there!

He adds a lament about the crippling industrial model of higher education, which shoves young people down the conveyer belt of specialization and careerism before they’ve had a chance to find their true purpose — a lament equally, if not more, valid today:

The worst of this matter is that everyone must more or less act with insufficient knowledge — “go it blind,” as they say. Few can afford the time to try what suits them.

In a letter to his mother later that month, James exorcizes the growing urgency and unease of his impending choice:

I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots; but it seems a kind of selling of one’s soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined, however, with physical penury.

James, longing to be a family man, peers into the future and considers how choosing the pursuit of purpose over profit would affect his imaginary future love, to whom he refers by a Shakespearean allusion, as he revisits his four options:

If I myself were the only one concerned I should not hesitate an instant in my choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., “that not impossible she,” to ask her to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is science, upon the other business (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of the advantages of both, between them, but which has drawbacks of its own. I confess I hesitate. I fancy there is a fond maternal cowardice which would make you and every other mother contemplate with complacency the worldly fatness of a son, even if obtained by some sacrifice of his “higher nature.” But I fear there might be some anguish in looking back from the pinnacle of prosperity (necessarily reached, if not by eating dirt, at least by renouncing some divine ambrosia) over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of truth. It seems as if one could not afford to give that up for any bribe, however great.

And yet, admitting to being “undecided” still, James is aware of the rare privilege that renders him among those few young people who “can afford the time to try what suits them.” He tells his mother with a self-conscious wink:

I want you to become familiar with the notion that I may stick to science, however, and drain away at your property for a few years more.

James did choose to stick to science. Around the time he wrote that letter to his mother, he changed majors from Chemistry to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology — the Harvard department where he lucked into one of the most formative relationships of his life. There, he came to study under a professor named Jeffries Wyman, whose influence on James’s ideals and decisions became a spectacular testament to how unsung mentors and champions shape creative geniuses. A brilliant yet humble man — a perennially rare combination — he imparted on his pupils, by way of personal example, enduring values of kindness, generosity, humility, unflinching integrity, and resolute refusal to advance himself at anyone else’s expense. Under Wyman’s wing during those two critical years of determining the course of his entire life, James blossomed into himself — his ideals, his values, his character — with courageous authenticity. He would later come to write of his mentor:

His extraordinary effect on all who knew him is to be accounted for by the one word, character. Never was a man so absolutely without detractors. The quality which every one first thinks of in him is his extraordinary modesty, of which his unfailing geniality and serviceableness, his readiness to confer with and listen to younger men… Next were his integrity, and his complete and simple devotion to objective truth. These qualities were what gave him such incomparable fairness of judgment in both scientific and worldly matters… He had if anything too little of the ego in his composition, and all his faults were excesses of virtue. A little more restlessness of ambition, and a little more willingness to use other people for his purposes, would easily have made him more abundantly productive, and would have greatly increased the sphere of his effectiveness and fame. But his example on us younger men, who had the never-to-be-forgotten advantage of working by his side, would then have been, if not less potent, at least different from what we now remember it; and we prefer to think of him forever as the paragon that he was of goodness, disinterestedness, and single-minded love of the truth.

James graduated from Harvard with a degree in medicine, but wasn’t interested in practicing. Instead, he followed his calling and set out to study philosophy and psychology on his own, imbibing self-education with diligent visits to the Harvard and Boston libraries. He persevered through failing eyesight, debilitating depression, and frequent brushes with the very “beggary” he foresaw and feared. Decades later, having followed his purpose to become America’s first great psychologist, he joked: “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”

The Letters of William James is full of soul-stretching insight into one of the greatest minds and most visionary spirits humanity has ever known, featuring James’s meditations on melancholy, happiness, writing, creativity, and human nature. His brother, the great novelist Henry James, captures this beautifully in the introduction to the 1920 edition:

Life spoke to him in even more ways than to most men, and he responded to its superabundant confusion with passion and insatiable curiosity. His spiritual development was a matter of intense personal experience.

Complement this particular snippet with a recentering read on how to find your purpose, then revisit Alan Watts on money vs. wealth and Eleanor Roosevelt on living with integrity.

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23 OCTOBER, 2014

A Wave in the Mind: Virginia Woolf on Writing and Consciousness

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“A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

“A crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker wrote in his wonderful modern guide to style, “are among life’s greatest pleasures.” A century and a half earlier, Schopenhauer proclaimed that “style is the physiognomy of the mind.” Undoubtedly one of humanity’s most beautiful minds and greatest masters of elegant, pleasurable language is Virginia Woolf — a mastery that unfolded with equal enchantment in her public writings as well as her private, as both sprang from the same source of passion and perspicacity. But nowhere was Woolf’s intensity of heart, mind, and style more palpable than in the writing she did for and to her longtime lover and lifelong friend, Vita Sackville-West — from her novel Orlando, based on Sackville-West and celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” to the actual missives between the two women, which remain among the most bewitching queer love letters ever written.

In March of 1926, a year before her famous love letter to Vita, Virginia wrote to her lover about the very thing that brought them together, that invisible, immutable force which animated Woolf more than any other — her love of language. (Celebrated writers have a way of fleshing out their professional convictions about the craft in their most intimate correspondence — Nietzsche set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to his lover.)

The beautiful phrase at the heart of Woolf’s meditation, found in The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three (public library), is also what inspired the title of Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular collection of essays — Le Guin being, of course, the closest thing we have to a Woolf today.

Woolf writes:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit Anaïs Nin on why emotional intensity is essential to creativity.

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22 OCTOBER, 2014

You Have Never Seen the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe on the Shimmering Beauty of the Southwest

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“There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her best friend, Anita Pollitzer, the woman who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Indeed, O’Keeffe’s love for the landscape and energy of the Southwest shimmers with growing vibrancy across the lifetime of letters the two women exchanged collected in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library) — the same wonderful volume that gave us O’Keeffe on art, life, and setting priorities. It was there, under the endless skies and fiery sunsets of the Southwest, that O’Keeffe developed not only the remarkable mastery of color and sensuality for which she is known but also the most essential tool of all art — the ability to pay attention, to look and actually see.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Black Mesa Landscape,' 1930 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

In mid-January of 1916, returning to New York from Texas after a visit as she considered a new teaching job there, O’Keeffe writes to Pollitzer:

There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all — mirages people it with all sorts of things at times — sometimes Ive seen the most wonderful sunsets over what seemed to be the ocean — It is great — I would like to go today — Next to New York it is the finest thing I know — here I feel like Im in a shoe that doesn’t fit.

O’Keeffe would eventually trade the ill-fitting shoe for the bigness that would be her home for the last seven decades of her life — but not before her heart fully surrendered to the sunsets of the Southwest. In one particularly evocative letter from September of 1916, O’Keeffe channels the expansive awe of the Southwest sky:

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

[...]

It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful –

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills,' 1935 (Brooklyn Museum)

Despite declaring to Pollitzer that she always has “a hard time finding words for anything,” O’Keeffe blossoms as a spectacular writer in relaying the sensory awe of the landscape to her friend — a testament to Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is a professional observer.” In another gorgeous letter a few days later, O’Keeffe writes:

Last night couldnt sleep till after four in the morning — I had been out to the canyon all afternoon — till late at night — wonderful color — I wish I could tell you how big — and with the night the colors deeper and darker — cattle on the pastures in the bottom looked like little pinheads — I can understand Pa Dow painting his pretty colored canyons — it must have been a great temptation — no wonder he fell

Then the moon rose right up out of the ground after we got out on the plains again — battered a little where he bumped his head but enormous — There was no wind — it was just big and still — so very big and still — long legged jack rabbits hopping across in front of the light as we passed — A great place to see the night time because there is nothing else.

[...]

Im so glad Im out here — I can’t tell you how much I like it. I like the plains — and I like the work — everything is so ridiculously new — and there is something about it that just makes you glad your living here — You understand — there is nothing here — so maybe there is something wrong with me that I am liking it so much.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Storm Cloud,' 1923 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

There was, of course, nothing “wrong” with O’Keeffe — she was learning a whole new way of looking at the world, directing toward it what Oscar Wilde memorably called “temperament of receptivity,” inhabiting it with the very presence and aliveness from which great art springs. A few more days later, she captures this aliveness beautifully in another letter to Pollitzer:

Really — living is too fine — Last night we had a tremendous thunderstorm — and I’ve never seen such lightning in my life — it was wonderful… Stood out on the porch for a long time watching the whole sky alive.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Deer's Skull with Pedernal,' 1936 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

All of Lovingly, Georgia is a gorgeous read and a rare glimpse into the inner world of one of the most extraordinary artists who ever lived. Complement this particular slice of it with young Sylvia Plath on the transcendence and reverie of nature and Rebecca Solnit on why the sky is blue.

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