Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

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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12 MARCH, 2014

Jack Kerouac on Kindness, the Self Illusion, and the “Golden Eternity”

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“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

In the mid-1950s, literary iconoclast and beat icon Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) became intensely interested in Buddhism, which began permeating his writing. It was the golden age of Eastern ideas drawing Western minds, from legendary composer John Cage to pioneering philosopher Alan Watts, credited with popularizing Zen thinking in mainstream Western society. Watts, in fact, at one point criticized Kerouac’s writing as being “always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.” But when stripped of his literary self-consciousness, as he was in his private letters, Kerouac had a special way of articulating the most beautiful and eternal concepts of Zen Buddhism with equal parts expansive awareness and crystalline precision.

Kerouac sent one such letter to his first wife, Edie Kerouac Parker, in late January of 1957, a decade after their marriage had been annulled. Found in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — an altogether terrific treasure trove of his stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism — the missive is nothing short of exquisite.

Portrait of Jack Kerouac by Robert Frank

Kerouac writes:

I have lots of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry. It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect.

Echoing Watts’s philosophy on death, Kerouac considers the illusion of the solid “self” as he contemplates the life and death of mountains:

We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere: Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes into everything is one thing. It’s a dream already ended. There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be glad about. I know this from staring at mountains months on end. They never show any expression, they are like empty space. Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away? Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space, which is the one universal essence of mind, the vast awakenerhood, empty and awake, will never crumble away because it was never born.

He ends the letter with one of his free-flowing, uninhibited poems:

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks dont see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already
in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re
all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.

More than half a century after Kerouac penned that beautiful letter, director Sergi Castella and filmmaker Hector Ferreño transformed the writer’s words into a magnificent cinematic adaptation for Dosnoventa Bikes, with a haunting, Johnny-Cashlike voiceover by James Phillips and beautifully curated music by Pink Floyd and Cash himself. As an intense lover of both bikes and literature, it makes my heart sing in multiple octaves.

The Portable Jack Kerouac offers a richer glimpse into one of modern history’s most extraordinary minds. Complement it with Kerouac’s beat tour of NYC’s nightlife and his 30 beliefs and techniques for prose and life.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2014

Life Is Like Blue Jelly: Margaret Mead Discovers the Meaning of Existence in a Dream

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Revelations from the laboratory of the unconscious.

The meaning of life has been contemplated by just about every thinking, feeling, breathing human being, and memorably so by a number of cultural icons, including Carl Sagan, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, David Foster Wallace, Richard Feynman, and other luminaries. But one of the most unusual and poignant meditations on the eternal question comes, obliquely yet with crystalline precision, from legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Mead’s love letters to her lifelong soulmate, Ruth Benedict, and her prescient thoughts on human sexuality — Mead recounts a particularly pause-giving dream. More than a mere record on the unconscious, it unfolds into a powerful metaphor for the meaning of life — for the beauty of not-knowing, for the soul-nourishment of wonder, and for the question of “enough” that Vonnegut once contemplated.

Mead writes:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

Complement with famous scientists on the art of wonder.

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