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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut’s Life-Advice to His Children

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Educate yourself, welcome life’s messiness, read Chekhov, avoid becoming an architect at all costs.

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) endures as one of modern history’s most beloved authors, a wiseman of storytelling and a shaman of style. He was also, however, one great dad: In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library) — which also gave us the author’s priceless daily routine, his endearing apartment woes, and this lovely short poem he penned for his friend — Vonnegut adds to history’s finest letters of fatherly advice in a series of letters to his children. Besides his own three kids — Nanette, Mark, and Edith — Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane, ended up raising three of his sister Alice’s four children after Alice and her husband died of unrelated causes within 24 hours of each other; he later adopted another daughter with his second wife, Jill.

In a 1969 letter to his 22-year-old son Mark, Vonnegut offers a daisy chain of practical and irreverent fatherly advice:

Advice my father gave me: never take liquor into the bedroom. Don’t stick anything in your ears. Be anything but an architect.

The following year, Kurt and Jane separated, and he began living with the woman who would become his second wife nine years later. Worried about how the divorce might affect his youngest biological daughter, Nanette — whom he affectionately addressed as “Nanny,” “Nanno” or “Dear old Nan” — he wrote in a 1971 letter to the 17-year-old girl:

Well — it could go two ways with us: you could figure you had been ditched by your father, and you could mourn about that. Or we could keep in touch and come to love each other more than ever before.

The second possibility is the attractive one for me. It’s the absolutely necessary one for me. And the trouble with it is that you will have to write me a lot, or some, anyway, and call up sometimes, and so on. We’ve got to wish each other happy birthdays, and ask how work is going, and tell each other jokes, and all that. And you’ve got to visit me often, and I’ve got to pay more attention to what sorts of things are really good times instead of chores for you.

Nanette — who recently wrote about her conflicted relationship with her dad and his fame in the introduction to this fantastic posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s first and last works — took the second possibility and the two remained in close touch over the years. This heartening excerpt from a 1972 letter to Nanette reveals the warmth of their relationship:

You should know that I as a college student didn’t write my parents much. You said all that really matters in your first letter from out there … that you love me a lot. Mark wrote me the same thing recently. That helps, and it lasts for years. I think I withheld that message from my parents. Either that, or I said it so often that it became meaningless. Same thing, either way.

In another letter, 50-year-old Vonnegut writes to his “Dear Nanno”:

Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.

(More than three decades later, he would echo this in his wonderful letter of life-advice to the children in a high school class, urging them to “practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.”)

Vonnegut on a trip to Niagara Falls with his children, 1963.

His most timeless advice, however, comes in a late-1971 letter to Nanette and speaks to today’s recurring theme of welcoming the unplanned:

Dear Old Nanno –

You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable, social structure — that the older you get people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons, and what have you got? A space wandered named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wandered named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.

You’re dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the hear in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.

I look back on my own life and I wouldn’t change anything. . . .

Later in the same letter, he adds another piece of advice:

I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.

He concludes the letter with some vital advice on educating oneself beyond the classroom, offering Nanette a mock-strict directive on soul-expansion:

Learn German during your last semester at Sea Pines, and you’ll learn more than I ever learned in high school. I doubt that they can get you in shape to cool the college boards, so the hell with the college boards. Educate yourself instead. In the final analysis, that’s what I had to do, what Uncle Beaver had to do, and what we all have to do.

I am going to order you to do something new, if you haven’t done it already. Get a collection of the short stories of Chekhov and read every one. Then read “Youth” by Joseph Conrad. I’m not suggesting that you do these things. I am ordering you to do them.

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters remains a delight. Pair it with Vonnegut on how to write with style, his fictional interviews with luminaries, and this NPR interview with him in Second Life shortly before his death, then pair his advice with more fatherly wisdom from Einstein on the secret to learning anything, John Steinbeck on falling in love, Ted Hughes on nourishing the inner child, and Sherwood Anderson on the creative life.

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07 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Interpretation of Leonard Bernstein’s Dreams

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Freud, Jung, sexual identity, and the creative process.

A friend — a rather rational and highly intelligent friend — recently shared with equal parts self-consciousness and delight that she had had her chart, as in astrological chart, done. (Done, no less, by a Buddhist-monk-turned-startup-entrepreneur who also happens to be a hobbyist astrologer — one of those details that captures our era’s peculiarity so poetically.) The incident stood out as a particularly poignant embodiment of the curious allure mysticism and pseudoscience hold for even the most intelligent among us — perhaps a testament to our restlessness and longing to resolve the burden of life’s ambiguities, however essential those might be to creativity, with concrete directives and tangible answers.

In fact, a number of history’s most celebrated minds succumbed to this very human tendency: George Eliot had her head cast taken by a leading phrenologist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fancied himself a psychic, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin spent a good portion of their lengthy love affair bonding over their shared obsession with astrology. But hardly any luminary demonstrates the deeper psychological needs people seek to address through such mystical pursuits than legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990), who was intensely interested in the interpretation of his dreams, believing they held the answers to his deepest and most conflicted questions.

In the early 1940s, plagued by anxieties over his career and in a state of confusion over his sexual identity as he found himself falling in love with men at a time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness and regarded as an offense as unamerican as communism, Bernstein started seeing a psychoanalyst named Marketa Morris, whom he nicknamed “The Frau.” A few years later, he turned to the Jungian psychoanalyst Renée Nell, who studied with Carl Jung himself, hoping the interpretation of his dreams would put his waking restlessness at peace. Bernstein’s correspondence with the two women is revealed in the magnificent and long-awaited anthology The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library), for which editor Nigel Simeone painstakingly trawled through 10,000 letters to cull the 650 epistolary treasures included in the book.

Leonard Bernstein with Aaron Copland in Bernardsville, NJ

In June of 1942, Bernstein writes to Aaron Copland — by then one of the most popular voices in American classical music and young Bernstein’s greatest love — about his sessions with Marketa Morris and the opposing forces of his reluctant desire to “fix” his homosexuality and his irrepressible love for Copland:

The Frau-sessions have borne some fruit. Little green fruit, of course, but fruit. The main thing being that I can’t kid myself any more. Kid myself, that is, into thinking that I have a closeness with someone when it is all really wishful thinking, or induced, or imagined, or escape from being alone with myself, etc. And so, one by one, all the old relationships tend to fall away; and I find that I’m not at all interested in seeing anybody — really — whereas I used to run and see anybody at the drop of a hat. This all makes the trouble harder, of course; since I still hate being alone, and yet don’t want anyone in particular. And that’s where you come in; cause you’re the only one that persists and persists, come hell or high water. And I love you and miss you as much as I did the first month I knew you, and always will. Believe that, Earth-Scorcher, it’s so real. And then this wish for closeness always manifests itself in a sexual desire, the more promiscuous the better — giving rise to experiences like being taken (by Pfb [Bowles], of course) to a Bain Turc (or is it Turque?) and seeking out the 8th Street bars again. But I’m not attracted any more to any one I find there, and it’s just as horrible as if I hadn’t gone at all. One of those unpleasant stages forward.

In the 1930s and 1940s, many psychoanalysts believed that homosexuality was a disorder that could be “cured” with proper “treatment.” In this 1947 letter, “the Frau” responds to a dream Bernstein had sent her and touches on the subject, while reminding Bernstein of the vital difference between productivity and presence in one’s life and creative process:

Lenny,

I got your dream letter. You know that it is quite impossible to give a written interpretation to a dream — and more so a dream without interpretation.

Why am I living in Brooklyn?

Jimmy’s Restaurant in Greenwich Village

Why another cab to go to Brooklyn? What’s about 289?

It’s getting dark at four o’clock in the afternoon?

Switches putting on lights upstairs and not downstairs? What’s the difference between up and downstairs in this beautiful, big, expensive house?

What about the two girls blocking the exit from behind your desk?

Write me if you feel like — besides the dreams! For instance why cannot you relax and just simply not compose? Remember, you had the idea that adjustment to homosexuality could facilitate heterosexuality! Couldn’t adjustment to relaxation constitute a capacity of creative work? Of course not pretending to relax only.

Bernstein also had his personality “read” by the noted harpsichordist and pianist Rosalyn Tureck who, like our Buddhist-entrepreneur friend, had a side-interest in astrology. While she presents it with the necessary grain of salt, she does make a special note of the g-word:

Dear Leonard,

At long last, here is your “personality analysis”. I cannot take these things seriously but they are wonderful fun especially since the person who did it does not know to whom the doodling belongs.

According to the analysis it looks as tho you must face the fact that you definitely fit into the genius category…

She then encloses Bernstein’s full personality profile, which makes it hard not to project onto these vague generalities the concrete biographical particularities of the composer’s life, such as the intertwining of his professional admirations and his love interests, his identity confusion, and his musical genius — the same trick that to this day keeps horoscopes in business:

This person’s character shows a peculiar and great singleness of purpose. The sex development is practically nil and the personality which might have started to assert itself at one stage in the man’s development has become completely absorbed by career.

The career is complex. Its division is almost geometric and the line of demarcation, very clear. For each phase of the career, there is a well thought-out and deliberate development. The dark areas indicate the creative and the white areas the mechanical. The mechanical seems to dominate the subject and he is more curious about the development of it at this stage than he is about his creative development. There is one point about the career, which seems to come early in the middle life, which indicates the great peak of success. The subject will have attained a very happy balance of creation and mechanics.

The sex symbol is interesting in that the line — the only line connecting it and the rest of the personality chart — extends right to the career symbol. This indicates that the subject’s development is completely concentrated in his career. His personality symbol shows the same direction. There is no embellishment, no additions to it, there is no sign that any development of self has been accomplished. The sign connecting it with the career is merely two extensions from the sex symbol.

It is interesting to note that, in spite of the fact that the sex symbol is not developed as a physical unit, it is present and the aesthetic aspects of it will be found in this man’s career creations later in life.

This man may not be a good mathematician, but he has an excellently organized mind. It is well disciplined as demonstrated by the complete lack of extraneous matter. It is also the mind of a purist.

This man has great ego-maniacal tendencies and will often go to bizarre ends to gain a point. By nature though, he is retiring and socially shy. His great ego, however, serves as a shield against society.

A fruitful creative life is indicated, but an extremely lonely social life will be his lot.

Leonard Bernstein seated at the piano, making annotations to musical score (Photograph by Al Ravenna courtesy of The Library of Congress)

In July of 1947, a few months after the composer announced his engagement to the Costa Rican actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre, Marketa Morris revisits the question of Bernstein’s conflicted sexual identity, still raging in his dreams:

Lenny,

Your letter stirred up lots of problems.

To go into them adequately would require an elaborate paper — and that does not agree with my vacations. I try a compromise. I have to be honest in the first place. Honest and short means usually: it hurts! I have to rely on your perspicacity and your English to translate my thoughts into a good, nice, considerate English. Will you?

[…]

Of course there is a chance that we may come to some essential clarification. No way to deny it. It’s fifty fifty — and you have to know it.

In your dreams there is confusion, you are not able to go where you have to go: two simultaneous engagements or dates and so on. You are seeing Felicia and the day she leaves you have to see a boy.

The same old pattern. You can’t give up. Very eager to resume analysis but the queer fish resistance is as big a fish as your drive to get well.

[…]

Remember that you wanted to challenge people and find out whether they would still love you. … Lenny, I hope very much that you understand what I really want to convey to you! Do you?

Bernstein did — at least for a time. His engagement with Felicia was broken off in September, but they eventually married four years later, in September of 1951. Felicia wrote Leonard shortly after they married, “You are a homosexual and may never change […] I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” And yet, as the plethora of his letters to Felicia reveal, Bernstein really did love her profoundly — a testament to our irreconcilable, coexisting inner contradictions.

Leonard Bernstein with Felicia Bernstein and their children

But perhaps most poignant and insightful in addressing Bernstein’s dreams and his psychological tumults is this 1949 letter from Renée Nell, who relays the era’s theory of what happens while you sleep — more than half a century before modern science shed new light on the mystery — and in the process addresses the rivalry between Freud and Jung:

Dear Lenny,

Thank you for your nice letter and poem to which I have this to answer: “When the real animus and the real anima web, you can get married and take your wife to bed.”

Some short remarks on your dream: when you are unconscious (“taking a nap, sleeping”), you find that your rather undifferentiated feeling is playing tricks on you, bringing people into your psychology whom you do not want to have in there. Rather than finding out what these people really want from you, or why they were invited, you get angry at that side of yourself who played the trick on you. You get in touch with that side by hurting it, then you regret. You would know more if you would try to make her understand why you don’t want these people anymore. Then, when you do get away from the unwanted collective, you get into an even less desirable one, a very pedestrian collective (street). Being alone now, without anything but yourself, you are eager to make contact with some other side, contact in the usual average pedestrian way — sex — which is the substitute for human relationship. When you find that that is impossible you are caught in some very dull, past aspect of your own bourgeois-side. That shows very nicely why you are so eagerly seeking homosexual contact in reality, it seems the way out or the escape from the fear of being caught in bourgeois patterns, and seems to symbolize the free and non-bourgeois life. They talk about your work in the dream; your fear always seems to be that being a conductor and being set in a profession is the same as being dully married and leading a middle-class life. I am sure it could be that way, but must not be that way, and will stop to look to you that way the moment you get some real color into your life; then you can give up to the so-called “colorful life” you are leading.

Freud’s definition: Id — subconscious; Ego — conscious; Super-Ego — conscience. Ego is the whole of consciousness. Jung: has the same concept of the Ego, he terms it the center of consciousness, the difference between F[reud] and J[ung] is in the way [the] use and function of the Ego are seen. With F. it is the censor and adaptor to reality. With J. it is understood as the channel for the forces that want to flow from the inside to the outside, and vice versa, it has a consciously screening function and serves the forces of the Self or the unconscious. With F. it is supposed to master them. To F. the Ego is the human being as such, therefore it has a very high value; to J. it is an aspect of the human, subordinated to the Self, which means the unspoiled essence of the human being. The Self is to J. the highest value in a human being. I hope that does not confuse you more.

I wonder if you have enough contact with my way of analysis yet that the long distance dream-interpretation means anything to you. Generally it is difficult to get anything out of such answers in such an early stage of work; later when one is more attuned to each other it is easier. Let me know. I hope you have a fairly good time, not too many tensions.

Kindly, Renée

Bernstein soon dropped out of his sessions with Nell, but his subconscious summoned her in a dream he describes to his sister Shirley in April of the following year, noting how Nell helped shepherd his disjointed unease into a more unified direction of living:

Last night I dreamed at length that I had found her and solved our problems together. It was a hard dream, but full of richness. And, on awakening, I was desolate at the thousands of miles that still lay between us, and the grayness of doubt and not-knowing. My day-dreams are of her flying to Israel, and our being married in Jerusalem. Renée, of course, would be the uninvited fairy who would pronounce the curse. Strangely, though, I think she’d be delighted. I was not at all surprised at your news of Renée: I had always seen these things, but had always diminished their importance in the light of her values and of my affection for her. Of course, I have no intention of returning to her, or, I hope, to anyone, if I can begin really to live my life (as I can now) and not only live on the circumference of it. And, willy-nilly, Renée has helped to that point — a point where my world changes from one of abstractions and public-hungry performance to one of reality, a world of creativity, of Montealegre-Cohn, of Spanish & French and travel and rest and love and warmth and intimacy.

Leonard Bernstein conducting

Complement The Leonard Bernstein Letters, which peels away at layers upon layers of the beloved composer’s complex psychological constitution, with Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and the science of dreams and why we have nightmares.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2013

Sylvia Plath’s Unseen Drawings, Edited by Her Daughter and Illuminated in Her Private Letters

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“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer, editorial party girl — was among that small and special coterie of creators with surprising semi-secret talents in a medium radically different from that of their primary cultural acclaim. Though her strikingly deft sketches and drawings have been previously exhibited, they are now collected with more depth and breadth in Sylvia Plath: Drawings (public library) — an enthralling portfolio of pen-and-ink illustrations amidst a context of the poet’s letters and diary entries, edited by the poet’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, for whom Plath wrote her two little-known and lovely children’s books.

Created during Plath’s pivotal period at Cambridge, where she met and married Ted Hughes, these drawings embody Plath’s lifelong attraction to art as her greatest inspiration and most consistent form of therapy: In a March 1958 letter to her mother, Plath writes:

I’ve discovered my deepest source of inspiration, which is art: the art of the primitives like Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Paul Klee, and De Chirico. I have got out piles of wonderful books from the Art Library (suggested by this fine Modern Art Course I’m auditing each week) and am overflowing with ideas and inspirations, as I’ve been bottling up a geyser for a year.

In a letter to Hughes she penned one Sunday morning in October of 1956, twenty-four-year-old Plath traces her initial toe-dipping in art:

Yesterday, right after lunch, I took my sketch-paper and strode out to the Grandchester Meadows where I sat in the tall grass amid cow dung and drew two cows; my first cows. They sat obligingly while I drew the first, couchant, its head very cowish, but its body, more like a horesehair sofa, very flat and unmodeled; then, suddenly, they all got hungry and got up in a drove; I think they were bulls; they seemed to have no udders. So I forged ahead, sat down on the river brink, and did a quick sketch of one grazing, or, rather, of several put into one, as they all moved continually, so the side muscles are all wrong, but most decorative; I got a kind of peace from the cows; what a curious broody looks they gave me; what marvelous colossal shits and pissings. I shall go back soon; I shall do a volume of cow-drawings.

Later in the same letter, she adds:

I brought, from my walk yesterday, a purple thistle and a dandelion cluster home with me, and drew them both in great and loving detail; I also did a rather bad drawing of a teapot and some chestnuts, but will improve with practice; it gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it. . . .

And oh how bittersweet to consider what may have become of Plath’s dreamsome aspiration:

My latest ambition [is] to make a sheaf of detailed stylized small drawings of plants, mail-boxes, little scenes, and send them to the New Yorker which is full of these black-and-white things — if I could establish a style, which would be a kind of child-like simplifying of each object into design, peasantish decorative motifs, perhaps I could become one of the little people who draws a rose here, a snowflake there, to stick in the middle of a story to break the continuous mat of print; they print everything from wastebaskets to city-street scenes.

In a “Monday P.S.” addition to the same letter, Plath relays to Hughes yet another drawing episode with equal parts irreverence and earnest excitement:

Yesterday I drew a good umbrella and a chianti bottle, better chestnuts, bad shoes and a beaujolais bottle. Soon I will go about fanatically doing exact and painstaking landscapes of grass-blades — but I bet if I covered a page of grass-blades it would sell; I keep seeing Infinity in a grain of sand.

Complement Sylvia Plath: Drawings with this rare 1961 BBC interview with Plath and her poignant diary meditation on love, death, hope, and happiness.

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