Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

03 MARCH, 2015

Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor

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“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

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02 MARCH, 2015

The Faith in the Soul: Young James Joyce’s Magnificent Letter to Lady Gregory

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“All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light.”

In his infinitely wise letter of advice to his son, Charles Dickens extolled the vitality of persevering “in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it.” In one of the very few interviews legendary painter Agnes Martin gave, she observed that “you’re permanently derailed” and that you arrive at the art you end up making “through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure.” This message of dogged determination fortified by failure has become a chorus line of pop psychology so oversung that we tune it out. And yet the history of creative endeavor is strewn with living testaments to this uncomfortable, overpreached, and yet essential truth. But hardly anyone embodies it more vibrantly, nor speaks to it more eloquently, than James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941) — a man who proved, to himself and the world, that it pays to imagine immensities.

In 1902, shortly after graduating from University College Dublin with concentrations in English, French, and Italian, twenty-year-old Joyce decided to remain at the university and study medicine, which he saw as a stable career path for supporting himself. But he soon began to struggle academically and was unable to earn a scholarship to help cover the steep tuition, which he couldn’t afford on his own. He decided to move to France and study medicine at the University of Paris, supporting himself by teaching English — but he knew nobody in Paris, nor did he have the means to rent an apartment on his own. Exasperated, he reached out to fellow Irish literary legend Lady Gregory, three decades his senior, asking for help.

In a letter from November of 1902, found in the altogether revelatory Joyce: Selected Letters (public library), young Joyce writes:

I have broken off my medical studies here and I am going to trouble you with a history. I have a degree of B.A. from the Royal University, and I had made plans to study medicine here. But the college authorities are determined I shall not do so, wishing I dare say to prevent me from securing any position of ease from which I might speak out my heart.

After admitting that he doesn’t have the means to pay his medical school tuition and that the university refuses to give him financial aid on grounds of inability, even though they offer it to students who failed exams he passed, young Joyce declares:

I want to get a degree in medicine, for then I can build up my work securely. I want to achieve myself — little or great as I may be — for I know that there is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to my church as a human being, and accordingly I am going to Paris.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

With the peculiar blend of pride, despair, and determination familiar to all those who have had to reconcile their boundless ambition with their limiting circumstances, Joyce beseeches Lady Gregory:

I am going alone and friendless … into another country, and I am writing to you to know can you help me in any way. I do not know what will happen to me in Paris but my case can hardly be worse than it is here.

But he is quick to assure her, and perhaps most of all himself, of the solid spiritual center bolstering his ambition:

I am not despondent however for I know that even if I fail to make my way such failure proves very little. I shall try myself against the powers of the world. All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.

Faithfully yours,

James Joyce

Medicine, of course, is not the mount of achievement on which Joyce ultimately staked his pole. But even as he surrendered to literature as a full-time writer, he brought the same faith and determination to the pursuit, plowing through perceived failure — take, for instance, Carl Jung’s eviscerating review of Ulysses — to bequeath us with some of the greatest books of all time.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, the hefty totality of which is full of the author’s emergent ideas on literature and life, with Joyce’s little-known children’s book, his most revealing interview (conducted by Djuna Barnes, no less), and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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27 FEBRUARY, 2015

26-Year-Old Frida Kahlo’s Compassionate Letter to 46-Year-Old Georgia O’Keeffe

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“I would like to tell you every thing that happened to me since the last time we saw each other, but most of them are sad and you mustn’t know sad things now.”

There is something uncommonly heartening about bearing witness to the virtuous cycle of support and mutual appreciation between two creative luminaries — elevating epistolary exchanges like those between Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. They seem to remind us that, contrary to the toxic myth of the solitary genius, creative culture is propelled by the power of scenius, by the goodwill and generosity of kindred spirits, by tangible reminders that we belong to a human enterprise larger than we are.

One of the most touching such exchanges was between two of the greatest artists and most remarkable women the world has ever known — Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. Both were prolific letter writers — Kahlo in her passionate illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera, and O’Keeffe in her equally passionate love letters to Alfred Stieglitz, her lifelong correspondence with her best friend, and her emboldening missives to Sherwood Anderson. But what Kahlo wrote to O’Keeffe in 1933 was a wholly different kind of epistolary and human magic.

Even though the Mexican painter had herself been dealt an unfair hand — including a miscarriage just a few months earlier, her mother’s recent death, and more than thirty operations over the course of her life after a serious traffic accident during adolescence sent an iron rod through her stomach and uterus — Kahlo didn’t hesitate to reach out with a beam of compassion during O’Keeffe’s moment of crisis. Shortly after the American painter was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and instructed by doctors not to paint for a year, Kahlo sent her an epitome of what Virginia Woolf so aptly called “the humane art.”

In a letter from March 1, 1933, preserved by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, Kahlo writes:

Georgia,

Was wonderful to hear your voice again. Every day since I called you and many times before months ago I wanted to write you a letter. I wrote you many, but every one seemed more stupid and empty and I torn them up. I can’t write in English all that I would like to tell, especially to you. I am sending this one because I promised it to you. I felt terrible when Sybil Brown told me that you were sick but I still don’t know what is the matter with you. Please Georgia dear if you can’t write, ask Stieglitz to do it for you and let me know how are you feeling will you? I’ll be in Detroit two more weeks. I would like to tell you every thing that happened to me since the last time we saw each other, but most of them are sad and you mustn’t know sad things now. After all I shouldn’t complain because I have been happy in many ways though. Diego is good to me, and you can’t imagine how happy he has been working on the frescoes here. I have been painting a little too and that helped. I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the color of your eyes. I will see you soon. I am sure that in New York I will be much happier. If you still in the hospital when I come back I will bring you flowers, but it is so difficult to find the ones I would like for you. I would be so happy if you could write me even two words. I like you very much Georgia.

Frieda

What’s especially interesting is the simultaneous mirroring and reversing of circumstances pertaining to the relationship between art and mental health. Kahlo had actually first begun painting while recovering, immobile in bed, from the brutal accident that nearly killed her. At the time of their 1933 correspondence, O’Keeffe was doing the opposite — recovering in bed from brutally overextending herself in art. But this wasn’t the only reversal between the two. Citing the letter in her book Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own (public library), Sharyn Rohlfsen Udal — who suggests that Kahlo, with her long history of affairs with both men and women, may have been interested in something more than friendship with O’Keeffe — writes:

The next confirmed record of the O’Keeffe–Kahlo contact was through their mutual friend Rose Covarrubias, who took O’Keeffe to visit Kahlo (confined to her bed in Coyoacan after a year-long hospitalization) twice during O’Keeffe’s 1951 visit to Mexico. It is an interesting reversal of roles from the 1933 contact, when it was O’Keeffe who was ill, Kahlo the solicitous visitor.

And that, perhaps, is the point — a palpable reminder that the history of arts and letters is strewn with these barely visible threads of mutuality, generosity, and goodwill, which stand as the most steadfast support structure for the creative spirit.

HT Open Culture

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