Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

09 DECEMBER, 2014

Albert Einstein on the Fickle Nature of Fame, the Real Rewards of Work, and the “Whole Buffoonery” of the Cultural Establishment

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“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom—God knows why—the bored public has taken possession of.”

Albert Einstein was a master of articulating his convictions with mesmerizing precision in his letters — he counseled his son on the secret to learning anything, explained to a colleague the secret of his genius, wisely answered a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, assured another who feared that her gender would hold her back, and corresponded with Freud about the deepest truths of violence, peace, and human nature.

Now, thanks to Princeton University’s newly released archive of Einstein papers, one of Einstein’s most perceptive, prescient opinions comes to light.

In 1922, Einstein decided to join the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, even though he indicated in his letters — not without snark — that he wasn’t entirely certain of its purpose. Meanwhile, his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Zurich, had written to express his vexation over the petty politics of the scientific world. In a June 18, 1922, letter to his friend, Einstein addresses the general posturing of the establishment and the fickle nature of fame — a sentiment that resonates at even higher frequencies of truth in the context of today’s conveyor belt of celebrity and the sandcastles that pass for the ivory towers of contemporary culture:

Dear friend Zangger,

You wrote me affectionately and at length, and some of it I was even — able to read. Don’t take any heed, if [anyone] is placing obstacles in your path. You always have pleasure in doing your thing well; it must give you independence from the whole buffoonery into which we have been born. I have largely attained this independence. Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom — God* knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.

Decades later, the great Richard Feynman — the scientist-sage of a new generation — would come to echo this in his spirited opprobrium of honors. And yet Einstein was both right and wrong — as disposable as most objects of hero-worship may be, here we are admiring a great mind a century after his heyday. One can’t help but wonder, then, who the Einsteins of today are and whether, in a culture that increasingly confuses being noticed for being notable, any of our present idols will stand the test of time to have their emails quoted by future generations.

Complement the wholly absorbing Princeton archive with Einstein on fairy tales and education, why we are alive, and his soul-stretching conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

Photograph of Albert Einstein colorized by Mads Madsen

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08 DECEMBER, 2014

Georgia O’Keeffe on Public Opinion and What It Means to Be an Artist, in a Letter to Sherwood Anderson

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“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you…”

Georgia O’Keeffe, celebrated as America’s first great female artist, was a woman of strong opinions on art, life, and setting priorities and an uncommon gift for committing to words what she committed to canvas. But some of her most revelatory insights on art and the creative experience were shared in a series of letters to writer Sherwood Anderson, who had befriended legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz — O’Keeffe’s husband and her correspondent in volumes of passionate love letters. Encountering O’Keeffe’s art in the early 1920s had inspired Anderson to pick up the paintbrush for the first time and begin painting himself. Meanwhile, the two developed an epistolary fellowship around their shared ideas about art and their amicable intellectual disagreements. (Only three years later, Anderson would come to articulate his own unforgettable wisdom on art in a letter to his son, very likely influenced by O’Keeffe and their creative rapport.)

Found in Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (public library) — an altogether unputdownable out-of-print volume released in 1987, a year after O’Keeffe’s death, to mark her centennial — the letters stand as a sublime paean to the kind of creative integrity that rises above public opinion and blazes with crystalline clarity of conviction. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder how O’Keeffe’s art — how her sanity — might have suffered had she lived in our present era of perpetual sprinting on the social-media hamster wheel of public opinion.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

On August 1, 1923, she writes to Anderson:

This morning I saw an envelope on the table Stieglitz addressed to you—I’ve wanted so often to write you—two things in particular to tell you—but I do not write—I do not write to anyone—maybe I do not like telling myself to people—and writing means that.

First I wanted to tell you—way back in the winter that I liked your “Many Marriages”—and that what others have said about it amused me much—I realize when I hear others speak of it that I do not seem to read the way they do—I seem to—like—or discard—for no particular reason excepting that it is inevitable at the moment.—At the time I read it I saw no particular reason why I should write you that I liked it—because I do not consider my liking—or disliking of any particular consequence to anyone but myself—And knowing you were trying to work I felt that opinions on what was past for you would probably be like just so much rubbish—in your way for the clear thing ahead—And when I think of you—I think of you rather often—it is always with the wish—a real wish—that the work is going well—that nothing interferes —

I think of you often because the few times you came to us were fine—like fine days in the mountains—fine to remember—clear sparkling and lots of air—fine air.

After a characteristically evocative note about Stieglitz’s health that spring had rendered him “just a little heap of misery—sleepless—with eyes—ears—nose—arm—feet—ankles—intestines—all taking their turn at deviling him,” O’Keeffe expresses deep gratitude for the very thing that led Virginia Woolf to term letter writing “the humane art”—the soul-salving power of a letter sent by one human being to another:

You can see why I appreciated your letters—maybe more than he did—because of what they gave him—I don’t remember now what you wrote—I only remember that they made me feel that you feel something of what I know he is—that it means much to you in your life—adds much to your life—and a real love for him seemed to have grown from it

And in his misery he was very sad—and I guess I had grown pretty sad and forlorn feeling too—so your voice was kind to hear out of faraway and I want to tell you that it meant much—Thanks

Aware of misfortune’s one-way mirror of hindsight, she adds, “I can only write you this now because things are better.”

'The Lawrence Tree' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1929

O’Keeffe and Anderson continue their correspondence and in another letter sent a month later, she defies her self-professed distaste for “telling [herself] to people” and instead divulging — with the exhilarating intensity of expression that both her art and her letters to loved ones emanate — a magnificent glimpse of her inner life and creative spirit. She considers the role of form in art and the experience from which art stems:

I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown—where it has experienced something—felt something—it has not understood—and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown—known. By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—sometimes he partially knows why—sometimes he doesn’t—sometimes it is all working in the dark—but a working that must be done—Making the unknown—known—in terms of one’s medium is all-absorbing—if you stop to think of the form—as form you are lost—The artist’s form must be inevitable—You mustn’t even think you won’t succeed—Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you—catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life—only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead—that you must always keep working to grasp—the form must take care of its self if you can keep your vision clear.

In a remark of extraordinary humility and wisdom, especially in the hindsight of both O’Keeffe’s present status in the canon of art and Anderson’s in that of literature, she considers the feebleness of any present metric of success against a creator’s ultimate significance for posterity:

You and I don’t know whether our vision is clear in relation to our time or not—No matter what failure or success we may have—we will not know—But we can keep our integrity—according to our own sense of balance with the world and that creates our form—

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maurice Sendak’s famous dissent with a common classification of his work — “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” — O’Keeffe adds:

What others have called form has nothing to do with our form—I want to create my own and I can’t do anything else—if I stop to think of what others—authorities or the public—or anyone—would say of my form I’d not be able to do anything.

I can never show what I am working on without being stopped—whether it is liked or disliked I am affected in the same way—sort of paralyzed—.

All of Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters is a treat for eye and spirit alike. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us and Rilke on why external interference in the artist’s private experience poisons the art.

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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04 DECEMBER, 2014

The Knot in the Rosary: Rilke on How Private Struggle Fuels Great Art and Why Feedback Poisons It

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“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.”

Shortly before he began writing what would become the legendary Letters to a Young Poet, 26-year-old Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) moved to Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor Rodin, but soon sank into profound spiritual anguish. Once he discovered modernism, Rilke found himself elevated by the art, invigorated by the vitality with which modernist artists approached their work. Chief among these pivotal encounters was the painter Paul Cézanne, whom Rilke would come to cite as his greatest creative influence. He was especially enchanted by the artist’s relationship with his art: “Only a saint could be as united with his God as Cézanne was with his work,” Rilke wrote.

In 1907, months after Cézanne’s death, Rilke saw and was deeply moved by a retrospective on the artist’s work. Every day, he would return to the gallery and contemplate these paintings that he found so bewitching, so beseeching of his own creative response. In a series of letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, Rilke began recording and examining his reverence for the painter. His missives to Clara — a woman he saw not only as an equal but also as someone at least as deeply invested in the project of art — were later published as the wholly addictive 1985 tome Letters on Cézanne (public library | IndieBound).

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke's brother-in-law

In one particularly radiant letter from June of 1907, Rilke echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of hardship and Van Gogh’s eloquently channeled belief in the creative power of suffering. Decades before Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable proclamation that “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Rilke writes:

Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of the singularity… Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it — that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life recites a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside, nameless, existing merely as necessity, as reality, as existence—.

So we are most definitely called upon to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also bound to keep silence regarding this utmost, to beware of sharing it, of parting with it in communication so long as we have not entered the work of art: for the utmost represent nothing other than the singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the works as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.

With an eye to this deeply private nature of the utmost and its expression in art, Rilke makes an especially fiery admonition against feedback throughout the creative process:

There are two liberties of communication, and these seem to me to be the utmost possible ones: the one that occurs face-to-face with the accomplished thing, and the one that takes place within actual daily life, in showing one another what one has become through one’s work and thereby supporting and helping and (in the humble sense of the word) admiring one another. But in either case one must show results, and it is not lack of trust or withdrawal or rejection if one doesn’t present to another the tools of one’s progress, which have so much about them that is confusing and tortuous, and whose only value lies in the personal use one makes of them. I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.

Rainer Maria Rilke with Clara Rilke Westhoff, 1903

In a letter written two days later, Rilke adds a remark that comes as an especially appropriate summation of the question of private suffering versus tangible results, in both art and life:

Basically it’s none of our business how somebody manages to grow, if only he does grow, if only we’re on the trail of the law of our own growth…

Letters on Cézanne is an altogether entrancing glimpse of Rilke’s mind at its sharpest and most creatively stimulated. Complement it with Rilke on living the questions, the relationship between body and soul, and his youthful love letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Russian-born intellectual who had previously bewitched Nietzsche, then revisit Jeanette Winterson’s sublime meditation on art.

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