Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

James Joyce’s Humorous Morphology of the Many Outrageous Myths about Him

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How the celebrated author earned a reputation as a lazy coke-head movie mogul with a peculiar clock habit.

While inhabiting all our contradictory selves may be the key to true happiness, when it comes to those in the public eye, such manufactured and often conflicting mythologies of self are often projected onto them by way of popular legend. This is especially true of those most reclusive and reticent about offering direct glimpses of the private persona beneath the public figure, thus enveloping the observed in alluring ambiguity which the observers readily fill with fanciful hypotheses and contemporary folklore.

From the ceaselessly entertaining Funny Letters from Famous People (public library) — which also gave us the best resignation letter ever written, courtesy of Sherwood Anderson, and Lewis Carroll’s hilarious letter of apology for standing a friend up — comes this letter James Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver on June 24, 1921, mere months before Ulysses was published by Sylvia Beach. The celebrated author lays out a characteristically long-winded and uncharacteristically humorous morphology of the outrageous myths and legends about him, while managing to slip in a dual jab at psychiatry frenemies Jung and Freud — an aside especially gratifying in its symmetry, given how meticulously Freud engineered his own myth.

James Joyce by Berenice Abbott

A nice collection could be made of legends about me. Here are some. My family in Dublin believe that I enriched myself in Switzerland during the war by espionage work for one or both combatants. Triestines, seeing me emerge from my relative’s house occupied by my furniture for about twenty minutes every day and walk to the same point, the G.P.O., and back (I was writing Nausikaa and The Oxen of the Sun [for Ulysses] in a dreadful atmosphere) circulated the rumour, now firmly believed, that I am a cocaine victim. The general rumour in Dublin was (till the prospectus of Ulysses stopped it) that I could write no more, had broken down, and was dying in New York. A man from Liverpool told me he had heard that I was the owner of several cinema theaters all over Switzerland. In America there appear to have been two versions: one that I was almost blind, emaciated and consumptive, the other that I am an austere mixture of the Dalai Lama and sir Rabindranath Tagore. Mr. Pound described me as a dour Aberdeen minister. Mr. [Wyndham] Lewis told me he was told I was a crazy fellow who always carried four watches and rarely spoke except to ask my neighbor what o’clock it was. Mr. Yeats seemed to have described me to Mr. Pound as a kind of Dick Swiveller. What the numerous (and useless) people to whom I have been introduced here think I don’t know. My habit of addressing people I have just met for the first time as “Monsieur” earned for me the reputation of a tout petit bourgeois while others consider what I intend for politeness as most offensive. . . . One woman here originated the rumour that I am extremely lazy and will never do or finish anything. (I calculate that I must have spent nearly 20,000 hours in writing Ulysses.) A batch of people in Zurich persuaded themselves that I was gradually going mad and actually endeavoured to induce me to enter a sanatorium where a certain Doctor Jung (the Swiss Tweedledum who is not to be confused with the Viennese Twiddledee, Dr. Freud) amuses himself at the expense (in every sense of the word) of ladies and gentlemen who are troubled with bees in their bonnets.

I mention all these views not to speak about myself or my critics but to show you how conflicting they all are. The truth probably is that I am a quite commonplace person undeserving of so much imaginative painting.

Funny Letters from Famous People is a treasure trove of delight, featuring similarly amusing epistles by such luminaries as E. B. White, Julia Child, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Asimov, and dozens more.

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02 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Emma Darwin’s Stirring Love Letter to Charles

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“I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards.”

Given my soft spot for exquisite love letters, particularly those exchanged between yesteryear’s greats — including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, E. B. White and Katharine White — I was hopelessly heartened to discover a missive addressed to Charles Darwin from Emma Wedgwood, with whom the father of evolution spent the remaining forty years of his life and raised ten children. Found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9 (public library), the letter comes nearly thirty years into their marriage, long after young Darwin penned his famous and timelessly endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage.

In June of 1861, shortly after Darwin faced a major confrontation with the British clergy over their accusations that his theory of evolution was heresy, Emma sends Charles this exquisite testament to love’s power of spiritual elevation:

I cannot tell you the compassion I have felt for all your sufferings for these weeks past that you have had so many drawbacks. Nor the gratitude I have felt for the cheerful & affectionate looks you have given me when I know you have been miserably uncomfortable.

My heart has often been too full to speak or take any notice I am sure you know I love you well enough to believe that I mind your sufferings nearly as much as I should my own & I find the only relief to my own mind is to take it as from God’s hand, & to try to believe that all suffering & illness is meant to help us to exalt our minds & to look forward with hope to a future state. When I see your patience, deep compassion for others self command & above all gratitude for the smallest thing done to help you I cannot help longing that these precious feelings should be offered to Heaven for the sake of your daily happiness. But I find it difficult enough in my own case. I often think of the words “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.” It is feeling & not reasoning that drives one to prayer. I feel presumptuous in writing thus to you.

I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards, as well as to one who values them above every thing in the world. I shall keep this by me till I feel cheerful & comfortable again about you but it has passed through my mind often lately so I thought I would write it partly to relieve my own mind.

To further celebrate the intersection of science and romance, see Darwin’s life adapted in poems by his great-granddaughter, then revisit Richard Dawkins’s beautiful letter to his daughter on the importance of evidence in science and in love.

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28 AUGUST, 2013

Why Invest in Space Exploration? Isaac Asimov’s Witty 1969 Letter

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“The people of the United States spend exactly as much money on booze alone as on the space program.”

The quest to understand our place in the cosmos has long mesmerized humanity. Dreams of space travel captivated our collective imagination long before the Space Race materialized as a reality. Indeed, this very spirit of exploration and curiosity has been, as Brian Cox elegantly put it, “the rocket fuel that powers our civilization.” Ray Bradbury saw in it the key to the immortality of the human race and without it, Carl Sagan would’ve never inspired and humbled generations with his iconic love letter to the cosmos. After all, what better and more tangible reminder that we are all stardust than direct immersion in the cosmos? And yet, space exploration has been shoved down a sinking spiral in the hierarchy of executive priorities — one of our era’s most tragic failures of political imagination.

The Carina Nebula (public domain image courtesy of NASA)

From Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters (public library), which also gave us Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, comes the beloved author’s succinct reality check, a timelier-than-ever rebuttal of half-baked arguments debating the value of space exploration — something that must be restated again and again with ever-greater urgency and passion.

In a letter to a friend dated July 23, 1969 — just three days after the “giant leap for mankind” that was the historic Apollo 11 moon landing — Asimov writes with his signature blend of wry humor, irreverence, and unflinching conviction:

I got a letter from a reader who wrote to berate me on the expense of the space program and telling me I ought to be ashamed for not spending the money on the cities and the poor.

I wrote back to say that the people of the United States spend exactly as much money[*] on booze alone as on the space program. And if you add tobacco, drugs, cosmetics, and worthless patent medicines (and chewing gum, suggests Carl Sagan), then we spend far more on these useless-to-harmful substances than on space exploration.

I asked her if she indulged in any of these vices and if she would consider sponsoring a movement to have the people give up these things and donate the money equivalent to the cities. (Of course, this would throw a hell of a lot of people out of work, which shows how difficult it is to do anything.

* Asimov was inadvertently softening the situation — if he knew the real numbers, which have changed little since his day, he would’ve been even more appalled: Americans spent $50 billion a year on alcohol, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while NASA’s entire annual budget is $18 billion.

Fourteen years later, Asimov reiterated his conviction in this delightful interview for Muppet Magazine.

Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters remains a treasure trove of wisdom and wit in its entirety. Complement this particular bit with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent testimony before Senate on the value of space exploration — possibly the most poetic and profound speech on science ever delivered before the revered legislative chamber, then revisit Asimov, Sagan, and Bradbury’s legendary 1971 conversation on Mars and the mind of man.

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