Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

06 JUNE, 2014

Kafka on Books and What Reading Does for the Human Soul

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How to melt “the frozen sea within us.”

“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy,” E.B. White wrote while contemplating the future of reading in 1951. Indeed, the question of why books matter and what reading does for the human spirit has occupied minds great and little, from Carl Sagan’s beautiful meditation in Cosmos to the 9-year-old girl whose question about why we have books I once answered. But perhaps the best articulation of what books do for the soul comes from a mind often painted as dark and depressive, yet capable of extraordinary sensitivity to the beauty of life: Franz Kafka.

In a November 1903 letter, found in the altogether enchanting compendium Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (public library), 20-year-old Kafka writes to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak:

Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.

A few months later, in January of 1904, he expounds on this sentiment in another letter to Pollak:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Complement Letters to Friends, Family and Editors with the illustrated gem Kafka for kids, then revisit Maurice Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating books and reading.

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05 JUNE, 2014

The Breathtaking Love Letters of Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West

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“All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated.”

More than a decade before her love affair with Virginia Woolf, in an era when LGBT Pride was as laughable a concept as LGBT shame was culturally codified, English author Vita Sackville-West fell in love with another woman, the writer and socialite Violet Keppel, and the two embarked upon one of the most intense and turbulent affairs in literary history. The exquisite epistolary records of their relationship, which was later fictionalized in Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando, span more than a decade and are captured in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West (public library) — an immensely moving addition to history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters, preserved at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, brimming with some of the most urgently, breathtakingly passionate uses of the English language.

Violet and Vita had been friends since childhood, but began forming an intense romantic bond during their teenage years and eventually became lovers in their twenties. The surviving letters, beginning in 1910 when Violet was sixteen and Vita eighteen, capture the exultant and anguishing whirlwind of love so passionate yet so utterly quixotic in the context of their era’s bigotry toward same-sex romance.

In October of 1910, 16-year-old Violet replies — in French, and with exquisite candor — to a letter in which Vita had asked her why she loves her:

I am in the act of asking myself if I ought to reply to your question? A question furthermore most indiscreet and which merits a sharp reprimand. Reply, don’t reply, reply! Oh to the devil with discretion!

Well, you ask me pointblank why I love you… I love you, Vita, because I’ve fought so hard to win you… I love you, Vita, because you never gave me back my ring. I love you because you have never yielded in anything; I love you because you never capitulate. I love you for your wonderful intelligence, for your literary aspirations, for your unconscious (?) coquetry. I love you because you have the air of doubting nothing! I love in you what is also in me: imagination, the gift for languages, taste, intuition and a host of other things…

I love you, Vita, because I have seen your soul…

Over the decade that followed, the two remained lovers even though Vita married the wealthy writer and politician Harold George Nicolson in 1913. They had a mutually agreed upon open marriage. In 1914, Vita gave birth to the first of their two sons and Violet, at her “own sarcastic request,” became a godmother. She and Vita continued to correspond passionately and to steal the occasional weekend getaway for consummating their love.

Violet came to call Vita “Mitya,” short for “my Dmitri,” a character from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the voluptuous music of which Violet identified with her beloved — it was a choice particularly poignant in its gender-reversal, as Violet wrote in a number of her letters that she would’ve married Vita if she were a man so the two could live happily ever after. But with marriage equality a century away, the fantasy of marriage was only possible if she envisioned her beloved as a male character.

Despite the increasingly forbidding circumstances of their lives, Violet fell deeper and deeper in love. In a letter from the spring of 1918, she writes:

Drunk with the beauty of Mitya! All today I was incoherent. I tell you, there is a barbaric splendor about you that conquered not only me, but everyone who saw you. You are made to conquer, Mitya, not be conquered… You could have the world at your feet.

A few weeks later, at the end of a few days together, Violet writes:

It was Hell leaving you today. God how I adore you and want you. You can’t know how much… Last night was perfection… I am so proud of you, my sweet, I revel in your beauty, your beauty of form and feature. I exult in my surrender today…

Mitya, I miss you so — I don’t care what I say — I love belonging to you — I glory in it, that you alone … have bent me to your will, shattered my self-possession, robbed me of my mystery, made me yours, yours, so that away from you I am nothing but a useless puppet! an empty husk.

In July of 1918, the reality of their impossible love sets in more firmly and Violet writes in anguish:

What sort of a life can we lead now? Yours, an infamous and degrading lie to the world, officially bound to someone you don’t care for…

I, not caring a damn for anyone but you, utterly lost, miserably incomplete, condemned to leading a futile, purposeless existence, which no longer holds the smallest attraction for me…

I never thought I would (or could) love like this.

Violet’s desperation swells all the more painfully if one were to imagine how their relationship might have unfolded had marriage equality been around at the time — a wistful realization that Violet herself touches on with remarkably prescient poignancy in a letter from August of 1918:

Oh, Mitya, come away, let’s fly, Mitya darling — if ever there were two entirely primitive people, they are surely us: let’s go away and forget the world and all its squalor — let’s forget such things as trains, and trams, and servants, and streets, and shops, and money, and cares and responsibilities. Oh god! how I hate it all — you and I, Mitya, were born 2000 years too late, or 2000 years too soon.

Later that night, Violet writes:

I want to see you. I want to hear your voice. I want to put my hand on your shoulder and cry my heart out. Mitya, Mitya, I have never told you the whole truth. You shall have it now: I have loved you all my life, a long time without knowing, 5 years knowing it as irrevocably as I know it now, loved you as my ideal…

Nine days later, on August 25, Violet can no longer contain her longing and pleads with Vita to go away together, oscillating between prostrate vulnerability and fervent ultimatum:

My days are consumed by this impotent longing for you, and my nights are riddled with insufferable dreams… I want you. I want you hungrily, frenziedly, passionately. I am starving for you, if you must know it. Not only the physical you, but your fellowship, your sympathy, the innumerable points of view we share. I can’t exist without you, you are my affinity, the intellectual “pendent” to me, my twin spirit. I can’t help it! no more can you! … We complete each other…

Mitya, we must. God knows we have waited long enough! Something will go “snap” in my brain if we wait any longer and I shall tell everyone I know that we are going away and why. Do you think I’m going to waste any more of my precious youth waiting for you to screw up sufficient courage to make a bolt? Not I!…

I want you for my own, I want to go away with you. I must and will and damn the world and damn the consequences and anyone had better look out for themselves who dares to become an obstacle in my path.

Above all, Violet is consumed with violent resistance to the life of mediocrity and duplicity, to the concessions they are forced to make in their love in the face of what society deems acceptable. In letter from October of 1918, she channels that resistance with exquisite urgency:

O Mitya, give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve us from the neat little neutral faintly pink or faintly mauve ambiguities that trot between…

Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent — Live — live fully, live passionately, live disastrously if necessary. Live the gamut of human experiences, build, destroy, build up again! Live, let’s live, you and I — let’s live as none ever lived before, let’s explore and investigate, let’s tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back!

But by the following spring, the bold fantasy had grown stifled by reality. Violet reluctantly became engaged to Denys Trefusis, a soldier with the British Royal Horse Guards, who had been courting her for years. Although Denys had given his word to remain a “gentleman” — that is, he had promised the marriage would be chaste, so that Violet could remain faithful to Vita — the prospect of committing to someone other than her beloved was unbearable to Violet. By March of 1919, as she approaches her twenty-fifth birthday, Violet grows even more desperate over the disconnect between the intensity of her love for Vita and the options handed down to them by life in Edwardian England:

My beautiful, my lovely, I want you so… Cast aside the drab garments of respectability and convention, my beautiful Bird of Paradise, they become you not. Lead the life Nature intended you to lead.

And yet Society, subjugating Nature, has different plans for them. On the last day of March in 1919, Violet attends “a ball of some sort” where her mother had publicly announced her reluctant engagement to Trefusis. That night, at 2 A.M., she sends Vita the most beautiful and harrowing letter of their entire correspondence, emblematic of the heartbreaking impossibility imposed on their love by the era’s punishing conventions and perhaps the most moving case ever made for the heart of marriage equality:

I was congratulated by everyone I knew there. I could have screamed aloud. Mitya, I can’t face this existence… It is really wicked and horrible. I am losing every atom of self-respect I ever possessed. I hate myself. O Mitya, what have you done to me? O my darling, precious love, what is going to become of us?

I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else… Sometimes I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you … a craving for your nearness and your touch. At other times I feel I should be quite content if I could only hear the sound of your voice. I try so hard to imagine your lips on mine. Never was there such a pitiful imagining…

Nothing and no one in the world could kill the love I have for you. I have surrendered my whole individuality, the very essence of my being to you. I have given you my body time after time to treat as you pleased, to tear in pieces if such had been your will. All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated. I have clung to you and caressed you and slept with you and I would like to tell the whole world I clamor for you… You are my lover and I am your mistress, and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination — the most powerful in the world.

It is as heartbreaking as it is unsurprising that the two women never escaped the shackles of their era’s narrow possibilities. Violet went through with the marriage to Denys. At the height of their inevitable marriage troubles a few years later, he burned all of her letters, rendering those preserved in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West a rare and bittersweet sacrality of a romance so beautifully full of expansive possibility yet so tragically stifled by the narrowness of a culture unwilling to see that all love is sacred.

Edith Windsor, patron saint of modern love, put it best.

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05 JUNE, 2014

Van Gogh and Mental Illness

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“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.”

Around the time that Tolstoy was tussling with depression and his spiritual crisis, on the other side of Europe another creative icon was struggling with the darkness of his own psychoemotional landscape. As he was painting some of the most celebrated and influential art of all time, Vincent Van Gogh was combating his anguishing mental illness — frequent episodes of depression, paralyzing anxiety and, according to some accounts, the symptoms of bipolar disorder — which would eventually claim his life in 1890, shortly after his 37th birthday.

Van Gogh’s most direct and honest account of his psychoemotional turmoil comes from the letters to his brother Theo, originally published in 1937 as the hefty tome Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and later excerpted in My Life & Love Are One (public library) — the same wonderful 1976 gem that gave us his thoughts on love, tracing “the magic and melancholy of Vincent van Gogh.” The title comes from a specific letter written during one of the painter’s periods of respite from mental illness, in which he professes to his brother: “Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.”

Dutch newspaper report from December 30, 1888: 'Last Sunday night at half past eleven a painter named Vincent Van Gogh, appeared at the maison de tolérance No 1, asked for a girl called Rachel, and handed her ... his ear with these words: 'Keep this object like a treasure.' Then he disappeared. The police, informed of these events, which could only be the work of an unfortunate madman, looked the next morning for this individual, whom they found in bed with scarcely a sign of life. The poor man was taken to hospital without delay.'

In one of the early letters, Van Gogh expressed an aspiration that remained significant for him throughout his life:

Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.

It’s also a thought bittersweet in hindsight, given the self-compassion it implies for being eccentric. Years later, that very eccentricity would be interpreted as madness by his neighbors, who would evict him from his house and lead to his checking into an insane asylum.

Meanwhile, his bouts of depression, when they descended upon him, were unforgiving. In another letter to Theo, he writes:

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh, winter 1887/1888

But underlying his deep despair is a subtle sense of optimism that carries him and enables him to continue painting despite the mental anguish:

This is my ambition, which is founded less on anger than on love, founded more on serenity than on passion. It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.

Like artist Maira Kalman, who asserted nearly a century and a half later that work and love are the two keys to a full life, Van Gogh begins to see his work as his unflinching sense of purpose, his salvation:

How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work.

Having at one point subsisted primarily on bread, coffee and absinthe, he embraces work as life’s highest reward, worth any sacrifice:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.

'Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,' 1889, painted shortly after he sliced off his own ear

But in reflecting — as Kurt Vonnegut memorably did — on what makes life fulfilling, it seems that rather than conveying a conviction to his brother, Van Gogh is trying to convince himself:

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

And yet, Van Gogh ultimately sees his psychological struggles not as something to negate but as his artistic truth, as a vital part of his honest experience, which is the necessary foundation of great art:

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment.

Complement My Life & Love Are One with Kierkegaard on creativity and anxiety, then revisit Van Gogh’s never-before-revealed sketchbooks.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider 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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