Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

12 FEBRUARY, 2014

Charles Darwin on Family, Work, and Happiness

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“Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.”

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) may be best-remembered as the father of evolution, but he was also a man of great dimension and extraordinary capacity for reflection. In his prolific correspondence, he contemplated everything from the pros and cons of marriage to the downturns of mental health. But having married the love of his life and fathered ten children with her, he also frequently pondered questions of fatherhood and family as a backdrop for his broader meditations on love, work, and happiness.

After weighing the benefits of marriage above its costs, Darwin writes to his bride-to-be, Emma, a few days before their wedding in early 1839:

I was thinking this morning how on earth it came, that I, who am fond of talking & am scarcely ever out of spirits, should so entirely rest my notions of happiness on quietness & a good deal of solitude; but I believe the explanation is very simple, & I mention it, because it will give you hopes, that I shall gradually grow less of a brute, — it is that during the five years of my voyage (& indeed I may add these two last) which from the active manner in which they have been passed, may be said to be the commencement of my real life, the whole of my pleasure was derived, from what passed in my mind, whilst admiring views by myself, travelling across the wild desserts or glorious forests, or pacing the deck of the poor little Beagle at night. — Excuse this much egotism, — I give it you, because, I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you.

Darwin’s children relaxing at Down House (Cambridge University Library)

Darwin intuited the “humanizing” capacities of a stable family early on — he was himself the product of loving parenting. In a March 1826 letter, his father writes to 15-year-old Charles:

It made me feel quite melancholy the other day looking at your old garden, & the flowers… I think the time when you & Catherine were little children & I was always with you or thinking about you was the happiest part of my life & I dare say always will be.

But Darwin, a man of rigorous daily routine, was also keenly aware of the tradeoffs between family life and work life, which he lamented facetiously in a letter to a scientist friend about to get married:

I hope that your marriage will not make you idle: happiness, I fear is not good for work.

Still, Darwin knew that science and personal happiness were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. (He wrote in The Descent of Man in 1871: “Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, &c., when playing together, like our own children.”) In a July 1862 letter to his botanist friend Asa Gray, Darwin observes this false choice with equal part wry wit and earnestness:

Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none, — perhaps not a wife; for then there would be nothing in this wide world worth caring for & a man might (whether he would is another question) work away like a Trojan.

Darwin with his eldest son, William Erasmus Darwin, in 1842

Complement with this charming graphic biography of Darwin and the story of how his photos of human emotions revolutionized visual culture.

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07 FEBRUARY, 2014

Charles Dickens on Grief and How to Heal a Mourning Heart

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“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.”

In addition to being one of literary history’s most celebrated authors, no doubt in part thanks to being such a disciplined early riser, Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was also a man of extraordinary wisdom — from the timeless life-advice he gave his youngest son to his generous fan letter to George Eliot to his insightful and amusing observations on the rites of dating. But some of his most poignant wisdom addressed a subject of the gravest sort — the healing of a grieving heart.

In 1862, Dickens’s younger sister, Letitia, lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library; free download), Dickens envelops Letitia with equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do. . . . I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

The Dickens family with friends, 1864

Complement with Joan Didion on grief. For a more uplifting Dickens treat, see Neil Gaiman’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

The Letters of Charles Dickens is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, full of the beloved writer’s meditations on life, literature, love, and loss.

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06 FEBRUARY, 2014

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead on the Fluidity of Human Sexuality in 1933

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Eighty years before marriage equality, a progressive lens on human love.

Anthropology icon Margaret Mead is not only the most influential cultural anthropologist of all time, but her work also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) reveals, Mead was ahead of her time in many respects, but perhaps nowhere more so than in matters of human sexuality. Some twenty years before the DSM — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s Bible — would classify homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” more than forty years before the “diagnosis” would be retracted, and eight decades before the dawn of marriage equality, Mead defied society’s constricting conceptions of gender identity and sexual roles.

In early April of 1933, en route to get married to New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune, Mead writes in a letter to Ruth Benedict, whom she considered her lifelong soulmate:

We’ve talked a lot of nonsense about sex — we’ve mixed up an interest in turning sex into a form so specific it is like a fight with manliness being well-sexed — I don’t believe any of it, anymore. I think specific sex is a form which is primarily suited to a clash of temperaments — between people who can’t communicate with each other — and is utterly and absolutely inappropriate between people who do understand each other. The kind of feeling which you have classified as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” is really “sex adapted to like or understood temperaments” versus “sex adapted to a relationship of strangeness and distance” — To think one goes with man-woman relationships, or that if it’s within a sex it’s because one person belongs in the other sex, is a fundamental fallacy. I believe every person of ordinary sex endowment has a capacity for diffuse “homosexual” sex expression, and specific climax — according to the temperamental situation. To call men who prefer the diffuse expression “feminine” — or women who seek only the specific, “masculine,” or both “mixed types” is a lot of obfuscation.

Complement with Susan Sontag on love, sex, and the world between and the extraordinary love letters of Mead and Benedict.

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