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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

07 AUGUST, 2014

Rilke on Body and Soul

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“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.”

Modern science is only beginning to shed light on how our minds actually affect our bodies, but entrenched deep in our cultural mythology is a dangerous divide between the two, which are often pitted against one another as an either/or proposition. Even the starving artist trope — which, like a proper cliché, became a victim of its own semantic success — is predicated on the idea that one must sacrifice the body in order to manifest the mind and set free the creative soul, the mythic “spiritual electricity” of art.

Count on Rainer Maria Rilke — literary history’s high priest of metaphysics, a writer of breathtaking letters, and a wise advisor of the young — to bridge the two and compromise neither. In a 1921 letter to a young girl who had asked him for advice, found in the collection Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926 (public library; public domain), 46-year-old Rilke writes:

I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion. All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood, for which reason I precede my work, through a pure and simple way of life that is free from irritants and stimulants, as with an introductory prelude, so that I cannot be deceived over the true spiritual joy that consists in a concord, happy and as if transfigured, with the whole of Nature.

[...]

If I look into my conscience I see but one law, relentlessly commanding: to lock myself into myself and in one stretch to end this task that was dictated to me at the very center of my heart. I am obeying. . . . I have no right whatever to change the direction of my will before I have ended the act of my sacrifice and my obedience.

Channeling the philosophy of the main character in his only novel, the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke goes on to reflect on the essence of art:

You must, in order that it shall speak to you, take a thing during a certain time as the only one that exists, as the only phenomenon which through your diligent and exclusive love finds itself set down in the center of the universe. . . . Don’t be frightened at the expression “fate” … I call fate all external events (illnesses, for example, included) which can inevitably step in to interrupt and annihilate a disposition of mind and training that is by nature solitary. . . .

That went through me like an arrow, when I learned it, but like a flaming arrow that, while it pierced my heart through, left it in a conflagration of clear sight. There are few artists in our day who grasp this stubbornness, this vehement obstinacy. But I believe that without it one remains always at the periphery of art, which is rich enough as it is to allow us pleasant discoveries, but at which, nevertheless, we halt only as a player at the green table who, while he now and again succeeds with a “coup”, remains none the less at the mercy of chance, which is nothing but the docile and dexterous ape of the law.

Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1910–1926, which covers the period between the completion of Rilke’s novel and the writer’s death, offers a treasure trove of his timeless wisdom on love, life, and literature. Complement it with Rilke’s passionate love letters and his beloved posthumous volume Letters to a Young Poet, which moved generations and inspired a wealth of modern homages and reimaginings, from Anna Deavere Smith’s indispensable Letters to a Young Artist to Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian to James Harmon’s fantastic compendium of luminaries’ letters of advice to the young.

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22 JULY, 2014

Edna St. Vincent Millay on the Death Penalty and What It Really Means to Be an Anarchist

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“The minds of your children are like clear pools, reflecting faithfully whatever passes on the bank…”

In 1921, Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both in their thirties, were convicted of murdering two payroll guards during a bank robbery in Massachusetts. The conviction was made despite highly questionable ballistic evidence and multiple eyewitness accounts that placed Sacco in a different city on the day of the alleged crime. The case dragged on for years, until Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in April of 1927. Many, including a number of public intellectuals, believed the murder conviction was wrong, deliberately served to punish the two men for their history as social activists and anarchists, and the subsequent death sentence a complete failure of both the justice system and humanity. Among the outraged was Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet and lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits, delinquent schoolgirl, literary gateway drug for children, and only the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

On August 22, 1927, 35-year-old Millay made a passionate case for justice and humanity in a letter to Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, found in the altogether absorbing The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library). She had met with the governor, one of the wealthiest men in America at the time, earlier that afternoon to interview him for a magazine story she was doing on the case. Millay writes:

Your Excellency

[...]

Tonight, with the world in doubt, with this Commonwealth drawing into its lungs with every breath the difficult air of doubt, with the eyes of Europe turned westward upon Massachusetts and upon the whole United States in distress and harrowing doubt — are you still so sure? Does no faintest shadow of question gnaw at your mind? For, indeed, your spirit, however strong, is but the frail spirit of a man. Have you no need, in this hour, of a spirit greater than your own?

Think back. Think back a long time. Which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith? — Oh, not the way in which your feet are set!

You promise me, and I believe you truly, that you would think of what I said. I exact of you this promise now. Be for a moment alone with yourself. Look inward upon yourself. Let fall from your harassed mind all, all save this: which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith?

I cry to you with a million voices: answer our doubt. Exert the clemency which your high office affords.

There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

The governor never rose to greatness. Millay was arrested and thrown in jail for joining the public protests and the “death watch.” Minutes after midnight on August 23, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco in handcuffs

Over the next three months, Millay remained thoroughly invested in the story and its broader cultural implications. On November 9, 1927, the weekly New York magazine The Outlook published her article on the ruling, titled “Fear” — a kind of open letter to the general public, a spirited case against the execution of the two men and, more broadly, of execution in general. She writes:

On the surface of a Christianity already so spotted and defaced, by the crimes of the Church this stain does not show very dark. In a freedom already so riddled and gashed by the crimes of the state this ugly rent is with difficulty to be distinguished at all.

And you are right; it is well to forget that men die. So far we have devised no way to defeat death, or to outwit him, or to buy him over. At any moment the cloud may split above us and the golden spear of death leap at the heart; at any moment the earth crack and the hand of death reach up from the abyss to grasp our ankles; at any moment the wind rise and sweep the roofs from our houses, making one dust of our ceilings and ourselves. And if not, we shall die soon, anyhow. It is well to forget that this is so.

But that man before his time, wantonly and without sorrow, is thrust from the light of the sun into the darkness of the grave by his brother’s blindness or fear it is well to remember, at least until it has been shown to the satisfaction of all that this too is beyond our power to change.

Millay argues that the atrocity of the sentence itself was only amplified by the failure of justice that resulted, as it was believed, in the men being wrongly accused of murder in order to punish them for their social activism:

If you should rouse yourself for a moment and look about you at the world, you would be troubled, I think, and feel less peaceful and secure, seeing how it is possible for a man as innocent as yourself of any crime to be cast into prison and be killed. For whether or not these men whom I do not name were guilty of the crime of murder, it was not for murder that they died. The crime for which they died was the crime of breathing upon the frosty window and looking out.

[...]

This is the way you look at it: These men were Anarchists, and they are well out of the way; you are fortunate to have escaped destruction at their hands; they were probably murderers; but, in any case, they are well out of the way. It was that word Anarchist which brought them to the chair; that word, and your ignorance of its meaning.

An Anarchist, you insist, is a man who makes bombs and puts them under the State House, and that is that. On the contrary, that is by no means that. The person you have in mind is not an Anarchist, he is a bomber. You will find him everywhere — among Anarchists, among Fascists, among dry-law enforcers, among Modernists, among Fundamentalists, and freely distributed throughout the Ku Klux Klan. He is that person who, when he does not like a thing, lynches it, tars and feathers it, lays a curse upon it, or puts a bomb under it. His name is legion, and you will find him in every party.

An Anarchist, according to the dictionary, is a person who believes that human beings are naturally good, and that if left to themselves they would, by mutual agreement, govern themselves much better and much more peaceably than they are being governed now by a government based on violence.

Millay also argues that the men’s status as immigrants made them all the more vulnerable to injustice:

These men were castaways upon our shore, and we, an ignorant and savage tribe, have put them to death because their speech and their manners were different from our own, and because to the untutored mind that which is strange is in its infancy ludicrous, but in its prime evil, dangerous, and to be done away with.

These men were put to death because they made you nervous; and your children know it. The minds of your children are like clear pools, reflecting faithfully whatever passes on the bank; whereas in the pool of your own mind, whenever an alien image bends above, a fish of terror leaps to meet it, shattering its reflection.

Millay’s closing words reveal just how profoundly the case had touched some deep part of her own humanity, and their poignancy carries great resonance for contemporary debates on the death penalty, nearly a century later:

I am free to say these things because I am not an Anarchist, although you will say that I am. It is unreasonable to you that a person should go to any trouble in behalf of another person unless the two are members of the same family, or of the same fraternity, or, at the remotest, of the same political party. As regards yourself and the man who lives next door to you, you wish him well, but not so very well.

[...]

I dare say these things because I am not an Anarchist; but I dare say them for another reason, too: because my personal physical freedom, my power to go in and out when I choose, my personal life even, is no longer quite so important to me as it once was… Death even, that outrageous intrusion, appears to me at moments, and more especially when I think of what happened in Boston two months ago, death appears to me somewhat as a darkened room, in which one might rest one’s battered temples out of the world’s way, leaving the sweeping of the crossings to those who still think it important that the crossings be swept. As if indeed it mattered the least bit in the world whether the crossings be clean or foul, when of all the people passing to and from there in the course of an eight-hour day not one out of ten thousand has a spark of true courage in his heart, or any love at all, beyond the love of a cat for the fire, for any earthly creature other than himself. The world, the physical world, and that once was all in all to me, has at moments such as these no road through a wood, no stretch of shore, that can bring me comfort. The beauty of these things can no longer make up to me for all the ugliness of man, his cruelty, his greed, his lying face.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a trove of timeless wisdom, and the lion’s share of it is far more humanistic and uplifting than Millay’s reaction to the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Sample it further with Millay on her love of music, her love of her mother, and her love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison.

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07 JULY, 2014

Tchaikovsky on the “Immeasurable Bliss” of Creativity, the Mystical Machinery of Inspiration, and the Evils of Interruptions

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The creative process, cracked open at its rawest.

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878 in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, attesting to what psychologists have since demonstrated empirically — that “grit” is more important than inborn ability and “deliberate practice” outweighs talent in the quest for creative mastery. And yet, like most artists, Tchaikovsky himself was a creature of paradoxical convictions and despite scoffing at the notion of being “in the mood,” he gave great credence to the parallel concept of inspiration — so much so that he once turned down a handsome commission from Von Meck because he believed that producing a piece of music out of commercial motives rather than genuine inspiration would constitute “artistic dishonesty.”

From the timelessly excellent The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) comes the beloved composer’s raw account of inspiration, an electrifying articulation of what T.S. Eliot once called the mystical quality of creativity and countless other creators have echoed over the years.

Responding to an 1878 letter from Von Meck, Tchaikovsky describes “those vague feelings which pass through one during the composition”:

It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression, and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.

Scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' the most popular ballet in the world, with set design by Maurice Sendak (Photograph © Angela Sterling)

Tchaikovsky admonishes against the outside interruption of this state, known in contemporary psychology as “flow” — a cautionary lament all the more prescient today, in our age of constant bombardment with distractions and demands on our attention, the worrisome repercussions of which on our cognition and creative capacity philosophers have warned about for decades and psychologists are only just beginning to understand. Tchaikovsky writes:

In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.

And yet, he sees these interruptions of inspiration as inevitable and finds an antidote in the steadfast application of technical skill, the sort of mastery acquired through deliberate practice:

In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.

More of the great composer’s wisdom endures in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement it with legendary songwriter Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration and Vladimir Nabokov on the “prefatory glow” of inspiration, then revisit Graham Wallace’s pioneering 1926 guide to the four stages of creativity, the third of which reflects the phenomenon Tchaikovsky describes.

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