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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

08 JANUARY, 2015

Nabokov Gets Food Poisoning and Flees from the Hospital via Fire Escape: History’s Most Entertaining Account of “Homeric Retching”

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“I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began.”

Some weeks ago, I found myself wholly incapacitated by my very first experience of food poisoning — a fact heartening in the abstract awareness that I had gone this many decades without enduring such an incapacitating episode, but utterly exasperating in its immediate bodily concreteness. Apart from the obvious gastrointestinal peril one imagines — but always imagines insufficiently in the face of the reality — I also found myself blindsided by the complete mental incapacitation resulting from the extreme physical weakness, as if the gut had somehow colluded with the brain in staunchly defying command and seceding from the rest of the being. Since writing was out of the question — an act that requires, above all, full access to one’s own brain and the seamless firing of the associative chains therein — I decided to distract myself with some light reading from a heavy book resting atop my bedside pile, which happened to be Letters to Véra (public library) — the same volume that gave us Nabokov’s exquisite love letters to his wife and was among the best memoirs, biographies, and history books of 2014. Imagine my utter shock — so much so that I at first considered it a poisoning-induced hallucination — when I split the hefty tome in about half, opening to a random page, on which began Nabokov’s wildly entertaining account of his first food poisoning.

In the late spring of 1944, while serving as a curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the beloved author endured his own gastrointestinal nightmare thanks to a lunch of questionable ham at the German eatery Wursthaus — an iconic fixture of Harvard Square between 1917 and 1996. Two years earlier, the restaurant had been bought by Frank N. Cardullo, “the unofficial Mayor of Cambridge,” who turned it into a $3-million-a-year enterprise by the 1980s, only to see the health-conscious 1990s spell its demise. But in Nabokov’s day, that decadent German ham turned out to be unhealthy for far more immediately distressing reasons, which the author came to recount in wildly amusing detail in a letter to his wife — culminating with his flamboyant vamoose from the hospital via the fire-escape, in pajamas.

On June 6, 1944, Nabokov writes to Véra from Cambridge, addressing her by one of his many terms of endearment:

My dear darling,

Yesterday was a day of extraordinary adventures. It started when, in the morning, the minute I was getting ready to go to the museum (with a tennis racket, since I’d arranged to play with Clark at 4:30), T.N. [Nabokov’s friend Tatyana Nikolaevna Karpovich] called, very agitated — she’d driven the sick M. Mikh. [Mikhail Mikhaylovich Karpovich, Tatyana’s husband] down from Vermont, and meanwhile the Dobuzhinskys [the painter Mstislav Dobuzhnisky and his wife] had arrived and couldn’t get into their house, since no one was at home… I agreed with her that after tennis I would drop in to check on M. Mikh., and left for the museum. Around one in the afternoon, still just as healthy and energetic, I had lunch at the Wursthaus, where I had the Virginia ham with spinach and drank a coffee. I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began: an absolutely Homeric retching, bloody diarrhoea, spasms, weakness. I don’t know how I got back home, where I crawled along the floor and poured myself out in the waste basket.

The iconic Wursthaus restaurant (Cambridge Historical Society)

But it only goes downhill from there — Nabokov’s private pain becomes a public farce as he turns to the healthcare system for help:

Somehow or other I found the strength to call T.N., who summoned an ambulance, which took me to the truly horrendous hospital where you’d been with Mityushen’ka [the Nabokovs’ son Dmitry]. An absolutely helpless brunette tried to pump my stomach through my nose — I’d rather not recall that — in a word, I asked, writing from the spasms and retching, for them to take me quickly somewhere else. T.N., realizing that the doctor was there, drove me to their place. By then I was in a state of complete collapse. This doctor, very sweet (I don’t remember his name), immediately made all the arrangements himself and himself drove, and carried, me to the hospital where you’d been. There they placed me in a ward with a terribly and raucously dying old man — and because of the groans I couldn’t get to sleep. They poured a bottle of salt solution into my veins — and today, although the diarrhoea’s still carrying on this morning, I feel great, am awfully hungry — and want to smoke — but they’re giving me only water. I’m being looked after by a Dr. Cooney.

He has just been here, the diarrhoea has stopped, he said I can be discharged the day after tomorrow, on Friday. They have just given me food for the first time (5:30) — and rather strange, at that (but you know this): risotto, bacon, canned pears. I didn’t eat the bacon… A silly story, but all in all I am absolutely healthy now. I won’t mention the living conditions here. Clean, but terribly noisy. I have been transferred to a public ward. Enfin. I dined in a very pleasant open gallery where they rolled me out and where I smoked my first cigarette.

The doctor says it was bloody colitis caused by food poisoning… In short, the bacilli had taken me for the invasion beach.

Before ending the letter with his usual expressions of adoration, Nabokov instructs Véra with affectionate firmness, even underlining his directive:

Don’t come here under any circumstances: I’ve recovered.

Three days later, while still in the hospital, he writes to Véra again:

I feel unbearably bored without you and my little one. These few days have completely exhausted me physically, but in terms of i n s p i r a t i o n everything is going very well. Today’s the first time my stomach has really worked properly, and if it weren’t for the weakness in my loins, I’d feel excellent.

Ever the wry humorist in these private letters, he offers a florid — if somewhat uncompassionate — taxonomy of auditory discomforts:

The public ward was utter bedlam. There was an endless unruly din consisting of the following elements:

  1. the zoological sounds of an incessant radio set
  2. the wheezes, groans, and roaring of the seriously ill
  3. conversations across the whole enormous ward by the healthier, with guffawing and strolling around
  4. the incredible noise produced by a sixteen-year-old idiot helping the nurses, the institutional fool. He grimaced, stomped, howled, deliberately banged every dish, cracked jokes — and imitated the moans of some of the old men who were in particular anguish, thereby arousing general goodhearted laughter

The nurses constantly tried to pull open the curtains of my coop and got angry saying that since all the other curtains were pulled, my poor tabernacle was spoiling the general look of the ward.

Eventually, Nabokov can’t take any more of this institutional charade. He relays his picturesque escape via dramatic acrobatics:

By the end of my stay I was in such a state of exasperation that when on Saturday morning I saw from the gallery (where I had gone out for a smoke) T.N., who’d come for me, I jumped out through the fire-escape and I was, in pyjamas and a dressing-gown, rushed to the car — and we were already moving off, when the absolutely enraged nurses ran out — but they couldn’t stop me.

As if the deliberate comedy of his account weren’t enough, he adds a mischievous marital jab at the end:

I love you very much. I must confess there was a minute when I was lying there with no pulse thinking some rather funny thoughts. I wish you had seen the burly policemen summoned to Cragie by T.N. and wanting to know “who is this woman?” and “what poison did you take?” When do you get back? I adore you.

Exactly a week after ingesting the unfortunate ham, Nabokov drops a matter-of-factly lamentation in an aside in another letter:

I did stop by at the Wursthaus yesterday, and although I didn’t intend to say to them anything offensive or damaging, a row erupted from the first words, thanks to the owner’s rudeness, since, apparently, this was not the first complaint about his wretched ham.

The Wursthaus in the 1950s (Cambridge Historical Society)

But this was far from the end of Nabokov’s hospital misadventures and only the beginning of his understandable mistrust of the healthcare system. In a 2003 email archived by the University of California Santa Barbara, Dmitry Nabokov recounts his father’s escalating medical misfortunes, strung together by a common thread of the tragicomic:

In the forties, while my mother and I were visiting a relative in New York and my father was busy with students in Wellesley and butterflies in Cambridge, he collapsed with acute food poisoning after a meal at a Cambridge restaurant called the Wursthaus. He was hospitalized, and then shown a routine chest Xray that revealed a dark mass in one lung. He was told it was cancer. He stopped smoking cold turkey, started eating molasses candy as a surrogate, and gained some 30 pounds. It turned out later that the Xray had not been his at all.

Letters to Véra is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, and the attributes of a good reader.

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06 JANUARY, 2015

Albert Einstein’s Little-Known Correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on Race and Racial Justice

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“Professor Einstein is not a mere mathematical mind. He is a living being, sympathetic with all human advance… and he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is.”

Albert Einstein endures as “the quintessential modern genius” for his seminal contributions to science, but he was also a great champion of human rights. In fact, despite having taken a backseat to his scientific legacy, Einstein’s strong humanistic and political convictions are no less notable and revolutionary amid the assumptions of his era. Nowhere do they shine more brilliantly than in his lesser-known exchanges with people of radically different backgrounds and beliefs, always deeply thoughtful, irrepressibly respectful, and driven by an earnest desire for mutual understanding and encouragement — including his conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore about science and spirituality, his correspondence with Freud about violence, peace, and human nature, and his letter to a little girl in South Africa on why her gender shouldn’t hold her back from pursuing science.

Some might assume that Einstein’s compassionate outlook and unflinching commitment to equality were shaped by his own experience of being on the receiving end of history’s deadliest anti-Semitism. When Hitler took over Germany on January 30, 1933 — twelve years after Einstein earned the Nobel Prize, which had already exposed him to anti-Semitism — he had just left Berlin with his wife Elsa to spend their third winter at CalTech, where Einstein had been invited as visiting faculty. The trip may well have saved his life — mere months later, the situation in Germany became inhumane, then gruesomely lethal, for Jews.

Finding himself a reluctant refugee, Einstein — whom the great author and physicist C.P. Snow declared “Hitler’s greatest public enemy” — proclaimed in the press:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

But Einstein’s stance was deeper than the particularities of his own experience and predated that. In 1930, the legendary American author, sociologist, historian, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois reached out to Einstein for a contribution to The Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois had co-founded NAACP in 1909, two decades after becoming the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, where he had studied under and been greatly influenced by the pioneering philosopher and psychologist William James.

Dr. Du Bois’s correspondence with Einstein, included in Einstein on Race and Racism (public library), begins with this magnificently courteous invitation from October 14, 1931 — a sublime manifestation of why Virginia Woolf considered letter writing “the humane art,” and a wistful reminder of how different modern life would be if we corresponded with each other in this way — originally written in German and sent while the scientist was still living in Berlin, where Du Bois had studied on a fellowship during his graduate work:

Sir:

I am taking the liberty of sending you herewith some copies of THE CRISIS magazine. THE CRISIS is published by American Negroes and in defense of the citizenship rights of 12 million people descended from the former slaves of this country. We have just reached our 21st birthday. I am writing to ask if in the midst of your busy life you could find time to write us a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world. A short statement from you of 500 to 1,000 words on this subject would help us greatly in our continuing fight for freedom.

With regard to myself, you will find something about me in “Who’s Who in America.” I was formerly a student of Wagner and Schmoller in the University of Berlin.

I should greatly appreciate word from you.

Very sincerely yours,

W. E. B. Du Bois

Two weeks later, 51-year-old Einstein replied, with equal courtesy, in the affirmative:

My Dear Sir!

Please find enclosed a short contribution for your newspaper. Because of my excessive workload I could not send a longer explanation.

With Distinguished respect,

Albert Einstein

Du Bois translated Einstein’s essay himself and introduced it in The Crisis with the following laudatory “Note from the Editor”:

The author, Albert Einstein, is a Jew of German nationality. He was born in Wurttemburg in 1879 and educated in Switzerland. He has been Professor of Physics at Zurich and Prague and is at present director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Physical Institute at Berlin. He is a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science and of the British Royal Society. He received the Nobel Prize in 1921 and the Copley Medal in 1925.

Einstein is a genius in higher physics and ranks with Copernicus, Newton and Kepler. His famous theory of Relativity, advanced first in 1905, is revolutionizing our explanation of physical phenomenon and our conception of Motion, Time and Space.

But Professor Einstein is not a mere mathematical mind. He is a living being, sympathetic with all human advance. He is a brilliant advocate of disarmament and world Peace and he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is. At our request, he has sent this word to THE CRISIS with “Ausgezeichneter Hochachtung” (“Distinguished respect”).

Einstein's original essay for 'The Crisis' (W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)

Although titled “To the American Negro” — a phrase confined to both specific geography and, by virtue of its dated language, a bygone era — Einstein’s short essay bears enduring resonance for all varieties of oppression, discrimination, and the woeful pathology of in-group/out-group polarization to which humanity is so easily susceptible. (Another duo of humanists, Tolstoy and Gandhi, explored that lamentable tendency of ours in their own little-known correspondence.) In a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard’s poignant 19th-century remarks about minority-majority dynamics, Einstein writes:

It seems to be a universal fact that minorities, especially when their Individuals are recognizable because of physical differences, are treated by majorities among whom they live as an inferior class. The tragic part of such a fate, however, lies not only in the automatically realized disadvantage suffered by these minorities in economic and social relations, but also in the fact that those who meet such treatment themselves for the most part acquiesce in the prejudiced estimate because of the suggestive influence of the majority, and come to regard people like themselves as inferior. This second and more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority, and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained.

The determined effort of the American Negroes in this direction deserves every recognition and assistance.

Albert Einstein

Einstein on Race and Racism goes on to undo the “historical amnesia” about the iconic scientist’s passionate commitment on antiracism, both public and private, including the forgotten history of his friendship with the African-American singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Complement it with Margaret Mead, writing thirty years later, on the root of racism and how to counter it, then revisit Einstein on the fickleness of fame, the secret of learning anything, and why we’re alive.

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22 DECEMBER, 2014

Van Gogh on Principles, Talking vs. Doing, and the Human Pursuit of Greatness

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“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds… The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.”

Albert Camus memorably admonished that those who prefer their principles over their happiness remain unhappy, suggesting that such rigid personal dogmas at the expense of actionable happiness are a form of especially dehumanizing self-punishment. Nearly a century earlier, Vincent van Gogh explored this disconnect with great wisdom in a letter to his brother Theo, found in the recently released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library) — one of the year’s best biographies, memoirs, and history books, and the source of Van Gogh’s moving account of how he found his purpose.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh begins the letter by describing some of the watercolors he is working on and includes a sketch of a beach scene before diving into a discussion of what success really means, prompted by Theo’s descriptions of reckless, debauched artists he had met in Paris. A century before Wendell Berry’s wise meditation on pride and despair as the two great enemies of creative work — two sides of the same coin — Van Gogh, only twenty-nine at the time, writes to Theo:

How many have become desperate in Paris — calmly, rationally, logically and rightly desperate? … All the more, all the more, I think every attempt in [the] direction [of success] is worthy of respect. I also believe that it may happen that one succeeds and one mustn’t begin by despairing; even if one loses here and there, and even if one sometimes feels a sort of decline, the point is nevertheless to revive and have courage, even though things don’t turn out as one first thought.

He considers the relationship between abstract principles and concrete actions — the disconnect between the two often produces self-righteous hypocrites who, despite their holier-than-thou air, are no better than those Parisian artists:

Don’t think that I look with contempt on people such as you describe because their life isn’t founded on serious and well-considered principles. My view on this is as follows: the result must be an action, not an abstract idea. I think principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds, and I think it’s good to reflect and to try to be conscientious, because that makes a person’s will to work more resolute and turns the various actions into a whole. I think that people such as you describe would get more steadiness if they went about what they do more rationally, but otherwise I much prefer them to people who make a great show of their principles without making the slightest effort to put them into practice or even giving that a thought. For the latter have no use for the finest of principles, and the former are precisely the people who, if they ever get round to living with willpower and reflection, will do something great. For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.

A letter from Vincent to Theo, October 22, 1882

Van Gogh considers how art transmutes that invisible impulse of principles into the bringing together of tangible greatness, a greatness that at once validates the principles and is sustained by them:

What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. And behold, how can one remain dedicated to such a task without allowing oneself to be lured from it or distracted, unless one reflects and organizes one’s life according to principles? And it’s the same with other things as it is with artistic matters. And the great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed. Whether originally deeds lead to principles in a person or principles lead to deeds is something that seems to me as unanswerable and as little worth answering as the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

But I believe it’s a positive thing and of great importance that one should try to develop one’s powers of thought and will.

The remainder of Ever Yours offers a revelatory, unprecedented glimpse of one of the most extraordinary minds in history — a man who managed to create, despite an anguishing lifelong struggle with mental illness, some of the greatest art humanity has ever known and even to help explain the scientific mysteries of movement and light through his paintings.

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