Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘love’

21 APRIL, 2015

Charlotte Brontë’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters of Unrequited Affection

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“When one does not complain … one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.”

Four years after English novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) turned down a suitor’s marriage proposal with her assertive yet generous masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model, the tables turned and she found herself on the opposite end of unrequited love.

In 1842, Charlotte and her sister Emily moved to Brussels to teach English and music, respectively, in exchange for board and tuition. When their aunt died suddenly that October, the sisters had to leave the boarding school and take care of the family crisis. The following January, 28-year-old Charlotte traveled back to Brussels by herself and fell madly in love with Constantin Héger, the founder of the school and her personal tutor in French. She returned home to Haworth a year later but remained besotted with Héger — a married man with children — and began writing him letters of extraordinary emotional intensity, at times as frequently as twice a week. Héger, who barely responded, finally let his wife take over the situation. Madame Héger wrote to Brontë instructing her that she may write once every six months at most. Héger tore up Brontë’s letters, but his prudent wife fished them out of the garbage and stitched them together for preservation purposes.

In 1894, four decades after Brontë’s death, Héger’s daughter showed the recovered letters to another former pupil of her father’s, Frederika Macdonald. Originally, Macdonald advised secrecy in light of the missives’ emotional complexities, fearing that the public wouldn’t understand that the now-famous novelist’s feelings for her former tutor weren’t an “ordinary improper affection” but “a consuming sentiment burning down self-respect and self-restraint.” But the letters changed Macdonald’s own view of Brontë, infusing her previous image as a wholesome Victorian goddess of feminine domestic duty with an air of romantic recklessness — a shift that seemed significant enough in shaping posterity’s understanding of this complex woman that Héger’s own children donated the four surviving letters to the British Library in 1913, seven decades after Brontë had penned them.

They were published in The Times on July 29 of that year and were eventually included in the British Library’s altogether delectable volume Love Letters: 2,000 Years of Romance (public library), which also features passionate missives by Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and Henry VIII.

Page from Charlotte Brontë's letter to Constantin Héger (British Library)

In a letter to Héger from early January of 1845, 29-year-old Brontë relays her deep disappointment of finding no mail from him and writes:

I said to myself, what I would say to someone else in such a case: “You will have to resign yourself to the fact, and above all, not distress yourself about a misfortune that you have not deserved.” I did my utmost not to cry not to complain —

But when one does not complain, and when one wants to master oneself with a tyrant’s grip — one’s faculties rise in revolt — and one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.

Day and night I find neither rest nor peace — if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me —

Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing you again — How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its suffering?

Despite the lucid awareness that Héger would likely “lose patience” with her for writing the letter, which she even acknowledges in the letter itself, Brontë is gripped with the all-consuming mania familiar to those whose composed ordinary selves have ever been colonized by the psychic parasite of extraordinary infatuation. She implores:

I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches — all I know — is that I cannot — that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship — I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope — if he gives me a little friendship — a very little — I shall be content — happy, I would have a motive for living — for working.

Illustration from 'Jane, the Fox and Me,' a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

That Brontë voices the pitiful internal bargaining of those desperate with desire is only, perhaps, to her credit — to stand by one’s feelings with such openhearted vulnerability even in the face of clear and imminent rejection is one of the greatest acts of courage:

Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on — they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich man’s table — but if they are refused these crumbs — they die of hunger — No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love — I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship — I am not accustomed to it — but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels — and I cling to the preservation of this little interest — I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

In accordance with our pathological allergy to uncertainty — the same strange psychology that leads those awaiting a diagnosis to almost prefer bad news to no news — she beseeches:

Perhaps you will say to me — “I no longer take the slightest interest in you Miss Charlotte — you no longer belong to my household — I have forgotten you.”

Well Monsieur tell me so candidly — it will be a shock to me — that doesn’t matter — it will still be less horrible than uncertainty.

She ends with a plea for sympathy disguised as a damning admonition — perhaps to Héger’s wife, who ultimately handled the letters, and perhaps in part to posterity, to those of us reading her heart today:

I don’t want to reread this letter — I am sending it as I have written it — Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it — “she is raving” — My sole revenge is to wish these people — a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months — then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too.

One suffers in silence so long as one has the strength and when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words much.

The following year, the Brontë sisters self-published their pseudonymous joint collection of poems that catapulted them into literary stardom and Charlotte began writing Jane Eyre — one of the greatest novels of all time, which centers on a young woman’s sincere love for a man set to marry someone else; in the novel, unlike in Brontë’s own life, once the otherwise rational and collected heroine professes her love in an openhearted declaration, the byronic hero forsakes his romantic commitment to the other woman and proposes marriage to Jane.

For more beautifully heartbreaking love letters, see those from Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer and Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, then restore your faith in requited love with the passionate correspondence of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and Vladimir and Véra Nabokov.

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21 APRIL, 2015

Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves

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“Sit. Feast on your life.”

The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written beautifully about why learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves — a sentiment that the reactive modern cynic might dismiss as the vacant fodder of self-help books, but one which more considered reflection reveals to be deeply truthful and deeply uncomfortable. What, after all, does loving oneself even mean — particularly if we’re aspiring to be unselfish and generous, and to outgrow the illusory ego-shell we call a self?

That’s what Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) — a writer of such extraordinary poetic prowess that his 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature appears a wholly inadequate measure of his mastery and mesmerism — addresses with a luminous sidewise gleam in a poem titled “Love After Love,” found in his Collected Poems: 1948–1984 (public library).

On an archival On Being episode titled “Opening to Our Lives,” mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn reads Walcott’s masterpiece — undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written. Please enjoy:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This reading is part of On Being’s altogether wonderful Poetry Radio Project. Complement it with other poetry-lovers’ readings of favorite poems: Amanda Palmer reads Wislawa Szymborska, David Whyte reads Mary Oliver, Joanna Macy reads Rainer Maria Rilke, and my reading of Mark Strand

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20 APRIL, 2015

The Virtues of a Wandering Heart: How External Crushes Fortify Your Relationship

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“The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.”

Even as we arrive at an actual mathematical formula for lasting love, we remain tragicomically unskilled at anticipating — to say nothing of domesticating — the unpredictable, nonlinear dynamics of the human heart.

That’s what novelist and Believer magazine founding editor Heidi Julavits, who joins the ranks of history’s notable diarists, touches on with equal parts gentleness and precision in a couple of related meditations from the kaleidoscopically illuminating The Folded Clock: A Diary (public library).

In one entry, as she comforts a friend suspecting spousal infidelity, Julavits relays the curious findings of a study she had recently come across:

The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.

This, of course, makes sense — we know that love is a mode of “interbeing” and a “dynamic interaction” in which the opportunity to choose each other over and over is what sustains the longevity of a couple’s bond.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' a vintage Danish guide to romance, which Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife. Click image for details.

In another entry a few months later, pondering the curious psychology of the TV show The Bachelorette, Julavits revisits this subject and corroborates the empirical with the anecdotal:

Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond positively when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves.

[…]

This has happened to me many times. It happened to me on a canoe trip; the minute we returned to civilization, I recanted my crush on the guy I’d angled to sit next to at the nightly campfires. I have been so cognizant of this phenomenon, and its inevitability, that I got nervous in college while waiting to hear where in France I was to spend my semester abroad, because I knew that a guy my friend was dating, someone I’d always found abstractly cute, was also going to France. Fortunately we were sent to different cities. Had we been in the same city, I am certain we would have fallen in love, or the sort of love that occurs in those situations, call it what you will, probably a mistake. This is also why I get nervous about going to art colonies, especially now that I am happily married to a man I met at an art colony. I don’t want to fall for anyone else — I am pointedly not looking to fall for anyone — but these situations conspire against our best intentions. Art colonies, often located in remote woods or on beautiful estates, are communities in which all the residents sever ties to the real world within hours of arrival; they are like singles mixers for the married or otherwise spoken for. (I was married when I met my now-husband, who was otherwise spoken for.) When I arrive at a colony these days, I take a measure of the room, I identify the potential problems, I reinforce my weak spots, and then I relax.

Illustration from 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,' Shel Silverstein's minimalist allegory of true love. Click image for more.

This kind of considered candor in the service of a larger truth is what makes The Folded Clock an immensely pleasurable read in its entirety. Julavits — who is at times self-deprecating to the point of tears that, having no other recourse in order to continue reading this undeniably marvelous text, eventually transmogrify into tears of delight — captures the book’s sensibility perfectly in one of the entires:

I’ve felt okay occasionally describing my diary as a “contemporary take on Walden.” Like Thoreau, I am pretending that I wrote this diary over the course of a year, when in fact I wrote it over the course of two years, two months, and two days (give or take). Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deliberately” and was worried that if I did not I might, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Unlike Thoreau, I have no fondness for sparse living. I do not covet hardship. I liked the idea of Walden, however, because it was written in a cabin in the woods. It’s a sort-of nature book that took place (at least the writing did) inside. Interiors are where I do my exploring. Interiors are my nature. I am an outdoorsman of the indoors… When I am there I am happiest. In my outbuilding I am sucking out optimum marrow.

Couple with some actual Thoreau, then fortify with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love, Dan Savage on the unsettling secret of lasting love, Wendell Berry on freedom and marriage, and Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.

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06 APRIL, 2015

When Leaving Becomes Arriving: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Ending Relationships

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“Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you.”

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh cautioned in his illuminating treatise on love. But even when this incremental laceration finally becomes an irreparable rupture, leaving love behind is never easy, for it also asks that we leave behind the part of ourselves that did the loving. And yet for all but the very fortunate and the very foolish, this difficult transition is an inevitable part of the human experience, of the ceaseless learning journey that is life — because, after all, anything worth pursuing is worth failing at, and fail we do as we pursue.

The delicate duality of that experience is what English poet and philosopher David Whyte, a man of immense wisdom on life’s complexities, addresses with bestirring beauty in “The Journey,” found in his altogether exquisite third book of poetry, The House of Belonging (public library) — a poem he wrote for a friend undertaking that immensely harrowing yet hopeful act of leaving a wounding relationship and rewriting what was once a shared future into a solitary turn toward the greater possibilities of the unknown.

One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much, at the end, leaving the person themselves — because, by that time, you’re ready to go; what’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow — no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you would share with them — you will never, ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate of giving away but making space for another form of reimagination.

THE JOURNEY

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

The poem calls to mind Mary Oliver’s equally but very differently emboldening masterwork of the same title. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, Whyte is among the millions moved by the Oliver classic, which derives its magic from how open-endedly yet pointedly it speaks to multiple dimensions of the human experience, unified by the urgency of reaching for a greater life that is possible.

Whyte’s reading of the beloved poem — the way he gasps “finally” and chants “Mend my life!” and teases out that courageous grasp for a greater life — only amplifies its resonance in the realm of love.

Complement The House of Belonging, which is a tremendous read in its totality, with Whyte on another aspect of the art of relationship — the three “marriages” of work, self, and love.

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