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Posts Tagged ‘love’

29 JUNE, 2015

Pathways to Bliss: Joseph Campbell on Why Perfectionism Kills Love and How to Save Your Relationship

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“Perfection is inhuman… What evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being.”

“Where the myth fails, human love begins,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. “Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” Indeed, just like perfectionism kills creativity, it also kills love — the more we mythologize and idealize the person we love, the more disillusioned and disheartened we grow as we come to know their imperfect humanity which, if untainted by these blinding ideals, is the very wellspring of true love. That is what playwright Tom Stoppard captured in what is perhaps the greatest definition of love, in his notion of “the mask slipped from the face,” the stripping of the idealized projection, the surrender to the beautiful imperfection of a human being.

How to successfully navigate love’s maze of ideal and reality is what master-mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell explores in a section of the posthumously published Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (public library), which offers a more personal complement to Campbell’s influential writings on bliss and the power of myth.

A century and a half after Stendhal’s insightful ideas on why we fall out of love, Campbell builds upon Carl Jung’s psychological theory of anima (the female ideal in the masculine unconscious) and animus (the male ideal in the feminine unconscious), and explores how our clinging to those ideals blinds us to the most rewarding part of romance.

His focus on marriage is especially timely and poignant today, when the institution of marriage is being reimagined to be more inclusive and more just, which also means it’s being challenged to rise to higher standards of integrity. Campbell writes:

Two people meet and fall in love. Then they marry, and the real Sam or Suzy begins to show through the fantasy, and, boy, is it a shock. So a lot of little boys and girls just withdraw their anima or animus. They get a divorce and wait for another receptive person, pitch the woo again, and, uh-oh, another shock. And so on and so forth.

Now the one undeniable fact: this disillusion is inevitable. You had an ideal. You married that ideal, then along comes a fact that does not correspond to that ideal. You suddenly notice things that do not quite fit with your projection. So what are you going to do when that happens? There’s only one attitude that will solve the situation: compassion. This poor, poor fact that I married does not correspond to my ideal; it’s only a human being. Well, I’m a human being, too. So I’ll meet a human being for a change; I’ll live with it and be nice to it, showing compassion for the fallibilities that I myself have certainly brought to life as a human being.

Decades later, Dan Savage would come to call this “the price of admission” — the most potent antidote to the perilous myth of “the one,” which is built upon a scaffolding of illusion and unattainable ideals. Campbell captures this with clarity at once grounding and elevating:

Perfection is inhuman. Human beings are not perfect. What evokes our love — and I mean love, not lust — is the imperfection of the human being. So, when the imperfection of the real person, compared to the ideal of your animus or anima, peeks through, say, this is a challenge to my compassion. Then make a try, and something might begin to get going here. You might begin to be quit of your fix on your anima.

Illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli from 'Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical' by Noémie Révah. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Campbell adds:

It’s just as bad to be fixed on your anima and miss as to be fixed on your persona: you’ve got to get free of that. And the lesson of life is to release you from it.

[…]

The principle of compassion is that which converts disillusionment into a participatory companionship. So when the fact shows through the animus or anima, what you must render is compassion. This is the basic love, the charity, that turns a critic into a living human being who has something to give to — as well as to demand of — the world.

This is how one is to deal with animus and anima disillusionment… That’s reality evoking a new depth of reality in yourself, because you’re imperfect, too. You may not know it. The world is a constellation of imperfections, and you, perhaps, are the most imperfect of all. By your love for the world you name it accurately and without pity and love what you have thus named… This discovery can help you save your marriage.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

And yet, paradoxically, Campbell argues that this is the task of life — not to avoid these anima and animus projections, which we all carry, but to confront them with courage and do the work of disillusionment so we can get to the imperfect realness of which true love is woven. (This is what Rilke meant when he counseled his young friend that “for one human being to love another … is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks … the work for which all other work is but preparation.”) Campbell speaks to the necessity of both the preparation and the work itself:

One of the boldest things you could possibly do would be to marry that ideal that you’ve fallen for. Then you face a real job, because everything has been projected onto him or her. This goes beyond lust; this is something that goes way down. It pulls everything out. This anima/animus is the fish line that has caught your whole unconscious, and everything’s going to come up — the Midgard Serpent, everything down in the bottom. This is what you marry.

Pathways to Bliss is a magnificent, richly insightful read in its entirety. Complement it with Campbell on the eleven stages of the hero’s journey — which, in a way, apply just as aptly to the lover’s journey — and his timeless wisdom on how to have a fulfilling life, then revisit the great Wendell Berry on marriage and Susan Sontag on the complexities of love.

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25 JUNE, 2015

The One That Got Away: The Bittersweet Story of George Orwell and His Childhood Sweetheart

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“It took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met.”

One summer day in a1914, an English family found a neighborhood boy standing on his head in their garden. When asked about his peculiar position, he replied: “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are the right way up.”

The boy was eleven-year-old Eric Blair, better known today as George Orwell (June 25, 1903–January 21, 1950), and the neighboring family were the Buddicoms, whose three children — Jacintha, Prosper, and Guinever — became young Eric’s favorite playmates. But it was the budding poet Jacintha, two years older than Eric, who captured his heart — soon, between them blossomed the tender and unspoken romantic affection of early adolescence.

And then something happened that abruptly ruptured the relationship — something that would remain a secret for decades, until years after Jacintha’s death in 1994 and more than half a century after Orwell’s.

Prosper and Guinever Buddicom with Eric Blair (right)

In the 2006 postscript to Buddicom’s 1974 memoir Eric & Us (public library), her cousin Dione Venables — who was left the copyrights to the book after Buddicom’s death and did significant research in the family archives — tells a disquieting story: Although Eric was a romantically awkward youth reticent to assert himself and unprone to aggression — and although he would grow up to be quite the feminist — during a summer holiday with the Buddicoms shortly before his departure to Burma in 1922, he “attempted to take things further and make SERIOUS love to Jacintha” despite her protestations. Failing to honor the basic “no means no” tenet of respectful intimate relationships, he pinned her down — he was 6’4″ and she just under 5′ — and, despite her exhorting him to stop, managed to rip her skirt and bruise her shoulder. He came to what little was left of his senses before the bodily assault went any further, but the assault on the relationship had fully ruptured it. Eric stayed with the family for the remainder of the holiday, but was kept apart from Jacintha.

Jacintha Buddicom in 1918

Upon returning from Burma five years later, he immediately sought out the Buddicoms, hoping to see Jacintha. Although he could barely make ends meet, he had brought with him an engagement ring for her.

He was invited for a visit, but only her siblings were there and the family was evasive about her absence — an absence shrouded in shame, for it was due to what was considered a grave transgression: Jacintha had just given birth to a child out of wedlock, by a man who fled the country as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. Her aunt and uncle adopted the baby, and she never told Orwell any of what was going on despite their occasional correspondence. He, instead, assumed that Jacintha was gone because she was still hurt and angry with him — which was undoubtedly true, but far from the complete story.

He eventually convinced Prosper to share her London number and telephoned her right away, begging her to meet him so he could make amends. She refused. He tried again two weeks later, but she would not relent. They went their separate ways. Jacintha eventually became the inspiration for many of Orwell’s female characters, most notably Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Illustration by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of 'Nineteen Eighy-Four.' Click image for more.

But the story doesn’t end there. Mere months before Orwell’s death, Buddicom found out in a letter from her aunt that her childhood friend Eric was the famous author George Orwell. Her feelings for him had remained conflicted and complex — she was hurt by his inexplicable youthful outburst, but had also never forgiven herself for not forgiving his flawed humanity and giving him a second chance. She was haunted by the latent realization that he had been her big love, the one that got away.

In a moving 1972 letter, found in the altogether revelatory George Orwell: A Life in Letters (public library), Buddicom exorcised this conflictedness while trying to console a relative navigating a similar situation of bearing a child out of wedlock. She writes:

I have just finished reading your sad letter and hasten to answer it. I cannot believe that the same miserable tragedy has struck twice in the same family but I CAN give you my total understanding and sympathy which might help a little. Strangely, your letter comes at a time when my mind and concentration are centred on similar events that took place in my life also some time ago.

[…]

How I wish I had been ready for betrothal when Eric asked me to marry him on his return from Burma. He had ruined what had been such a close and fulfilling relationship since childhood by trying to take us the whole way before I was anywhere near ready for that. It took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met. When the time came and I was ready for the next step it was with the wrong man and the result haunts me to this day… Memories of the joys and fun that Eric and I shared, knowing each other’s minds so totally ensured that I would never marry unless that “oneness”” could be found again.

One can’t help but feel that Buddicom is speaking to her own younger self — this, after all, might be true of most advice ever given — as she issues an unambiguous admonition to the young woman from this ambivalent place of resentment and wistful what-ifs:

You are still an extremely beautiful woman, even if you feel that this has been your downfall. The men in your life have not wanted your very great intelligence and so it has caused you to drift from relationship to relationship, looking for something you never find. A tragedy which you simply must take control of, or life will begin to depend on the bottle rather than the fascination of other lives and situations. At least you have not had the public shame of being destroyed in a classic book as Eric did to me. Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four is clearly Jacintha, of that I feel certain. He describes her with thick dark hair, being very active, hating politics — and their meeting place was a dell full of bluebells. We always wandered off to our special place when we were at Ticklerton which was full of bluebells. They die so quickly if you pick them so we never did but lay amongst them and adored their heavy pungent scent. That very bluebell dell is described in his book and is part of the central story but in the end he absolutely destroys me, like a man in hob nailed boots stamping on a spider. It hurt my mother so much when she read that book that we always thought it brought on her final heart attack a few days later. Be glad that you have not been torn limb from limb in public.

Gather yourself together, my Dear. Our family is well blessed with looks and brains and you have both in liberal quantities. You are an extremely elegant communicator so enjoy what you have instead of looking at the past… You have the finest of minds which outstrips your physical attributes. Make both work for you. Look ahead. What is past is gone. It is the only way I manage to keep my reason.

But the story of Jacintha and Eric isn’t entirely heartbreaking — it has, in fact, a rather bittersweet ending.

Jacintha Buddicom in 1948

In early 1949, as soon as Buddicom found out from her aunt that George Orwell was her childhood friend Eric, she telephoned his publisher to find out where he lived, hoping to reconnect and repair the relationship. Orwell, already in poor health, was being cared for in a sanatorium. She wrote to him on February 9, as soon as she got his address, but dated the letter February 14 — Valentine’s Day.

Orwell was greatly delighted by her missive and responded the very same day, but at first kept his tone rather reserved and signed with the somewhat distancing “Yours, Eric Blair.” He wrote:

I am a widower. My wife died suddenly four years ago, leaving me with a little (adopted) son who was then not quite a year old… I have been having this dreary disease (T.B.) in an acute way since the autumn of 1947, but of course it has been hanging over me all my life, and actually I think I had my first go of it in early childhood… I am trying now not to do any work at all, and shan’t start any for another month or two. All I do is read and do crossword puzzles. I am well looked after here and can keep quiet and warm and not worry about anything, which is about the only treatment that is any good in my opinion. Thank goodness Richard is extremely tough and healthy and is unlikely, I should think, ever to get this disease.

But seeing that the letter wasn’t posted immediately, he wrote a second, far warmer and more emotional one the next day, opening with their favorite childhood greeting:

Hail and Fare Well, my dear Jacintha,

… Ever since I got your letter I’ve been remembering. I can’t stop thinking about the young days with you & Guin & Prosper, & things put out of mind for 20 and 30 years. I am so wanting to see you. We must meet when I get out of this place, but the doctor says I’ll have to stay another 3 or 4 months.

George Orwell with his son, Richard, in 1946. (Photograph: Veina Richards)

What he writes next is of particular poignancy in light of the past — after Jacintha’s illegitimate daughter was born, her sister Guinever had remarked that young Eric “might well have welcomed the little girl as his own child.” Now, thirty years later, in telling Jacintha about his five-year-old adopted son, he poses a question perfectly innocent for him and perfectly piercing for her:

I would like you to see Richard… When I was not much more than his age I always knew I wanted to write, but for the first ten years it was very hard to make a living…

Are you fond of children? I think you must be. You were such a tender-hearted girl, always full of pity for the creatures we others shot & killed. But you were not so tender-hearted to me when you abandoned me to Burma with all hope denied. We are older now, & with this wretched illness the years will have taken more of a toll of me than of you. But I am well cared-for here & feel much better than I did when I got here last month. As soon as I can get back to London I do so want to meet you again. As we always ended so that there should be no ending.

Farewell and Hail.

Eric

Despite their mutual eagerness to reconnect, there was indeed no ending — Orwell’s health suffered a rapid decline over the next few months and he died of a massive lung hemorrhage in the early hours of January 21, 1950. But in this bittersweet epistolary reconciliation, the two shared a grace that few ruptured relationships enjoy — a special kind of closure in that one final, redemptive “Farewell and Hail.”

George Orwell: A Life in Letters is a fantastic read in its totality. Complement these with the beloved author on why he writes, his eleven golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, and some beautifully haunting illustrations for the celebrated novel into which he wrote Jacintha.

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12 JUNE, 2015

June 12, 1918: Einstein’s Divorce Agreement and the Messiness of the Human Heart

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“In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.”

It is always astounding to observe the readiness with which posterity comments on the private lives of public figures — the more prominent the latter, the more cynical the former. Couple that with our lamentable but all too human tendency to appease our own insecurities about imperfection by pointing out the flaws — perceived flaws, rather, based on alleged and unscrutinized “facts” — of others, and you get one of the saddest sports in our culture: poking holes in genius through hubristic commentary on the flawed intimate relationships of luminaries. Couples like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are frequent fare for the simplistic opinions of cynics — people who never met the couple in question, much less were present at their kitchen table or in their bedroom.

The truth, of course, is that nobody really knows exactly what transpires between two hearts — including, more often than we like to admit, the two people in whose chests they beat. But one can get a far more accurate and nuanced impression of a relationship’s complexities by engaging with the first-hand realities of those involved, through their letters and journals and memoirs, than by simply borrowing the opinions of posterity’s self-appointed pundits.

Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić

Nowhere is this truer than in the life of “the quintessential modern genius” and thus the most alluring target for that cultural sport: Albert Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, the Serbian physicist Mileva Marić, is mired in various allegations that boil down to some version of Einstein as a selfish egomaniac. But reading their prolific correspondence, which includes a great many beautiful love letters early on and deeply sorrowful exchanges as their love begins, or even seeing the Alan Alda play based on that correspondence, leaves one acutely aware of how much more nuance and dimension there is to their relationship, as to any relationship.

Even then, we’ve hardly glimpsed a fragment of the couple’s private truth. But there emerges a distinct sense that the unraveling of their love was the case of two strong-willed, ambitious individuals, both of enormous intellect and emotional capacity, who in growing up together — they had met when Albert was seventeen and Mileva twenty-one — simply grew apart.

Wedding photograph of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić, January 6, 1903

By 1912, the relationship was strained beyond repair. They separated in 1914, after eleven years of marriage and eighteen as a couple. Soon, Einstein grew an epistolary romance and fell in love with Elsa Löwenthal, his cousin. (This was far from uncommon in that era.) In 1916, he suggested a formal divorce, but after Mileva developed a heart condition and began suffering from fever attacks, he retracted the idea. “From now on, I’ll not trouble her any more with the divorce,” he wrote to a friend.

But tensions continued to rise and as Mileva’s condition improved, Einstein proposed divorce for the second time in January of 1918, in a letter found in Princeton University’s newly released digital archive of Einstein’s papers — which also gave us Einstein on the fickle nature of fame — and included in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 8: The Berlin Years: Correspondence, 1914–1918 (public library). What is most extraordinary is not only that he beseeches his wife for a divorce with such desperation as to practically bribe her, not only that he so readily offers his Nobel Prize money as part of the bribe, but that he does so three whole years before he actually got the Nobel Prize.

Dear Mileva,

The endeavor finally to put my private affairs in some state of order prompts me to suggest the divorce to you for the second time. I am firmly resolved to do everything to make this step possible. In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.

  1. 9,000 M [$1,560 then, $26,000 now] instead of 6,000 M, with the provision that 2,000 of it be deposited annually for the benefit of the children.
  2. The Nobel Prize — in the event of the divorce and in the event that it is bestowed upon me — would be ceded to you in full a priori. Disposal of the interest would be left entirely to your discretion. The capital would be despited in Switzerland and placed in safe-keeping for the children. My payments named under (1) would then fall away and be replaced by an annual payment which together with that interest totals 8,000 M. In this case you would have 8,000 M at your free disposition.
  3. The widow’s pension would be promised to you in the case of a divorce.

Naturally, I would make such huge sacrifices only in the case of a voluntary divorce. If you do not consent to the divorce, from now on, not a cent about 6,000 M per year will be sent to Switzerland. Now I request being informed whether you agree and are prepared to file a divorce claim against me. I would take care of everything here, so you would have neither trouble nor any inconveniences whatsoever.

Einstein ends with an endearing note about his elder son, Hans Albert, with whom he corresponded a great deal and once offered the secret to learning anything in a different letter. After a few well-wishing remarks about Mileva’s health, he writes:

Albert’s letters delight me exceedingly; fro them I see how well the boy is developing intellectually and in character… Kisses to the children.

Illustration from 'On a Beam of Light,' a children's book about Einstein's life. Click image for more.

Two months later, Einstein wrote to his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, perhaps his closest confidante at the time:

My wife and I now have quite a satisfactory relationship, despite my wanting to divorce… There is a lively exchange of letters between me and her; and now I believe that it works best if I discuss all matters openly with her.

On June 12, 1918, a divorce agreement was finally laid out, translating Einstein’s promise into legalese. The hypothetical but confidently awaited Nobel Prize money remains a centerpiece of the agreement, which includes the following clause:

Prof. Einstein shall instruct, in the event of a divorce and in case he receives the Nobel Prize, the [award money] to become the property of Mrs. Mileva Einstein and shall deposit this capital in trust at a Swiss bank.

He goes on to stipulate that in the event of Mileva’s death or remarriage, the award money should be transferred to their two sons instead.

Einstein in 1921

Mileva agreed and they divorced in 1919. In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics,” which were instrumental in catalyzing the rise of quantum physics. He received his prize money a year later and, being a man of his word, promptly transferred the funds to Mileva. Some years later, when their younger son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Einstein’s Nobel Prize paid for the young man’s towering and otherwise prohibitively expensive treatment.

Complement with Einstein on why we are alive, his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher and fellow Nobel laureate Tagore, his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice, and his answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray.

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01 JUNE, 2015

The Light of the World: Elizabeth Alexander on Love, Loss, and the Boundaries of the Soul

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“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.”

“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.

This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.

From the very opening lines, her writing flows with undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:

The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.

Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.

Art from 'The Heart and the Bottle' by Oliver Jeffers, an illustrated fable about love and loss. Click image for more.

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:

Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll marveled at this mystery, Alexander considers the boundary between the body and the soul:

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.

When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.

When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.

His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

She speaks to this evanescence beautifully, addressing Firce directly and in the same breath addressing everything that ever was and ever will be, the interconnectedness of all things, which is the very essence of the thing we call a soul:

Where are you? You are part of this storm, this wind, this rain, these leaves. Plants will one day grow from your bones in the Grove Street Cemetery, my empty dirt bed next to you.

I imagine your grave one day spontaneously covered with peonies, my favorite flower, the one you planted for me and which bloomed reliably on my birthday, May 30, every year.

[…]

Ficre in the bright leaves that have been falling from the trees in the afternoon light.

Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox, and Me' by Fanny Britt. Click image for more.

The subject of the everywhere-and-nowhere soul reappears as Alexander recounts how Ficre’s mother exited her own life:

My mother-in-law’s last night on earth, a fox crossed our path in Branford, Connecticut, as we left the hospice. We knew somehow that it was her… Do I believe that? Yes, I do. Poetic logic is my logic. I do not believe she was a fox. But I believe the fox was a harbinger. I believe that it was a strange enough occurrence that it should be heeded.

Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”

The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

Among the most mesmerizing of these invisibilia is the irremediable enigma of nonexistence:

What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone. Ficre not at the kitchen table seems impossible.

It is in the silent solace of the peonies that Alexander finds the promise of reconciliation between this vibrancy of presence and the incomprehensible dullness of nonexistence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” she writes:

This year, the peonies are magenta and white, and they blow open as big as toddlers’ heads, and soon they are spent and rotten, their petals brown and withered in the ground. Over and done until next year.

[…]

Flowers live, they are perfect and they affect us; they are God’s glory, they make us know why we are alive and human, that we behold. They are beautiful, and then they die and rot and go back to the earth that gave birth to them.

[…]

What is left of Ficre has a different form now. It is less sharp, more permeating, more essence, more distilled. It is less his body here, his body there, and more, he is the ground beneath us and the air we breathe.

This dance between the difference and sameness of forms comes alive in another aspect of the book: Sprinkled throughout it are recipes for Ficre’s favorite meals from his chef days, emanating a beautiful resonance with Alexander’s own craft — for the recipe form and the poetic form both effect something miraculously beautiful and nourishing with a great economy of language and proportion.

'Man as Industrial Palace,' a 1926 diagram by Fritz Kahn. Click image for more.

Embedded in Alexander’s memoir is also a subtle but unshakable reminder that we know almost as little about the machinery of the body as we do about the mystery of the soul. She cites one cardiologist who explained Frice’s death by asserting that “the stress of growing up in war and being a refugee affected his heart.” (The Eritrean War of Independence broke out in Ficre’s homeland shortly before his birth.) How jarring to consider that this much spiritual speculation goes into the supposed exact science of Western medicine — speculation that not only exposes how little we know but borders on superstition, invoking Wole Soyinka’s memorable meditation on Western medicine and African mysticism. With an eye to this vast expanse of unknowns, Alexander writes:

The earth that looks solid is, in fact, a sinkhole, or could be. Half of things are as they seem. The other half, who knows.

Perhaps Western medicine’s pathological reliance on euphemism, particularly in the face of death, is one symptom of our troubled relationship with the unknown and the unknowable — a tenuous hedge against the mystery of it all. Alexander speaks to this with aching elegance:

He was probably dead before he hit the ground, the emergency room doctor and the coroner and a cardiologist I later speak with tell me. That is why there was no blood on the floor, despite his head wound and the scalp’s vascularity. He might have felt strange, the doctors told me, before what they call “the cardiac event,” but not for more than a flash. One tells me he is certain Ficre saw my face as he died. We are meant to take comfort in this knowledge, if knowledge it is.

The knowledge of truth, Alexander suggests, comes in many forms and if there is a membrane between the practical and the poetic at all, between the scientific and the spiritual, it is porous and permeable. Although neither she nor her husband had religion present in their adult lives, she finds herself unexpectedly corralled into the spiritual path by the squeeze of sorrow:

Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.

[…]

I did not grow up in the black church, nor with the Negro spirituals. Now I understand them as never before. Their poetry feels pure and profound. I been in sorrow’s kitchen and done licked out all the pots. Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Half a century after Flannery O’Conner discerned the difference between religion and faith, Alexander considers the other role of religion — religion not as a public institution in the service of dogma but as a private institution in the service of the human quest for meaning:

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? … Art is certainly my religion. I believe in the chosen family, especially as I get older. I believe in some kind of encompassing black culture that I am part of — “syncretic,” to use the word Ficre liked — but I am also aware of the romance behind that sense of belonging. I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do: Rosh Hashanah. Days of Awe. Invite the dead to Sukkot. There seems to be a poetic ritual for everything… I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

She revisits the allure of the old gospel songs, particularly “How I Got Over” by Mahalia Jackson — one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites. In fact, it was Jackson who, during a momentary lapse in his iconic speech, famously prompted Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” (The daughter of politically active parents, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C., and at the age of one stood at the Mall of Washington alongside her parents as Dr. King heeded Jackson and told the world about his dream.)

As she recounts an exchange with her younger son, Alexander returns once more to the question of the soul, shining her sidewise gleam on yet another dimension of it:

I hope you’re not turning all Christian, Simon says, when he comes home and finds me uncharacteristically blaring gospel music. I am not, but I am listening to Mahalia Jackson in a whole new way. How I got over, My soul looks back in wonder, I hear it for the very first time. The gratitude in that song is what washes over me, the word thank repeated over and over. My soul does indeed look back in wonder; I had Ficre; I have Ficre; I have these extraordinary children; I have a village; I have an art-form; I am black; we are African; we come from survivors and doers; my parents are wise and strong; my body is strong; I was loved without bound or condition; I exist in time and in context, not floating in space; my troubles are small compared to some; my troubles are not eternal; my days are not through.

[…]

Who we are as a people and how we make our way through sorrows that feel so profoundly intimate and personal but in fact exist on larger continuums, is what I hear in the song today.

[…]

In the absence of organized religion, faith abounds, in the form of song and art and food and strong arms.

Perhaps because children are still free from the adult world’s tyranny of labels, it is her young son who best captures this function of faith — a function that transcends the unimaginative designations of fact and fiction, serving instead as sacred communion with the most intimate truths of one’s inner life. Alexander writes:

One night at bedtime, Simon asks if I want to come with him to visit Ficre in heaven.

Yes, I say, and lie down on his bed.

“First you close your eyes,” he says, “and ride the clear glass elevator. Up we go.”

What do you see? I ask.

God is sitting at the gate, he answers.

What does God look like? I ask.

Like God, he says.

Now, we go to where Daddy is. He has two rooms, Simon says, one room with a single bed and his books and another where he paints. The painting room is vast. He can look out any window he wants and paint. That room has four views: our backyard, the dock he painted in Maine, Asmara, and New Mexico.

New Mexico? I ask.

Yes, Simon says, the volcano crater with the magic grass. Ah yes, I say, the caldera, where we saw the gophers and the jackrabbits and the elk running across and Daddy called it the veldt.

Yes. Do you see it?

And I do. The light is perfect for painting. His bed in heaven is a single bed.

Okay, it’s time to go now, Simon says. So down we go.

You can come with me anytime, he says.

Thank you, my darling.

I don’t think you can find it by yourself yet, he says, but one day you will.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown' by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

The book borrows its beautiful title from a Derek Walcott poem, a line from which — “Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!” — was etched onto the bench by the side of Ficre’s grave, for Ficre was a man animated by “an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” But it is another poetic enchanter of the psyche that ultimately lends Alexander the closest thing to an answer in this dance with the unknown. With an eye to Rilke’s famous line — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror” — she writes:

When we met those many years ago, I let everything happen to me, and it was beauty. Along the road, more beauty, and fear and struggle, and work, and learning, and joy. I could not have kept Ficre’s death from happening, and from happening to us. It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us.

If no feeling is final, there is more for me to feel.

The Light of the World is an absolutely luminous read, the kind full of incompressible dimension best experienced in its totality. Complement it with Joan Didion on grief and another poet’s moving memoir of love and loss — Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye — then revisit these intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids make sense of death.

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