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Posts Tagged ‘love’

07 JANUARY, 2015

The Greatest Definition of Love

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“Knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face…”

Literary history is as strewn with colorful attempts to define love — including some particularly memorable ones — as modern psychology is with attempts to dissect its inner workings. But perhaps the most powerful and profoundly human definition I’ve ever encountered comes from Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play The Real Thing (public library) — a masterwork of insight on the heart’s trials and triumphs in human relationships.

In the second act, when the protagonist’s cynical teenage daughter probes what falling in love is like, he offers a disarmingly raw, earnest, life-earned answer:

It’s to do with knowing and being known. I remember how it stopped seeming odd that in biblical Greek, knowing was used for making love. Whosit knew so-and-so. Carnal knowledge. It’s what lovers trust each other with. Knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face. Every other version of oneself is on offer to the public. We share our vivacity, grief, sulks, anger, joy… we hand it out to anybody who happens to be standing around, to friends and family with a momentary sense of indecency perhaps, to strangers without hesitation. Our lovers share us with the passing trade. But in pairs we insist that we give ourselves to each other. What selves? What’s left? What else is there that hasn’t been dealt out like a deck of cards? Carnal knowledge. Personal, final, uncompromised. Knowing, being known. I revere that. Having that is being rich, you can be generous about what’s shared — she walks, she talks, she laughs, she lends a sympathetic ear, she kicks off her shoes and dances on the tables, she’s everybody’s and it don’t mean a thing, let them eat cake; knowledge is something else, the undealt card, and while it’s held it makes you free-and-easy and nice to know, and when it’s gone everything is pain. Every single thing. Every object that meets the eye, a pencil, a tangerine, a travel poster. As if the physical world has been wired up to pass a current back to the part of your brain where imagination glows like a filament in a lobe no bigger than a torch bulb. Pain.

Complement this gem from the altogether brilliant The Real Thing with the stirring 1958 letter of advice on falling in love that John Steinbeck sent to his teenage son, Susan Sontag’s lifetime of reflections on love, and Sherwin Nuland on what everybody needs.

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02 JANUARY, 2015

What Everybody Needs

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“The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are.”

In 1994, Sherwin Nuland (1930–2014) — a remarkable surgeon and Yale clinical professor who in his nearly four decades of practice cared, truly cared, for more than 10,000 patients — received the National Book Award for his humanistic masterwork How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (public library), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year. It is one of the most existentially elevating books I’ve ever read — an inquiry as much into how we exit this life as into how we fill its living moments with meaning, integrity and, ultimately, happiness. Four years later, Nuland followed up with How We Live (public library), addressing the art of aliveness — that spectacular resilience of which the human body and mind are capable — with equal wisdom and warmth.

Shortly after Nuland’s death in the spring of 2014, Krista Tippett — host of the sublime public radio show On Being and enchantress of the human spirit through the communion of conversation — shared her talk with Nuland, recorded several years earlier. The entire episode is absolutely fantastic, but one particular passage both illuminates the heart of Nuland’s legacy and articulates beautifully an essential, elemental truth — the same one at which Tolstoy and Gandhi arrived — that we, both as individuals and as a civilization, so easily let ourselves forget:

Do you know what I learned from writing [How We Die], if I learned nothing else? The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are… And when I say universal, I don’t mean universal only within our culture… There’s a lot of balderdash thrown around — “You don’t understand people who live in Sri Lanka and their response to the tsunami because you just don’t know that culture.”

Well, there’s an element of that — but, to me, cultural differences are a kind of patina over the deepest psychosexual feelings that we have, that all human beings share.

To illustrate the inextricable connectedness of these deeper human truths, Nuland turns to a maxim that scholars attribute to the first-century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” The phrase, the spirit of which Lucinda Williams echoed in her sublime paean to compassion, appears in the epitaph of Nuland’s excellent memoir of his father, Lost in America. He tells Tippett:

When you recognize that pain — and response to pain — is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. It teaches you forbearance. It teaches you a moderation in your responses to other people’s behavior. It teaches you a sort of understanding. It essentially tells you what everybody needs. You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word?

Everybody needs to be understood.

And out of that comes every form of love.

If someone truly feels that you understand them, an awful lot of neurotic behavior just disappears — disappears on your part, disappears on their part. So if you’re talking about what motivates this world to continue existing as a community, you’ve got to talk about love… And my argument is it comes out of your biology because on some level we understand all of this. We put it into religious forms. It’s almost like an excuse to deny our biology. We put it into pithy, sententious aphorisms, but it’s really coming out of our deepest physiological nature.

Listen to the full episode of On Being below and be sure to subscribe to this ennobling gift Krista Tippett puts into the world, then treat yourself to Nuland’s indispensable How We Live and How We Die. Dive deeper into the latter here.

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03 DECEMBER, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov’s Passionate Love Letters to Véra and His Affectionate Bestiary of Nicknames for Her

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“You are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought…”

Long before Vladimir Nabokov became a sage of literature, Russia’s most prominent literary émigré, and a man of widely revered strong opinions, the most important event of his life took place: 24-year-old Vladimir met 21-year-old Véra. She would come to be not only his great love and wife for the remaining half century of his life, but also one of creative history’s greatest sidekicks by acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

So taken was Vladimir with Véra’s fierce intellect, her independence, her sense of humor, and her love of literature — she had been following his work and clipping his poems since she was nineteen and he twenty-two — that he wrote his first poem for her after having spent mere hours in her company. But nowhere did his all-consuming love and ebullient passion unfold with more mesmerism than in his letters to her, which he began writing the day after they met and continued until his final hours. They are now collected in the magnificent tome Letters to Véra (public library) — a lifetime of spectacular contributions to the canon of literary history’s greatest love letters, with intensity and beauty of language rivaled only, perhaps, by the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and those of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

In July of 1923, a little more than two months after they met, Vladimir writes to Véra:

I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being — well, understood, perhaps, — so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely…

[…]

Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.

[…]

See you soon my strange joy, my tender night.

By November, his love has only intensified:

How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it — and can’t recall a single trifle I’ve lived through without regret — so sharp! — that we haven’t lived through it together — whether it’s the most, the most personal, intransmissible — or only some sunset or other at the bend of a road — you see what I mean, my happiness?

And I know: I can’t tell you anything in words — and when I do on the phone then it comes out completely wrong. Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully, the way we talk with people long gone… in terms of purity and lightness and spiritual precision… You can be bruised by an ugly diminutive — because you are so absolutely resonant — like seawater, my lovely.

I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.

Vladimir's letter to Véra from November 8, 1923

After a charming aside professing that he had begun writing a poem for her on the page but a “very inconvenient little tail got left” and he had no other paper on which to start over, he continues in his characteristic spirit of earnest lyricism with a sprinkle of disarming irreverence:

Most of all I want you to be happy, and it seems to me that I could give you that happiness — a sunny, simple happiness — and not an altogether common one…

I am ready to give you all of my blood, if I had to — it’s hard to explain — sounds flat — but that’s how it is. here, I’ll tell you — with my love I could have filled ten centuries of fire, songs, and valor — ten whole centuries, enormous and winged, — full of knights riding up blazing hills — and legends about giants — and fierce Troys — and orange sails — and pirates — and poets. And this is not literature since if you reread carefully you will see that the knights have turned out to be fat.

But Nabokov makes clear that his feelings supersede the playful and expand into the profound:

I simply want to tell you that somehow I can’t imagine life without you…

I love you, I want you, I need you unbearably… Your eyes — which shine so wonder-struck when, with your head thrown back, you tell something funny — your eyes, your voice, lips, your shoulders — so light, sunny…

You came into my life — not as one comes to visit … but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

In a letter from December 30 reminiscent of Lolita’s famous opening line, he writes:

I love you very much. Love you in a bad way (don’t be angry, my happiness). Love you in a good way. Love your teeth…

I love you, my sun, my life, I love your eyes — closed — all the little tails of your thoughts, your stretchy vowels, your whole soul from head to heels.

On the one hand, the half-century span of Vladimir’s love letters to Véra do follow the neurobiological progression of love, moving from the passionate attraction that defines the beginning of a romance to the deep, calmer attachment of longtime love. On the other, however, they suggest that the very act of writing love letters can help sustain the excitement and passion of a long-term relationship, countering what Stendhal called the “crystallization” that leads to disenchantment.

In fact, in 1926 — three years into the relationship — Nabokov, a lifelong lover of wordplay, enlists an especially endearing strategy in infusing their correspondence with passionate sparkle. While Véra is at a Swiss sanatorium to regain weight she had lost due to anxiety and depression, Nabokov begins addressing her by an increasingly amusing series of nicknames — no doubt in part to amuse and cheer her up, in part to live up to his earlier assertion that she “can be bruised by an ugly diminutive,” but also possibly as a language-lover’s creative exercise for himself, a playful daily assignment of sorts. The traditional terms of endearment opening his earlier letters — “my happiness,” “my love and joy,” “my dear life” — give way to a loving bestiary of nicknames, inspired by Vladimir and Véra’s shared love of animals.

Among his addresses to her that summer are “Sparrowling,” “Pussykins,” “Mousie,” “Mymousch” (after the Russian for “monkey”), “Mothling,” “Roosterkin,” “Long bird of paradise with the precious tail” (in a letter that closes with “Goodbye, my heavenly, my long one, with the dazzling tail and the little dachshund paws”), “Fire-Beastie,” and the especially wonderful “Pupuss,” which Nabokov parenthetically explains as “a little cross between a puppy and a kitten.”

In one letter from June of 1926, he opens by addressing Véra as “Mosquittle” and, after reporting on how his work is going, gushes:

My tender Mosquittle, I love you. I love you, my superlative Mosquittle… My sweet creature… I love you. I am going to bed, Mosquittle… Good night, my darling, my tenderness, my happiness.

In one letter that would no doubt have embarrassed the very private Véra (who destroyed all of her own letters to Vladimir), he addresses her by “Skunky” — a nickname itself far from offensive in the context of his already established warmth of adoration and its menagerous manifestations, but one that may have mortified Véra by the venereal basis for it that Nabokov’s naughty closing lines imply:

Well, Skunky, good night. You will never guess (I am kissing you) what exactly I am kissing.

But jest aside, it’s worth noting here what a true masterwork of linguistic craftsmanship — in the true Virginia Woolfian sense — these letters are for translator Olga Voronina. As if it weren’t daunting enough to translate the man who reserved rather ungenerous words for translators, Nabokov’s love of wordplay and his penchant for untranslatable words render his quirky animal-inspired endearments especially challenging. But even his favorite standard endearment lacks for an English equivalent. Voronina writes in the preface:

Most often, he prefers to call his wife dushen’ka, literally a diminutive of the Russian word dusha (“soul,” “psyche”). It would have been possible to translate this word as “darling” (our choice), “sweetheart” or “dearest” (options from a discarded pile), had the writer not bedecked it with other tender adjectives: dorogaya (“dear”), lyubimaya (“beloved”), milaya (“lovely,” “sweet”), and bestsennaya (“priceless”). We used “dear darling” a few times in spite of its sounding too alliterative, resorted to “beloved darling” rarely, tried “sweet darling” once or twice, and once (April 15, 1939) had to go along with “My beloved and precious darling.” Unfortunately, even that baroque phrase does not fully convey the fretful and persistent affection of the Russian “dushen’ka moya lyubimaya i dragotsennaya,” with its one and a half times as many syllables and with the adjectives coming cajolingly after the noun.

In some cases, readers simply have to accept it as a given that Nabokov did not use his tenderness sparingly.

And that’s precisely the point — the true gift of these letters is how they immerse the reader in a soul-warming bath of Nabokov’s tender and exuberant love, not only for his wife but for literature and for life itself. What John Updike once wrote on the jacket of Nabokov’s Selected Letters, 1940–1977“Dip in anywhere, and delight follows. What a writer! And, really, what a basically reasonable and decent man.” — is even more vibrantly true in Letters to Véra.

Complement with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, the necessary qualities of a great storyteller, and the attributes of a good reader.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.