Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘out of print’

06 JULY, 2015

A Living Obituary: Faulkner’s Beautiful Epitaph for Himself

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“He made the books and he died.”

By the time 64-year-old William Faulkner took his last breath on July 6, 1962, he had been a little-known Jazz Age artist, a world-famous sage of literature, the author of an obscure children’s book with a curious back-story, the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Nobel laureate whose prize acceptance speech is itself a supreme work of art.

Perhaps because of this prolific and diverse body of work, or perhaps because he was as deliberate about how he lived his life, Faulkner was remarkably deliberate about how he would be remembered after his death.

While working on The Portable Faulkner in 1946, legendary editor Malcolm Cowley had pressed the author for biographical details, but the request was met with resistance. Three years later, Life magazine asked Cowley to write a piece on Faulkner. But after encountering Cowley’s biographical essay on Hemingway for a similar Life assignment, Faulkner grew reaffirmed in his resistance to being the subject of an intrusive biography.

In a 1949 letter to Cowley, penned a few months before Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize and found in Selected Letters of William Faulkner (public library), the 51-year-old author writes his own epitaph in what is essentially a beautiful living obituary:

I am more convinced and determined than ever that this is not for me. I will protest to the last: no photographs, no recorded documents. It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.

Faulkner’s resistance springs from the same source as Anaïs Nin’s refusal to be profiled and our present concerns about privacy — the fear that because no life is really a single and linear story, compressing its ever-evolving complexity into a static set of biographical details or data points does a grave disservice to what Walt Whitman called the multitudes comprising each of us. Any attempt at a neatly packaged public understanding therefore engenders in the private individual a deep sense of being misunderstood.

Assuage Faulkner’s concern with Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Faulkner on the meaning of life, the writer’s responsibility to society, and his little-known children’s book.

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03 JULY, 2015

Teenage Sylvia Plath’s First Tragic Poem, with a Touching Remembrance by Her Mother

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“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things,” Sylvia Plath observed in a BBC interview shortly before she took her own life. But the seed of those dark emotions started sprouting many years earlier, when Plath was still a teenager — quite a common life-stage for the first onset of depression.

In the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us teenage Sylvia’s letters on the joy of living — her mother, Aurelia Plath, shares young Sylvia’s first poem marked by tragic undertones. The inspiration for it is a testament to the poet’s universal task of dramatizing the ordinary and transmuting it into the profound: One afternoon, Sylvia had just finished drawing a pastel still-life and was showing it to her grandmother when the doorbell rang; the grandmother took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it.

That evening, Plath penned her first tragic poem. She was fourteen.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Plath’s English teacher showed the poem to a colleague, who — unaware of the rather comically benign incident that inspired the poem — exclaimed: “Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.” But even more precocious than the emotional richness of the poem was young Sylvia’s response when Aurelia relayed the teacher’s remark to her — the teenage poet “smiled impishly,” as her mother recalls, and said:

Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.

And yet those tragic undertones were more than mere dramatic flair — they would come to dominate both Plath’s poetry and her journals.

But the eclipse of her inner April sun was gradual. In letter to her mother from early 1955, also included in the volume, 23-year-old Plath dangles her feet over the precipice of the abyss that would eventually consume her — she is aware that the abyss exists but still regards it as a curious phenomenon rather than a mortal threat, a challenge that can be overcome with sufficient optimism and discipline:

I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.

But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy.

We now know, of course, that clinical depression is not something one can simply will away “with bravo and philosophy.” But Plath’s letter does intuit much of what scientists have since confirmed about depression: its hereditary nature and the role of rumination — that tendency to “lie awake at nights hating [oneself] for stupidities” — as a major cognitive vulnerability factor in depression.

Above all, Plath’s prolific creative output and her tragic end attest to what is perhaps the finest line in mental health: While ordinary melancholy enriches our capacity for creativity, depression — its severe clinical counterpart — crushes the creative spirit. And yet our cultural narrative about artists who lose their lives to mental illness is woefully devoid of nuance — to romanticize suicide is as fraught as to dismiss an entire body of work on account of the artist’s tragic end. It is possible — nay, necessary — to recognize that while suicide is indeed an unspeakable tragedy, without their creative restlessness, without their capacity for “the sharp, sweet pain that only joy can hold,” artists like Plath and Van Gogh and Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace would have likely succumbed to their tragic neurochemistry much sooner. To celebrate their art, then, is to celebrate not the malady that led to their deaths but the gift that enriched and extended their lives.

Complement the altogether revelatory Letters Home with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her little-known children’s book, and her reading of the breath-stopping poem “The Birthday Present” shortly after her last birthday.

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02 JULY, 2015

The Magic Box: A Whimsical Vintage Children’s Book for Grownups About Life, Death, and How To Be More Alive Every Day

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“This book was written outside the cemetery wall … in memory of life, the wonder & pain of it & the unspeakable worthwhileness of every second of it.”

“Death is our friend,” wrote Rilke in a beautiful 1923 letter, “precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” And yet most of us spend our days dreading this inevitable and natural conclusion to the human journey, casting death as life’s ultimate and most hateful antagonist — a fear that invariably contracts our aliveness.

How to have a more expansive and enlivening relationship with our mortality is what writer Joseph Pintauro and artist Norman Laliberté explore half a century after Rilke in the 1970 treasure The Magic Box (public library) — a most unusual and wonderful children’s book for adults about life and death, the seasonality of being, and the beauty that springs from our impermanence.

A grownup counterpart to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death, this vintage gem is part of a marvelous limited-edition set by Pintauro and Laliberté called The Rainbow Box — a collection of four such psychedelic art books, one for each season of the year: this one for autumn, The Peace Box for winter, The Rabbit Box for spring, and A Box of Sun for summer.

The Magic Box presents a series of short, vitalizing meditations on mortality, illustrated with beautiful typographic art and collage incorporating Victorian engravings reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s only children’s book. The back cover captures Pintauro’s charming tone of earnest, uncynical irreverence:

this book will scare you if you are stupid

if you are not stupid it will make you happy

Stupidity aside, if you are sensitive and wholehearted, it will most definitely make you rapturous with delight — here is a peek inside:

Complement The Magic Box, immeasurably wonderful in its entirety, with Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness and a very different contemporary take on the seasonality of life: Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s breathtaking The River.

Thanks, Ghazal

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02 JULY, 2015

Thomas Mann’s Moving Tribute for His Dear Friend Hermann Hesse’s Sixtieth Birthday

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“I… love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face…”

Nothing sustains creative culture more sturdily than the invisible scaffolding of kinship between artists supporting each other through the merciless cycles of criticism, acclaim, and indifference. Among the most heartening such dyads are Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) and Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955), who provided each other with a steady supply of support and encouragement over a lifetime of beautiful letters. But nowhere is their bond more touching than in the tribute Mann penned for his friend’s sixtieth birthday, published in the morning edition of Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 2, 1937, and later included in the out-of-print gem The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Mann writes:

Today, July 2, is Hermann Hesse’s sixtieth birthday. A great, beautiful, memorable day! It is being fervently celebrated in thousands of hearts in all countries where German is spoken… It is by permitting themselves such feelings, by defiantly taking the liberty of loving, that people are saving their souls in Germany today.

By joyfully celebrating this day we too shall be saving our souls.

After a few laudatory remarks about Hesse’s patriotism, Mann extols his friend’s literary sensibility:

His work raises the familiar to a new, spiritual level, which may be termed revolutionary, not in a direct political or social, but in a psychological, poetic sense; it is truly and authentically open and sensitive to the future.

Noting that Hesse’s beloved tenth novel, Steppenwolf, is on par with James Joyce’s Ulysses “in experimental daring,” he adds what might be mistaken for a backhanded compliment by the less sensitive reader but is, at bottom, the kind of praise that can only be given by someone who knows an artist’s complex inner world intimately, cherishes that complexity, and holds the whole of the artist with immense love:

I feel very deeply that for all its sometimes cranky individualism, for all its grumpy-humorous or mystical-nostalgic rejection of the world and the times, this lifework … must be counted among the highest and purest spiritual endeavors of our epoch. Consequently it is an honor as well as a pleasure to offer the author of this work my hearty congratulations and the expression of my esteem on this festive occasion. I long ago chose him as the member of my literary generation closest and dearest to me and I have followed his growth with a sympathy that drew nourishment as much from the differences as from the similarities between us…

I also love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face of an old Swabian peasant.

[…]

And so, once again: Thanks and best wishes. Hesse’s humor, the exuberance of language shown in the visible fragments of his late work, and the manifest pleasure he takes in his craft offer us, I believe, every assurance that hand in hand with the heightened spirituality of his advanced years he has preserved the formative powers needed for the realization of so daring a dream-project as The Glass Bead Game. We wish him success and fulfillment… We also hope that his fame may spread ever more widely and deeply, and bring him the honor which has long been his due, but which at the present time would take on special meaning, in addition of course to providing a most delightful bit of news: the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Nine years later, Hesse was indeed awarded the Nobel Prize — in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated exhortations.

The two friends’ moving correspondence can be found in The Hesse/Mann Letters. Complement it with Mann on time and the soul of existence, then revisit other heartening dyads of support from the annals of creative culture: James Joyce and Ibsen, Maurice Sendak and Ursula Nordstrom, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, and Mark Twain and Helen Keller.

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