Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

16 JULY, 2012

This Is a Monomania: A Love Letter from Balzac

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“I cannot bring together two ideas that you do not interpose yourself between them.”

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) might be as well-known for his literary legacy as he is for his tumultuous love life. At twenty-three, he fell for Mme. Berny, a woman nearly twice his age known as “la Dilecta,” whose creative and intellectual influence on Balzac had a profound impact on shaping his budding voice. When the two split up in 1832, he entered a troubled relationship with the Marquise de Castries, whom he later portrayed rather unflatteringly in The Duchesse of Langeais. That year, he received a fan letter from Countess Ewelina Haska, a married Polish noblewoman to whom he came to refer to as “The Foreigner.” They embarked upon an intense correspondence, which quickly escalated into a passionate bond, which lasted seventeen years. The two met twice — once in Switzerland the following year, and once in Vienna in 1835 — and the two vowed to marry once Ewelina’s husband died. Though the Count passed away in 1842, Balzac’s poor finances prevented the couple from marrying. In March of 1850, when he was already fatally ill, the two finally wed — five months before Balzac died in Paris.

Their correspondence, an exquisite and enduring paean to love and patience, is gathered in The Letters Of Honore De Balzac To Madame Hanska (public library). Here is a small but deliciously telling taste:

June 1835

MY BELOVED ANGEL,

I am nearly mad about you, as much as one can be mad: I cannot bring together two ideas that you do not interpose yourself between them. I can no longer think of nothing but you. In spite of myself, my imagination carries me to you. I grasp you, I kiss you, I caress you, a thousand of the most amorous caresses take possession of me. As for my heart, there you will always be — very much so. I have a delicious sense of you there. But my God, what is to become of me, if you have deprived me of my reason? This is a monomania which, this morning, terrifies me. I rise up every moment say to myself, ‘Come, I am going there!’ Then I sit down again, moved by the sense of my obligations. There is a frightful conflict. This is not a life. I have never before been like that. You have devoured everything. I feel foolish and happy as soon as I let myself think of you. I whirl round in a delicious dream in which in one instant I live a thousand years. What a horrible situation! Overcome with love, feeling love in every pore, living only for love, and seeing oneself consumed by griefs, and caught in a thousand spiders’ threads. O, my darling Eva, you did not know it. I picked up your card. It is there before me, and I talked to you as if you were here. I see you, as I did yesterday, beautiful, astonishingly beautiful. Yesterday, during the whole evening, I said to myself ‘She is mine!’ Ah! The angels are not as happy in Paradise as I was yesterday!

This gem also appears in The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time, the anthology that brought us the exquisite correspondence between Virginia Woolf and her lover, Vita Sackville-West.

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13 JULY, 2012

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

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“The useless days will add up to something….These things are your becoming.”

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. This week, all of Sugar’s no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — is released in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), along with several never-before-published columns, under Sugar’s real name: Cheryl Strayed.

The book is titled after Dear Sugar #64, which remains my own favorite by a long stretch and is, evidently, many other people’s. (Or, at least, the editor’s.) It’s exquisite in full, but this particular bit makes the heart tremble with raw heartness:

Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.

When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t ‘mean anything’ because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Say thank you.

In the introduction, Steve Almond, who once attempted to be Sugar before there was Sugar, captures precisely what makes Sugar Sugar:

The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:

Dear WTF,

My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.

It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.

But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

The release of Tiny Beautiful Things was in large part the reason for Sugar’s recent “coming out party,” in which she revealed her real identity as Cheryl — an event made all the more exciting by the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton (), who live-illustrated it:

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12 JULY, 2012

Henry David Thoreau on Defining Your Own Success

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“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.”

Legendary philosopher, poet, political pundit, abolitionist, and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau remains best-known for one of history’s most important texts on protest and for Walden (public library; public domain), his beautiful 1854 paean to solitude, simplicity, and self-sufficiency, which inspired much of John Cage’s philosophy and generations of intellectuals and creators. Nine years prior, Thoreau had moved into a cabin by Walden Pond in an effort to remove himself from social life, instead absorbing nature and letting himself be absorbed by it. The book synthesizes Thoreau’s insights derived over the two years he spent there, woven of exquisite language full of magnificent metaphors and whimsical descriptions, and spanning everything from the nature of the self to consumer culture.

My favorite part, however, deals with a familiar subject — how to define your own success, find your purpose and do what you love:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Then, in nearing the conclusion:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Remarkably profound in its entirety, Walden is a classic for a reason — the kind of spectacular read that stays with you for life.

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