Brain Pickings

The Virtuous Cycle of Gratitude and Mutual Appreciation: The Letters of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann

By:

“The beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.”

In a culture that makes it easier to be a critic than a celebrator, where it takes growing commitment to do the opposite, how heartening to be reminded of the ennobling gift of gratitude, of the elevating capacity of being one another’s champion — reminders like Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his greatest champion or Emerson’s epistolary encouragement to young Walt Whitman or Leonard Bernstein’s note of appreciation to his mentor or Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan or Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot.

That’s precisely what two of the twentieth century’s greatest authors, Nobel laureates Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, did for each other over the course of five decades — even though they came from opposite corners of Germany and went on to lead starkly different lives, Hesse an exponent of the quiet contemplation and Mann a public intellectual with a vibrant social life. But they also had a great deal in common — both had rebelled against their bourgeois background by dropping out of school and taking working-class jobs — Hesse at a second-hand bookstore and Mann as an insurance agent — before becoming prominent writers; both had mothers who brought into their otherwise ordinary German childhoods an exotic perspective — Mann’s was born in Brazil and Hesse’s in India.

But what brought them together, above all, were their convictions. Bound by a shared commitment to humanism and an unflinching belief in the integrity of the individual, they stood by one another’s work, both privately and publicly, through war and exile, through harsh criticism, even through their own philosophical disagreements. The record of this virtuous cycle of mutual support is preserved in the wonderful out-of-print 1975 volume The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse in Chantarella, Switzerland

In January of 1928, a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mann writes after receiving a limited-edition collection of forty-five of Hesse’s poems:

Dear Herr Hesse,

Thank you — I take it as an honor — for sending me these poems, whose atmosphere will not appeal to everyone. You were right in supposing that they would meet with my inward understanding.

In the same letter, Mann pays a beautiful compliment to Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, which had debuted a few months earlier and which was the first major work that put him on a track to his own Nobel Prize two decades later, in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated and generous nominations:

I am getting more and more cranky and difficult in matters of reading; most of what I see leaves me cold. Steppenwolf has shown me once again, for the first time in ages, what reading can be.

The admiration was mutual. In a letter from March of 1932, Hesse writes to Mann after reading his lecture-turned-essay on Goethe and Tolstoy:

Once again I have admired … the courage and vigor with which, contrary to all German custom, you are at pains not to attenuate, simplify and whitewash, but precisely to stress and deepen the tragic problems.

[...]

In short, I wish to thank you for the great pleasure your book has given me.

At the end of 1933, after Mann writes to Hesse about another one of his poems, “so full of wisdom and kindness,” Hesse responds with equal generosity of spirit in commending Mann on the first novel of his Joseph and His Brothers tetralogy:

I should like at least to thank you for the great pleasure your book gave me… As a contrast to prevailing conceptions of history and historiography, I loved every bit of the faintly melancholy irony with which in the last analysis you view the whole problem of history and narration, though you never for a moment flag in your endeavor to do what you have recognized to be fundamentally impossible, that is, to write history. To me, who differ from you in many respects and have been molded by different origins, just this is profoundly congenial, for I well know that it is to attempt the impossible, while knowing it to be impossible, to take the tragic actively upon oneself. Besides, this quiet book comes as a god-send in times so cluttered with stupid current events!

Mann’s novel was met with harsh criticism, which rendered Hesse’s encouraging letter particularly vitalizing for the author — in a letter sent a few days later, Mann speaks to the power of kindness amid criticism, which all who have endured such public attacks appreciate deeply when present and long for painfully when absent:

[You] can imagine the insolence and stupidity with which the reviewers, almost without exception, have reacted to the book. It is both pitiful and shocking to observe such — by now unconscious — intellectual submissiveness and emasculation in men one has known. The kindness and acuteness with which you have responded … has moved me deeply, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comforting lines…

In the same letter, Mann adds a sentiment as true of the art of appreciation as of art itself:

When you come right down to it, the beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.

In May of 1934, Mann returns the gesture after reading Hesse’s novella “The Rainmaker,” which Hesse would later incorporate in his last novel, The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943 after a decade of rejections due to Hesse’s anti-Nazi convictions:

What a beautiful piece of workmanship your novella is — there is no longer anything like it in Germany. And how humanely it deals with the primitive era, without groveling to it, as it has become so inanely fashionable to do. The “much larger whole” of which this is a part will be magnificent work! — I take my leave with hearty congratulations!

In August of the same year, after Hesse sends Mann a small selection of his poetry as a gift, Mann — who by that point had grown gravely dejected and disheartened by the Nazi’s rise to power — responds with exuberant appreciation:

What a treasure trove of melodies! What pure art! A true comfort to the languishing soul. These words have a general validity, but I also mean them personally, not easy by way of an excuse for this niggardly expression of gratitude. I am in the midst of a grave crisis, both in my life and in my work. I am so plagued by the happenings in Germany, they are such a torment to my moral and critical conscience, that I seem to be unable to carry on with my current literary work.

And yet carry on he does, encouraged by Hesse. Several months later, Mann sends to his friend and champion the ultimate note of appreciation-for-appreciation, speaking to this enormously vitalizing virtuous cycle of mutual respect and admiration that is available to all who choose to welcome and celebrate one another’s kinship of spirit:

My emotion and joy were great and proved to me once again how profoundly receptive I am to kindness and understanding. How could I help taking pride in the good opinion of a man whose art and thinking I approve with all my heart?

Although The Hesse/Mann Letters is long out of print, used copies are still available and are very much worth the hunt — to witness two great minds and expansive spirits come together around art, literature, politics, and philosophy is nothing short of a gift.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





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.

A Minimalist, Maximally Imaginative Geometric Allegory for the Essence of Friendship and Creativity

By:

What a circle and a square can teach us about empathy, collaboration, and the origin of great ideas.

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Complement Wednesday with other Enchanted Lion treasures, including The Lion and the Bird, Fox’s Garden, The River, Little Boy Brown, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





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.

Some Thoughts on “Privilege”

By:

To assume that one’s voice and cultural contribution don’t count because one was born into “privilege” is as narrow and toxic as to deny one’s voice because one was born into poverty.

This is by no means to discount the idea that, as Shankar Vedantam put it in his elegant and nuanced meditation on unconscious bias, “those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.” But the simple fact remains that some of humanity’s greatest, most enduring, most influential minds came from one direction of the current and some from the other. Marcus Aurelius was born into a prominent family and became Emperor of Rome. Today, he is celebrated as one of the most influential philosophers of the ages. Incidentally, he was a pupil of Epictetus and was profoundly influenced by his teacher’s ideas. Epictetus was born a slave.

Photograph by James Mollison from 'Where Children Sleep,' a portrait of poverty and privilege around the world. Click image for more.

And when we point the privilege finger, where do we draw the line anyway? The concept itself is so abstract and nebulous. Is privilege merely about coming from a family of means and prominence? Or is it also about benefiting from nurturing parenting and a happy childhood, of which wealth and prominence are no guarantee?

Pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, was born into a poor Quaker family of nine children, decades before women had access to formal education or the right to vote. But she had a father who insisted on giving his daughter an education equal to that of his sons, who introduced her to astronomy at an early age, and who created the kind of nurturing intellectual and creative environment in which her talent could flourish. What part is the poverty and what the privilege, and does either warrant that we dismiss Mitchell’s monumental contributions to science and culture?

James Mollison / 'Where Children Sleep.' Click image for more.

It is equally narrow to mistake purposeful achievement for privilege. Take Seth Godin. He spent decades toiling and received hundreds of rejections from the establishment before publishing his own books and becoming a best-selling author with one of the most popular sites on the internet. Millions of people heed his advice and devour his perspective. The “privilege” of this hard-earned status is a direct result of the sheer doggedness of writing daily for years, about things that matter and ideas that are helpful and enriching and ennobling for his readers. And yet when people tell Godin, as they often do, “Well that’s easy for you because you have a really popular blog,” misguided accusations of privilege emanate from the complaint — as though, of course, his ideas would be worth any less in the first place if he did indeed have the ease of “privilege.”

Behind every accusation of “privilege” is the self-pitying complaint that the accuser wasn’t granted the same advantage by the fickle bestowers of favor. To that, Joseph Brodsky had the only appropriate answer: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”

To deny a person’s merit or talent or voice on account of the circumstances with which he or she was blessed or cursed — without any say in the matter — is not only to victimize ourselves as individuals but to cheat ourselves, as a culture, of the essential gift of the human spirit.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





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.