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04 DECEMBER, 2014

The Art of Quickness: Italo Calvino on Digression as a Hedge Against Death and the Key to Great Writing

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“Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search… for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”

When Italo Calvino was offered the 1985–1986 term of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry — Harvard’s annual lectureship held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cage — he hurried to commit to paper the six lectures he would deliver over the course of the term, exploring “the millennium of the book” that was about to end and peering forward into what the future might hold for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of writing. But as he contemplated this grand cultural precipice, he himself ran out of time.

Calvino — a sage of writing and a man of enduring insight into such subtleties of existence as distraction and procrastination, the art of asserting oneself with grace, and the meaning of life — died shortly before he was scheduled to depart for Harvard to deliver the lectures. He had spent his final months laboring over them but had completed only five of the six, eventually published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (public library | IndieBound).

Perhaps the most poignant of his lectures, both in the context of Calvino’s own fate in the hands of time’s merciless gallop and in his prescience about today’s age of compulsive speediness that he never lived to see, is the second one, titled “Quickness.”

Calvino begins by considering objects and the storytelling mesmerism that they hold, as in real life, in fiction:

The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.

He then turns to the particular magic of quickness, but not before an essential caveat:

I do not wish to say that quickness is a value in itself. Narrative time can also be delaying, cyclic, or motionless. In any case, a story is an operation carried out on the length of time involved, an enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it.

One mode of contracting time, which Calvino points out is particularly common in the folklore traditions of oral storytelling, is repetition — the same strategy that so enchants the brain in music. He writes:

Sicilian storytellers use the formula “lu cuntu nun metti tempu” (time takes no time in a story)… It leaves out unnecessary details but stresses repetition: for example, when the tale consists of a series of the same obstacles to be overcome by different people. A child’s pleasure in listening to stories lies partly in waiting for things he expects to be repeated: situations, phrases, formulas. Just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.

Calvino points to folktales and fairy tales as an especially enduring example of masterful quickness, for “the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.” He extols their genius of playing with the elasticity of time and making its relativity their material:

Everything mentioned has a necessary function in the plot. The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression. The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on the bare essentials. There is always a battle against time, against the obstacles that prevent or delay the fulfillment of a desire or the repossession of something cherished but lost. Or time can stop altogether, as in the castle of Sleeping Beauty.

Illustration by the late Yan Nascimbene for Calvino's short stories. Click image for details.

Quickness also matters, Calvino argues, because of “the relationship between physical speed and speed of mind” — something captured in the oft-used metaphor of the horse as a symbol of speed, and of speed of thought, pioneered by Galileo (who, as we know, practically invented modern timekeeping and sparked the tyranny of the clock). Calvino quotes Galileo himself:

If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.

Noting that for Galileo “good thinking means quickness, agility in reasoning, economy in argument, but also the use of imaginative examples,” Calvino — in a remark wonderfully prescient a quarter century later — considers how this question of quickness illuminates the role of literature in a modern world obsessed with speed in all of its permutations:

In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.

The motor age has forced speed on us as a measurable quantity, the records of which are milestones in the history of the progress of both men and machines. But mental speed cannot be measured and does not allow comparisons or competitions; nor can it display its results in a historical perspective. Mental speed is valuable for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives to anyone who is sensitive to such a thing, and not for the practical use that can be made of it. A swift piece of reasoning is not necessarily better than a long-pondered one. Far from it. But it communicates something special that is derived simply from its very swiftness.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for details.

And yet, just as embedded in his tribute to lightness in the first lecture was a deep respect for weight, Calvino is careful to point out that his “apologia for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering.” (Milton Glaser captured this beautifully in asserting that “everything exists at once with its opposite.”) Among literature’s most rewarding techniques for slowing down the course of time and inviting lingering, Calvino argues, is the art of digression. He extols its singular joys:

In practical life, time is a form of wealth with which we are stingy. In literature, time is a form of wealth to be spent at leisure and with detachment. We do not have to be first past a predetermined finish line. On the contrary, saving time is a good thing because the more time we save, the more we can afford to lose. Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.

Citing Tristram Shandy as the ultimate example of a novel “completely composed of digressions” — curiously, without mentioning that Laurence Sterne himself memorably called digression “the sunshine of narrative” in a meta-remark inside that very novel — Calvino writes:

The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight. Flight from what? From death, of course.

He quotes a passage by Italian writer Carlo Levi from the introduction to an Italian edition of Tristram Shandy:

Death is hidden in clocks… Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows — perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

With a sentiment invariably bittersweet in the context of Calvino’s own death a few weeks later, he echoes Alan Watts on hurrying and delaying as he simultaneously celebrates Levi’s perspective and counters it:

Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.

From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly.

Calvino ends with what is effectively the last direct reflection on his own work he ever wrote, folded into which is a broader meditation on the secret of great writing:

My work as a writer has from the beginning aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of the mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time. In my love of adventure stories and fairytales, I have always searched for the equivalent of some inner energy, some motion of the mind. I have always aimed at the image and the motion that arises naturally from the image, while still being aware that one cannot speak of a literary result until this stream of imagination has been turned into words. Just as for the poet writing verse, so it is for the prose writer: success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. I am convinced that writing prose should not be any different from writing poetry. In both cases it is a question of looking for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.

He takes one last sidewise look at quickness and its necessary counterpoint, one last prophetic glance into the future, as he salutes the power of introverts and the art of stillness as the driving force behind great art:

In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought.

[…]

Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words. Certainly my own character corresponds to the traditional features of the guild to which I belong. I too have always been saturnine, whatever other masks I have attempted to wear. My cult of Mercury is perhaps merely an aspiration, what I would like to be. I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a revelatory read in its entirety, a worthy last legacy of one of modern history’s most magnificent minds. Sample it further with the first lecture, exploring the unbearable lightness of language, literature, and life, then complement it with Calvino on how to lower your “worryability”, the two psychological types of writers, and the paradox of America.

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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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03 DECEMBER, 2014

Legendary Cellist Pablo Casals, at Age 93, on Creative Vitality and How Working with Love Prolongs Your Life

By:

“The man who works and is never bored is never old. Work and interest in worthwhile things are the best remedy for age.”

Long before there was Yo-Yo Ma, there was Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor Pablo Casals (December 29, 1876–October 22, 1973), regarded by many as the greatest cellist of all time. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the U.N. Peace Medal for his unflinching dedication to justice and his lifelong stance against oppression and dictatorship, Casals was as much an extraordinary artist as he was an extraordinary human being — a generous and kind man of uncommon compassion and goodness of heart, a passionate spirit in love with life, and an unflinching idealist.

And yet, like many exceptional people, he cultivated his character through an early brush with suffering. In his late teenage years, already a celebrated prodigy, he underwent an anguishing spiritual crisis of the kind Tolstoy faced in his later years and came close to suicide. But with the loving support of his mother, he regained his center and went on to become a man of great talent, great accomplishment, and great vitality.

To mark his ninetieth birthday, Casals began a collaboration with photojournalist Albert E. Kahn that would eventually become the 1970 autobiography-of-sorts Joys and Sorrows (public library) — one of the most magnificent perspectives of the creative life ever committed to words.

Straight from the opening, Casals cracks open the essence of his extraordinary character and the source of his exuberant life-energy with a beautiful case for how purposeful work is the true fountain of youth:

On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old. That is not young, of course. In fact, it is older than ninety. But age is a relative matter. If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that age does not necessarily mean getting old. At least, not in the ordinary sense. I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.

Recounting being at once delighted and unsurprised by an article in the London Sunday Times about an orchestra in the Caucasus composed of musicians older than a hundred, he considers the spring of their vitality:

In spite of their age, those musicians have not lost their zest for life. How does one explain this? I do not think the answer lies simply in their physical constitutions or in something unique about the climate in which they live. It has to do with their attitude toward life; and I believe that their ability to work is due in no small measure to the fact that they do work. Work helps prevent one from getting old. I, for one, cannot dream of retiring. Not now or ever. Retire? The word is alien and the idea inconceivable to me. I don’t believe in retirement for anyone in my type of work, not while the spirit remains. My work is my life. I cannot think of one without the other. To “retire” means to me to begin to die. The man who works and is never bored is never old. Work and interest in worthwhile things are the best remedy for age. Each day I am reborn. Each day I must begin again.

For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner.

With great elegance, he contrasts the dullness of mindless routine with the exhilaration of mindful ritual — something many great artists engineer into their days. In a sentiment Henry Miller would come to echo only two years later in his own memorable meditation on the secret of remaining forever young, Casals writes of his daily practice:

It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day is something new, fantastic, unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle!

Casals, indeed, finds great vitalization in bearing witness to nature’s mastery of the self-renewal so essential for the human spirit over the long run:

I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree. I have always especially loved the sea. Whenever possible, I have lived by the sea… It has long been a custom of mine to walk along the beach each morning before I start to work. True, my walks are shorter than they used to be, but that does not lessen the wonder of the sea. How mysterious and beautiful is the sea! how infinitely variable! It is never the same, never, not from one moment to the next, always in the process of change, always becoming something different and new.

In the same way, Casals argues, we renew ourselves through purposeful work. But he adds an admonition about the complacency of talent, echoing Jack Kerouac’s fantastic distinction between talent and genius. Casals offers aspiring artists of all stripes a word of advice on humility and hard work as the surest path to self-actualization:

I see no particular merit in the fact that I was an artist at the age of eleven. I was born with an ability, with music in me, that is all. No special credit was due me. The only credit we can claim is for the use we make of the talent we are given. That is why I urge young musicians: “Don’t be vain because you happen to have talent. You are not responsible for that; it was not of your doing. What you do with your talent is what matters. You must cherish this gift. Do not demean or waste what you have been given. Work — work constantly and nourish it.”

Of course the gift to be cherished most of all is that of life itself. One’s work should be a salute to life.

Hence Ray Bradbury’s famous proclamation that he never worked a day in his life — further testament to the magic made possible by discerning your vocation.

Casals lived and worked for another four years, dying eight weeks before his ninety-seventh birthday. Joys and Sorrows remains an invigorating read — a rare glimpse into the source of this creative and spiritual vitality of unparalleled proportions.

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.





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.