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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

17 JANUARY, 2014

Party Like It’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance

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“Dance music … stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room.”

“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed in her moving first experience of dance. “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter to a friend. “Twyla Tharp reconciles me to being a woman … Non-sexist dancing — strong women with their own energy, subjects not objects, playful with men — not afraid of them,” Susan Sontag mused in her diary.

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same wonderfully rich volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts and the glory of the human mind — comes a glimpse of a lesser-known side of the seemingly reserved author: Her love of music and dance.

In an essayistic entry from 1903, titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” and reproduced here with her original spelling, 21-year-old Virginia writes:

About two hours ago, when I went to bed, I heard what I took to be signs of merry making in the mews. A violin squeaked, there was a noise of loud voices & laughter. It reminded me how once, as a child, I woke at dead of night: it seemed to me — 8 or 9 I suppose really & I heard strange & horrible music as of a midnight barrel organ, & was so frightened that I had to crawl to the cot next mine for sympathy. But I am too old for that kind of blind terror; my critical mind when awake enough to think at all about it, decided that the fiddle squeaking &c. was token of a ball — not in our street — but in Queens Gate — the tall row of houses that makes a background to the mews. The music grew so loud, so rhythmic — as the night drew on & the London roar lessened, that I threw up my window, leant out into the cool air, & saw the illuminations which told surely from what house the music came.

Now I have been listening for an hour. The music stops — I hear the chatter, the light laughter of womens voices — the deeper notes of festive males. I can almost see the couples wandering out from the ball rooms to the balconies which are starred with small lamps. They look straight across the mews to me. The music has begun again — oh dear — the swing & the lilt of that waltz makes me almost feel as though I could jump from my bed & dance to it too. That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music. Here the bars run low, passionate, regretful, but always in the same pulse. We dance as though we knew the vanity of dancing. We dance to drown our sorrows — but dance, dance — If you stop you are lost. This one night we will be mad — dance lightly — raise our hearts as the beat strengthens, grows buoyant — careless, defiant. What matters anything so long as ones step is in time — so long as one’s whole body & mind are dancing too — what shall end it?

Dinomania: (n) irresistible urge to dance

Artwork by Polly M. Law from her Word Project. Click image for details.

After a short contemplation of the fabric of the music, noting “the very height of the rhythm, some strange, solitary sound,” Woolf finds herself exhausted and consumed by the dense darkness of the night sky, then returns to the exhilaration of dance — but this time as a melancholy observer, painting an ominous, zombie-like picture of the dancing throng:

The music again! I begin to think someone has wound up this weary waltz & it will go on at intervals all thro‘ the night. Nobody is dancing in time to it now I am sure — or they dance as pale phantoms because so long as the music sounds they must dance — no help for them. Surely the music that seemed to ebb before, has gathered strength — it sounds louder & louder — it swings faster & faster — no one can stop dancing now. They are sucked in by the music. And how weary they look — pale men — fainting women — crumpled silks & trampled flowers. They are no longer masters of the dance — it has taken possession of them. And all joy & life has left it, & is diabolical, a twisting livid serpent, writhing in cold sweat & agony, & crushing the frail dancers in its contortions. What has brought about the change? It is the dawn.

Complement A Passionate Apprentice with the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice and her timeless meditations on how to read a book, the language of film, the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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09 JANUARY, 2014

Henry James on Aging, Memory, and What Happiness Really Means

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“I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth.”

What does it take to live a good life, to flourish, to be happy? The art-science of happiness has been contemplated since the dawn of recorded thought, and yet no agreement seems to have been reached: For Albert Camus, it was about escaping our self-imposed prisons; for Alan Watts, about living with presence; some have pointed to learned optimism as the key, while others have scoffed at optimism and advocated for embracing uncertainty instead. But if there is one immutable truth about happiness, it’s that it is never a static thing — not a permanent state, but a constantly evolving experience of being, one that George Eliot believed had to be learned, transformed in each new moment and sculpted by the passage of time.

One of history’s most beautiful and crystally aware meditations on happiness, specifically in terms of how it illustrates the schism between the experiencing self and the remembering self, comes from The Diary of a Man of Fifty (public library; free download) — one of the finest, most timelessly resonant notable diaries of all time — by literary legend Henry James.

In early April of 1874, approaching his fifty-first birthday, James returned to Florence, where he had visited in his youth. His diary entry from April 5th bespeaks the odd elasticity of time in our conscious memory, with all its propensity for modification:

They told me I should find Italy greatly changed; and in seven-and-twenty years there is room for changes. But to me everything is so perfectly the same that I seem to be living my youth over again; all the forgotten impressions of that enchanting time come back to me. At the moment they were powerful enough; but they afterwards faded away. What in the world became of them? Whatever becomes of such things, in the long intervals of consciousness? Where do they hide themselves away? In what unvisited cupboards and crannies of our being do they preserve themselves? They are like the lines of a letter written in sympathetic ink; hold the letter to the fire for a while and the grateful warmth brings out the invisible words.

James adds a simple yet powerful definition of happiness — or, at the very least, of existential satisfaction — with equal parts poignancy and humor:

I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth. At all events, I have travelled too far, I have worked too hard, I have lived in brutal climates and associated with tiresome people. When a man has reached his fifty-second year without being, materially, the worse for wear — when he has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives — I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.

The Diary of a Man of Fifty is an indispensable trove of wisdom and is available as a free download.

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06 JANUARY, 2014

Teenage Virginia Woolf on the Human Mind

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“Activity of mind … is the only thing that keeps one’s life going.”

The human mind — it is our sole constant companion, there with us for as long as we live, friend and foe in constant contradiction with itself. We spend immeasurable effort on sharpening it, feeding it, and trying to tame it, and yet it seems to have a meta-mind of its own — it misleads us mercilessly to keep us sane and it wanders aimlessly to make us more creative. But what is the mind, really?

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same superb volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts — comes her poignant meditation on the mind’s glory.

In May of 1895, after her mother’s death, 13-year-old Virginia suffered a psychoemotional breakdown — her first in a lifelong struggle with mental illness, which eventually claimed her. Very little is known about the two years she spent recuperating. Her journal begins in 1897, just as she is emerging from the quagmire of grief and depression. In one of the very first entries, from early January of that year, Woolf marvels at humanity’s übermind and the ties that bind us together through a lineage of thought — a grounding reminder that all of “our” ideas, as Henry Miller questioned, are the combinatorial product of a long evolutionary chain of thinkers that came before us. Woolf writes:

I think I see for a moment how our minds are threaded together — how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.

More than two years later, Woolf, blissfully dismissive of such existential minutia as apostrophes, revisits the subject of the human mind and its marvelous capacity in an entry from early August of 1899:

Activity of mind, I think, is the only thing that keeps one’s life going, unless one has a larger emotional activity of some other kind. Ones mind thats like a restless steamer paddle urging the ship along, tho’ the wind is fallen & the sea is as still as glass. I must now expound another simile that has been rolling itself round in my mind for many days past. This is that I am a Norseman bound on some long voyage. The ship now is frozen in the drift ice; slowly we are drifting towards home. I have taken with me after anxious thought all the provisions for my mind that are necessary during the voyage. The seals & walruses that I shoot during my excursions on the ice (rummaging in the hold) are the books that I discover here & read. It amuses me to carry on the comparison, tho’ I admit that written down it has something absurd about it. What a force a human being is! There are worse solitudes than drift ice, & yet this eternal throbbing heat & energy of ones mind thaws a pathway thro; & open sea & land shall come in time. Think tho’, what man is midst fields & woods. A solitary creature dependent on winds & tides, & yet somehow suppressing the might of a spark in his brain.

A Passionate Apprentice is absolutely fantastic and revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with Woolf on how to read a book, the language of cinema, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice.

Illustrated portrait of Woolf by Lisa Congdon for our collaborative project, The Reconstructionists.

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20 DECEMBER, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen’s Little-Known Sketches: The Beloved Storyteller’s Illustrated Travelogue of Europe

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What made Andersen particularly enchanting was his singular gift for noticing and depicting not only the whimsical, but also the wistful.

Hans Christian Andersen forever changed storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, but he was also among those rare famous creators with multiple talents: After he received a small travel grant from the King of Denmark in his late twenties, Andersen, a prolific diarist, set out to tour Europe and populated the pages of his journals with beautiful passages about the places he visited during his travels, accompanied by his own sketches of the sights and scenes that spoke to him. Found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library), these little-known and lovely sketches, both literary and visual, bespeak the celebrated writer’s capacity for not only witnessing life with extraordinary presence of heart and mind, but also for capturing its vibrancy in minute, expressive detail — the kind that the ordinary person dismisses as mundane but the great storyteller transmogrifies into magical material for world-building.

Andersen drew his very first sketch in 1821, when he was sixteen — he was already enamored with the theater as a youth, dreaming of escaping from his small hometown of Odense to become an actor in Copenhagen, so it is of little surprise that he chose to depict a theater stage in that seminal drawing:

Stage of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, 1821, the earliest drawing by Andersen.

But over the next decade, Andersen devoted himself to poetry and other literary pursuits. By 1831, he had established himself as a promising young writer, but as any rising talent, he wasn’t immune to attacks. After one that particularly hurt him — Henrik Hertz’s anonymously published 1830 critique Letters of a Ghost — Andersen decided to escape on a six-month trip across the Herz Mountains to Leipzig and Dresden, eventually returning to Copenhagen via Berlin and Hamburg. In the mountains, he visited the highest peak, Brocken, the legends of which were famously extolled in Goethe’s Faust.

Sketch of the trip from Lüneburg to Braunschweig, from a diary entry dated May 22, 1831.

The valley of the Plauenscher Grund near Dresden, from a diary entry dated June 4, 1831.

In 1833, Andersen traveled to Paris, then the Jura Mountains and the Brig district of Switzerland. Only twenty-eight, he had already begun to experience his first brush with international celebrity.

In the Jura Mountains

The gateway at Brig, from a diary entry dated September 18, 1833.

In a diary entry from September 18, 1833, he describes an encounter that struck him:

Went for a short walk in a black jacket, vest and trousers. The farmers probably took me for a cleric, because they stood still and tipped their hats. All of a sudden an old fellow came toward me and fell on his knees; then I got really scared and turned back. — This is the first time anyone has knelt in front of me.

The Simplon Road across the Alps.

This was the period when Andersen first began honing the literary talent that would later manifest in his travelogues, describing with exquisite emotionality the natural landscapes and architectural landmarks he was encountering on his travels. In an entry from September 19, 1833, he relays being overwhelmed by awe while traveling through the Alps:

The huge masses of stone gripped me; on one side a mighty waterfall plunged far down. — Everything was granite — it was like driving through the earth’s backbone.

Two days later, he adds with equal parts awe and pride:

Everything smelled fragrant; everything was so peaceful. . . . The Alps looked like the glass mountains of the fairy tale, and now I had crossed them.

Genoa, October 2, 1833

Andersen arrived in Milan a day later, then traveled to Genoa and Florence. On October 2, 1933, he wrote in the diary:

If France is the country of reason, then Italy is the country of the imagination. (Germany and Denmark, of the heart.) — Here is all you could wish for in a landscape — the oranges hanging so yellow between the lush greenery; big, grass-green lemons greeted us with their fragrance. — Everything was like a painting…

Egeria's Grotto outside Rome.

View of the dome of St. Peter's from Monte Mario, from a diary entry dated July 26, 1834.

Villa Borghese

Grave of Ascanius.

One of the most beautiful passages comes from a diary entry for October 26, which reads like a fairy tale:

On the big, silent Campagna the lonely ruins of the huge aqueduct stood. (Near Albano, the grave of Ascanius.) — In the little valley in Campagna lay some ground fog. We went through it. It was as if an elfin maid had wrapped her cloak around me; it was a dank shroud. I pressed my lips together to avoid the kiss.

By the summer of the following year, Andersen is still traveling across Italy. In an entry from July 25, 1835, he marvels:

We heard the sound of surf and then saw the endless blue sea off Sorrento; the moon was shining on the foam. Cape Mysenium, Procida and Ischia lay large as life before me. I was in paradise! It was masterful!

Beethoven's grave in the cemetery at Währing near Vienna, from a diary entry dated June 30, 1834.

Piazza del Trinità with Michelangelo's house, from a diary entry dated April 11, 1834.

Between 1835 and 1846, Andersen entered his most prolific creative period, during which he penned three novels, six collections of fairy tales, and six musical dramas. It was also then that his diaries got to their most expressive, suggesting that for Andersen, fairy tales were not a fancy but a record of his inner world and lived experience as he perceived it. For instance, he writes in a journal entry from November 3 of 1840, while traveling through Germany:

Yesterday we passed a forest; with its brown foliage it looked exactly like a copper forest. There was something so utterly magical about it that the big steers we encountered on the muddy road appeared to me to be enchanted people, for the one, of course, had to correspond to the other.

A street in Athens.

In 1841, he visits Athens, which he finds foreign and disorienting, but still revels in the whimsy of the new experience:

Imagine for yourself a town built in a hurry, as if for a big market, and that the market is in full swing — and there you have the new Athens. … The tall, solitary palm trees and cypresses nearby, the picturesque costumes! — I don’t understand it myself; I still don’t have any idea about it all, but I’m happy. I can’t really believe that I am in Greece, in Athens! The city is growing as I walk here!

Turkish graves near Constantinople, from a diary entry dated April 28, 1841.

From there, he visits Turkey — a brush with an even more unfamiliar culture. In a diary entry from April 29, 1841, he describes visiting a Turkish cemetery:

We went to the cemetery, which was very extensive. The graves of dervishes have dervish turbans; there are green turbans on the graves of those who themselves, or one of whose forefathers, have been to the Prophet’s grave. We walked so far that we could see the town Chalcedon and the Sea of Marmara. (In Scrutari we saw Ali Pasha’s grave, which had something like a wire birdcage over it and fountains.) Carved in the burial stones by the graves there is one big hole or two small ones for water, so that dogs can quench their thirst — this is a blessing for the dead.

But as a native Bulgarian who has frequently witnessed foreigners’ perplexity by traditional Balkan music, I was especially amused by Andersen’s description of the Turks’ singing and dancing:

A strange song with shifting rhythms was sung by a few of [the dervishes] and then by them all. It was something with scales and runs, as if a musically gifted savage had heard an Italian singer for the first time and now in his own way was trying to imitate him.

He describes a dancing dervish with the same bemused colonialist’s judgment:

His body moved to the one side, then into obscene positions; finally all his limbs were moving as if they were driven by a steam engine. All the dancers were groaning and drawing in deep breaths. The sweat was dripping from their pale faces; at last they sank to the ground. I felt really discomforted.

Whirling dervishes at Pera

In a diary entry from the following day, April 30, he visits a monastery in Pera and observes another traditional dance, this time with more admiration than judgment. Incidentally, that particular dance embodied Carl Sagan’s assertion about ancient religions celebrating cosmology — the dervishes were dancing about astronomy:

The dervishes took off their tunics and now stood in their brimless, high-crowned white hats, in open green jackets and long green skirts that were extremely wide, looking like funnels on them when they whirled themselves around on the same spot with their arms stretched out and half raised. There were two in the middle; the others were turning around them and around themselves. A priest walked very quietly among the ones in the middle and those on the outside. Their faces were extremely pale. There was the sound of music and the singing. They stopped suddenly and stood still for a moment; then they began to dance the same dance again. They looked just like lifeless dolls; they were portraying the course of the planets.

The next day, May 1, another magical passage depicting nature as a fairy tale:

The nightingales were jugging, and the turtledoves were cooing in the high cypresses. The Sea of Marmara was like glass; the mountains in Asia seemed ethereal; in the clear air beyond lay a chain of snow-covered mountains. Ships with all their sails were lying at anchor like swans mirroring themselves in the water; the small boats were gliding like back snakes across the current.

A Wallachian girl.

But what made Andersen a particularly enchanting storyteller was that he was able to notice and convey not only the whimsical, but also the wistful. On May 6, upon arriving on the desolate and barren coast of Constanta, Romania, he writes:

A dead stork was lying by the sea; it had a melancholy effect on me — it had just reached the sea and then sunk down dead. … A wet, cold fog; the entire sea hidden from sight. Close to the dead stork there was a dead dog; I didn’t make a note of it — the stork appealed to my imagination; the dog had perhaps been noble and faithful, and now went unnoticed.

The irony, of course, is that he did make a note of it, and therein lies Andersen’s greatest, most timeless talent — his singular ability to notice what goes unnoticed by most, and to imbue it with a story that speaks to our deepest fears and our highest aspirations: In the dead dog, he saw the human virtues of honor and loyalty, as well as the tragedy of dying without having mattered, and what could be more resonant with the human condition than that?

Monument on a grave.

The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen is an enchanting read in its entirety, revealing the inner world of this legendary world-builder with unprecedented intimacy. Complement it with other famous creators’ little-known art, including Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, William Faulkner’s Jazz-Age drawings, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, and Sylvia Plath’s drawings.

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09 DECEMBER, 2013

George Orwell, Feminist: The Beloved Author on Gender Equality in Work and Housework

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“The position now-a-days is anomalous. The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working. Yet the woman continues to do all the housework.”

Besides his great wisdom on why writers write and how to make the perfect cup of tea, George Orwell also endures as a kind of cultural oracle who presaged the NSA era in 1984 and the Occupy era in Animal Farm. But it turns out he might have also presaged the Lean In era a century before Lean In and decades before the second wave of feminism.

From George Orwell: Diaries (public library) comes an entry dated March 5, 1936, in which the celebrated writer recounts an incident while visiting the Searles — a poor family with whom he lodged during his quest to learn empathy by immersing himself in poverty and of whom he noted that he had “seldom met people with more natural decency.” Writing nearly a decade before his first big literary success with Animal Farm, a novella essentially about inequality, 33-year-old Orwell shares his unease with the gender inequality so deeply imprinted in the cultural fabric:

We had an argument one evening in the Searles’ house because I helped Mrs S. with the washing-up. Both of the men disapproved of this, of course. Mrs S. seemed doubtful. She said that in the North working-class men never offered any courtesies to women (women are allowed to do all the housework unaided, even when the man is unemployed, and it is always the man who sits in the comfortable chair), and she took this state of things for granted, but did not see why it should not be changed. She said that she thought the women now-a-days, especially the younger women, would like it if men opened doors for them etc. The position now-a-days is anomalous. The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working. Yet the woman continues to do all the housework and the man not a handsturn, except carpentering and gardening. Yet I think it is instinctively felt by both sexes that the man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was out of work, he became a “Mary Ann.*”

* British slang for a male homosexual or an effeminate man.

Illustration from 'Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework' by Wanda Gág, a pioneering proto-feminist children's book from 1935. Click image for more.

George Orwell: Diaries offers a rare record of the beloved author’s becoming, from the evolution of his private beliefs to the formative experiences that shaped his writing and his character.

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