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Posts Tagged ‘history’

28 JANUARY, 2015

Sloth, Sissiness, and the Search of Self: Young Tolstoy’s Diaries and the Problem of Compulsive Intentional Organization

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“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?”

Some of humanity’s greatest writers championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but hardly any literary titan has explored the medium’s spiritual and existential value more intimately than Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910). The same intense inward gaze that produced Tolstoy’s record of spiritual awakening became, by the end of his life, an effort to assemble a manual on the meaning of existence. But the most psychologically formative and creatively intriguing journaling is that of Tolstoy’s youth.

Tolstoy wrote his first diary entry at the age of eighteen, in March of 1847, while relegated to a hospital bed during treatment for a venereal disease. He was already on the cusp of being expelled from university for poor academic performance, so the forced sabbatical at the hospital led him to begin a journey of self-exploration — in the dual sense of both examining himself and contemplating the notion of the self — which would stretch and coil across his entire life.

That journey is what Russian literature scholar and historian Irina Paperno explores in “Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self (public library) — a remarkably insightful account of the beloved author’s “paradoxical efforts to create a narrative representation of both the self and the selfless being,” and an inquiry into the broader, more universal concerns with what actually constitutes a self, that elusive and often self-defeating appendage of existence.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy, 1873

What makes these diaries especially intriguing is their parallel existence in the past and the future — Tolstoy combined narrative reflections on the micro scale of autobiography with moral resolutions on the macro scale of character. But what emerges, above all, is the sense that Tolstoy was a man of intense intellect, continually crucified by the compulsive shoulds in which that very intellect was trapped. Caught up in his obsessive project of intentional moral organization, he saw the self as a forceful function of supposed to rather than a peaceful bearing witness to being, an embracing of is.

Tolstoy liked to trace the origin of his fascination with this question to his old nanny, who used to lie in solitude, listening to the clock and hearing in its ticking a question: “Who are you — what are you? Who are you — what are you?” In the clock’s question, Paperno argues, Tolstoy found his eternal quest:

This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?

And so for the young Tolstoy lying at the hospital, the diary was as much “an instrument of self-perfection” with which to steer his wayward life as it was “an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self” through concepts like morality, memory, consciousness, and time.

Tolstoy’s early journals, in fact, were at once a moral checklist and narrative cartography of time. Paperno points to one particularly intriguing notebook from his mid-twenties, titled Journal for Weaknesses, which fell partway between Benjamin Franklin’s agenda of virtues and Isaac Newton’s litany of self-professed sins. Like Franklin, Tolstoy marked his moral development along the temporal progression of the calendar but, like Newton, he focused on his follies rather than his feats — he divided the page of his calendar-notebook into columns for potential weaknesses like laziness, indecision, and vanity, marking with small crosses the days on which the respective vice manifested.

Alongside this notebook, Paperno notes, Tolstoy kept another, titled Journal of Daily Occupations — a time-log in which each page was divided into two vertical columns, one for the future and one for the past. The first listed Tolstoy’s agenda for the next day, and the second marked the fruition of those plans the following day. Each day’s entry thus began by using the previous day’s as a reference point, producing what was essentially an evaluation — and always an unfavorable one — of how the actuality of is measured up against the aspiration of should be.

Indeed, the fact that there was no column for the present at all further intensifies the sense that Tolstoy was driven by the tyranny of should, always leaning forward into a better imagined future and yet always plagued by hindsight’s sense of having fallen short.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

Paperno quotes one illustrative entry from March 24, 1851, in which Tolstoy scrupulously interjects into the narrative of his day the moral weaknesses that led to having fallen short on the previous day’s resolutions:

Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness). — At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character).

He then proceeds to outline his agenda for the next day, March 25:

From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12 — gymnastics. From 12 to 1 — English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4 — on horseback. From 4 to 6 — dinner. From 6 to 8 — to read. From 8 to 10 — to write. — To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style. — To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.

But when the 25th arrives, Tolstoy produces once again a litany of his shortcomings as he contemplates his failed shoulds:

Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevard wanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s. — Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

And yet the harsh self-flagellation Tolstoy exercised in these youthful journals, Paperno suggests, became a foundational experiment in the elasticity of time and the struggle for moral development — the elements that eventually came to define the very fiction for which Tolstoy is so enduringly beloved. She writes:

He was involved in a struggle with the constraints that language and narrative impose on one’s ability to know and represent the “I.” Ultimately, Tolstoy refused to accept that the self — his self — was limited to what could be told. Inherent in the structure of any verbal narrative is a view of life that accords a predominant role to linear temporal order, which implies finitude. Tolstoy’s lifelong attempt to describe his life (or self) was a project with philosophical, moral, and religious implications.

[…]

His lifelong search for the true self turned into an impossible mission: to define the non-self of the true being that lay outside language and time. Tolstoy was tormented with the paradoxical desire to write himself into a state of silence.

[…]

His personal struggles with a sense of self left their mark: For many of his readers, in Russia and beyond, Tolstoy has been an example by which they seek to orient their own lives.

“Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self is a magnificent and layered read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy’s search for meaning, his reading list for every stage of life, and his letters to Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. For more pause-giving perspectives on the question of the self, see Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity, Joshua Knobe on how we know who we are, Meghan Daum on how we become the people we are, and Alan Watts on the self illusion.

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22 JANUARY, 2015

What to Do When Your Wife Is More Successful than You: Wise Advice from Tchaikovsky’s Father, 150 Years Ahead of Its Time

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“Married happiness is based upon mutual respect, and you would no more permit your wife to be a kind of servant, than she would ask you to be her lackey.”

Eastern Europe is not exactly a region known for empowering women and promoting gender equality. When I was growing up there in the 1980s, the gender norms for women — from appearance to domestic duties to self-actualization prospects — seemed stuck if not in the caveman era then at the very least in the preceding century. Imagine, then, how disorienting it must have been for an Eastern European man in that preceding century — a man of great ambition and genius, no less — to face the prospect of marrying a woman more successful than him. But that’s precisely what the great composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky confronted in late 1868 as he became infatuated with the prominent Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, five years his senior — one of the world’s most famous women at the time, whom he had met earlier that year during the Russian tour of an Italian opera company that had caused a sensation in Moscow with Artôt’s performance.

From The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) — the same endlessly rewarding volume that gave us the great composer on work ethic vs. inspiration, the paradox of client work, and why you should never allow interruptions in your creative process — comes this magnificent exchange with his father, who provided wonderfully wise and heartening advice on love, creative purpose, and why a healthy ego thrives on equality rather than fearing it.

On January 7, 1869 — three decades after Darwin famously weighed the pros and cons of marriage — young Pyotr despairs in a letter to his father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky:

My friends … are trying might and main to prevent my marriage. They declare that, married to a famous singer, I should play the pitiable part of “husband of my wife”; that I should live at her expense and accompany her all over Europe; finally, that I should lose all opportunities of working, and that when my first love had cooled, I should know nothing but disenchantment and depression. The risk of such a catastrophe might perhaps be avoided, if she would consent to leave the stage and live entirely in Russia. But she declares that in spite of all her love for me, she cannot make up her mind to give up the profession which brings her in so much money, and to which she has grown accustomed. At present she is on her way to Moscow. Meanwhile we have agreed that I am to visit her in summer at her country house (near Paris), when our fate will be decided.

If she will not consent to give up the stage, I, on my part, hesitate to sacrifice my future; for it is clear that I shall lose all opportunity of making my own way, if I blindly follow in her train. You see, Dad, my situation is a very difficult one. On the one hand, I love her heart and soul, and feel I cannot live any longer without her; on the other hand, calm reason bids me to consider more closely all the misfortunes with which my friends threaten me. I shall wait, my dear, for your views on the subject.

Désirée Artôt

Three days later, he receives an exquisitely thoughtful and emboldening reply from his father, who writes:

My dear Pyotr,

You ask my advice upon the most momentous event in your life… You are both artists, both make capital out of your talents; but while she has made both money and fame, you have hardly begun to make your way, and God knows whether you will ever attain to what she has acquired. Your friends know your gifts, and fear they may suffer by your marriage — I think otherwise. You, who gave up your official appointment for the sake of your talent, are not likely to forsake your art, even if you are not altogether happy at first, as is the fate of nearly all musicians. You are proud, and therefore you find it unpleasant not to be earning sufficient to keep a wife and be independent of her purse. Yes, dear fellow, I understand you well enough. It is bitter and unpleasant. But if you are both working and earning together there can be no question of reproach; go your way, let her go hers, and help each other side by side. It would not be wise for either of you to give up your chosen vocations until you have saved enough to say: “This is ours, we have earned it in common.”

His father then goes on to address the specific admonitions issued by the composer’s friends, beginning with the notion that marrying a famous singer dooms him to “playing the pitiable part of attendant upon her journeys,” living on her earnings, and relinquishing his own prospects of gainful creative work. Tchaikovsky père writes:

If your love is not a fleeting, but solid sentiment, as it ought to be in people of your age; if your vows are sincere and unalterable, then all these misgivings are nonsense. Married happiness is based upon mutual respect, and you would no more permit your wife to be a kind of servant, than she would ask you to be her lackey. The traveling is not a matter of any importance, so long as it does not prevent your composing — it will even give you opportunities of getting your operas or symphonies performed in various places. A devoted friend will help to inspire you. When all is set down in black and white, with such a companion as your chosen one, your talent is more likely to progress than to deteriorate.

He then counters the caution that once the infatuation burns itself out, there will be only despondency left:

Even if your first passion for her does cool somewhat, will “nothing remain but disenchantment and depression”? But why should love grow cold? I lived twenty-one years with your mother, and during all that time I loved her just the same, with the ardor of a young man, and respected and worshipped her as a saint…

There is only one question I would ask you: have you proved each other? Do you love each other truly, and for all time? I know your character, my dear son, and I have confidence in you, but I have not as yet the happiness of knowing the dear woman of your choice. I only know her lovely heart and soul through you. It would be no bad thing if you proved each other, not by jealousy — God forbid — but by time.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for a book version of Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker.' Click image for more.

The story would be delightful if it ended there, with a “happily ever after” addendum. But real life — especially for those whose souls are ablaze with the great fire of genius, which can sometimes burn as it illuminates — is always messier than such fable-like idyls.

Ilya’s final point turned out to be the most insightful of all, for young Tchaikovsky’s infatuation with Artôt didn’t stand the test of time — in large part because the composer’s attractions up to that point had been to men, and — as both his official biographers and his brother’s autobiography have demonstrated — he experienced tremendous inner turmoil over his homosexuality and went to great lengths to suppress it. (This fact was expunged from history for more than a century, which is hardly surprising given Russia’s history of LGBT rights violations. Even Brain Pickings, even today, has been repeatedly blocked in Russia for featuring LGBT artists and writers, thus violating the gobsmacking “gay ban” instituted by Putin’s administration. It must be terribly aggravating for a government whose formalized bigotry is among the world’s worst failures of human rights to acknowledge that the country’s greatest composer was a gay man; it’s unsurprising that censors would go to obscene lengths to obscure and outright falsify that fact — including, for instance, suppressing entire sections of Modest Tchaikovsky’s autobiography, in which he chronicles his brother’s homosexuality.) Artôt, after all, was the Cher of her day — it’s possible that Tchaikovsky was taken with her as a diva to be worshipped rather than a lover to be possessed. Similar instances can be found elsewhere in the fossil record of LGBT history — Hans Christian Anderson, who never married or had children, was infatuated for a time with the famous Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind, and Oscar Wilde married the socialite Constance Lloyd in the midst of his long love affair with Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

But the actual break wasn’t initiated by Tchaikovsky — on September 15 that year, to the composer’s shock, she married a Spanish member of her opera company. According to Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden, the marriage was likely prompted by pressure from Artôt’s mother who, upon finding out about the composer’s orientation, took every measure to ensure her daughter wouldn’t marry him — the surest strategy for which, evidently, was to push her into matrimony with another man.

Eight years later, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Ivanovna — a young woman who had been flooding him with fervent fan mail. The marriage was acutely short-lived — mere hours after the wedding ceremony, the composer was gripped with the terror of having made a grandiose mistake. Despite trying to make a go of it, the couple’s emotional and sexual incompatibility crescendoed two and a half months later, and they split. Although they remained legally married, they never lived together again and Antonia mothered three children by another man. A few months after his failed marriage, Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly:

There’s no doubt that for some months on end I was a bit insane and only now, when I’m completely recovered, have I learned to relate objectively to everything which I did during my brief insanity. That man who in May took it into his head to marry Antonina Ivanovna, who during June wrote a whole opera as though nothing had happened, who in July married, who in September fled from his wife, who in November railed at Rome and so on — that man wasn’t I, but another Pyotr Ilyich.

But for the rest of his life, Tchaikovsky maintained that Artôt had been the only woman he ever loved.

Many more of the great composer’s beautiful and strangely assuring complexities and contradictions can be found in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement this particular piece with Wendell Berry on what the poetic form reveals about the secret of marriage and Amelia Earhart’s remarkably progressive requirements for matrimony.

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08 JANUARY, 2015

Nabokov Gets Food Poisoning and Flees from the Hospital via Fire Escape: History’s Most Entertaining Account of “Homeric Retching”

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“I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began.”

Some weeks ago, I found myself wholly incapacitated by my very first experience of food poisoning — a fact heartening in the abstract awareness that I had gone this many decades without enduring such an incapacitating episode, but utterly exasperating in its immediate bodily concreteness. Apart from the obvious gastrointestinal peril one imagines — but always imagines insufficiently in the face of the reality — I also found myself blindsided by the complete mental incapacitation resulting from the extreme physical weakness, as if the gut had somehow colluded with the brain in staunchly defying command and seceding from the rest of the being. Since writing was out of the question — an act that requires, above all, full access to one’s own brain and the seamless firing of the associative chains therein — I decided to distract myself with some light reading from a heavy book resting atop my bedside pile, which happened to be Letters to Véra (public library) — the same volume that gave us Nabokov’s exquisite love letters to his wife and was among the best memoirs, biographies, and history books of 2014. Imagine my utter shock — so much so that I at first considered it a poisoning-induced hallucination — when I split the hefty tome in about half, opening to a random page, on which began Nabokov’s wildly entertaining account of his first food poisoning.

In the late spring of 1944, while serving as a curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the beloved author endured his own gastrointestinal nightmare thanks to a lunch of questionable ham at the German eatery Wursthaus — an iconic fixture of Harvard Square between 1917 and 1996. Two years earlier, the restaurant had been bought by Frank N. Cardullo, “the unofficial Mayor of Cambridge,” who turned it into a $3-million-a-year enterprise by the 1980s, only to see the health-conscious 1990s spell its demise. But in Nabokov’s day, that decadent German ham turned out to be unhealthy for far more immediately distressing reasons, which the author came to recount in wildly amusing detail in a letter to his wife — culminating with his flamboyant vamoose from the hospital via the fire-escape, in pajamas.

On June 6, 1944, Nabokov writes to Véra from Cambridge, addressing her by one of his many terms of endearment:

My dear darling,

Yesterday was a day of extraordinary adventures. It started when, in the morning, the minute I was getting ready to go to the museum (with a tennis racket, since I’d arranged to play with Clark at 4:30), T.N. [Nabokov’s friend Tatyana Nikolaevna Karpovich] called, very agitated — she’d driven the sick M. Mikh. [Mikhail Mikhaylovich Karpovich, Tatyana’s husband] down from Vermont, and meanwhile the Dobuzhinskys [the painter Mstislav Dobuzhnisky and his wife] had arrived and couldn’t get into their house, since no one was at home… I agreed with her that after tennis I would drop in to check on M. Mikh., and left for the museum. Around one in the afternoon, still just as healthy and energetic, I had lunch at the Wursthaus, where I had the Virginia ham with spinach and drank a coffee. I returned to my microscope around two. Exactly at 2:30, I suddenly felt an urge to vomit, had barely time to run outside — and there it began: an absolutely Homeric retching, bloody diarrhoea, spasms, weakness. I don’t know how I got back home, where I crawled along the floor and poured myself out in the waste basket.

The iconic Wursthaus restaurant (Cambridge Historical Society)

But it only goes downhill from there — Nabokov’s private pain becomes a public farce as he turns to the healthcare system for help:

Somehow or other I found the strength to call T.N., who summoned an ambulance, which took me to the truly horrendous hospital where you’d been with Mityushen’ka [the Nabokovs’ son Dmitry]. An absolutely helpless brunette tried to pump my stomach through my nose — I’d rather not recall that — in a word, I asked, writing from the spasms and retching, for them to take me quickly somewhere else. T.N., realizing that the doctor was there, drove me to their place. By then I was in a state of complete collapse. This doctor, very sweet (I don’t remember his name), immediately made all the arrangements himself and himself drove, and carried, me to the hospital where you’d been. There they placed me in a ward with a terribly and raucously dying old man — and because of the groans I couldn’t get to sleep. They poured a bottle of salt solution into my veins — and today, although the diarrhoea’s still carrying on this morning, I feel great, am awfully hungry — and want to smoke — but they’re giving me only water. I’m being looked after by a Dr. Cooney.

He has just been here, the diarrhoea has stopped, he said I can be discharged the day after tomorrow, on Friday. They have just given me food for the first time (5:30) — and rather strange, at that (but you know this): risotto, bacon, canned pears. I didn’t eat the bacon… A silly story, but all in all I am absolutely healthy now. I won’t mention the living conditions here. Clean, but terribly noisy. I have been transferred to a public ward. Enfin. I dined in a very pleasant open gallery where they rolled me out and where I smoked my first cigarette.

The doctor says it was bloody colitis caused by food poisoning… In short, the bacilli had taken me for the invasion beach.

Before ending the letter with his usual expressions of adoration, Nabokov instructs Véra with affectionate firmness, even underlining his directive:

Don’t come here under any circumstances: I’ve recovered.

Three days later, while still in the hospital, he writes to Véra again:

I feel unbearably bored without you and my little one. These few days have completely exhausted me physically, but in terms of i n s p i r a t i o n everything is going very well. Today’s the first time my stomach has really worked properly, and if it weren’t for the weakness in my loins, I’d feel excellent.

Ever the wry humorist in these private letters, he offers a florid — if somewhat uncompassionate — taxonomy of auditory discomforts:

The public ward was utter bedlam. There was an endless unruly din consisting of the following elements:

  1. the zoological sounds of an incessant radio set
  2. the wheezes, groans, and roaring of the seriously ill
  3. conversations across the whole enormous ward by the healthier, with guffawing and strolling around
  4. the incredible noise produced by a sixteen-year-old idiot helping the nurses, the institutional fool. He grimaced, stomped, howled, deliberately banged every dish, cracked jokes — and imitated the moans of some of the old men who were in particular anguish, thereby arousing general goodhearted laughter

The nurses constantly tried to pull open the curtains of my coop and got angry saying that since all the other curtains were pulled, my poor tabernacle was spoiling the general look of the ward.

Eventually, Nabokov can’t take any more of this institutional charade. He relays his picturesque escape via dramatic acrobatics:

By the end of my stay I was in such a state of exasperation that when on Saturday morning I saw from the gallery (where I had gone out for a smoke) T.N., who’d come for me, I jumped out through the fire-escape and I was, in pyjamas and a dressing-gown, rushed to the car — and we were already moving off, when the absolutely enraged nurses ran out — but they couldn’t stop me.

As if the deliberate comedy of his account weren’t enough, he adds a mischievous marital jab at the end:

I love you very much. I must confess there was a minute when I was lying there with no pulse thinking some rather funny thoughts. I wish you had seen the burly policemen summoned to Cragie by T.N. and wanting to know “who is this woman?” and “what poison did you take?” When do you get back? I adore you.

Exactly a week after ingesting the unfortunate ham, Nabokov drops a matter-of-factly lamentation in an aside in another letter:

I did stop by at the Wursthaus yesterday, and although I didn’t intend to say to them anything offensive or damaging, a row erupted from the first words, thanks to the owner’s rudeness, since, apparently, this was not the first complaint about his wretched ham.

The Wursthaus in the 1950s (Cambridge Historical Society)

But this was far from the end of Nabokov’s hospital misadventures and only the beginning of his understandable mistrust of the healthcare system. In a 2003 email archived by the University of California Santa Barbara, Dmitry Nabokov recounts his father’s escalating medical misfortunes, strung together by a common thread of the tragicomic:

In the forties, while my mother and I were visiting a relative in New York and my father was busy with students in Wellesley and butterflies in Cambridge, he collapsed with acute food poisoning after a meal at a Cambridge restaurant called the Wursthaus. He was hospitalized, and then shown a routine chest Xray that revealed a dark mass in one lung. He was told it was cancer. He stopped smoking cold turkey, started eating molasses candy as a surrogate, and gained some 30 pounds. It turned out later that the Xray had not been his at all.

Letters to Véra is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with Nabokov on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, and the attributes of a good reader.

Donating = Loving

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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.