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Posts Tagged ‘history’

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.

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06 JANUARY, 2015

Alan Watts on What Reality Is and How to Become What You Are

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“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.”

This past holiday season, I attended a meditation retreat at a remote but renowned center for “deep change in self and society,” where I was struck — more sharply than I have been before — by our culture’s conflicting values of material success and self-transcendence. That disconnect was manifested on many levels — including in my own act of taking an airplane to go meditate — but one particular incident made the point more poignantly than others. A fellow retreat-goer casually shared with us the previous evening’s dilemma — whether or not to drive there in her Porsche or her other car. (She, a corporate coaching executive per her introduction, had decided against the Porsche, which is probably why she felt compelled to make it known that this invisible dilemma existed in her life in the first place.)

I am well aware, of course, that we are creatures of infinite contradiction and sanity-saving self-delusion — so to consider this woman’s disposition hypocritical would be to do an injustice to the dissonant desires of which the human condition is woven. I don’t doubt that part of the allure of such retreats comes from a genuine yearning, mine and hers and maybe yours, for “spiritual enlightenment” or refinement of the soul or whatever we might call that sincere longing for better communion with the universe within and without. But I was also struck, more viscerally than ever, by the other part of the modern psyche, the one that sees “spiritual enlightenment” as just another checklist item on the inventory of self-actualization and the Good Life.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Few people have contributed to both sides of this duality more than Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West — a radical proposition given the self-transcendence so central to the former and the self-enhancement that defines the latter — and seeded an enduring inquiry into such dichotomies as productivity vs. presence, belief vs. faith, hurrying vs. delaying, money vs. wealth, and ego-self vs. true being.

At the heart of these polarized tussles is always the question of what is real — what makes us real in our personhood, to ourselves and others, and what makes the world real to us. That’s precisely what Watts explores in a short essay titled “What Is Reality?,” found in his altogether excellent volume Become What You Are (public library). Writing in the early 1950s, Watts picks apart that elusive construct Philip K. Dick would come to define as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Watts begins, as he often does, with a short parable, already posing the reality-bending implicit question of whether this encounter is factual or fictional:

Some time ago a group of people were sitting in a restaurant, and one of them asked the others to say what they meant by Reality. There was much vague discussion, much talk of metaphysics and psychology, but one of those present, when asked his opinion, simply shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the saltshaker. He was amazed to find that no one understood him, yet he had intended to be neither clever nor obscure. His idea was just to give a commonsense answer to the question, on the ordinary assumption that Reality is whatever exists. He was not understood because his friends, in common with many others, regarded Reality as a special kind of existence and Life (with a capital L) as a particular way of living. Thus we often meet those who talk about the difference between being a mere clod, a mere “animated stomach,” and a real person; between those who simply exist and those who really live.

'Real isn't how you are made... It's a thing that happens to you.' Maurice Sendak's little-known 1960 illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit. Click image for more.

Channeling the Taoist philosophy of wu wei — the paradoxical art of “trying not to try” — Watts illuminates just what is at play in our collective Porsche pathology:

We have all met those who are trying very hard to be real persons, to give their lives Reality (or meaning) and to live as distinct from existing. These seekers are of many kinds, highbrow and lowbrow, ranging from students of arcane wisdom to the audiences of popular speakers on pep and personality, selling yourself and making your life a success. I have never yet met anyone who tried to become a real person with success. The result of such attempts is invariably loss of personality, for there is an ancient paradox of the spiritual life whereby those who try to make themselves great become small. The paradox is even a bit more complicated than this; it also means that if you try, indirectly, to make yourself great by making yourself small, you succeed only in remaining small. It is all a question of motive, of what you want. Motives may be subtly concealed, and we may not call the desire to be a real person the desire to be great; but that is just a matter of words.

So many modern religions and psychologies make this fundamental mistake of trying to make the tail wag the dog, which is what the quest for personality amounts to.

Admonishing against idol-worship and celebrity culture as particularly perilous ways in which we rob ourselves of realness, Watts considers our true touchpoints with reality:

When we revere real personality in others, we are liable to become mere imitators; when we revere it as an ideal for ourselves, here is the old trouble of wanting to make yourself great. It is all a question of pride, for if you revere Life and Reality only in particular types of personal living, you deny Life and Reality to such humble things as, for instance, saltshakers, specks of dust, worms, flowers, and the great unregenerate masses of the human race… But a Life, a Reality, a Tao that can be at once a Christ, a Buddha, a Lao-tzu, and an ignorant fool or a worm, this is something really mysterious and wonderful and really worth devotion if you consider it for a while… For Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others. They do not belong to particular persons any more than the sun, moon and stars.

Complement Become What You Are, which is indispensable in its entirety, with Watts on death and how to live with presence.

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