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06 JUNE, 2013

June 6, 1917: Edna St. Vincent Millay Almost Gets Banned from Her Own Graduation

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“I always said … that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way.”

Anne Sexton’s recently rediscovered report card revealed that the celebrated author barely made it through school. During her last week of college, Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — found herself in a similar conundrum, though for very different reasons. On June 6, 1917, the vivacious, life-loving 25-year-old Millay sends her family a letter from Vassar, which she had entered late, at the age of 21, after taking several classes at Barnard College and, dissatisfied, deciding to transfer. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), it informed them of the consequences of Millay’s youthful mischief with charmingly self-conscious faux-nonchalance. Underpinning her words is her signature blend of irreverent pride and genuine sensitivity, and her unrelenting ability to seek and find, above all else, that which is beautiful and worthy of cheer.

Dear Mother & Sister —

In a few days now I shall write myself
A.B.
& send home my sheepskin for you to frame & hang up unesthetically in a conspicuous position. Everything is all right. My bills are paid.

But I must tell you something unpleasant but quite unimportant which has just occurred. — Because I was absent-minded & stayed away out of town with three other girls one night, forgetting until it was too late that I had no right to be there because I had already lost my privileges for staying a couple of days in New York to go to the Opera, — the Faculty has taken away from me my part in Commencement. — That doesn’t mean just what it says, because my part in Commencement will go on without me, — Baccalaureate Hymn [which Millay composed], for instance, or the words of Tree Ceremonies, which we repeat — & it all seems pretty shabby, of course, after all that I have done for the college, that it would turn me out at the end with scarcely enough time to pack and, as you might say, sort of “without a character.” — The class is exceedingly indignant, bless ‘em, & is busy sending in petitions signed by scores of names, & letters from representative people, & all that. It will do no good. But it is a splendid row.

I always said, you remember, that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way. — Well, that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t pretend that I don’t feel badly. I do. — I have wept gallons — all over everybody. — Terribly nervous, you know, because I had sat up three whole nights during exams, to get my topics done, — & no sleep in the day-time. … It isn’t a disgrace, you see, folks, — it’s just a darned unpleasant penalty for carelessness of college rules, occurring at a darned unfortunate time.

But I never knew before that I had so many friends. — Everybody is wonderful.

So wonderful were her legions of friends, in fact, that they steered things in Millay’s favor. The following Sunday, she writes her sister:

Dear Norma —
Tell Mother it is all right, — the class made such a fuss that they let me come back, & I graduated in my cap & gown along with the rest. Tell her it had nothing to do with money; — all my bills have been settled for some time. — Commencement went off beautifully & I had a wonderful time. Tell her this at once if you can. . . .

But, to be sure, Millay was no careless party girl — during her time at Vassar, she had already sold a number of poems to various publications and was about to launch into adult life with full force. She writes Norma in the same letter:

I’m staying here & just looking around for a job. If I get one soon enough, & it doesn’t begin for a short time perhaps I shall come home when Kathleen does, but otherwise I shall just stay on here until I get something to do, probably. YOu see I have to start right in working as soon as I can get a job, — & I may not be able to come home at all. We mustn’t be foolish about these things.

I have sold October-November to The Yale Review, a fine magazine.

If I got an engagement for the fall then I could come home & do some writing, which I am very anxious to do, this summer. But I can’t come home unless I have something sure here to come back to, — you understand.

I am feeling much rested, — & all keyed up to go to work — but, oh, I am so homesick to see you, dear, & Mother, — & the garden & everything! — Never mind, if I have good luck I shall come home, — unless I have to begin work at once.

She excitedly signs the letter with her newly earned academic degree:

Vincent
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, A.B.!)

Millay, in fact, donned the cap and gown not once but twice in her lifetime. Exactly twenty years later, she received an honorary degree from NYU.

1937 Honorary Degree Recipients with Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase. Edna St. Vincent Millay appears in front row, center.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a treasure trove in its entirety, full of timelessly delightful wit and wisdom from one of literary history’s most remarkable figures.

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05 JUNE, 2013

Cupid’s Conflicted Arrow: Henri-Frédéric Amiel on Love and Its Demons

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“Do not amend by reasoning, but by example; approach feeling by feeling; do not hope to excite love except by love.”

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” Anaïs Nin admonished.“It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” And yet the tension between this anxiety and the longing for love that underpins it, for “the great intangible,” is one of the most pervasive and enduring inner contradictions we struggle to reconcile, the inevitable discomfort of allowing “the boundaries between you and not-you … relax and become more permeable” as union submerges isolation, the proud surrender that true love necessitates.

Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821–1881) — a man of brilliant mind and tormented soul — is one of those peculiar figures who, not unlike Anaïs Nin herself, attained only marginal acclaim for their formal body of work, but whose posthumously published private journals have gone on to become timeless masterpieces of philosophy and literary thought. The Journal Intime of Henri-Frédéric Amiel, originally published in 1882 and now known simply as Amiel’s Journal (public library; public domain) is a true masterpiece of philosophy and perennial wisdom — a confession, a lament, a record of the unabated struggle to reconcile his inner life with the practical demands of the outer world, at once a resignation to Amiel’s own weakness and a refusal to give up on the ideals of his highest self, a work of remarkable psychological impact that endures as the “indestructible sympathy of man with man, that eternal answering of feeling to feeling, which is one of the great principles, perhaps the greatest principle, at the root of literature.”

In the original introduction, French critic M. Edmond Scherer, who edited the volume, exposes the bittersweetness at the heart of Amiel’s journal:

The man who, during his lifetime, was incapable of giving us any deliberate or conscious work worthy of his powers, has now left us, after his death, a book which will not die. For the secret of Amiel’s malady is sublime, and the expression of it wonderful.

Six months after the publication of the first volume, the prominent 19th-century English author Mark Pattison sent Scherer a letter, encapsulating the universal significance of why unearthing such obscure gems and bringing them to light, again and again, matters:

As I cannot suppose that so peculiar a psychological revelation will enjoy a wide popularity, I think it a duty to the editor to assure him that there are persons in the world whose souls respond, in the depths of their inmost nature, to the cry of anguish which makes itself heard in the pages of these remarkable confessions.

Among Amiel’s greatest, most abiding insights are his conflicted thoughts on love. He longs for it, almost painfully:

I cannot escape from the ideal of it. A companion, of my life, of my work, of my thoughts, of my hopes; within a common worship — toward the world outside kindness and beneficence; education to undertake; the thousand and one moral relations which develop round the first — all these ideas intoxicate me sometimes.

But he finds himself consistently unable to stay present with the very capacity for happiness that inviting love necessitates:

Reality, the present, the irreparable, the necessary, repel and even terrify me. I have too much imagination, conscience, and penetration and not enough character. The life of thought alone seems to me to have enough elasticity and immensity, to be free enough from the irreparable; practical life makes me afraid. I am distrustful of myself and of happiness because I know myself. The ideal poisons for me all imperfect possession. And I abhor useless regrets and repentance.

On May 17, 1849, he writes, once again conflicted:

To be misunderstood even by those whom one loves is the cross and bitterness of life. It is the secret of that sad and melancholy smile on the lips of great men which so few understand; it is the cruelest trial reserved for self-devotion. . . . Alas! alas! never to tire, never to grow cold; to be patient, sympathetic, tender; to look for the budding flower and the opening heart; to hope always, like God; to love always — this is duty.

On April 6, 1851, considering the meaning of life, he returns to the same anxious paradox:

Life, is it essentially the education of the mind and intelligence, or that of the will? And does will show itself in strength or in resignation? If the aim of life is to teach us renunciation, then welcome sickness, hindrances, sufferings of every kind! But if its aim is to produce the perfect man, then one must watch over one’s integrity of mind and body. To court trial is to tempt God. At bottom, the God of justice veils from me the God of love. I tremble instead of trusting.

Whenever conscience speaks with a divided, uncertain, and disputed voice, it is not yet the voice of God. Descend still deeper into yourself, until you hear nothing but a clear and undivided voice, a voice which does away with doubt and brings with it persuasion, light and serenity. … This inner identity, this unity of conviction, is all the more difficult the more the mind analyzes, discriminates, and foresees. It is difficult, indeed, for liberty to return to the frank unity of instinct.

Alas! we must then re-climb a thousand times the peaks already scaled, and reconquer the points of view already won, we must fight the fight! The human heart, like kings, signs mere truces under a pretense of perpetual peace. The eternal life is eternally to be re-won. Alas, yes! peace itself is a struggle, or rather it is struggle and activity which are the law. We only find rest in effort, as the flame only finds existence in combustion. O Heraclitus! the symbol of happiness is after all the same as that of grief; anxiety and hope, hell and heaven, are equally restless. The altar of Vesta and the sacrifice of Beelzebub burn with the same fire. Ah, yes, there you have life — life double-faced and double-edged. The fire which enlightens is also the fire which consumes; the element of the gods may become that of the accursed.

On April 7, 1851, he adds at once to history’s greatest definitions of science and history’s greatest definitions of love:

If science does not produce love it is insufficient. … Moral love places the center of the individual in the center of being. It has at least salvation in principle, the germ of eternal life. To love is virtually to know; to know is not virtually to love; there you have the relation of these two modes of man. The redemption wrought by science or by intellectual love is then inferior to the redemption wrought by will or by moral love. The first may free a man from himself, it may enfranchise him from egotism. The second drives the ego out of itself, makes it active and fruitful. The one is critical, purifying, negative; the other is vivifying, fertilizing, positive. Science, however spiritual and substantial it may be in itself, is still formal relatively to love. Moral force is then the vital point. And this force is only produced by moral force. Like alone acts upon like. Therefore do not amend by reasoning, but by example; approach feeling by feeling; do not hope to excite love except by love. Be what you wish others to become. Let yourself and not your words preach for you.

[…]

Science is the power of man, and love his strength; man becomes man only by the intelligence, but he is man only by the heart. Knowledge, love, power — there is the complete life.

And yet, despite the reflections of Amiel the detached philosopher, Amiel the fallible man remains incapable of fully inhabiting his own capacity for love. On November 6, 1852, he writes:

I am capable of all the passions, for I bear them all within me. Like a tamer of wild beasts, I keep them caged and lassoed, but I sometimes hear them growling. I have stifled more than one nascent love. Why? Because with that prophetic certainty which belongs to moral intuition, I felt it lacking in true life, and less durable than myself. I choked it down in the name of the supreme affection to come. The loves of sense, of imagination, of sentiment, I have seen through and rejected them all; I sought the love which springs from the central profundities of being. And I still believe in it. I will have none of those passions of straw which dazzle, burn up, and wither; I invoke, I await, and I hope for the love which is great, pure and earnest, which lives and works in all the fibers and through all the powers of the soul. And even if I go lonely to the end, I would rather my hope and my dream died with me, than that my soul should content itself with any meaner union.

Touching on our frequent and profoundly disquieting failure to believe the love of others, he admonishes in an entry from December 17, 1854:

It costs us a great deal of trouble not to be of the same opinion as our self-love, and not to be ready to believe in the good taste of those who believe in our merits.

On May 23, 1855, he returns to the self-destructiveness that plagues many of our attempts at love:

Every hurtful passion draws us to it, as an abyss does, by a kind of vertigo. Feebleness of will brings about weakness of head, and the abyss in spite of its horror, comes to fascinate us, as though it were a place of refuge. Terrible danger! For this abyss is within us; this gulf, open like the vast jaws of an infernal serpent bent on devouring us, is in the depth of our own being, and our liberty floats over this void, which is always seeking to swallow it up. Our only talisman lies in that concentration of moral force which we call conscience, that small inextinguishable flame of which the light is duty and the warmth love.

On October 22, 1856, he articulates the notion that “real, honest, complete love requires letting go” and writes:

We must learn to look upon life as an apprenticeship to a progressive renunciation, a perpetual diminution in our pretensions, our hopes, our powers, and our liberty. … It is in this nothingness that we recover something of life — the divine spark is there at the bottom of it. Resignation comes to us, and, in believing love, we reconquer the true greatness.

On November 16, 1864, beholding the mortality paradox, Amiel comes full circle to the very melancholy that both propels his longing for love and prevents its actualization:

Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea. Can it be otherwise in a world where nothing lasts, where all that we have loved or shall love must die? Is death, then, the secret of life? The gloom of an eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night enwraps the universe.

On March 17, 1868, he reflects on women’s experience of love, echoing Stedhal’s concept of crystallization with a sentiment Anaïs Nin would come to second (“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.”) — but, of course, at the heart of Amiel’s description is the universal vanity of the human experience of love:

Women wish to be loved without a why or a wherefore; not because they are pretty, or good, or well bred, or graceful, or intelligent, but because they are themselves. All analysis seems to them to imply a loss of consideration, a subordination of their personality to something which dominates and measures it. They will have none of it; and their instinct is just. As soon as we can give a reason for a feeling we are no longer under the spell of it; we appreciate, we weigh, we are free, at least in principle. Love must always remain a fascination, a witchery, if the empire of woman is to endure. Once the mystery gone, the power goes with it. Love must always seem to us indivisible, insoluble, superior to all analysis, if it is to preserve that appearance of infinity, of something supernatural and miraculous, which makes its chief beauty. The majority of beings despise what they understand, and bow only before the inexplicable. The feminine triumph par excellence is to convict of obscurity that virile intelligence which makes so much pretense to enlightenment. And when a woman inspires love, it is then especially that she enjoys this proud triumph. I admit that her exultation has its grounds. Still, it seems to me that love — true and profound love — should be a source of light and calm, a religion and a revelation, in which there is no place left for the lower victories of vanity. Great souls care only for what is great, and to the spirit which hovers in the sight of the Infinite, any sort of artifice seems a disgraceful puerility.

He adds to that more than three years later:

If we begin by overrating the being we love, we shall end by treating it with wholesale injustice.

He returns to the subject another nine years later with definitive clarity:

True love is that which ennobles the personality, fortifies the heart, and sanctifies the existence. And the being we love must not be mysterious and sphinx-like, but clear and limpid as a diamond; so that admiration and attachment may grow with knowledge.

On December 26, 1868, he peers once again at the universal with a bittersweet directive:

Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!

On August 14, 1869, he returns to the core ambivalent impossibility of his longing for love:

My longing, my search is for love, for peace, for something to fill my heart; an idea to defend; a work to which I might devote the rest of my strength; an affection which might quench this inner thirst; a cause for which I might die with joy. But shall I ever find them? I long for all that is impossible and inaccessible: for true religion, serious sympathy, the ideal life; for paradise, immortality, holiness, faith, inspiration, and I know not what besides! What I really want is to die and to be born again, transformed myself, and in a different world. And I can neither stifle these aspirations nor deceive myself as to the possibility of satisfying them. I seem condemned to roll forever the rock of Sisyphus, and to feel that slow wearing away of the mind which befalls the man whose vocation and destiny are in perpetual conflict. “A Christian heart and a pagan head,” like Jacobi; tenderness and pride; width of mind and feebleness of will; the two men of St. Paul; a seething chaos of contrasts, antinomies, and contradictions; humility and pride; childish simplicity and boundless mistrust; analysis and intuition; patience and irritability; kindness and dryness of heart; carelessness and anxiety; enthusiasm and languor; indifference and passion; altogether a being incomprehensible and intolerable to myself and to others!

On December 28, 1880, shortly before his death, he points to one of love’s greatest demons:

Jealousy is a terrible thing. It resembles love, only it is precisely love’s contrary. Instead of wishing for the welfare of the object loved, it desires the dependence of that object upon itself, and its own triumph. Love is the forgetfulness of self; jealousy is the most passionate form of egotism, the glorification of a despotic, exacting, and vain ego, which can neither forget nor subordinate itself. The contrast is perfect.

But perhaps most poignant of all is Amiel’s timelessly eloquent reflection on that eternal tug-of-war between mind and heart, on the perils of rationalization, of love’s capacity to save us from our selves, from our own plummet towards nonexistence:

Thought is a kind of opium; it can intoxicate us, while still broad awake; it can make transparent the mountains and everything that exists. It is by love only that one keeps hold upon reality, that one recovers one’s proper self, that one becomes again will, force, and individuality. Love could do everything with me; by myself and for myself I prefer to be nothing.

On November 7, 1862, he examines how this tendency — particularly the toxic despotism of the will — plays out in intimate relationships:

You must love with the same love, think with the same thought as some one else, if you are to escape solitude.

Mutual respect implies discretion and reserve even in love itself; it means preserving as much liberty as possible to those whose life we share. We must distrust our instinct of intervention, for the desire to make one’s own will prevail is often disguised under the mask of solicitude.

Amiel’s Journal is absolutely remarkable in its entirety, the kind of book that, upon reading and rereading, exposes just about every trembling, beautifully conflicted facet of what it means to be human. Pair it with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on love, culled from her own posthumously published journals.

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04 JUNE, 2013

Advice for Travel and Life: Founding Father Benjamin Rush’s 14 Rules for His Young Son, 1796

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“Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you.”

Founding father and American Enlightenment leader Benjamin Rush (1745 — 1813) is among the most diversely influential figures in modern history — he signed the Declaration of Independence and championed many reforms; he opposed slavery and capital punishment at a time when it was fashionable to favor them; he pioneered the free American public school and helped found five institutions of higher learning; he proposed a new model of education for women that included sciences, history, and moral philosophy; he worked for the humane treatment of the mentally ill; he was the first American to hold the title of professor of chemistry (at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania) and published the first American chemistry textbook; and he served as the treasurer of the United States Mint for sixteen years.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, painted by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818

From Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us some of history’s greatest motherly advice and Sherwood Anderson’s counsel on the creative life — comes this letter Rush and his wife Julia sent to their twenty-one-year-old son John, the eldest of their thirteen children, after he finished a medical apprenticeship with his father and headed to India to practice his newly acquired skills. Despite the overwhelming religiosity of the letter — a reflection above all of the era’s monoculture — Rush’s advice on the four pillars of the good life includes timeless wisdom on the art of acquiring knowledge and reading books well, the benefits of keeping of diary, the importance of studying geography, and even primitive inklings of Michael Pollan’s modern food rules.

Directions and advice to Jno. Rush from his father and mother composed the evening before he sailed for Calcutta, May 18th, 1796

We shall divide these directions into four heads, as they relate to morals, knowledge, health, and business.

I. MORALS

1. Be punctual in committing your soul and body to the protection of your Creator every morning and evening. Implore at the same time his mercy in the name of his Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

2. Read in your Bible frequently, more especially on Sundays.

3. Avoid swearing and even an irreverent use of your Creator’s name. Flee youthful lusts.

4. Be courteous and gentle in your behavior to your fellow passengers, and respectful and obedient to the captain of the vessel.

5. Attend public worship regularly every Sunday when you arrive at Calcutta.

II. KNOWLEDGE

1. Begin by studying Guthrie’s Geography.

2. Read your other books through carefully, and converse daily upon the subjects of your reading.

3. Keep a diary of every day’s studies, conversations, and transactions at sea and on shore. Let it be composed in a fair, legible hand. Insert in it an account of the population, manners, climate, diseases, &c., of the places you visit.

4. Preserve an account of every person’s name and disease whom you attend.

III. HEALTH

1. Be temperate* in eating, more especially of animal food. Never taste distilled spirits of any kind, and drink fermented liquors very sparingly.

2. Avoid the night air in sickly situations. Let your dress be rather warmer than the weather would seem to require. Carefully avoid fatigue from all causes both of body and mind.

IV. BUSINESS

1. Take no step in laying out your money without the advice and consent of the captain or supercargo. Let no solicitations prevail with you to leave the captain and supercargo during your residence in Calcutta.

2. Keep an exact account of all your expenditures. Preserve as vouchers of them all your bills.

3. Take care of all your instruments, books, clothes, &c.

Be sober and vigilant. Remember at all times that while you are seeing the world, the world will see you. Recollect further that you are always under the eye of the Supreme Being. One more consideration shall close this parting testimony of our affection. Whenever you are tempted to do an improper thing, fancy that you see your father and mother kneeling before you and imploring you with tears in their eyes to refrain from yielding to the temptation, and assuring you at the same time that your yielding to it will be the means of hurrying them to a premature grave.

Benjn Rush
Julia Rush

* Rush was in fact a vehement proponent of temperance and designed “A Moral and Physical Thermometer” six years prior to penning the letter to his son:

Sadly, John was either ill-equipped to or chose not to follow his parents’ advice. John’s adult life was plagued by mental instability and, though he became a surgeon, his medical career was mediocre at most. Three years before his father’s death, John killed a friend in a duel and went insane. He was institutionalized at the Pennsylvania Hospital, his father’s place of work, where he remained for twenty-seven years until his last breath in 1837.

Posterity, however, is full of timeless epistolary wisdom from and to historical characters of decidedly more hopeful fates than John’s.

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