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Posts Tagged ‘history’

20 MARCH, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Persian Polymath Ibn Sina and How He Shaped the Course of Medicine

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How a voraciously curious little boy became one of the world’s greatest healers.

Humanity’s millennia-old quest to understand the human body is strewn with medical history milestones, but few individual figures merit as much credit as Persian prodigy-turned-polymath Ibn Sina (c. 980 CE–1037 AD), commonly known in the West as Avicenna — one of the most influential thinkers in our civilization’s unfolding story. He authored 450 known works spanning physics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, poetry, and medicine, including the seminal encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, which forever changed our understanding of the human body and its inner workings. This masterwork of science and philosophy — or metaphysics, as it was then called — remained in use as a centerpiece of medieval medical education until six hundred years after Ibn Sina’s death.

As a lover of children’s books that celebrate the life-stories of influential and inspiring luminaries — including those of Jane Goodall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Henri Rousseau, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was delighted to come upon The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina (public library) by Lebanese writer Fatima Sharafeddine and Iran-based Iraqi illustrator Intelaq Mohammed Ali, a fine addition to these favorite children’s books celebrating science.

In stunning illustrations reminiscent of ancient Islamic manuscript paintings, this lyrical first-person biography traces Ibn Sina’s life from his childhood as a voracious reader to his numerous scientific discoveries to his lifelong project of advancing the art of healing.

A universal celebration of curiosity and the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge, the story is doubly delightful for adding a sorely needed touch of diversity to the homogenous landscape of both science history and contemporary children’s books — here are two Middle Eastern women, telling the story of a pioneering scientist from the Islamic Golden Age.

The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have also given us such treasures as a wordless illustrated celebration of the art of noticing, a tender love letter to winter, and a heartening celebration of gender diversity.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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11 MARCH, 2015

Pioneering Early-Twentieth-Century Artist and Creative Entrepreneur Wanda Gág on Our Two Selves and How Love Lays Its Claim on Us

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“There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves.”

At the age of fifteen, long before she became a successful artist, a Newbery- and Caldecott-honored children’s book pioneer, and an influence for creative legends like Maurice Sendak, Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946) began keeping an illustrated diary, eventually published as Growing Pains (public library). Although it covers her adolescence and early twenties, it is anything but teenage in character — not in the least because by the time the word “teenager” was coined, Gág was already on her deathbed. Rather, it is the precocious, deeply alive record of how a young woman dragged herself out of poverty by her own talents and her dogged dedication, and became a great artist and creative entrepreneur in an era before women could even vote. (That she would eventually write and illustrate a glorious proto-feminist children’s book only adds to her emboldening story.)

Wanda Gág, 1916

The early portions of the diary capture the formative experiences of Gág’s childhood and adolescence — growing up in poverty and selling her art to earn money for the family (“Made 115 place cards in about 2 days. Wish I could keep the money and buy dresses with, but what’s the use of dreaming all the time?”); living with constant hunger, which she notes only as a matter of fact rather than a complaint (“Ate only doughnuts and coffee for supper to-day.”); being the eldest of seven siblings, of whom she took care after her father died and her mother fell gravely ill (“Mama was in bed and we had the worst time getting dinner and giving the kids their things.”); wanting nothing more than a steady education, but having to drop out of school over and over to take care of her siblings and earn income for the family (“Oh dear, I wish I could earn a pile of money so that I could draw a little for myself, and so that I could go to school without having to think of quitting. I can’t see why some kids don’t like school. I can scarcely wait for the Monday’s.”); being unable to afford even the very notebooks necessary for the continuation of the diary, and being immeasurably elated when she finally saved up enough (“Oh glories, joys, beauties, victory, etc. etc. etc! I’ll get a new diary! Talk of being glad!”).

Young Wanda Gág's drawing of her siblings, found in the diary

But despite the extreme practical hardship, Gág grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged and valued art — not merely as something to sell, but as something to celebrate in the soul.

Anton Gág

Gág writes of her artist-father, Anton, who died a few months before she started the diary but remained an enormous spiritual influence for the remainder of her life:

For his livelihood, he decorated houses and churches; but on Sundays, for his inner satisfaction, he painted pictures in his attic studio. We children had learned early how to behave when someone was “making something” and were sometimes allowed in his studio while he painted there. I liked this — there was a silent, serious happiness in the air which, although I had no words for ti then, I recognized as the ineffable joy of creation. I had already experienced this exaltation myself at times, so I knew that on Sundays my father was happy in his soul.

In 1913, thanks to years of hard work and the help of friends, Gág fulfilled her dream of going to art school and enrolled in The Saint Paul School of Art, where she was offered a scholarship. It was a transformative experience in many ways, both in developing her skills as an artist and in finding herself as a person.

Three self-portraits

In the spring of 1914, several years before Freud first formulated his notions of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, 21-year-old Gág developed and became preoccupied with a peculiar theory that personhood consists of two parts always tussling with each other for dominion — a surface “Me,” unstable in its constantly fluctuating needs and desires, and an underlying “Myself,” the stable representation of one’s deepest truth. The main struggle of life, she intuits, is that of integration between these conflicting aspects of the self.

In a diary entry from April of that year, she captures with extraordinary introspective insight the interplay of these two parts in herself:

Myself, you see, stands for my better judgement, for my permanent self, and Me is my unstable self, the part that is continually changing. Myself is the part of me that sees its way out of my “self-to-me” arguments…; and Me is that part that writes things in diaries in angular words, angular phrases and angular thoughts.

She illustrates this with a small sketch in the margin and writes:

Like this: — Myself is inside, and Me is trying to sort of fit around the outside only it can’t very well because it’s so angular, you see, and can do no more than touch myself and feel that myself is there.

Myself laughs, sometimes mockingly and sometimes indulgently but encouragingly withal, at my poor attempts to express Myself. I do not mind its laughing, for some day I hope to become one with myself.

She captures this inner divide in action as she chronicles her day:

I was kept busy sketching until almost twelve. I was a fool to do it for I was very tired, but I (that is, Me, you know) am often a fool. Myself made only feeble remonstrances for at times I am stronger than it, and besides It seems at times to believe in letting Me do as I please so that I can learn by actual experience.

With the very ambivalence for which this dichotomy of self is culpable, she adds:

In a way I am rather glad I discovered this Me and Myself business because it seems to explain so many things, but on the other hand I don’t like it at all for I can just see where it will jump into my thoughts and conversation all the time.

In June of 1914, Gág considers how this plays into the dynamic of self and other:

I always have a feeling — I may be mistaken of course — that some people think that I am just a common heart breaker — or else a girl who is serious about her art, but one with everyday feelings about love and life and her fellow beings. They do not know that art to me means life. It may sound egotistical for me to say so but I know that I have seen, and see every day, a beautiful part of life which the majority of them never have and never will see. It isn’t egotistical when you think it over — I deserve no credit for that. It is my heritage. My father had that power before me, but because he was unselfish it could not be developed as much as Himself wanted it to be. So he handed it to me, and it’s my duty to develop it. If I ever turn out anything worth while I will not feel like saying that “I did this,” but “My father and I did this.” Aside from that, I will have to include all Humanity to a greater or lesser extent too; and the Great Power that names the Myselves in things will be the most important thing, of course.

The ebb and flow of daily living, Gág’s model suggests, keeps eddying the “Me” part; but life itself pulses through the “Myself” and registers in its deepest trenches, to be transmuted into art after a period of unconscious incubation. She illustrates this with great subtlety in relaying an exchange with a young suitor, Armand, as they go to the fair in early May and he begins pointing out parts of the landscape to her:

Armand sometimes thinks I don’t see as much of my surroundings as I do, simply because I don’t say anything about them. I usually pack them up silently and store them away within me. There are a number of scenes that I saw that day, that I disposed of that way and sometime, perhaps in a few weeks, perhaps in a few months, I will use them — or maybe it will take a few years until they will really go thru Myself so that they will have their fullest effect on me.

A few weeks later, in a passing aside, she adds a related remark that is one of the most poignant lines in the entire diary:

I think people always consider me such a child because I have done my living in silence.

Portrait of Wanda Gág by Adolph Dehn

This tug-of-war between “Me” and “Myself,” for Gág, is often one between emotion and reason — especially when it comes to love, and especially in her particular relationship with Armand, plagued by an asymmetry of affections: she, reluctantly besotted; he, insufficiently interested and manipulative of her affections, giving her just enough to fuel the anguishing infatuation but not so much as to remove the anguish. (A dynamic familiar to anyone who has suffered the cruel ambivalence of a lover.) By the end of May, Wanda and Armand have confronted the issue and “agreed to keep [the] relationship on a Platonic basis.” (Again, a reluctant pseudo-solution familiar to anyone who has ever had intense romantic feelings for a partner incapable or unwilling to reciprocate them.)

In one particularly turbulent entry from May 25, Gág chronicles the rapids of feeling violently dragging her “Me” in its fast-flowing stream of changing emotions:

It is queer — I have gone thru so many stages during the last three days. Saturday morning I was bewildered, at about noon I was happy, by evening I was wretched. By Sunday noon I could smile, in the afternoon I was happy and could laugh. This morning I was mischievous, this afternoon deliciously wicked, right after supper reckless, and right after that wretchedly serious. And now I have come back to the beginning and am bewildered again.

[…]

Just this minute I almost hate him because perhaps I love him, and on the other hand, I almost love him because I almost hate him.

Oh Myself, Myself, where are you? I am surrounded by Me’s and Me’s — bewildered Me’s, wicked Me’s, frivolous Me’s and vindictive Me’s — and I cannot feel you at all.

A couple of days later, she despairs about the possibility of integration:

I think I am not equal at present to wrestle with Myself and Me… Myself and the Me’s are like strings which ought to, and will, guide me when I can understand them, but just now they are tangling up my feet, keeping me from going on.

And yet despite her confusion and her romantic exasperation, Gág coolly notes that she has “a pretty stable record as far as love [is] concerned,” observing that most girls of her age she met in school have already been engaged “once or twice or even thrice.” She cites a poignant exchange with her friend Nina and considers the perilous sublimation of “Myself,” for the benefit of “Me,” in our attempts at love:

She thinks … that she knows more about love than I do. Of course she has been engaged three times and has seen more of the world than I have. But most of the time Herself was obliterated, and you cannot depend upon the judgment of Me’s. Just about all that I know about the subject, I have learned since I have discovered Myself, so I insist that even tho I don’t know as much as she does, I know better.

Page from the diary, 1915

The following year, with patronage from the prominent book collector and publisher Herschel V. Jones — known for his philosophy of “credit based on character and integrity” — Gág transferred to The Minneapolis School of Art. But she brought along both her preoccupation with the “Me”/“Myself” divide and her infatuation with Armand. In an entry from April of 1915, she contemplates with great anguish and poignancy how these two notions — self and love — relate to one another, through the lens of her feelings for Armand:

Where under the sun that man got all that knowledge of human nature, I do not know, but the more I think about it and the more I compare him with other people, the more I realize that his knowledge of people’s innermost selves is not only extensive but beautifully sympathetic. Oh ding it all, Armand is a perfect brick and all his irritating characteristics are but virtues which are misunderstood. I am speaking particularly of those which I deliberately misunderstand.

She adds a pause-giving note on gender double standards:

Oh it is so hard to know that you have to keep caring when you are trying so virtuously to do otherwise. Even the fact that Armand may not care for me at all, and even tho I may be humiliating myself unspeakably in the eyes of the future Wanda Gág, I write, recklessly, that I love him still. If I were a man it would be different. No one thinks a man humiliates himself by loving faithfully and forever a woman who does not care for him. One even admires him for it. But with a woman it is different. She must choke it down and bear it all in silence. I must just act as if I now believe that it was the child in me that had spoken last Spring. Perhaps it was the child-part that spoke, and perhaps I will meet someone whom I like better — but I am certainly not anywhere near believing it.

This mention of the inner child is especially poignant in light of a letter Armand had sent her a year earlier, in which he writes:

The child sees the truth but the genius sees the truth and realizes it.

And yet Gág’s most perceptive remark touches on the very thing that Tom Stoppard would later articulate in the greatest definition of love — the idea that the best kind of love sees through our “Me’s” and straight to the “Myself,” and this seeingness is the source of its irresistible pull on us:

If he did not understand me so very very well, and if he were not so absolutely indispensable to my poor groping Myself, I should almost wish I had never met him. But I’m glad I did, anyway.

The same month, she revisits the subject of duty in the evolution of the self, which is where her theory of “Me” and “Myself” originated:

There is nothing better for us to do than to take ourselves as we find ourselves and make the best of ourselves. If I find myself, as I did, the daughter of an artist who has left me with broadmindedness and a conveniently strong character to resist temptation, I take myself from there and accomplish what I can… I do not even deserve praise for doing my best, for that is my duty and I deserve to be blamed for not doing my best.

Growing Pains is a wonderful read in its entirety — the living record of how a remarkable artist, who should be appreciated and celebrated far more than she is by our short-termist culture, became herself. Complement it with great writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit Gág’s Grimm illustrations and her delightful alphabet book.

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05 MARCH, 2015

Kafka’s Remarkable Letter to His Abusive and Narcissistic Father

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“It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”

Franz Kafka was one of history’s most prolific and expressive practitioners of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art.” Among the hundreds of epistles he penned during his short life were his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters and his magnificent missive to a childhood friend about what books do for the human soul. Although he imbued most with an extraordinary depth of introspective insight and self-revelation, none surpass the 47-page letter he wrote to his father, Hermann, in November of 1919 — the closest thing to an autobiography Kafka ever produced. A translation by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins was posthumously published as Letter to His Father (public library) in 1966.

Prompted in large part by the dissolution of his engagement to Felice Bauer, in which Hermann’s active disapproval of the relationship was a toxic force and which resulted in the estrangement of father and son, 36-year-old Kafka set out to hold his father accountable for the emotional abuse, disorienting double standards, and constant disapprobation that branded his childhood — a measured yet fierce outburst of anguish and disappointment thirty years in the buildup.

His litany of indictments is doubly harrowing in light of what psychologists have found in the decades since — that our early limbic contact with our parents profoundly shapes our character, laying down the wiring for emotional habits and patterns of connecting that greatly influence what we bring to all subsequent relationships in life, either expanding or contracting our capacity for “positivity resonance” depending on how nurturing or toxic those formative relationships were. For those of us with similar experiences, be it inflicted by a patriarch or a matriarch, Kafka’s letter to his father is at once excruciating in its deep resonance and strangely comforting in its validation of shared reality.

Kafka writes:

Dearest Father,

You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be very incomplete, because, even in writing, this fear and its consequences hamper me in relation to you and because the magnitude of the subject goes far beyond the scope of my memory and power of reasoning.

The first page of Kafka's letter to his father.

Kafka paints the backdrop of his father’s emotional tyranny and lays out what he hopes the letter would accomplish for both of them:

To you the matter always seemed very simple, at least in so far as you talked about it in front of me, and indiscriminately in front of many other people. It looked to you more or less as follows: you have worked hard all your life, have sacrificed everything for your children, above all for me, consequently I have lived high and handsome, have been completely at liberty to learn whatever I wanted, and have had no cause for material worries, which means worries of any kind at all. You have not expected any gratitude for this, knowing what “children’s gratitude” is like, but have expected at least some sort of obligingness, some sign of sympathy. Instead I have always hidden from you, in my room, among my books, with crazy friends, or with extravagant ideas… If you sum up your judgment of me, the result you get is that, although you don’t charge me with anything downright improper or wicked (with the exception perhaps of my latest marriage plan), you do charge me with coldness, estrangement, and ingratitude. And, what is more, you charge me with it in such a way as to make it seem my fault, as though I might have been able, with something like a touch on the steering wheel, to make everything quite different, while you aren’t in the slightest to blame, unless it be for having been too good to me.

This, your usual way of representing it, I regard as accurate only in so far as I too believe you are entirely blameless in the matter of our estrangement. But I am equally entirely blameless. If I could get you to acknowledge this, then what would be possible is — not, I think, a new life, we are both much too old for that — but still, a kind of peace; no cessation, but still, a diminution of your unceasing reproaches.

But this is where the similarity ends. Kafka sees in his father everything he himself is not — a man of “health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, knowledge of human nature, a certain way of doing things on a grand scale, of course also with all the defects and weaknesses that go with these advantages and into which your temperament and sometimes your hot temper drive you.” The anguish resulting from this disparity of temperaments coupled with a disparity of power between parent and child is familiar to all who have lived through a similar childhood — the constantly enforced, with varying degrees of force, sense that the parent’s version of reality is always right simply by virtue of authority and the child’s always wrong by virtue of submission, and thus the child comes to internalize the chronic guilt of wrongness.

With such a child’s classic cycle of accusation and apologism in making sense of a parent’s hurtful behavior, Kafka considers his father’s shortcomings with equal parts pain and compassion:

We were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would stand to each other, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me. Well, that did not happen. Nothing alive can be calculated. But perhaps something worse happened. And in saying this I would all the time beg of you not to forget that I never, and not even for a single moment, believe any guilt to be on your side. The effect you had on me was the effect you could not help having. But you should stop considering it some particular malice on my part that I succumbed to that effect.

I was a timid child. For all that, I am sure I was also obstinate, as children are. I am sure that Mother spoilt me too, but I cannot believe I was particularly difficult to manage; I cannot believe that a kindly word, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly look, could not have got me to do anything that was wanted of me. Now you are, after all, at bottom a kindly and softhearted person (what follows will not be in contradiction to this, I am speaking only of the impression you made on the child), but not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface. You can only treat a child in the way you yourself are constituted, with vigor, noise, and hot temper, and in this case this seemed to you, into the bargain, extremely suitable, because you wanted to bring me up to be a strong brave boy.

Kafka recounts one particularly traumatic incident when one night as a young boy, he kept crying for water — “not, I am certain, because I was thirsty, but probably partly to be annoying, partly to amuse myself,” he explains with that learned reality-questioning apologism he carried into adulthood — until his father grew so angry that he yanked little Franz out of bed, carried him out onto the balcony, and left him there in nothing but his nightshirt, shutting the door. He writes:

I was quite obedient afterwards at that period, but it did me inner harm. What was for me a matter of course, that senseless asking for water, and the extraordinary terror of being carried outside were two things that I, my nature being what it was, could never properly connect with each other. Even years afterwards I suffered from the tormenting fancy that the huge man, my father, the ultimate authority, would come almost for no reason at all and take me out of bed in the night and carry me out onto the [balcony], and that meant I was a mere nothing for him.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for more.

In a poignant lament that calls to mind the contrasting childhood of Henri Matisse, who was bathed in parental support, Kafka bemoans his father’s attitude toward his academic and creative endeavors:

What I would have needed was a little encouragement, a little friendliness, a little keeping open of my road, instead of which you blocked it for me, though of course with the good intention of making me go another road. But I was not fit for that… At that time, and at that time in every way, I would have needed encouragement.

In reflecting on his father’s particularly oppressive “intellectual domination,” Kafka speaks to the particular burden of children whose parents have risen from poverty to success by their own efforts. (In factuality, Hermann grew up in a middle-class family but liked to mythologize the hardships of his youth after he became a successful businessman.) With piercing insight into the self-righteousness syndrome that befalls many such self-made people who come to believe their own myth of omnipotence, Kafka writes:

You had worked your way so far up by your own energies alone, and as a result you had unbounded confidence in your opinion. That was not yet so dazzling for me as a child as later for the boy growing up. From your armchair you ruled the world. Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild, meshugge, not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right. It did sometimes happen that you had no opinion whatsoever about a matter and as a result all opinions that were at all possible with respect to the matter were necessarily wrong, without exception. You were capable, for instance, of running down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews, and what is more, not only selectively but in every respect, and finally nobody was left except yourself. For me you took on the enigmatic quality that all tyrants have whose rights are based on their person and not on reason.

Once again, Kafka returns to how his father’s warped and solipsistic view of reality made his own bleed with uncertainty and self-doubt:

All these thoughts, seemingly independent of you, were from the beginning burdened with your belittling judgments; it was almost impossible to endure this and still work out a thought with any measure of completeness and permanence.

One especially frequent form of belittlement was Hermann’s habit of dismissing anything that excited and inspired young Franz, invariably crushing the boy’s interest in pursuing anything — a particularly poisonous serpent to have in one’s nest of idea-incubation. He writes:

It was only necessary to be happy about something or other, to be filled with the thought of it, to come home and speak of it, and the answer was an ironical sigh, a shaking of the head, a tapping on the table with a finger… Of course, you couldn’t be expected to be enthusiastic about every childish triviality, when you were in a state of fret and worry. But that was not the point. Rather, by virtue of your antagonistic nature, you could not help but always and inevitably cause the child such disappointments; and further, this antagonism, accumulating material, was constantly intensified; eventually the pattern expressed itself even if, for once, you were of the same opinion as I; finally, these disappointments of the child were not the ordinary disappointments of life but, since they involved you, the all-important personage, they struck to the very core. Courage, resolution, confidence, delight in this and that, could not last when you were against it or even if your opposition was merely to be assumed; and it was to be assumed in almost everything I did.

Young Franz Kafka

Writing only five years after Freud introduced the concept of narcissism and half a century before Narcissistic Personality Disorder came to be classified in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Kafka offers a perfect and prescient diagnosis of his father:

What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments. It was as though you had no notion of your power. I too, I am sure, often hurt you with what I said, but then I always knew, and it pained me, but I could not control myself, could not keep the words back, I was sorry even while I was saying them. But you struck out with your words without much ado, you weren’t sorry for anyone, either during or afterwards, one was utterly defenseless against you.

Anyone who has shared life with a narcissist recognizes, of course, the chronic dispensation of such double standards and its many manifestations across all areas where rules are applied. In describing how Hermann disciplined his children at the dinner table, Kafka illustrates this narcissistic tendency with the perfect allegorical anecdote:

The main thing was that the bread should be cut straight. But it didn’t matter that you did it with a knife dripping with gravy. Care had to be taken that no scraps fell on the floor. In the end it was under your chair that there were most scraps.

The most heartbreaking effect of these disorienting double standards is that the child grows utterly confused about right and wrong, for they seem to trade places constantly depending on who the doer is, and comes to internalize the notion that he or she is always at fault. Instead of holding up a mirror to validate the child’s experience of reality, such a parent instead traps the child in a fun-house maze of mirrors that never reflect an accurate or static image. Those who have lived through this know how easily it metastasizes into a deep-seated belief that one’s interpretation of reality, especially when reality is ambiguous or uncertain, is always the wrong one, the faulty one, the one fully invalidated by the mere existence of another’s interpretation.

As a consequence of this immersion in uncertainty and self-doubt, Kafka grew increasingly preoccupied with his body and health — a tangible aspect of reality:

Since there was nothing at all I was certain of, since I needed to be provided at every instant with a new confirmation of my existence, since nothing was in my very own, undoubted, sole possession, determined unequivocally only by me — in sober truth a disinherited son — naturally I became unsure even of the thing nearest to me, my own body.

This paved the way for “every sort of hypochondria” and developed a wide range of anxieties about “digestion, hair falling out, a spinal curvature, and so on,” which swelled into tormenting fixations until he finally succumbed to real illness — the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life.

Kafka captures this draining dance with disappointment and uncertainty in another heartbreaking exhortation:

Please, Father, understand me correctly: in themselves these would have been utterly insignificant details, they only became depressing for me because you, so tremendously the authoritative man, did not keep the commandments you imposed on me. Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey. I was continually in disgrace; either I obeyed your orders, and that was a disgrace, for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, and that was a disgrace too, for how could I presume to defy you; or I could not obey because I did not, for instance, have your strength, your appetite, your skill, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; this was the greatest disgrace of all.

Illustration from 'My First Kafka' by Matthue Roth, a children's-book adaptation of Kafka for kids. Click image for more.

Kafka turns to how his father’s explosive temperament crushed the young man’s hope of being understood — which is what everybody needs — by annihilating the possibility of calm, civil conversation in the household:

[Your] frightful, hoarse undertone of anger and utter condemnation … only makes me tremble less today than in my childhood because the child’s exclusive sense of guilt has been partly replaced by insight into our helplessness, yours and mine.

The impossibility of getting on calmly together had one more result, actually a very natural one: I lost the capacity to talk. I dare say I would not have become a very eloquent person in any case, but I would, after all, have acquired the usual fluency of human language. But at a very early stage you forbade me to speak. Your threat, “Not a word of contradiction!” and the raised hand that accompanied it have been with me ever since. What I got from you — and you are, whenever it is a matter of your own affairs, an excellent talker — was a hesitant, stammering mode of speech, and even that was still too much for you, and finally I kept silent, at first perhaps out of defiance, and then because I could neither think nor speak in your presence. And because you were the person who really brought me up, this has had its repercussions throughout my life.

[…]

Your extremely effective rhetorical methods in bringing me up, which never failed to work with me, were: abuse, threats, irony, spiteful laughter, and — oddly enough — self-pity.

This blend of abusive aplomb and martyrdom seems common in the narcissistic tyrant — familiar, at least, to those who have suffered one — but Kafka adds even more dimension by pointing out that his father’s most scarring abuse was inflicted less by direct blows than by toxic osmosis, that soul-squashing effect of being in the presence of an angry and spiritually draining despot:

I cannot recall your ever having abused me directly and in downright abusive terms. Nor was that necessary; you had so many other methods, and besides, in talk at home and particularly at business the words of abuse went flying around me in such swarms, as they were flung at other people’s heads, that as a little boy I was sometimes almost stunned and had no reason not to apply them to myself too, for the people you were abusing were certainly no worse than I was and you were certainly not more displeased with them than with me. And here again was your enigmatic innocence and inviolability; you cursed and swore without the slightest scruple; yet you condemned cursing and swearing in other people and would not have it.

His father’s continuous threats, Kafka argues, were in a way more painful than the actual harm they promised but rarely delivered. “One’s feelings became dulled by these continued threats,” he laments, but more than that, they conditioned the twisted sense that his father’s choice not to administer the promised punishment was some great act of generosity:

One had, so it seemed to the child, remained alive through your mercy and bore one’s life henceforth as an undeserved gift from you.

[…]

It is also true that you hardly ever really gave me a whipping. But the shouting, the way your face got red, the hasty undoing of the braces and laying them ready over the back of the chair, all that was almost worse for me. It is as if someone is going to be hanged. If he really is hanged, then he is dead and it is all over. But if he has to go through all the preliminaries to being hanged and he learns of his reprieve only when the noose is dangling before his face, he may suffer from it all his life. Besides, from the many occasions on which I had, according to your clearly expressed opinion, deserved a whipping but was let off at the last moment by your grace, I again accumulated only a huge sense of guilt. On every side I was to blame, I was in your debt.

Indeed, this touches on the most devastating and deadening effect of growing up in such an emotional environment — the way in which we come to mistake the crumbs of mercy for a feast of love. Kafka recounts those rare glimpses of basic parental care and affection, to which every abuser’s child learns to cling as the most precious affirmation of existence:

Fortunately, there were exceptions to all this, mostly when you suffered in silence, and affection and kindliness by their own strength overcame all obstacles, and moved me immediately. Rare as this was, it was wonderful. For instance, in earlier years, in hot summers, when you were tired after lunch, I saw you having a nap at the office, your elbow on the desk; or you joined us in the country, in the summer holidays, on Sundays, worn out from work; or the time Mother was gravely ill and you stood holding on to the bookcase, shaking with sobs; or when, during my last illness, you came tiptoeing to Ottla’s room to see me, stopping in the doorway, craning your neck to see me, and out of consideration only waved to me with your hand. At such times one would lie back and weep for happiness, and one weeps again now, writing it down.

He then turns to another of the crushing complexities of such households — the role of the passive parent as the abuser’s accomplice and thus a perpetrator of parallel emotional betrayal by failing to validate the child’s confusion and to affirm the anguish inflicted by the abuser. Kafka writes:

It is true that Mother was illimitably good to me, but for me all that was in relation to you, that is to say, in no good relation. Mother unconsciously played the part of a beater during a hunt. Even if your method of upbringing might in some unlikely case have set me on my own feet by means of producing defiance, dislike, or even hate in me, Mother canceled that out again by kindness, by talking sensibly (in the maze and chaos of my childhood she was the very prototype of good sense and reasonableness), by pleading for me; and I was again driven back into your orbit, which I might perhaps otherwise have broken out of, to your advantage and to my own.

[…]

If I was to escape from you, I had to escape from the family as well, even from Mother. True, one could always get protection from her, but only in relation to you. She loved you too much and was too devoted and loyal to you to have been for long an independent spiritual force in the child’s struggle.

Long before psychologists demonstrated how our early attachment patterns wire the way we connect later in life, Kafka laments the detrimental effect of his father’s emotional abuse on his subsequent relationships:

Relations with people outside the family … suffered possibly still more under your influence. You are entirely mistaken if you believe I do everything for other people out of affection and loyalty, and for you and the family nothing, out of coldness and betrayal. I repeat for the tenth time: even in other circumstances I should probably have become a shy and nervous person, but it is a long dark road from there to where I have really come.

But for Kafka, the most disheartening manifestation of his father’s chronic disapproval was that directed at his writing:

[In my writing] I had, in fact, got some distance away from you by my own efforts, even if it was slightly reminiscent of the worm that, when a foot treads on its tail end, breaks loose with its front part and drags itself aside. To a certain extent I was in safety; there was a chance to breathe freely. The aversion you naturally and immediately took to my writing was, for once, welcome to me. My vanity, my ambition did suffer under your soon proverbial way of hailing the arrival of my books: “Put it on my bedside table!” (usually you were playing cards when a book came)… My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast. It was an intentionally long-drawn-out leave-taking from you, yet, although it was enforced by you, it did take its course in the direction determined by me.

He later adds:

In my writing, and in everything connected with it, I have made some attempts at independence, attempts at escape, with the very smallest of success; they will scarcely lead any farther; much confirms this for me. Nevertheless it is my duty or, rather, the essence of my life, to watch over them, to let no danger that I can avert, indeed no possibility of such a danger, approach them.

Early on, his father’s attitude toward his intellectual and creative interests planted the seed of Impostor Syndrome. Likening his young self to a bank clerk who has committed fraud yet continues working in constant terror of being found out, Kafka recounts one particularly tormenting fantasy he had in high school:

Often in my mind’s eye I saw the terrible assembly of the teachers … as they would meet, when I had passed the first class, and then in the second class, when I had passed that, and then in the third, and so on, meeting in order to examine this unique, outrageous case, to discover how I, the most incapable and, in any case, the most ignorant of all, had succeeded in creeping up so far as this class, which now, when everybody’s attention had at last been focused on me, would of course instantly spew me out, to the jubilation of all the righteous liberated from this nightmare. To live with such fantasies is not easy for a child.

But the most beautiful line in the entire letter is delivered almost as an aside, as Kafka contemplates the things his father has condemned as failures — including his broken engagement — and issues an elegant admonition against the perils of dogmatic perfectionism:

It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.

Kafka ends the letter with a lyrical and heartbreaking reflection on its ultimate purpose — to offer a little door for repairing the relationship despite their vast differences:

Things cannot in reality fit together the way the evidence does in my letter; life is more than a Chinese puzzle. But with the correction made by this rejoinder — a correction I neither can nor will elaborate in detail — in my opinion something has been achieved which so closely approximates the truth that it might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.

Although the Kaiser/Wilkins vintage translation of the letter is enduringly excellent, only in this final paragraph do I find the more recent translation by Howard Colyer superior in elegance and enchantment:

In life things don’t fit together as neatly as do the proofs in my letter — life is more than a game of patience. But after allowing for this answer, which I can’t and don’t want to elaborate on now, I still believe my letter contains some truth, it takes us closer to the truth, and therefore it may allow us to live and die with a gentler and lighter spirit.

And yet for all the autobiographical tragedy captured in Kafka’s litany of abuses and disappointments, most tragic of all is the fate of the letter. According to Kafka’s friend and official biographer Max Brod, the anguished author didn’t mail the letter but gave it to his mother, Julie, to pass along to Hermann. But she never did — instead, she returned it to her son. After all, the most devastating pathology of such relationships is the child’s compulsive effort — be it by vain hope or by concrete action — to eradicate the abusive parent’s demons and make the paltry angels endure, only to be disappointed over and over again every time the demons re-rear their undying heads. Perhaps Julie sensed this and tried, in the best way she knew, to spare her son the ultimate disappointment of seeing this most grandiose of hopes familiarly vanquished.

Lighten the psychoemotional load of Letter to His Father — which is an overwhelming yet absolutely remarkable read in its totality — with Mark Twain on what his mother taught him about compassion and Rachel Carson on parenting and why it’s more important to feel than to know.

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03 MARCH, 2015

Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor

By:

“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

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