Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

22 MAY, 2015

Body, Soul, and the Elusive Seedbed of Our Identity: Lewis Carroll on the Material and Immaterial Forces of Life, in a Letter to a Little Girl

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The perplexity of why your identity endures even if all the cells in your body are wholly replaced every seven years.

“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Rilke wrote in a beautiful 1921 letter, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” The relationship between the material and immaterial forces of life has occupied poets and physicists like for as long as we humans have been aware of our mortality and able to articulate that awareness. More recently, it has prompted philosophers to pose such fascinating questions as how we know who we are if our present selves are unrecognizably different from past ones.

That immutable inquiry is what mathematician and writer Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), explores in one of the many witty and wise missives collected in The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — the indispensable volume that also gave us Carroll on how to alleviate our discomfort with change and his three tips for overcoming creative block.

In the fall of 1885, one of Carroll’s “child-friends” — he had many largely epistolary friendships with children throughout his life, including the real-life little girl who inspired his Wonderland — wrote to him after reading Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 philosophical novel Sartor Resartus and finding herself particularly captivated by Carlyle’s treatment of the relationship between the body and the soul. The subject — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the profound transcendentalist undertones of Alice in Wonderland, published two decades earlier — was also of deep interest to Carroll, who wrote to his young friend:

My dear Edith, —

One subject you touch on — “the Resurrection of the Body” — is very interesting to me, and I have given it much thought (I mean long ago). My conclusion was to give up the literal meaning of the material body altogether. Identity, in some mysterious way, there evidently is; but there is no resisting the scientific fact that the actual material usable for physical bodies has been used over and over again — so that each atom would have several owners. The mere solitary fact of the existence of cannibalism is to my mind a sufficient reductio ad absurdum of the theory that the particular set of atoms I shall happen to own at death (changed every seven years, they say) will be mine in the next life — and all the other insuperable difficulties (such as people born with bodily defects) are swept away at once if we accept S. Paul’s “spiritual body ,” and his simile of the grain of corn. I have read very little of “Sartor Resartus,” and don’t know the passage you quote: but I accept the idea of the material body being the “dress” of the spiritual — a dress needed for material life.

Complement The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, which is nothing short of addictive in its totality, with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and his tips for making email more civil, then revisit Carl Sagan’s timeless treatise on science and spirituality and Rebecca Goldstein on the perplexity of why you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of material changes.

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14 MAY, 2015

Charlotte Brontë on Faith and Atheism

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A specimen from the fossil record of Truth and Reason.

“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1841 essay on character and the key to personal growth, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Exactly a decade later, Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) — a mind at least as brilliant as Emerson’s and a spirit at least as expansive — tussled with this vital and vitalizing interplay of hope and unsettlement as she faced one of the most momentous frontiers of the human experience.

In an 1851 letter to her friend James Taylor, found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s altogether indispensable 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (public library), 35-year-old Brontë urges Taylor to read a book that had just unsettled her worldview in a most profound way — Letters on the Nature and Development of Man, a collection of correspondence between English social theorist Harriet Martineau and American missionary George Henry Atkinson.

After enthusing about the book’s impact, Brontë writes to Taylor:

Of the impression this book has made on me, I will not now say much. It is the first exposition of avowed atheism and materialism I have ever read; the first unequivocal declaration of disbelief in the existence of a God or a future life I have ever seen. In judging of such exposition and declaration, one would wish entirely to put aside the sort of instinctive horror they awaken, and to consider them in an impartial spirit and collected mood. This I find difficult to do. The strangest thing is, that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank — to receive this bitter bereavement as great gain — to welcome this unutterable desolation as a state of pleasant freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do this if he could?

Brontë was perhaps more sensitive than most to the anguish of this “hopeless blank” — nine years earlier, she had experienced one of its sharpest and most personal permutations in the heartbreak of unrequited love, the ultimate devastation of hope for communion met with blankness. (One wonders where Taylor stood on this most intimate continuum of hope and hopelessness — he had proposed marriage to Brontë three times, to no avail. Indeed, the beloved author received a fair share of marriage proposals, which she declined with great psychological mastery.)

And so, with sturdy self-awareness and crystalline coolness, Brontë goes on to articulate the reason so many people believe — choose to believe — in the truth of “God” even when it clashes with the facts of reason and reality:

Sincerely, for my own part, do I wish to know and find the Truth; but if this be Truth, well may she guard herself with mysteries, and cover herself with a veil. If this be Truth, man or woman who beholds her can but curse the day he or she was born.

English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, long before the concept of vacuum existed in cosmology. Artwork from 'Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.'

Click image for more.

But Brontë, a woman of intense intellect, decides not to dwell on the unsettling notion of this “hopeless blank” and instead approaches the issue like a scientist — by seeking out alternative hypotheses and subjecting her theories to an objective peer review:

I wish to hear what some other person thinks, — someone whose feelings are unapt to bias his judgment. Read the book, then, in an unprejudiced spirit, and candidly say what you think of it. I mean, of course, if you have time — not otherwise.

Taylor did find the time to read the book and seems to have vehemently dismissed its premise, for Brontë wrote to him in another letter five weeks later:

I do most entirely agree with you in what you say about [the] book. I deeply regret its publication for the lady’s sake; it gives a death-blow to her future usefulness. Who can trust the word, or rely on the judgment, of an avowed atheist?

Brontë’s response, of course, is to a rather crude conception of atheism equating the absence of belief with the very sense of “unutterable desolation” she so feared. But if, as Richard Dawkins reasoned in coining the word “meme,” our ideas evolve much like our genetic material does, then Brontë’s primitive interpretation of faith and materialism is a necessary step in the evolution of our more nuanced contemporary ideas. Having come of age in a deeply religious era as the daughter of a clergyman, she belongs to that pivotal species of ideological amphibians who first emerged from the oceans of religion to step tentatively onto the solid land of reason and secular thought — even if by merely questioning dogmas that had been accepted for eons and being unsettled by alternative views of reality.

It is in no small part thanks to such unsettled ponderings, however primitive, that a century and a half later we can afford to speak of spirituality without religion and watch our scientists turn to Dante for answers and heed Carl Sagan as he whispers posthumously: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

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21 APRIL, 2015

Charlotte Brontë’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters of Unrequited Affection

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“When one does not complain … one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.”

Four years after English novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) turned down a suitor’s marriage proposal with her assertive yet generous masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model, the tables turned and she found herself on the opposite end of unrequited love.

In 1842, Charlotte and her sister Emily moved to Brussels to teach English and music, respectively, in exchange for board and tuition. When their aunt died suddenly that October, the sisters had to leave the boarding school and take care of the family crisis. The following January, 28-year-old Charlotte traveled back to Brussels by herself and fell madly in love with Constantin Héger, the founder of the school and her personal tutor in French. She returned home to Haworth a year later but remained besotted with Héger — a married man with children — and began writing him letters of extraordinary emotional intensity, at times as frequently as twice a week. Héger, who barely responded, finally let his wife take over the situation. Madame Héger wrote to Brontë instructing her that she may write once every six months at most. Héger tore up Brontë’s letters, but his prudent wife fished them out of the garbage and stitched them together for preservation purposes.

In 1894, four decades after Brontë’s death, Héger’s daughter showed the recovered letters to another former pupil of her father’s, Frederika Macdonald. Originally, Macdonald advised secrecy in light of the missives’ emotional complexities, fearing that the public wouldn’t understand that the now-famous novelist’s feelings for her former tutor weren’t an “ordinary improper affection” but “a consuming sentiment burning down self-respect and self-restraint.” But the letters changed Macdonald’s own view of Brontë, infusing her previous image as a wholesome Victorian goddess of feminine domestic duty with an air of romantic recklessness — a shift that seemed significant enough in shaping posterity’s understanding of this complex woman that Héger’s own children donated the four surviving letters to the British Library in 1913, seven decades after Brontë had penned them.

They were published in The Times on July 29 of that year and were eventually included in the British Library’s altogether delectable volume Love Letters: 2,000 Years of Romance (public library), which also features passionate missives by Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and Henry VIII.

Page from Charlotte Brontë's letter to Constantin Héger (British Library)

In a letter to Héger from early January of 1845, 29-year-old Brontë relays her deep disappointment of finding no mail from him and writes:

I said to myself, what I would say to someone else in such a case: “You will have to resign yourself to the fact, and above all, not distress yourself about a misfortune that you have not deserved.” I did my utmost not to cry not to complain —

But when one does not complain, and when one wants to master oneself with a tyrant’s grip — one’s faculties rise in revolt — and one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle.

Day and night I find neither rest nor peace — if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me —

Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing you again — How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its suffering?

Despite the lucid awareness that Héger would likely “lose patience” with her for writing the letter, which she even acknowledges in the letter itself, Brontë is gripped with the all-consuming mania familiar to those whose composed ordinary selves have ever been colonized by the psychic parasite of extraordinary infatuation. She implores:

I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches — all I know — is that I cannot — that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship — I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope — if he gives me a little friendship — a very little — I shall be content — happy, I would have a motive for living — for working.

Illustration from 'Jane, the Fox and Me,' a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

That Brontë voices the pitiful internal bargaining of those desperate with desire is only, perhaps, to her credit — to stand by one’s feelings with such openhearted vulnerability even in the face of clear and imminent rejection is one of the greatest acts of courage:

Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on — they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich man’s table — but if they are refused these crumbs — they die of hunger — No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love — I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship — I am not accustomed to it — but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels — and I cling to the preservation of this little interest — I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

In accordance with our pathological allergy to uncertainty — the same strange psychology that leads those awaiting a diagnosis to almost prefer bad news to no news — she beseeches:

Perhaps you will say to me — “I no longer take the slightest interest in you Miss Charlotte — you no longer belong to my household — I have forgotten you.”

Well Monsieur tell me so candidly — it will be a shock to me — that doesn’t matter — it will still be less horrible than uncertainty.

She ends with a plea for sympathy disguised as a damning admonition — perhaps to Héger’s wife, who ultimately handled the letters, and perhaps in part to posterity, to those of us reading her heart today:

I don’t want to reread this letter — I am sending it as I have written it — Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it — “she is raving” — My sole revenge is to wish these people — a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months — then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too.

One suffers in silence so long as one has the strength and when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words much.

The following year, the Brontë sisters self-published their pseudonymous joint collection of poems that catapulted them into literary stardom and Charlotte began writing Jane Eyre — one of the greatest novels of all time, which centers on a young woman’s sincere love for a man set to marry someone else; in the novel, unlike in Brontë’s own life, once the otherwise rational and collected heroine professes her love in an openhearted declaration, the byronic hero forsakes his romantic commitment to the other woman and proposes marriage to Jane.

For more beautifully heartbreaking love letters, see those from Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer and Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, then restore your faith in requited love with the passionate correspondence of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and Vladimir and Véra Nabokov.

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16 APRIL, 2015

A Questionnaire for the Immodest and Curious: Clever Puzzles, Riddles, and Word Games from Nabokov’s Love Letters to His Wife

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“Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.”

Despite his enormous intellectual and creative achievements, Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) considered one private event the most significant of his life: meeting 21-year-old Véra Slonim in 1923. For the remaining half-century of his life, she became not only his beloved wife but also one of creative history’s greatest unsung heroes, acting as Nabokov’s editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

Found in Letters to Véra (public library) — that spectacular collection of Nabokov’s passionate love letters to his wife, which also gave us literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning and was among the best biographies of 2014 — are a number of riddles, quizzes, and word puzzles the young author devised and included in his missives to Véra in the summer of 1926 as she was recovering from illness at a sanatorium in Germany. Their existence is a testament to the many dimensions of great love — intense passion coupled with creative communion, intellectual stimulation, and a shared capacity for delight.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

Since the couple corresponded in Russian, most of the word riddles and crossword puzzles are hard to appreciate in English and require transliteration to grasp Nabokov’s almost mathematical genius of language. But in a letter from mid-July of that year — which he ends with his characteristic epistolary fervor: “Kisses, my love, from your eyebrows down to your knees and back.” — 27-year-old Nabokov includes this universally delightful hand-drawn visual riddle:

You must find in this person:

  1. another face
  2. a mouse
  3. a bunny
  4. a chick
  5. a pony
  6. Mrs. Tufty in a new hat
  7. a little monkey

In another letter from early July, he offers the following list of words for a riddle:

Riddle in transliteration:

Lomota, igumen, tetka, Kolya, Maron, versifikator, Leta, chugun, tropinka, landysh, Ipokrena

Riddle in English:

Aching, abbot, aunt, Kolya, Maro, versifier, Lethe, cast iron, little path, lily of the valley, Hippokrene

He then gives the following instruction:

Make ten new words out of the syllables of the words above, with these meanings:

  1. A place where science meets ignorance
  2. an engine
  3. a city in Russia
  4. a historic personage
  5. a good woman
  6. a part of a cart
  7. beatitude of the diaphragm
  8. the first architect (see the Bible)
  9. a lazybones
  10. a woman’s name

In a testament to what a perfect intellectual match Véra Nabokov was for her brilliant husband, Penguin editor Gennady Barbtarlo writes:

With few exceptions, Véra Nabokov seems to have solved them all by return post.

But what posed little trouble for [her] in 1926, who likely had no reference books to consult, proved quite a challenge to his beGoogled editors next century. it took putting together three heads to crack these puzzles, with some solutions remaining questionable.

Barbtarlo and his team offer the following solution to the riddle:

Answers in transliteration:

  1. universitet
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. matrona
  6. dyshlo
  7. ikota
  8. Kain
  9. gulyaka
  10. Filomena

Answers in English

  1. university
  2. motor
  3. Kremenchug
  4. Napoleon
  5. Matron
  6. pole [of a carriage]
  7. hiccups
  8. Cain
  9. idler
  10. Philomena

Young Vladimir and Véra Nabokov by Thomas Doyle from 'The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History.' Click image for more.

But the most delightful of all is a “questionnaire for the immodest and curious” Nabokov sent in a letter from mid-July — a kind of personality test partway between the famous Proust Questionnaire of the late 19th century and the chain-email quizzes of the early 21st century:

A questionnaire for the immodest and curious
(not obligatory for anyone)

  1. Name, patronymic, last name
  2. Pen-name, or a preferred pen-name
  3. Age and preferred age
  4. Attitude to marriage
  5. Attitude to children
  6. Profession and preferred profession
  7. What century would you like to live in?
  8. What city would you like to live in?
  9. From what age do you remember yourself and your first memory?
  10. Which of the existing religions is closest to your world-view?
  11. What kind of literature do you like the most? What literary genre?
  12. Your favorite books
  13. Your favorite art
  14. Your favorite artwork
  15. Your attitude to technology
  16. Do you appreciate philosophy? As a form of scholarship, as a pastime
  17. Do you believe in progress?
  18. Your favorite aphorism
  19. Your favorite language
  20. On what foundations does the world stand?
  21. What miracle would you perform if you had a chance?
  22. What would you do if you suddenly got a lot of money?
  23. Your attitude to modern woman
  24. Your attitude to modern man
  25. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a woman?
  26. What virtue and vice do you prefer and disapprove of in a man?
  27. What gives you the keenest pleasure?
  28. What gives you the keenest suffering?
  29. Are you a jealous person?
  30. Your attitude to lies
  31. Do you believe in love?
  32. Your attitude to drugs
  33. Your most memorable dream
  34. Do you believe in fate and predestination?
  35. Your next reincarnation?
  36. Are you afraid of death?
  37. Would you like man to become immortal?
  38. Your attitude to suicide:
  39. Are you an anti-Semite? Yes. No. Why?
  40. “Do you like cheese”?
  41. Your favorite mode of transportation
  42. Your attitude to solitude
  43. Your attitude to our circle
  44. Think of a name for it
  45. Favorite menu

That Véra’s response is not included in the otherwise delicious Letters to Véra is a pity but understandable — some of the non-binary questions, like those about attitude to suicide, solitude, marriage, and immortality, would take any sensitive and intelligent person thousands of words and many hours to answer with the appropriate nuance. Still, one can’t help fantasizing about both Véra’s answers and the prospect of deploying this questionnaire on some of the most fascinating minds of our time.

Complement with Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, then revisit the celebrated author on inspiration, censorship and solidarity, what makes a great storyteller, the attributes of a good reader, and the story of what his butterfly studies reveal about the nature of creativity.

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