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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

29 JANUARY, 2015

Rilke on What It Really Means to Love

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“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

The human journey has always been marked by our quest to understand love in order to reap its fruits. We have captured that ever-shifting understanding in some breathtakingly beautiful definitions. There is Susan Sontag, who marveled in her diary: “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.” There is Tom Stoppard, who captured its living substance in a most memorable soliloquy. There is Vladimir Nabokov, who defined it over and over in a lifetime of letters to his wife. But no formulation eclipses the luminous poetic precision of Rainer Maria Rilke in a passage from the classic Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — his correspondence with a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus, which also gave us Rilke on living the questions; a volume so iconic that it has sprouted a number of homages, from the poet’s own lesser-known Letters to a Young Woman to Anna Deavere Smith’s modern masterpiece Letters to a Young Artist.

In the seventh letter to his young friend, penned in May of 1904 and translated by M. D. Herter Norton, Rilke contemplates the true meaning of love and the particular blessings and burdens of young love:

To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is — solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate — ?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things. Only in this sense, as the task of working at themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), might young people use the love that is given them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must save and gather for a long, long time still), is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives as yet scarcely suffice.

I consider Letters to a Young Poet a foundational text of our civilization and a life-necessity for every human being with a firing mind and a beating heart. Complement it with Rilke on the relationship between body and soul, how befriending our mortality can help us live more fully, and the resilience of the human spirit, then revisit his own youthful ripening of love in his love letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé.

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27 JANUARY, 2015

How Lewis Carroll’s Rules of Letter-Writing Can Make Email More Civil and Digital Communication Kinder

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“If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe.”

I have a friend who writes me wonderful letters. He sends them via email, but they are very much letters — the kind of slow, contemplative correspondence that Virginia Woolf termed “the humane art.” For what more humane an act is there than correspondence itself — the art of mutual response — especially amid a culture of knee-jerk reactions that is the hallmark of most communication today? Letters, by their very nature, make us pause to reflect on what the other person is saying and on what we’d like to say to them in response. Only when we step out of the reactive ego, out of the anxious immediacy that text-messaging and email have instilled in us, and contemplate what is being communicated — only then do we stand a chance of being civil to one another, and maybe even kind.

These values are what mathematician Charles Dodgson (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), better known as Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll, set out to celebrate in his short 1890 pamphlet Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing (public library; free download). Carroll is less concerned with the epistolary etiquette of letter-writing — the subject of another how-to book from that era — than he is with the higher-order ethics of correspondence as a form of civility. Although some of the nine rules are decidedly dated — such as his “rules for making, and keeping, a Letter-Register” of “Letters Received and Sent” — most offer wisdom of surprisingly civilizing value when applied to email and other contemporary textual communication.

Self-portrait by Lewis Carroll from 'The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.' Click image for more.

Even the seemingly dated — those ideas that appear, on the surface, to apply strictly and solely to old-fashion letter-writing — contain ample wisdom to be gleaned for any modern medium. Take, for instance, Carroll’s opening exhortation:

If the Letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through, in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer… A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.

Of all the emails you regret firing off in a reactive fury, how many could have been abated by a deliberate pause for rereading your correspondent’s points and contemplating your own reply a little less hastily? Carroll, in fact, addresses this directly in his fourth rule:

When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!

His fifth rule furthers this agenda of abating reactivity by suggesting a sort of one-upmanship of civility in contentious exchanges:

If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards “making up” the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way — why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!

He later recommends a similar approach to the sentiment of the signature:

If doubtful whether to end with “yours faithfully,” or “yours truly,” or “yours most truly,” &c. (there are at least a dozen varieties, before you reach “yours affectionately”), refer to your correspondent’s last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his; in fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!

Page from 'How to Write Letters,' 1876. Click image for more.

The sixth dictum — which philosopher Daniel Dennett would come to echo more than a century later in his four rules for arguing intelligently — builds on the fifth. Lewis writes:

Don’t try to have the last word! How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy: remember “speech is silvern, but silence is golden”!

Carroll makes a related case against our stubborn self-righteousness — to which he brings a delightful touch of his mathematician’s wit — in the third rule:

Don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

The world's first use of emoticons in print, 1881, from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

His seventh rule is of particular interest in the context of today’s ambivalence about using emoticons in email. Even those unfazed by self-consciousness about the silliness of emoticons, to say nothing of emoji, remain exasperated by the general difficulty in conveying subtle emotional nuances in written communication — especially sarcasm and snark, the latter being Carroll’s own invention. Writing nine years after the first usage of an emoticon in print, Carroll counsels:

If it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences. I have known it to lead to the breaking-off of a friendship.

The remaining rules are, indeed, rather dated in the context of digital communication, but even among them there is the occasional pearl of timeless lucidity. In the ninth, for instance — which deals with the issue of having more to say in a letter than the paper on hand has room to accommodate — Carroll offers this eternally pragmatic aside:

A Postscript is a very useful invention: but it is not meant… to contain the real gist of the letter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about.

Ever the tactful diplomat, Carroll offers a counterpoint to such misuses of the postscript by pointing out one particularly appropriate use — the delicate assuaging of a friend’s anxieties by demoting them to the very bottom of the letter and thus the lowest order of concern. He offers as an example a friend who has promised to do something for you and is now writing, mortified, to apologize for having forgotten to do it; the conscientious correspondent, Carroll points out, would avoid making the oversight the main subject of his or her reply — for this “would be cruel, and needlessly crushing” — and instead writes a letter about entirely different matters, graciously adding: “P.S. Don’t distress yourself any more about having omitted that little matter…”

And now for a curious sidebar story: Although Carroll was a genuine lover of the letter form, the booklet was in part an exercise in “branded content”: The previous year, Carroll had patented a quirky little invention he called The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case — an offbeat solution to the delightfully quaint problem of having your written communication constantly stymied by running out of stamps — for which the pamphlet was essentially promotional material. Carroll had done nothing more than create a playful and somewhat better-designed alternative to the regular stamp case, but such subtleties are often the differentiation point of genius. The book even included a mock-testimonial:

Since I have possessed a “Wonderland Stamp Case”, Life has been bright and peaceful, and I have used no other. I believe the Queen’s laundress uses no other.

The case contained twelve separate pockets of stamps, each designated for a different stamp-value.

The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case, interior

(Image courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive)

Carroll took especial pride in what he called the two “Pictorial Surprises” gracing the cover: The outer slipcase depicts Alice holding the Duchess’s crying baby — not an illustration that appears anywhere in his Alice books — but inside it is the actual stamp case, on which the baby transmogrifies into a pig. In the book, Carroll winks at this playful trick:

If that doesn’t surprise you, why, I suppose you wouldn’t be surprised if your own Mother-in-law suddenly turned into a Gyroscope!

The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case, exterior

(Image courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive)

Complement Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing with Carroll’s four rules for digesting information, his tips on dining etiquette, his entertaining letter of apology for standing a friend up, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then revisit Virginia Woolf on what killed letter-writing and why we ought to keep it alive.

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23 JANUARY, 2015

The Principle of Infinite Pains: Legendary Filmmaker Maya Deren on Cinema, Life, and Her Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers

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“The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other…”

Russian-born American filmmaker, poet, photographer, choreographer, and critic Maya Deren (April 29, 1917–October 13, 1961) endures as one of humanity’s most significant experimental filmmakers and champions of independent cinema. She was only twenty-six when she made the influential classic Meshes of the Afternoon, which remains required viewing for film students, visual storytellers, and general connoisseurs of creative culture alike. But Deren was also a masterful writer and film theorist, who authored dozens of articles in film journals and popular magazines, often included extensive program notes with her films, and self-published a chapbook of her writings. Nearly half a century after Deren’s sudden and premature death, the best of her written work was collected in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (public library) — a compendium of her views on cinema as an art form, the rewards and challenges of independent filmmaking, and broader questions of art, reality, and the creative process.

But arguably more revealing and insightful than all of her formal critical writings in the collection combined is a single letter Deren wrote in April of 1955, shortly before her thirty-eighth birthday, to James Card — film archivist for George Eastman House, the institution Deren was considering for representation and preservation of her archive. Card had invited her to send a reel of Meshes of the Afternoon and preview prints of her other films.

After a series of questions intended to assess whether George Eastman House would provide a proper home for her films and be a bastion of her legacy — Deren observes that “it may seem exaggerated to speak of a will,” a remark particularly poignant given her untimely death a few years later — she notes that she considers her films Ritual in Transfigured Time and A Study in Choreography for Camera “most representative” of her work, then writes:

Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure. I am not ashamed of it, for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well. From the point of view of my own development, I cannot help but be gently proud that that first film — that point of departure — had such relatively solid footing. This is due to two major facts: first, to the fact that I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating image into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother tongue; which I understood and thought it, but, like a mute, had never spoken.

Noting that “the first speech of a mute is hoarse, ugly, virtually unintelligible,” Deren points to the second reason of her film’s success — the technical acumen and mechanical expertise of her husband and collaborator, Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander “Sasha” Hammid, who made sure the film didn’t sound like a mute’s “first speech.” Embedded in her specific gratitude is Deren’s general advice to aspiring filmmakers about the importance of technical mastery and painstaking attention to detail — especially regarding speech and sound — as the foundation for a well-executed creative vision:

My debt to him for teaching me the mechanics of film expression, and, more than that, the principle of infinite pains, is enormous. I wish that all these young film-makers would have the luck for a similar apprenticeship. As it is, when they revolt against the meaningless rhetoricians of film, they tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. They don’t bother to shape the lips and mouth carefully before letting the sound out, and ignore the fact that a good idea merits careful enunciation with the result that a good many of them sound, at best, like Marlon Brando… I mean, you just know he’s feelings things like crazy, but why doesn’t he take those marbles out of his mouth!

Maya Deren and Aleksander Hammid, 1940

But Deren places even greater importance on the role of movement. Reflecting on her film A Study in Choreography for Camera, she writes:

This principle — that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else — than any changes of matter… that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter — that, in fact, it creates matter — seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself…

And yet Deren offers a perfectly worded disclaimer to mistaking her insistence on technique for an absence of a deeper concern with creative vision, which she illustrates with an exquisitely insightful metaphor:

I have reticence about the more profound significance which is hard for me to explain except, perhaps, by analogy — the way a woman will look up and say to a man “That suit looks very well on you” instead of, “I love you. I am happy that you are here to look at.” The trouble is that people often think that technique is my primary consideration when I speak of techniques — just as if that man would begin discussing wholesale prices and yard goods, which would make the woman feel peculiar.

Similarly, Deren points out, the masterful technique for which her films were commended wasn’t an end of itself but merely a way for her to both access and articulate the deeper vision:

Each time one of those technical sequences buzzed in my head, like a beacon signaling “This way, this way,” it was because I was tuned to that frequency. I was not simply trying to get out of that room and go somewhere, anywhere, I was heading in a certain direction, and no matter how minute the crack that gave upon it, it was to pass through there that I labored. There may have been wide doors to both sides. I did not even try them for they did not give in my direction. And, looking back, it is clear that the direction was away from a concern with the way things feel and towards a concern with the way things are; away from personal psychology towards nerveless metaphysics. I mean metaphysics in the large sense… not as mysticism but beyond the physical in the way that a principle is an abstraction, beyond any particulars in which it is manifest.

She points to each of her films as complementary examples:

[Meshes of the Afternoon] externalizes an inner world to the point where it is confounded with the external world. At Land has little to do with the inner world of the protagonist; it externalizes the hidden dynamic of the external world, and here the drama results from the activity of the external world. It is as if I had moved from a concern with the life of a fish, to a concern with the sea which accounts for the character of the fish and its life. And Rituals pulls back even further, to a point of view from which the external world itself is but an element in the entire structure and scheme of metamorphosis: the sea itself changes because of the large changes of the earth.

Noting that her latest project, The Very Eye of Night — which would be her last finished film — had “taken [her] out in space about as far as [she] can go” and spurred her desire to explain why she considers Meshes of the Afternoon a “point of departure,” she zooms out into a wide view of her body of work:

Each film was built as a chamber and became a corridor, like a chain reaction.

Maya Deren (Still from 'Meshes of the Afternoon,' 1943)

But Deren’s most poignant point in the letter has nothing to do with her films themselves and everything to do with the spiritual foundation from which they spring. She recounts a recent awakening of sorts — the kind common to near-death experiences from which one emerges with a newfound gratefulness of the glory of life:

Last May I had an emergency operation; it was touch and go for a few hours there, and I came out of it with a rapidity that dazzled: one month from the date of that operation (I had to be slit from side to side) I was dancing! Then I actually realized that I was overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force. In the transported exaltation of this moment, I wanted to run out into the streets and shout to everyone that death was not true! that they must not listen to the doom singers and the bell ringers! that life was more true! I had always believed and felt this, but never had I known how right I was. And I asked myself, why, then, did I not celebrate it in my art. And then I had a sudden image: a dog lying somewhere very still, and a child, first looking at it, and then, compulsively, nudging it. Why? to see whether it was alive; because if it moves, if it can move, it lives. This most primitive, this most instinctive of all gestures: to make it move to make it live. So I had always been doing with my camera… nudging an ever-increasing area of the world, making it move, animating it, making it live… The love of life itself… seems to me larger than the loving attention to a life. But, of course, each contains the other, and, perhaps, I have not so much traveled off in a direction as moved in a slow spiral around some central essence, seeing it first from below, and now, finally, from above.

Deren leaps spryly off this spiral of intensity into a playful sign-off:

Anyway, this is one way to look at that reel of film. You can’t say you haven’t been briefed!

Six years later, Deren died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. She was forty-four. Essential Deren remains the most complete record and bewitching glimpse of the singular mind and spirit which produced some of the most influential visual masterworks of the twentieth century. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart — Werner Herzog’s compendium of reflections on film and life, which was among the best books of 2014.

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