Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

07 FEBRUARY, 2014

Charles Dickens on Grief and How to Heal a Mourning Heart

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“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.”

In addition to being one of literary history’s most celebrated authors, no doubt in part thanks to being such a disciplined early riser, Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was also a man of extraordinary wisdom — from the timeless life-advice he gave his youngest son to his generous fan letter to George Eliot to his insightful and amusing observations on the rites of dating. But some of his most poignant wisdom addressed a subject of the gravest sort — the healing of a grieving heart.

In 1862, Dickens’s younger sister, Letitia, lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library; free download), Dickens envelops Letitia with equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do. . . . I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

The Dickens family with friends, 1864

Complement with Joan Didion on grief. For a more uplifting Dickens treat, see Neil Gaiman’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

The Letters of Charles Dickens is an enormously absorbing read in its entirety, full of the beloved writer’s meditations on life, literature, love, and loss.

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06 FEBRUARY, 2014

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead on the Fluidity of Human Sexuality in 1933

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Eighty years before marriage equality, a progressive lens on human love.

Anthropology icon Margaret Mead is not only the most influential cultural anthropologist of all time, but her work also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) reveals, Mead was ahead of her time in many respects, but perhaps nowhere more so than in matters of human sexuality. Some twenty years before the DSM — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s Bible — would classify homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” more than forty years before the “diagnosis” would be retracted, and eight decades before the dawn of marriage equality, Mead defied society’s constricting conceptions of gender identity and sexual roles.

In early April of 1933, en route to get married to New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune, Mead writes in a letter to Ruth Benedict, whom she considered her lifelong soulmate:

We’ve talked a lot of nonsense about sex — we’ve mixed up an interest in turning sex into a form so specific it is like a fight with manliness being well-sexed — I don’t believe any of it, anymore. I think specific sex is a form which is primarily suited to a clash of temperaments — between people who can’t communicate with each other — and is utterly and absolutely inappropriate between people who do understand each other. The kind of feeling which you have classified as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” is really “sex adapted to like or understood temperaments” versus “sex adapted to a relationship of strangeness and distance” — To think one goes with man-woman relationships, or that if it’s within a sex it’s because one person belongs in the other sex, is a fundamental fallacy. I believe every person of ordinary sex endowment has a capacity for diffuse “homosexual” sex expression, and specific climax — according to the temperamental situation. To call men who prefer the diffuse expression “feminine” — or women who seek only the specific, “masculine,” or both “mixed types” is a lot of obfuscation.

Complement with Susan Sontag on love, sex, and the world between and the extraordinary love letters of Mead and Benedict.

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30 JANUARY, 2014

Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life

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“A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”

After my recent exploration of how the sleep habits of famous authors affected their creative output, I found myself revisiting a decade’s worth of notes and marginalia on the daily routines and odd customs of literary greats, and inevitably remembered some I had missed in the visualization project. Among them was the immeasurably beautiful daily routine of Herman Melville found in the wonderful 1954 volume Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on the osmotic arts of reading and writing, on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau.

In a letter from December of 1850, mere months before the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville writes to his friend Evert Duyckinck, editor of The New York Literary Journal, and describes his life in the country, shortly after he left New York City and settled on a farm in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with his new wife, Elizabeth Shaw. After a few facetious lines about having neglected to write to his friend for months, Melville paints this beautiful vignette imbued with his nautical obsession:

I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.

Illustration by Matt Kish from 'Moby-Dick in Pictures.' Click image for details.

He then outlines his daily routine, emanating his equal passion for writing and life — and above all, perhaps, his profound understanding of how the two flow in and out of one another:

Do you want to know how I pass my time? — I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. [manuscripts] on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.

Melville ends with an endearing, tongue-in-cheek lament about the disconnect between his ambition and his productivity and the general creative paradox of writing:

Can you send me fast-writing youths, with an easy style & not averse to polishing their labors? If you can, I wish you would, because since I have been here I have planned about that number of future works & cant find enough time to think about them separately — But … a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel — you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety — & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.

Complement with more daily routines from Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Joy Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary greats.

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