Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

21 NOVEMBER, 2013

Voltaire on the Perils of Censorship, the Freedom of the Press, and the Rewards of Reading

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“The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.”

Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) is one of the most revered and quotable writers in literary history, credited with pioneering “social networking” with his Republic of Letters — the remarkable epistolary mesh of correspondence between him and some of his era’s greatest intellectuals on both sides of the English Channel and beyond. But more than a mere participant in literary culture, Voltaire was also its vocal proponent, unflinching custodian, and tireless crusader for its highest ideals. In a poignant and pointed 1733 letter to a high-ranking government commissioner, found in the volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection From His Correspondence (public library; public domain) by biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire bemoans the extreme censorship of the press in 18th-century France. Making a brilliant addition to famous authors’ revolt against censorship and eloquently extolling the rewards of reading, he writes:

As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar — slavery makes it creep.

Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers; there is something positively Turkish in proscribing printing; and hampering it is proscription. Be content with severely repressing diffamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honour to his country, among its contraband.

You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons: you do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, and fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read: a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.

He then goes on to make an economic case against censorship, arguing that even the most meritless of literature should be allowed to exist for its economic and social value, whatever our moral judgment of it may be — an argument that could apply perfectly, depending on one’s disposition, to the Buzzfeeds and Huffington Posts of our time:

Men’s thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the moulder, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier — and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things — profit and pleasure.

A year after Voltaire penned this missive, his own Letters on the English were publicly burned and he was compelled to flee the capital. But, as Hall writes, “the system, of course, entirely defeated its own ends. The hangman’s fire blazed into notoriety the very works it sought to destroy: while the secret printing of the scurrilous and the indecent was ubiquitous.”

Four decades later, writing to Rousseau in 1775 to discuss the perils of plagiarism, Voltaire revisits the subject of literature’s battles with his singular gift for separating the petty from the profound:

What matter to humankind that a few drones steal the honey of a few bees? Literary men make a great fuss of their petty quarrels: the rest of the world ignores them, or laughs at them.

They are, perhaps, the least serious of all the ills attendant on human life. The thorns inseparable from literature and a modest degree of fame are flowers in comparison with the other evils which from all time have flooded the world. Neither Cicero, Varron, Lucretius, Virgil, or Horace had any part in the proscriptions of Marius, Scylla, that profligate Antony, or that fool Lepidus; while as for that cowardly tyrants, Octavius Caesar — servilely entitled Augustus — he only became an assassin when he was deprived of the society of men of letters.

[…]

If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they have led to my being persecuted: still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused — as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness. . .

More of Voltaire’s timeless wisdom and unwavering convictions can be found in Letters on the English, which is also available as a free download.

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19 NOVEMBER, 2013

Europe, America, Utopia: Calvino on Hemingway

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“In Hemingway one finds almost all of what was meant by America.”

“I continue to maintain that I have never loved any writer as much as Hemingway, even though his character can be vulgarized,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his letters in 1964. In another letter, he pointed to Hemingway as the author who most influenced his own early work. In fact, the evolution of his relationship with Hemingway reveals a great deal about both writers and, beyond that, about some of the most central concerns in twentieth-century literature and in the writerly soul in general.

Calvino believed that the Russian-American engendered the “communistization” of Italian intellectuals in the avant-garde, and the dissolution of that alliance during the Cold War affected Italian culture just as profoundly. In a 1950 letter to the literary critic Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us his thoughts on writing, America, abortion and the meaning of life, and his poetic resume — 27-year-old Calvino wrote that Russia and America, more than actual countries or political ideologies, functioned as placeholders for “a collection of Italian data and aspirations” and were “two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias,” the sum of which added up to what many intellectuals considered the true objective of the Italian Resistance. But it was Hemingway whom Calvino saw as the anchor of the American part of the equation. In the same letter, Calvino considers writing an article about Hemingway and cracks open his conflicted thought process:

In [Hemingway] one finds almost all of what was meant by America. The virginity of its history, its technique (knowing how to do things), freedom and fullness of love, the open air, a direct democracy in human relations, courage. And, as writing, one finds in it the maximum help for developing one’s technique: H.’s language is technical and functional, in which there is nothing that is without immediate, rational utilization, there is no abstraction, solipsism or fanciness (as had previously been the case in the great but obscure Faulkner). But H. is an “America” that fails to find its “Russia.” It finds instead (and the problem is it goes looking for it) its “Europe.” This is H.’s decadentism. And he finds it on the basis (and as a diversion and explanation) of the elements from the worst side of America (which is as real as the other side) that are in him: alcoholism, ignorance, emptiness. And, as a barbarian, he has highly refined intuitions regarding European barbarism-civilization; he enters the Olympus of our most refined irrationalism, he the “technical” writer: but what is that to us now? We could have sent any old Montherlant to see bullfights. It was something else we wanted from him, something else now that what comes back more and more to our eyes — to the point of covering the aspects we sought and loved in him and still seek and love in him — now that what comes back, as I was saying, are the other aspects. . . These matter to us less and less now, so it is something else, then, something that is now beyond him… beyond him (where?) that we are looking for now. As you can see, these are very difficult ideas to express. And note that these things came to my mind as I was writing, and every time I’ve begun writing about this damned man what came to mind were different things, and certainly when I come to write this article I’ll write things that are different again, and now I need to keep the rough copy of this letter otherwise I’ll forget everything.

In another letter to Motta a month later, Calvino revisits the subject of Hemingway:

Hemingway — notwithstanding (or rather precisely because of) the fundamental American emptiness that he notices all around him and of which he too is a part — Hemingway who feels the need to go back to the basic relationships of man with things: fishing well, lighting fires well, establishing relations between a man and a woman well, and between men and other men, blowing up bridges well (except that he lacks the general perspective, and becomes futile and gets bored; what do bull-fights matter to us, even when well done?)

Four years later, at age 31, Calvino formulated and formalized his thoughts on Hemingway in the essay “Hemingway e noi” (“Hemingway and Ourselves,”) found in the anthology Why Read the Classics?, which also gave us his 14 timeless definitions of what makes a classic.

For a first-hand impression of Hemingway’s literary convictions, see his thoughts on writing and the dangers of ego, his advice to aspiring writers, his short, somewhat embittered Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and his young self’s irreverent ideas of heaven and hell.

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15 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Lesbian Love Letters of Pioneering Victorian Photographer and Photojournalist Fannie Benjamin Johnston

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“If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving.”

Pioneering photographer Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston received her first camera as a gift from Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman and used it to usher in a new era of photojournalism. Beginning with portraits of family and friends, she was soon recognized as a formidable talent and came to photograph some of the era’s greatest celebrities, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Roosevelt, becoming a true self-made woman and creative entrepreneur by the standards of the age. Around the time she turned thirty, Fannie met Mattie Edwards Hewitt, the then-wife of the St. Louis photographer Arthur Hewitt — a marriage the arrangements of which remain unclear, but appear to have been largely for practical purposes. Mattie worked in her husband’s darkroom and was herself passionate about photography, so when Johnston first encountered Hewitt’s work, she was impressed and complimented it effusively. This mutuality of creative admiration soon blossomed into romantic love — a proposition particularly radical, and even dangerous, for two nineteenth-century women.

And yet what a romance it was — the soul-stirring letters from Hewitt to Johnston, found in the altogether fascinating biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952 (public library), join the ranks of other exquisite epistolary exchanges of lady-love, including those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wynn Matthison, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Mein Liebling —

… Just reread your letter, am I all the nice things you say about me, I wonder? Ever since you told me that I was indeed worthwhile, I have felt like another woman, and now if I have been able to make you truly care for me, well, I am very very happy over it. You do not know the wealth of tenderness there is in my heart for you, and shall I tell you why I have needed you so much and seemed so longing for love and affection? I have already told you of how little of the above I [received] in my home.

When I married that nice little man, I thought of course I should get all the love my heart had yearned for, but somehow he has always seemed too busy to stop long enough for such nonsense, as he calls it.

Seven years ago, baby came and stayed just long enough to leave me with a hungry mother’s heart. Since then I have never met with anyone that could fill this great big [void] … until I met you in Buffalo and well, you know how I have tried to show you in every possible way that I loved you, loved you dearly.

… I am not foolish enough to expect you to love me in this way only it was so sweet and meant so very much that I could not but tell it over and over.

Your life is so full and your friends so many — that you have cared for me should make me satisfied.

I am not going to weary you with a love letter every time I write, so don’t worry dear…

… If I have been the help you say I am to you, then I am more than glad. I have been so afraid from the first that you would think me a foolish sentimental woman and I was so happy when you told me the other day that you understood — If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving. . . .

I wonder why I expect you to understand me better than most people — is it because I love you so?

In another letter, Hewitt wrote:

…Ah I love you, love you better than ever you know. . . . Yes my dear we will turn over a new leaf and stand together in time of weakness or need of help and we must not ever again turn away head or take hand away but when I need you or you need me — must hold each other all the closer and with your hand in mine, holding it tight, I will clear away all misunderstandings or doubts and the sun will shine again. . . .

And in another:

I slept in your place and on your pillow — it was most as good as the cigarette you lit and gave me all gooey — not quite, for we had you and the sweet taste too — I am foolish about you I admit. . . .

Portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In 1909, Mattie divorced Arthur and moved to New York to be with Frances, living and working together, and eventually making their creative collaboration official in 1913 when they opened a joint studio specializing in architectural photography. The only surviving record of their romance are those early letters from the years when they lived apart and wrote to each other, more of which can be found in The Woman behind the Lens.

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