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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

08 OCTOBER, 2014

The Virtuous Cycle of Gratitude and Mutual Appreciation: The Letters of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann

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“The beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.”

In a culture that makes it easier to be a critic than a celebrator, where it takes growing commitment to do the opposite, how heartening to be reminded of the ennobling gift of gratitude, of the elevating capacity of being one another’s champion — reminders like Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his greatest champion or Emerson’s epistolary encouragement to young Walt Whitman or Leonard Bernstein’s note of appreciation to his mentor or Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan or Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot.

That’s precisely what two of the twentieth century’s greatest authors, Nobel laureates Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, did for each other over the course of five decades — even though they came from opposite corners of Germany and went on to lead starkly different lives, Hesse an exponent of the quiet contemplation and Mann a public intellectual with a vibrant social life. But they also had a great deal in common — both had rebelled against their bourgeois background by dropping out of school and taking working-class jobs — Hesse at a second-hand bookstore and Mann as an insurance agent — before becoming prominent writers; both had mothers who brought into their otherwise ordinary German childhoods an exotic perspective — Mann’s was born in Brazil and Hesse’s in India.

But what brought them together, above all, were their convictions. Bound by a shared commitment to humanism and an unflinching belief in the integrity of the individual, they stood by one another’s work, both privately and publicly, through war and exile, through harsh criticism, even through their own philosophical disagreements. The record of this virtuous cycle of mutual support is preserved in the wonderful out-of-print 1975 volume The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse in Chantarella, Switzerland

In January of 1928, a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mann writes after receiving a limited-edition collection of forty-five of Hesse’s poems:

Dear Herr Hesse,

Thank you — I take it as an honor — for sending me these poems, whose atmosphere will not appeal to everyone. You were right in supposing that they would meet with my inward understanding.

In the same letter, Mann pays a beautiful compliment to Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, which had debuted a few months earlier and which was the first major work that put him on a track to his own Nobel Prize two decades later, in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated and generous nominations:

I am getting more and more cranky and difficult in matters of reading; most of what I see leaves me cold. Steppenwolf has shown me once again, for the first time in ages, what reading can be.

The admiration was mutual. In a letter from March of 1932, Hesse writes to Mann after reading his lecture-turned-essay on Goethe and Tolstoy:

Once again I have admired … the courage and vigor with which, contrary to all German custom, you are at pains not to attenuate, simplify and whitewash, but precisely to stress and deepen the tragic problems.

[...]

In short, I wish to thank you for the great pleasure your book has given me.

At the end of 1933, after Mann writes to Hesse about another one of his poems, “so full of wisdom and kindness,” Hesse responds with equal generosity of spirit in commending Mann on the first novel of his Joseph and His Brothers tetralogy:

I should like at least to thank you for the great pleasure your book gave me… As a contrast to prevailing conceptions of history and historiography, I loved every bit of the faintly melancholy irony with which in the last analysis you view the whole problem of history and narration, though you never for a moment flag in your endeavor to do what you have recognized to be fundamentally impossible, that is, to write history. To me, who differ from you in many respects and have been molded by different origins, just this is profoundly congenial, for I well know that it is to attempt the impossible, while knowing it to be impossible, to take the tragic actively upon oneself. Besides, this quiet book comes as a god-send in times so cluttered with stupid current events!

Mann’s novel was met with harsh criticism, which rendered Hesse’s encouraging letter particularly vitalizing for the author — in a letter sent a few days later, Mann speaks to the power of kindness amid criticism, which all who have endured such public attacks appreciate deeply when present and long for painfully when absent:

[You] can imagine the insolence and stupidity with which the reviewers, almost without exception, have reacted to the book. It is both pitiful and shocking to observe such — by now unconscious — intellectual submissiveness and emasculation in men one has known. The kindness and acuteness with which you have responded … has moved me deeply, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comforting lines…

In the same letter, Mann adds a sentiment as true of the art of appreciation as of art itself:

When you come right down to it, the beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.

In May of 1934, Mann returns the gesture after reading Hesse’s novella “The Rainmaker,” which Hesse would later incorporate in his last novel, The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943 after a decade of rejections due to Hesse’s anti-Nazi convictions:

What a beautiful piece of workmanship your novella is — there is no longer anything like it in Germany. And how humanely it deals with the primitive era, without groveling to it, as it has become so inanely fashionable to do. The “much larger whole” of which this is a part will be magnificent work! — I take my leave with hearty congratulations!

In August of the same year, after Hesse sends Mann a small selection of his poetry as a gift, Mann — who by that point had grown gravely dejected and disheartened by the Nazi’s rise to power — responds with exuberant appreciation:

What a treasure trove of melodies! What pure art! A true comfort to the languishing soul. These words have a general validity, but I also mean them personally, not easy by way of an excuse for this niggardly expression of gratitude. I am in the midst of a grave crisis, both in my life and in my work. I am so plagued by the happenings in Germany, they are such a torment to my moral and critical conscience, that I seem to be unable to carry on with my current literary work.

And yet carry on he does, encouraged by Hesse. Several months later, Mann sends to his friend and champion the ultimate note of appreciation-for-appreciation, speaking to this enormously vitalizing virtuous cycle of mutual respect and admiration that is available to all who choose to welcome and celebrate one another’s kinship of spirit:

My emotion and joy were great and proved to me once again how profoundly receptive I am to kindness and understanding. How could I help taking pride in the good opinion of a man whose art and thinking I approve with all my heart?

Although The Hesse/Mann Letters is long out of print, used copies are still available and are very much worth the hunt — to witness two great minds and expansive spirits come together around art, literature, politics, and philosophy is nothing short of a gift.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Tolstoy’s Reading List: Essential Books for Each Stage of Life

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Even if one could never “finish” great literature, one has to begin somewhere.

Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Leo Tolstoy succumbed to a deep spiritual crisis and decided to pull himself out by finding the meaning of life. He did so largely by reading voraciously across the world’s major philosophical and religious traditions, discovering great similarities in how they dealt with the truth of the human spirit. He was also, as any great writer, an insatiable reader of literature, which he wove together into A Calendar of Wisdom — the proto-Tumblr he spent the final decades of his life assembling.

But despite his wide and prolific reading, Tolstoy did consider specific books especially important and influential in his development. At the age of sixty-three, in a letter to a friend, he compiled such a list of the books that had most impressed him over the course of his life. Dated October 25, 1891, and found in Tolstoy’s Letters (public library), the missive is prefaced by the author’s disclaimer: “I am sending the list I began, but didn’t finish, for your consideration, but not for publication, since it is still far from complete.” (Reading, of course, is inherently incompletable — one can never hope to “finish” the body of literature, nor should one wish to.)

Under the heading “WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION,” Tolstoy divides his reading list into five distinct life-stages — beginning with childhood and ending with his age at the time — and ranks each title by excellence, from “great” to “v. great” to “enormous.” Curiously, Tolstoy seems to consider the teenage years one’s most formative, prescribing for them books greater in both quality and quantity, whereas the twenties and early thirties are most meager in both and mostly occupied by poetry — perhaps because few people at the time had the luxury of leisure for reading during their most vital wage-earning years, or maybe because Tolstoy simply believed that one should be busier living than reading during that life-stage.

That only two known women figure in Tolstoy’s list is, one would imagine, less a function of his bias than of his era’s and his culture’s — though the latter certainly shape the former.

CHILDHOOD TO AGE 14 OR SO

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 14 TO 20

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 20 TO 35

“Great”:

“V. great”:

AGE 35 TO 50

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 50 TO 63

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

Complement with Tolstoy’s timeless meditation on art, his chronicle of spiritual awakening, and his compendium of humanity’s greatest wisdom.

For more notable reading lists, see those of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, David Bowie, and Brian Eno.

* Tolstoy’s original letter recommended reading Homer and the gospels in translation during one’s teens and in the Greek after age 35, reflecting a true classical education

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Georgia O’Keeffe on Art, Life, and Setting Priorities

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“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.”

In her heyday, Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was written about as America’s first great female artist. The great social critic Lewis Mumford once remarked of a painting of hers: “Not only is it a piece of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul which distinguishes important communications from the casual reports of the eye.” In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Exactly thirty years earlier, her career had been catapulted by the lovingly surreptitious support of her best friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had assumed the role of agent-manager and secretly sent some of O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings to the famous 291 gallery owned by the influential photographer and art-world tastemaker Alfred Stieglitz — the man with whom O’Keeffe would later fall in love. Upon first seeing her work, Stieglitz exclaimed that it was “the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long time.”

The lifetime of letters between the two women, full of O’Keeffe’s spirited expressiveness and peppered with her delightfully defiant disregard for punctuation, is collected in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library) — a revealing look at the inner life of one of the past century’s greatest artists, brimming with her unfiltered views on art, work ethic, love, and life. It is also the record of a remarkable and somewhat tragic friendship, which suffered a profound rift when Pollitzer’s warmhearted and generous biography of O’Keeffe was met with indignant disapproval by the artist. (“You have written your dream picture of me — and that is what it is,” she wrote to her friend in rejecting the biography. “It is a very sentimental way you like to imagine me — and I am not that way at all.”) Even so, for more than thirty years the two women held up mirrors for one another in a most Aristotelian way, using the reflective veneer of their surface differences — Anita with her wholehearted emotionality and faith in the bountifulness of the universe, Georgia with her fierce self-protection and fear of emotional vulnerability, regulated by a formidable work ethic — so that each could reveal her true nature and, in the process, shed light on the other.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Pollitzer’s most vitalizing effect on O’Keeffe was the ability, through the sheer force of her own vibrant aliveness, to pull out of her friend a rejoicing in the full act of living, the kind of “spiritual electricity” essential to great art. O’Keeffe knew and valued this — early on in the friendship, she wrote to Pollitzer: “You are certainly a great little girl — I love the way you just bubble with life — and the enthusiasm of living,” and later, “I haven’t found anyone yet who likes to live like we do.” But she expresses this most exquisitely in a letter from August of 1915. At 27, Georgia — already a formidable presence at that age, typically dressed in tailored suits and immaculate white shirtwaists, with hair pulled back in a disciplined bun — writes to Anita:

Your letters are certainly like drinks of fine cold spring water on a hot day — They have a spark of the kind of fire in them that makes life worthwhile. — That nervous energy that makes people like you and I want to go after everything in the world — bump our heads on all the hard walls and scratch our hands on all the briars — but it makes living great — doesn’t it — I’m glad I want everything in the world — good and bad — bitter and sweet — I want it all and a lot of it too —

Such realness of living was essential for O’Keeffe’s values not only as a person, but also as an artist. Later in the same letter, condemning another artist’s affectation, she writes:

I believe an artist is the last person in the world who can afford to be affected.

Embedded in young O’Keeffe’s worldview was a certain quality of grit, the character trait we now know is the greatest predictor of success. In a letter from September of that year, she makes her determination unequivocal:

I believe in having everything and doing everything you want — if you really want to — and if you can in any possible way… We just want to live dont we.

But O’Keeffe balanced this voracious appetite for freedom and unburdened living with a keen awareness of the practicalities of life and the quintessential tussle of the creative life — the struggle to integrate making art with making a living. She writes to Pollitzer:

You see — I have to make a living

I don’t know that I will ever be able to do it just expressing myself as I want to — so it seems to me that the best course is the one that leaves my mind freest … to work as I please and at the same time makes me some money.

If I went to New York I would be lucky if I could make a living — and doing it would take all my time and energy — there would be nothing left that would be just myself for fun — it would be all myself for money — and I loath — If I can’t work by myself for a year — with no stimulus other than what I can get from books — distant friends and from my own fun in living — I’m not worth much…

But a few days later, O’Keeffe reaches a depth of despondency that testifies to Anaïs Nin’s memorable point about great art being the product of emotional excess. Writing to Anita, she despairs over the psychic drain of apathy:

One can’t work with nothing to express. I never felt such a vacancy in my life — Everything is so mediocre — I don’t dislike it — I don’t like it — It is existing — not living — and absolutely — I just wish some one would take hold of me and shake me out of my wits — I feel that insanity might be a luxury. All the people I’ve meet are all right to exist with — and it is awful when you are in the habit of living.

And yet O’Keeffe’s ambivalence about emotional intensity is clear — without it, she feels vacant; with it, she feels out of control. In a letter from October of 1915, she lovingly but sternly scolds Pollitzer for what she sees as emotional excess:

You mustn’t get so excited… You wear out the most precious things you have by letting your emotions and feelings run riot at such a rate… Dont you think we need to conserve our energies — emotions and feelings for what we are going to make the big things in our lives instead of letting so much run away on the little things everyday

Self-control is a wonderful thing — I think we must even keep ourselves from feeling to much — often — if we are going to keep sane and see with a clear unprejudiced vision —

I do not want to preach to you — I like you like you are — but I would like to think you had a string on yourself and that you were not wearing yourself all out feeling and living now — save a little so you can live always —

'Blue and Green Music' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921

Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s spectacular letter of advice on art and life to his teenage son — “The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live.” — O’Keeffe adds:

It always seems to me that so few people live — they just seem to exist and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t live always — til we die physically — why do it in our teens and twenties…

For her part, Pollitzer echoes Seneca’s memorable wisdom on living wide vs. living long and responds: “I’d lots rather live hard than long.” But for O’Keeffe, the task of living hard is to be attained no matter the circumstances — in a prescient letter from the same month, fourteen years before O’Keeffe would move to the remote Southwest to live a solitary life, she writes:

I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.

In many ways, O’Keeffe implicitly offers the art of living as the answer she poses to Pollitzer about the nature of art itself:

What is Art any way?

When I think of how hopelessly unable I am to answer that question I can not help feeling like a farce… Ill lose what little self respect I have — unless I can in some way solve the problem a little — give myself some little answer to it.

A year later, O’Keeffe would revisit the question with a remark that falls between the sincere and the sardonic:

I don’t know what Art is but I know some things it isn’t when I see them.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

And yet O’Keeffe learns the invaluable art of embracing the unknown and writes to Pollitzer a few days later:

This feeling of not knowing anything and being pretty sure that you never will is — well — I might say awful — if it wasn’t for a part of my make up that is always very much amused at what out to be my greatest calamities — that part of me sits in the grand stand and laughs and claps and screams — in derision and amusement and drives the rest of me on in my blundering floundering game — Oh — it’s a great sport

A month later, O’Keeffe revisits the notion of wholehearted living and touches on the presently trendy concept of “work-life balance” — a rather toxic divide, I believe — writing to Pollitzer:

Haven’t worked either since Monday and here it is Saturday afternoon — Ive just been living. It seems rediculous that any one should get as much fun out of just living — as I — poor fool — do — … Next week Im going to work like a tiger.

[...]

I wonder if I am a lunatic… Imagination certainly is an entertaining thing to have — and it is great to be a fool.

Though O’Keeffe was known for her unflinching work ethic — an artist who, dissatisfied with the quality of commercially available canvases, began stretching her own — she never abandoned this exuberant joy in the art of living. A few days later, in November of 1915, she writes:

I just cant imagine anyone being any more pleased and still being able to live.

But O’Keeffe’s greatest feat was in bridging her discipline with her dedication to wholehearted living. In December of 1915, a period when she was particularly short on money, she writes to Pollitzer:

Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.

Still … I sometimes think its almost a sin to refuse to satisfy yourself.

Even so, O’Keeffe isn’t free from the self-conscious guilt we tend to experience when we feel unproductive. A few weeks later, still unhappily stationed at her teaching position in South Carolina, she captures this moral struggle in rather strong language:

Its disgusting to be feeling so fine — so much like reaching to all creation — and to be sitting around spending so much time on nothing —

I am disgusted with myself —

I was made to work hard — and Im not working half hard enough — Nobody else here has energy like I have — no one else can keep up

I hate it

When able to bridge her love of life and her love of work, however, O’Keeffe captures the exultant joy of creative flow and self-expression beautifully:

Ive been working like mad all day … it seems I never had such a good time — I was just trying to say what I wanted to say — and it is so much fun to say what you want to — I worked till my head all felt light in the top — then stopped and looked… — I really doubt the soundness of the mentality of a person who can work so hard.

'Red Hill and White Shell' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1938

O’Keeffe would go on to create for herself the kind of life and environment best suited for such delirious and dogged application of her talent and work ethic. Like another great artist, Agnes Martin, who memorably asserted that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” O’Keeffe mastered the art of solitude by deliberately avoiding social distractions to make art always her priority. In a Saturday Review profile piece Pollitzer wrote of her friend in 1950, she quoted O’Keeffe as saying:

I know I am unreasonable about people but there are so many wonderful people whom I can’t take the time to know.

In a 1958 letter to Pollitzer, O’Keeffe, by that point in her early seventies, speaks to her priorities directly:

Most of the time I am alone with my dog and think it is fine to be alone — I have been working and rather like my doings — I really work like a day laborer — have been preparing canvas and it is really hard work but Im determined to prepare enough to last four or five years so there will always be lots of empty ones around. Im even going to frame them and back them so there will be nothing left to do but the paintings… My life is good — and I like it. The dog and I have a walk almost every early morning and again at sunset — He just now banged on the door to tell me he was ready to come in and go to bed.

But perhaps the single most piercing sentiment, the one most vividly expressive of O’Keeffe’s lifelong priorities, comes from her notes on the very artifact that caused the demise of her friendship with Pollitzer — the biography O’Keeffe deemed wholly unrepresentative of her spirit. One of her many corrections on the manuscript reads:

I do not like the idea of happyness — it is too momentary — I would say that I was always busy and interested in something — interest has more meaning to me than the idea of happyness.

What an exquisite way to capture the idea that happiness is found in being intensely present with one’s experience.

Complement Lovingly, Georgia with O’Keeffe’s passionate love letters to Alfred Stieglitz.

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