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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

15 OCTOBER, 2014

Friedrich Nietzsche on Why a Fulfilling Life Requires Embracing Rather than Running from Difficulty

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A century and a half before our modern fetishism of failure, a seminal philosophical case for its value.

German philosopher, poet, composer, and writer Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) is among humanity’s most enduring, influential, and oft-cited minds — and he seemed remarkably confident that he would end up that way. Nietzsche famously called the populace of philosophers “cabbage-heads,” lamenting: “It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being. I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy.” In one letter, he considered the prospect of posterity enjoying his work: “It seems to me that to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when he does so — not to speak of boots.”

A century and a half later, Nietzsche’s healthy ego has proven largely right — for a surprising and surprisingly modern reason: the assurance he offers that life’s greatest rewards spring from our brush with adversity. More than a century before our present celebration of “the gift of failure” and our fetishism of failure as a conduit to fearlessness, Nietzsche extolled these values with equal parts pomp and perspicuity.

In one particularly emblematic specimen from his many aphorisms, penned in 1887 and published in the posthumous selection from his notebooks, The Will to Power (public library), Nietzsche writes under the heading “Types of my disciples”:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.

(Half a century later, Willa Cather echoed this sentiment poignantly in a troubled letter to her brother: “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring.”)

With his signature blend of wit and wisdom, Alain de Botton — who contemplates such subjects as the psychological functions of art and what literature does for the soul — writes in the altogether wonderful The Consolations of Philosophy (public library):

Alone among the cabbage-heads, Nietzsche had realized that difficulties of every sort were to be welcomed by those seeking fulfillment.

Not only that, but Nietzsche also believed that hardship and joy operated in a kind of osmotic relationship — diminishing one would diminish the other — or, as Anaïs Nin memorably put it, “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.” In The Gay Science (public library), his treatise on poetry where his famous “God is dead” proclamation was coined, he wrote:

What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?

[…]

You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.

He was convinced that the most notable human lives reflected this osmosis:

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.

De Botton distills Nietzsche’s convictions and their enduring legacy:

The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.

(Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in his atrociously, delightfully ungrammatical proclamation, “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”)

Nietzsche arrived at this ideas the roundabout way. As a young man, he was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer. At the age of twenty-one, he chanced upon Schopenhauer’s masterwork The World as Will and Representation and later recounted this seminal life turn:

I took it in my hand as something totally unfamiliar and turned the pages. I do not know which demon was whispering to me: ‘Take this book home.’ In any case, it happened, which was contrary to my custom of otherwise never rushing into buying a book. Back at the house I threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dynamic, dismal genius work on me. Each line cried out with renunciation, negation, resignation. I was looking into a mirror that reflected the world, life and my own mind with hideous magnificence.

And isn’t that what the greatest books do for us, why we read and write at all? But Nietzsche eventually came to disagree with Schopenhauer’s defeatism and slowly blossomed into his own ideas on the value of difficulty. In an 1876 letter to Cosima Wagner — the second wife of the famed composer Richard Wagner, whom Nietzsche had befriended — he professed, more than a decade after encountering Schopenhauer:

Would you be amazed if I confess something that has gradually come about, but which has more or less suddenly entered my consciousness: a disagreement with Schopenhauer’s teaching? On virtually all general propositions I am not on his side.

This turning point is how Nietzsche arrived at the conviction that hardship is the springboard for happiness and fulfillment. De Botton captures this beautifully:

Because fulfillment is an illusion, the wise must devote themselves to avoiding pain rather than seeking pleasure, living quietly, as Schopenhauer counseled, ‘in a small fireproof room’ — advice that now struck Nietzsche as both timid and untrue, a perverse attempt to dwell, as he was to put it pejoratively several years later, ‘hidden in forests like shy deer.’ Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.

And this, perhaps, is the reason why nihilism in general, and Nietzsche in particular, has had a recent resurgence in pop culture — the subject of a fantastic recent Radiolab episode. The wise and wonderful Jad Abumrad elegantly captures the allure of such teachings:

All this pop-nihilism around us is not about tearing down power structures or embracing nothingness — it’s just, “Look at me! Look how brave I am!”

Quoting Nietzsche, in other words, is a way for us to signal others that we’re unafraid, that difficulty won’t break us, that adversity will only assure us.

And perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. After all, Viktor Frankl was the opposite of a nihilist, and yet we flock to him for the same reason — to be assured, to be consoled, to feel like we can endure.

The Will to Power remains indispensable and The Consolations of Philosophy is excellent in its totality. Complement them with a lighter serving of Nietzsche — his ten rules for writers, penned in a love letter.

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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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