Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

27 FEBRUARY, 2015

Rilke on Our Fear of the Unexplainable

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“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his spectacular lecture-turned-book on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” More than a decade earlier, in delivering the same annual Gifford Lecture, Hannah Arendt argued that our appetite for “unanswerable questions” is what defines our humanity. But it was another great mind, not a scientist but a poet, who delivered this message with the most luminous immediacy many decades earlier: Rainer Maria Rilke.

In an exquisite passage from his Letters to a Young Poet — a secular masterwork with the timeless resonance of scripture, and the source of Rilke’s wisdom on what love asks of us and how to live the questions — later included in Joanna Macy’s infinitely ennobling A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library), the poet writes in 1904:

The tendency of people to be fearful of those experiences they call apparitions or assign to the “spirit world,” including death, has done infinite harm to life. All these things so naturally related to us have been driven away through our daily resistance to them, to the point where our capacity to sense them has atrophied… Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens. For it is not only sluggishness that makes human relations so unspeakably monotonous, it is the aversion to any new, unforeseen experience we are not sure we can handle.

Nearly two decades later, he revisits this slippery subject from another angle in a letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy:

The person who has not, in a moment of firm resolve, accepted — yes, even rejoiced in — what has struck him with terror — he has never taken possession of the full, ineffable power of our existence. He withdraws to the edge; when things play out, he will be neither alive nor dead.

To discover the unity of dread and bliss, these two faces of the same divinity (indeed, they reveal themselves as a single face that presents itself differently according to the way in which we see it): that is the essential meaning…

Complement the magnificent A Year with Rilke — which spans from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, and includes fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose — with Rilke on how befriending death can help us live more fully and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2015

Mozart on Creativity and the Ideation Process

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“It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.”

In 1945, French mathematician Jacques Hadamard set out to explore how mathematicians invent ideas in what would become The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (public library) — an introspective inquiry into the process of discovery, using both his own experience and first-hand accounts by such celebrated scientists as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Albert Einstein. But what Hadamard uncovered in the process of writing his treatise were the general psychological pillars of all invention and the inner workings of the creative mind, whatever discipline it is applied to.

In staging the scene of his investigation, Hadamard quotes a letter from Mozart in which the legendary composer — who had plunged into the creative life at a young age — details his ideation and editing process, touching on some of the most universal principles of the creative experience long before contemporary psychology demonstrated them.

Applying to the question of creativity the same passion with which he imbued his love letters, Mozart considers the origin of his ideas:

When I feel well and in a good humor, or when I am taking a drive or walking after a good meal, or in the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind as easily as you could wish. Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me, I keep in my head and hum them; at least others have told me that I do so. Once I have my theme, another melody comes, linking itself to the first one, in accordance with the needs of the composition as a whole: the counterpoint, the part of each instrument, and all these melodic fragments at last produce the entire work.

More than two hundred years before poet Mark Strand would come to capture the electrifying flow of creative work and a century before Tchaikovsky would come to write of the “immeasurable bliss” of creativity, Mozart describes a similar experience:

Then my soul is on fire with inspiration, if however nothing occurs to distract my attention. The work grows; I keep expanding it, conceiving it more and more clearly until I have the entire composition finished in my head though it may be long… It does not come to me successively, with its various parts worked out in detail, as they will be later on, but it is in its entirety that my imagination lets me hear it.

Mozart then turns to the question of originality — a concept many creators have denounced as an illusion. (Most memorable of all denunciations is Mark Twain’s spectacular letter to Helen Keller, with Pete Seeger as a close second.) But for the great composer, originality — and thus the integrity of the creative impulse — is as indelible a part of our individuality as our fingerprints:

Now, how does it happen, that, while I am at work, my compositions assume the form or the style which characterize Mozart and are not like anybody else’s? Just as it happens that my nose is big and hooked, Mozart’s nose and not another man’s. I do not aim at originality and I should be much at a loss to describe my style. It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.

Complement The Mathematician’s Mind with the similarly spirited The Art of Scientific Investigation, an exploration of the ideation process published more than a decade later that builds on Hadamard’s work to stretch the inquiry even further into the frontiers of the creative mind, then see pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential elements of creativity.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay: Robert Frost’s Letter of Advice to His Young Daughter

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“The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White wrote in the foreword to his collected essays. Annie Dillard sees things almost the opposite way, insisting that essayists perform a public service — they “serve as the memory of a people” and “chew over our public past.” Although he had never written an essay himself, the advice Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Frost (March 26, 1874–January 29, 1963) offered to his eldest daughter, Lesley, not only stands as an apt mediator between White and Dillard but also some of the most enduring wisdom on essay-writing ever committed to paper.

During her junior at Amherst College, Lesley shared her exasperation over having been assigned to write an academic essay about a book she didn’t find particularly inspiring. In a magnificent letter from February of 1919, found in The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1 (public library), the beloved poet gave his daughter sage counsel on her particular predicament, emanating general wisdom on writing, the art of the essay, and even thinking itself.

Five years before he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, 45-year-old Frost writes:

I pity you, having to write essays where the imagination has no chance, or next to no chance. Just one word of advice: Try to avoid strain or at any rate the appearance of strain. One way to go to work is to read your author once or twice over having an eye out for anything that occurs to you as you read whether appreciative contradictory corroborative or parallel…

He speaks to the notion that writing, like all creativity, is a matter of selecting the few thrilling ideas from the lot of dull ones that occur to us — “To invent… is to choose,” as French polymath Henri Poincaré famously proclaimed. Frost counsels:

There should be more or less of a jumble in your head or on your note paper after the first time and even after the second. Much that you will think of in connection will come to nothing and be wasted. But some of it ought to go together under one idea. That idea is the thing to write on and write into the title at the head of your paper… One idea and a few subordinate ideas — [the trick is] to have those happen to you as you read and catch them — not let them escape you… The sidelong glance is what you depend on. You look at your author but you keep the tail of your eye on what is happening over and above your author in your own mind and nature.

The Frost family in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, 1915: Elinor and Robert, Lesley and Irma, Marjorie and Carol (University of Virginia Library)

Reflecting on his days as an English teacher at New Hampshire’s Pinkerton Academy, Frost points to precisely this over-and-above quality as the factor that set apart the few of his students who mastered the essay from the vast majority of those who never did. (Although by the time of his tenure the Academy officially accepted young women, Frost’s passing remark that his class consisted of sixty boys reveals a great deal about women’s plight for education.) He writes:

They seem incapable of the over-and-above stuff. I think maybe it goes on in their heads as they read but they are incapable of catching it. They are too directly intent on the reading. They cant get started looking two ways at once. I think too they are afraid of the simplicity of many things they think on the side as they read. They wouldn’t have the face to connect it in writing with the great author they have been reading. It may be a childhood memory; it may be some homely simile; it may be a line or verse of mother goose. They want it to be big and bookish. But they haven’t books enough in their heads to match book stuff with book stuff. Of course some of that would be all right.

Indeed, in many ways Frost’s advice on essay-writing is really advice on reading — that mutuality of thought between reader and writer, pulsed through by the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Echoing Virginia Woolf’s dictum on how to read a book, Frost offers counsel so passionate that it becomes almost a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, barely punctuated:

The game is matching your author thought for thought in any of the many possible ways. Reading then becomes converse — give and take. It is only conversation in which the reader takes part addressing himself to anything at all in the author in his subject matter or form. Just as when we talk together! Being careful to hold up our end and to do our part agreeably without too much contradiction and mere opinionation. The best thing of all is going each other one better piling up the ideas anecdotes and incidents like alternating hands piled up on the knee. Well its out of conversation like this with a book that you find perhaps one idea perhaps yours perhaps the book’s that will serve for other lesser ideas to center around. And there’s your essay.

He lands from this poetic elation into some practical advice:

Be brief at first. You have to be honest. You don’t want to make your material seem more than it is. You won’t have so much to say at first as you will have later. My defect is in not having learned to hammer my material into one lump. I haven’t had experience enough. The details of essay won’t come in right for me as they will in narrative. Sometimes I have gotten round the difficulty by some narrative dodge.

[…]

Take it easy with the essay whatever you do. Write it as well as you can if you have to write it. Be as concrete as the law allows in it — concrete and experiential. Don’t let it scare you. Don’t strain. Remember that any old thing that happens in your head as you read may be the thing you want. If nothing much seems to happen, perhaps another reading will help. Perhaps the book is bad or is not your kind — is nothing to you and can start nothing in your nature one way or another.

He interjects a meta-remark on the nature — and naturalness — of the essay form:

Of course this letter is essay. It is material that has come to the surface of my mind in reading just as frost brings stones to the surface of the ground.

At the very end, before signing off “Affectionately Papa,” Frost can’t resist taking a little jab at the essay, voicing the sentiment that seems to explain his own lifelong resistance to partaking in the genre:

I don’t know you know whether its worth very much — I mean the essay — when you have it written. I’m rather afraid of it as an enemy to the really creative writing that holds scenes and things in the eye voices in the ear and whole situations as a sort of plexus in the body (I don’t know just where).

Robert Frost with his daughter Lesley (left) and her two children, 1945

Lesley grew up to be an author herself, albeit not of essays — she published two books of stories for children: Really Not Really in 1962, published mere months before her father’s death, and Digging Down to China in 1968.

In its portly 850-page totality, The Letters of Robert Frost is a trove of writerly wisdom and heartwarming parental advice to the poet’s six children, of whom Lesley and her sister Irma outlived their father. Complement it with Frost’s beautiful poem on art and government, which he intended to but didn’t read at JFK’s inauguration, and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing in a letter of advice to his own daughter, then revisit this growing library of writers’ advice on writing.

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16 FEBRUARY, 2015

Lewis Carroll on Happiness and How to Alleviate Our Discomfort with Change

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“There’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself.”

I am the frequent and fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from readers, many of whom share deeply personal stories of their struggles and triumphs. But few have moved me more than a recent one from a 61-year-old woman from Santa Fe, who has been living with Stage IV cancer for nearly twenty-six years — something she revealed not as a centerpiece of the letter, and not as self-pity or even a complaint, but as a mere factual report for context. She went on to describe all the enlivening ways she has found for leading a rich, creative, and rewarding life as she adjusted to her progressively diminishing physical faculties. Astounded at first by her resilience and optimism given the cards she had been dealt, I was reminded of a now-legendary 1978 adaptation theory study (PDF), which found that both lottery winners and people rendered paraplegic by an accident not only return to their baseline happiness level within a few months but also have similar baselines overall, regardless of whether they had great or terrible fortune.

And yet most of us find this difficult to believe because, despite what we may know about the psychology of resilience and our hardwired optimism bias, we dread change enormously. Change — be it negative, neutral, or even positive — is hard; more than that, it’s usually unwelcome — in no small part because we’re stitched together by our routines and rituals. But change is also how we stretch ourselves and grow, and in the tension between the resistance and the necessity lies one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.

The wisest advice I’ve ever encountered on how to assuage our deep discomfort with change comes from Lewis Carroll — a man of timeless and timely insight on so many facets of daily life: In his nine commandments of letter-writing we find guidelines to making modern digital communication more civil, and in his rules for digesting information we find solace for our present state of information overload.

Although Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland is a story about befriending the disorienting strangeness of change, he addressed the subject directly two decades later. In an August 1885 letter included in the altogether addictive The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — which also gave us Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block — he writes to a young friend named Isabel Standen, who had written to him lamenting her loneliness and unhappiness in a new environment:

I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant. My first day or two at the sea is a little depressing; I miss [my usual] interests, and haven’t taken up the threads of interest here; and, just in the same way, my first day or two, when I get back [home], I miss the seaside pleasures, and feel with unusual clearness the bothers of business-routine. In all such cases, the true philosophy, I believe, is “wait a bit.” Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Tove Jansson. Click image for more.

Almost a century before that famous adaptation theory study, Carroll illustrates his point with a strikingly similar example:

Suppose you hurt your arm, and had to wear it in a sling for a month. For the first two or three days the discomfort of the bandage, the pressure of the sling on the neck and shoulder, the being unable to use the arm, would be a constant worry. You would feel as if all comfort in life were gone; after a couple of days you would be used to the new sensations, after a week you perhaps wouldn’t notice them at all; and life would seem just as comfortable as ever.

So my advice is, don’t think about loneliness, or happiness, or unhappiness, for a week or two. Then “take stock” again, and compare your feelings with what they were two weeks previously. If they have changed, even a little, for the better you are on the right track; if not, we may begin to suspect the life does not suit you. But what I want specially to urge is that there’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself. Sit on the beach, and watch the waves for a few seconds; you say “the tide is coming in “; watch half a dozen successive waves, and you may say “the last is the lowest; it is going out.” Wait a quarter of an hour, and compare its average place with what it was at first, and you will say “No, it is coming in after all.” …

With love, I am always affectionately yours,

C.L. Dodgson

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a treasure trove of humorous and heartening treats in its entirety. Complement it with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

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