Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

23 OCTOBER, 2014

A Wave in the Mind: Virginia Woolf on Writing and Consciousness

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“A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

“A crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker wrote in his wonderful modern guide to style, “are among life’s greatest pleasures.” A century and a half earlier, Schopenhauer proclaimed that “style is the physiognomy of the mind.” Undoubtedly one of humanity’s most beautiful minds and greatest masters of elegant, pleasurable language is Virginia Woolf — a mastery that unfolded with equal enchantment in her public writings as well as her private, as both sprang from the same source of passion and perspicacity. But nowhere was Woolf’s intensity of heart, mind, and style more palpable than in the writing she did for and to her longtime lover and lifelong friend, Vita Sackville-West — from her novel Orlando, based on Sackville-West and celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” to the actual missives between the two women, which remain among the most bewitching queer love letters ever written.

In March of 1926, a year before her famous love letter to Vita, Virginia wrote to her lover about the very thing that brought them together, that invisible, immutable force which animated Woolf more than any other — her love of language. (Celebrated writers have a way of fleshing out their professional convictions about the craft in their most intimate correspondence — Nietzsche set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to his lover.)

The beautiful phrase at the heart of Woolf’s meditation, found in The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume Three (public library), is also what inspired the title of Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular collection of essays — Le Guin being, of course, the closest thing we have to a Woolf today.

Woolf writes:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit Anaïs Nin on why emotional intensity is essential to creativity.

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22 OCTOBER, 2014

You Have Never Seen the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe on the Shimmering Beauty of the Southwest

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“There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her best friend, Anita Pollitzer, the woman who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “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.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Indeed, O’Keeffe’s love for the landscape and energy of the Southwest shimmers with growing vibrancy across the lifetime of letters the two women exchanged collected in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library) — the same wonderful volume that gave us O’Keeffe on art, life, and setting priorities. It was there, under the endless skies and fiery sunsets of the Southwest, that O’Keeffe developed not only the remarkable mastery of color and sensuality for which she is known but also the most essential tool of all art — the ability to pay attention, to look and actually see.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Black Mesa Landscape,' 1930 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

In mid-January of 1916, returning to New York from Texas after a visit as she considered a new teaching job there, O’Keeffe writes to Pollitzer:

There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all — mirages people it with all sorts of things at times — sometimes Ive seen the most wonderful sunsets over what seemed to be the ocean — It is great — I would like to go today — Next to New York it is the finest thing I know — here I feel like Im in a shoe that doesn’t fit.

O’Keeffe would eventually trade the ill-fitting shoe for the bigness that would be her home for the last seven decades of her life — but not before her heart fully surrendered to the sunsets of the Southwest. In one particularly evocative letter from September of 1916, O’Keeffe channels the expansive awe of the Southwest sky:

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

[…]

It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful –

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills,' 1935 (Brooklyn Museum)

Despite declaring to Pollitzer that she always has “a hard time finding words for anything,” O’Keeffe blossoms as a spectacular writer in relaying the sensory awe of the landscape to her friend — a testament to Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is a professional observer.” In another gorgeous letter a few days later, O’Keeffe writes:

Last night couldnt sleep till after four in the morning — I had been out to the canyon all afternoon — till late at night — wonderful color — I wish I could tell you how big — and with the night the colors deeper and darker — cattle on the pastures in the bottom looked like little pinheads — I can understand Pa Dow painting his pretty colored canyons — it must have been a great temptation — no wonder he fell

Then the moon rose right up out of the ground after we got out on the plains again — battered a little where he bumped his head but enormous — There was no wind — it was just big and still — so very big and still — long legged jack rabbits hopping across in front of the light as we passed — A great place to see the night time because there is nothing else.

[…]

Im so glad Im out here — I can’t tell you how much I like it. I like the plains — and I like the work — everything is so ridiculously new — and there is something about it that just makes you glad your living here — You understand — there is nothing here — so maybe there is something wrong with me that I am liking it so much.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Storm Cloud,' 1923 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

There was, of course, nothing “wrong” with O’Keeffe — she was learning a whole new way of looking at the world, directing toward it what Oscar Wilde memorably called “temperament of receptivity,” inhabiting it with the very presence and aliveness from which great art springs. A few more days later, she captures this aliveness beautifully in another letter to Pollitzer:

Really — living is too fine — Last night we had a tremendous thunderstorm — and I’ve never seen such lightning in my life — it was wonderful… Stood out on the porch for a long time watching the whole sky alive.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Deer's Skull with Pedernal,' 1936 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

All of Lovingly, Georgia is a gorgeous read and a rare glimpse into the inner world of one of the most extraordinary artists who ever lived. Complement this particular slice of it with young Sylvia Plath on the transcendence and reverie of nature and Rebecca Solnit on why the sky is blue.

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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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