Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

25 OCTOBER, 2013

Art as Therapy: Alain de Botton on the 7 Psychological Functions of Art

By:

“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.”

The question of what art is has occupied humanity since the dawn of recorded history. For Tolstoy, the purpose of art was to provide a bridge of empathy between us and others, and for Anaïs Nin, a way to exorcise our emotional excess. But the highest achievement of art might be something that reconciles the two: a channel of empathy into our own psychology that lets us both exorcise and better understand our emotions — in other words, a form of therapy.

In Art as Therapy (public library), philosopher Alain de Botton — who has previously examined such diverse and provocative subjects as why work doesn’t work, what education and the arts can learn from religion, and how to think more about sex — teams up with art historian John Armstrong to examine art’s most intimate purpose: its ability to mediate our psychological shortcomings and assuage our anxieties about imperfection. Their basic proposition is that, far more than mere aesthetic indulgence, art is a tool — a tool that serves a rather complex yet straightforwardly important purpose in our existence:

Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to outline the seven core psychological functions of art:

1. REMEMBERING

Given the profound flaws of our memory and the unreliability of its self-revision, it’s unsurprising that the fear of forgetting — forgetting specific details about people and places, but also forgetting all the minute, mundane building blocks that fuse together into the general wholeness of who we are — would be an enormous source of distress for us. Since both memory and art are as much about what is being left out as about what is being spotlighted, de Botton and Armstrong argue that art offers an antidote to this unease:

What we’re worried about forgetting … tends to be quite particular. It isn’t just anything about a person or scene that’s at stake; we want to remember what really matters, and the people we call good artists are, in part, the ones who appear to have made the right choices about what to communicate and what to leave out. … We might say that good artwork pins down the core of significance, while its bad counterpart, although undeniably reminding us of something, lets an essence slip away. It is an empty souvenir.

'We don't just observe her, we get to know what is important about her.' Johannes Vermeer, 'Woman in Blue Reading a Letter' (1663).

Art, then, is not only what rests in the frame, but is itself a frame for experience:

Art is a way of preserving experiences, of which there are many transient and beautiful examples, and that we need help containing.

2. HOPE

Our conflicted relationship with beauty presents a peculiar paradox: The most universally admired art is of the “pretty” kind — depictions of cheerful and pleasant scenes, faces, objects, and situations — yet “serious” art critics and connoisseurs see it as a failure of taste and of intelligence. (Per Susan Sontag’s memorable definition, the two are inextricably intertwined anyway: “Intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”) De Botton and Armstrong consider the implications:

The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a “bad” response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. … The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ — a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity. . . . . The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

But these worries, they argue, are misguided. Optimism, rather than a failure of intelligence, is a critical cognitive and psychoemotional skill in our quest to live well — something even neuroscience has indicated — and hope, its chariot, is something to cherish, not condemn:

Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate. If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.

Put simply and poignantly, it pays to “imagine immensities.”

'What hope might look like.' Henry Matisse, 'Dance' (II), 1909.

They offer an example:

The dancers in Matisse’s painting are not in denial of the troubles of this planet, but from the standpoint of our imperfect and conflicted — but ordinary — relationship with reality, we can look to their attitude for encouragement. They put us in touch with a blithe, carefree part of ourselves that can help us cope with inevitable rejections and humiliations. The picture does not suggest that all is well, any more than it suggests that women always delight in each other’s existence and bond together in mutually supportive networks.

And so we return to why prettiness sings to us:

The more difficult our lives, the more a graceful depiction of a flower might move us. The tears — if they come — are in response not to how sad the image is, but how pretty.

[…]

We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires.

3. SORROW

Since we’re creatures of infinite inner contradiction, art can help us be more whole not only by expanding our capacity for positive emotions but also by helping us to fully inhabit and metabolize the negative — and by doing so with dignity and by reminding us “of the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life”:

One of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us is teach us how to suffer more successfully. … We can see a great deal of artistic achievement as “sublimated” sorrow on the part of the artist, and in turn, in its reception, on the part of the audience. The term sublimation derives from chemistry. It names the process by which a solid substance is directly transformed into a gas, without first becoming liquid. In art, sublimation refers to the psychological processes of transformation, in which base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine — exactly what may happen when sorrow meets art.

'Sublimation: the transformation of suffering into beauty.' Nan Goldin, 'Siobhan in My Mirror' (1992).

Above all, de Botton and Armstrong argue, art helps us feel less alone in our suffering, to which the social expression of our private sorrows lends a kind of affirmative dignity. They offer an example in the work of photographer Nan Goldin, who explored the lives of the queer community with equal parts curiosity and respect long before champions like Andrew Sullivan first pulled the politics of homosexuality into the limelight of mainstream cultural discourse:

Until far too recently, homosexuality lay largely outside the province of art. In Nan Goldin’s work, it is, redemptively, one of its central themes. Goldin’s art is filled with a generous attentiveness towards the lives of its subjects. Although we might not be conscious of it at first, her photograph of a young and, as we discern, lesbian woman examining herself in the mirror is composed with utmost care. The device of reflection is key. In the room itself the woman is out of focus; we don’t see her directly, just the side of her face an and the blur or a hand. The accent is on the make-up she has just been using. It is in the mirror that we see her as she wants to be seen: striking and stylish, her hand suave and eloquent. The work of art functions like a kindly voice that says, “I see you as you hope to be seen, I see you as worthy of love.” The photograph understands the longing to become a more polished and elegant version of oneself. It sounds, of course, an entirely obvious wish; but for centuries, partly because there were no Goldins, it was anything but.

Therein, they argue, lies one of art’s greatest gifts:

Art can offer a grand and serious vantage point from which to survey the travails of our condition.

4. REBALANCING

With our fluid selves, clusters of tormenting contradictions, and culture of prioritizing productivity over presence, no wonder we find ourselves in need of recentering. That’s precisely what art can offer:

Few of us are entirely well balanced. Our psychological histories, relationships and working routines mean that our emotions can incline grievously in one direction or another. We may, for example, have a tendency to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of equilibrium to our listing inner selves.

This function of art also helps explain the vast diversity of our aesthetic preferences — because our individual imbalances differ, so do the artworks we seek out to soothe them:

Why are some people drawn to minimalist architecture and others to Baroque? Why are some people excited by bare concrete walls and others by William Morris’s floral patterns? Our tastes will depend on what spectrum of our emotional make-up lies in shadow and is hence in need of stimulation and emphasis. Every work of art is imbued with a particular psychological and moral atmosphere: a painting may be either serene or restless, courageous or careful, modest or confident, masculine or feminine, bourgeois or aristocratic, and our preferences for one kind over another reflect our varied psychological gaps. We hunger for artworks that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a viable mean. We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing, and we dismiss as ugly one that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by. Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.

Viewing art from this perspective, de Botton and Armstrong argue, also affords us the necessary self-awareness to understand why we might respond negatively to a piece of art — an insight that might prevent us from reactive disparagement. Being able to recognize what someone lacks in order to find an artwork beautiful allows us to embody that essential practice of prioritizing understanding over self-righteousness. In this respect, art is also a tuning — and atoning — mechanism for our moral virtues. In fact, some of history’s most celebrated art is anchored on moralistic missions — what de Botton and Armstrong call “an attempt to encourage our better selves through coded messages of exhortation and admonition” — to which we often respond with resistance and indignation. But such reactions miss the bigger point:

We might think of works of art that exhort as both bossy and unnecessary, but this would assume an encouragement of virtue would always be contrary to our own desires. However, in reality, when we are calm and not under fire, most of us long to be good and wouldn’t mind the odd reminder to be so; we simply can’t find the motivation day to day. In relation to our aspirations to goodness, we suffer from what Aristotle called akrasia, or weakness of will. We want to behave well in our relationships, but slip up under pressure. We want to make more of ourselves, but lose motivation at a critical juncture. In these circumstances, we can derive enormous benefit from works of art that encourage us to be the best versions of ourselves, something that we would only resent if we had a manic fear of outside intervention, or thought of ourselves as perfect already.

The best kind of cautionary art — art that is moral without being “moralistic” — understands how easy it is to be attracted to the wrong things.

[…]

The task for artists, therefore, is to find new ways of prying open our eyes to tiresomely familiar, but critically important, ideas about how to lead a balanced and good life.

'A reason to say sorry.' Eve Arnold, 'Divorce in Moscow' (1966).

They summarize this function of art beautifully:

Art can save us time — and save our lives — through opportune and visceral reminders of balance and goodness that we should never presume we know enough about already.

5. SELF-UNDERSTANDING

Despite our best efforts at self-awareness, we’re all too often partial or complete mysteries to ourselves. Art, de Botton and Armstrong suggest, can help shed light on those least explored nooks of our psyche and make palpable the hunches of intuition we can only sense but not articulate:

We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition. We have moods, but we don’t really know them. Then, from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before. Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression: “what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” In other words, a fugitive and elusive part of our own thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly.

More than that, they argue, the self-knowledge art bequeaths gives us a language for communicating that to others — something that explains why we are so particular about the kinds of art with which we surround ourselves publicly, a sort of self-packaging we all practice as much on the walls of our homes as we do on our Facebook walls and art Tumblrs. While the cynic might interpret this as mere showing off, however, de Botton and Armstrong peel away this superficial interpretation to reveal the deeper psychological motive — our desire to communicate to others the subtleties of who we are and what we believe in a way that words might never fully capture.

6. GROWTH

Besides inviting deeper knowledge of our own selves, art also allows us to expand the boundaries of who we are by helping us overcome our chronic fear of the unfamiliar and living more richly by inviting the unknown:

Engagement with art is useful because it presents us with powerful examples of the kind of alien material that provokes defensive boredom and fear, and allows us time and privacy to learn to deal more strategically with it. An important first step in overcoming defensiveness around art is to become more open about the strangeness that we feel in certain contexts.

De Botton and Armstrong propose three critical steps to overcoming our defensiveness around art: First, acknowledging the strangeness we feel and being gentle on ourselves for feeling it, recognizing that it’s completely natural — after all, so much art comes from people with worldviews radically different from, and often contradictory to, our own; second, making ourselves familiar and thus more at home with the very minds who created that alien art; finally, looking for points of connection with the artist, “however fragile and initially tenuous,” so we can relate to the work that sprang from the context of their life with the personal reality of our own context.

7. APPRECIATION

Our attention, as we know, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” that blinds us to so much of what is around us and to the magic in our familiar surroundings. Art, de Botton and Armstrong argue, can lift these blinders so we can truly absorb not only just what we’re expecting to see, but also what we aren’t:

One of our major flaws, and causes of unhappiness, is that we find it hard to take note of what is always around us. We suffer because we lose sight of the value of what is before us and yearn, often unfairly, for the imagined attraction elsewhere.

While habit can be a remarkable life-centering force, it is also a double-edged sword that can slice off a whole range of experiences as we fall into autopilot mode. Art can decondition our habituation to what is wonderful and worthy of rejoicing:

Art is one resource that can lead us back to a more accurate assessment of what is valuable by working against habit and inviting us to recalibrate what we admire or love.

'Paying attention to ordinary life.' Jasper Johns, 'Painted Bronze' (1960).

One example they offer comes from Jasper Johns’s famous bronze-cast beer cans, which nudge us to look at a mundane and familiar object with new eyes:

The heavy, costly material they are made of makes us newly aware of their separateness and oddity: we see them as though we had never laid eyes on cans before, acknowledging their intriguing identifies as a child or a Martian, both free of habit in this area, might naturally do.

Johns is teaching us a lesson: how to look with kinder and more alert eyes at the world around us.

Such is the power of art: It is both witness to and celebrator of the value of the ordinary, which we so frequently forsake in our quests for artificial greatness, a kind of resensitization tool that awakens us to the richness of our daily lives:

[Art] can teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavor to make the best of our circumstances: a job we do not always love, the imperfections of middle age, our frustrated ambitions and our attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved spouses. Art can do the opposite of glamorizing the unattainable; it can reawaken us to the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it.

The rest of Art as Therapy goes on to examine such eternal questions as what makes good art, what kind of art one should make, how art should be displayed, studied, bought and sold, and a heartening wealth more. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed art.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 OCTOBER, 2013

Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living

By:

Reflections on how to keep the center solid as you continue to evolve.

UPDATE: The fine folks of Holstee have turned these seven learnings into a gorgeous letterpress poster inspired by mid-century children’s book illustration.

On October 23, 2006, I sent a short email to a few friends at work — one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college — with the subject line “brain pickings,” announcing my intention to start a weekly digest featuring five stimulating things to learn about each week, from a breakthrough in neuroscience to a timeless piece of poetry. “It should take no more than 4 minutes (hopefully much less) to read,” I promised. This was the inception of Brain Pickings. At the time, I neither planned nor anticipated that this tiny experiment would one day be included in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the few friends would become millions of monthly readers all over the world, ranging from the Dutch high school student who wrote to me this morning to my 77-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria to the person in Wisconsin who mailed me strudel last week. (Thank you!) Above all, I had no idea that in the seven years to follow, this labor of love would become my greatest joy and most profound source of personal growth, my life and my living, my sense of purpose, my center. (For the curious, more on the origin story here.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Looking back today on the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching and writing Brain Pickings and the countless collective hours of readership it has germinated — a smile-inducing failure on the four-minute promise — I choke up with gratitude for the privilege of this journey, for its endless rewards of heart, mind and spirit, and for all the choices along the way that made it possible. I’m often asked to offer advice to young people who are just beginning their own voyages of self-discovery, or those reorienting their calling at any stage of life, and though I feel utterly unqualified to give “advice” in that omniscient, universally wise sense the word implies, here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of making those choices, of integrating “work” and life in such inextricable fusion, and in chronicling this journey of heart, mind and spirit — a journey that took, for whatever blessed and humbling reason, so many others along for the ride. I share these here not because they apply to every life and offer some sort of blueprint to existence, but in the hope that they might benefit your own journey in some small way, bring you closer to your own center, or even simply invite you to reflect on your own sense of purpose.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35.' Click image for more.

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

One of Maurice Sendak's vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Then, just for good measure, here are seven of my favorite pieces from the past seven years. (Yes, it is exactly like picking your favorite child — so take it with a grain of salt.)

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 OCTOBER, 2013

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s Love Letters to Her Soulmate, Ruth Benedict

By:

“The thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.”

Margaret Mead endures as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, who not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her studies of attitudes towards sex. In addition to broadening cultural conventions through her work, she also embodied the revolution in her personal life. Married three times to men, she dearly loved her third husband, the renowned British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter. But the most intense and enduring relationship of her life was with a woman — the anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, Mead’s mentor at Columbia university, fourteen years her senior. The two shared a bond of uncommon magnitude and passion, which stretched across a quarter century until the end of Benedict’s life.

Margaret’s love letters to Ruth, posthumously gathered in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) with the permission of Mead’s daughter, are a thing of absolute, soul-stirring beauty, on par with such famed epistolary romances as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

In August of 1925, 24-year-old Mead sailed to Samoa, beginning the journey that would produce her enormously influential treatise Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. (Mead, who believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationship,” was married at the time to her first husband and they had an unconventional arrangement that both allowed her to do field work away from him for extended periods of time and accommodated her feelings for Ruth.) On her fourth day at sea, she writes Benedict with equal parts devotion and urgency:

Ruth, dear heart,

. . . The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.

A few days later:

Ruth, I was never more earthborn in my life — and yet never more conscious of the strength your love gives me. You have convinced me of the one thing in life which made living worthwhile.

You have no greater gift, darling. And every memory of your face, every cadence of your voice is joy whereon I shall feed hungrily in these coming months.

In another letter:

[I wonder] whether I could manage to go on living, to want to go on living if you did not care.

And later:

Does Honolulu need your phantom presence? Oh, my darling — without it, I could not live here at all. Your lips bring blessings — my beloved.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, October 1925 (Library of Congress)

By December, her urgency for union with Ruth grows:

Ruth, what have I done that is wrong? What have I done? It is very truth that your love is keeping me alive. I could only face life for you, now. I love you, always.

And soon:

Ruth, Ruth, you’ll never doubt that I love you, love you, love you? Soon I’ll make you believe it.

Later that month, Mead was offered a position as assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where she would go on to spend the rest of her career. She excitedly accepted, in large part so that she could at last be closer to Benedict, and moved to New York with her husband, Luther Cressman, firmly believing that the two relationships would neither harm nor contradict one another. As soon as the decision was made, she wrote to Benedict on January 7, 1926:

Your trust in my decision has been my mainstay, darling, otherwise I just couldn’t have managed. And all this love which you have poured out to me is very bread and wine to my direct need. Always, always I am coming back to you.

I kiss your hair, sweetheart.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, January 1926 (Library of Congress)

Four days later, Mead sends Benedict a poignant letter, reflecting on her two relationships and how love crystallizes of its own volition:

In one way this solitary existence is particularly revealing — in the way I can twist and change in my attitudes towards people with absolutely no stimulus at all except such as springs from within me. I’ll awaken some morning just loving you frightfully much in some quite new way and I may not have sufficiently rubbed the sleep from my eyes to have even looked at your picture. It gives me a strange, almost uncanny feeling of autonomy. And it is true that we have had this loveliness “near” together for I never feel you too far away to whisper to, and your dear hair is always just slipping through my fingers.

She then goes on to assuage Ruth’s anxieties about losing her love:

Risk my love — Sweetheart, sweetheart, what nonsense you do talk — and will the birds forget to come north in the spring to the land of their desire? When I do good work it is always always for you — That’s my wishing. What do you care, really, whether I devise elaborate color tests for the Samoans? … But none the less it’s all for you. And a day like today when I’ve worked from dawn to dusk without stopping, I feel very peaceful and it is such joy to go to sleep loving you, loving you — and waken so. I’ve a hundred details I should be writing about, but if I were there I’d kick all the mss. and proofs under the table and bury my face in your breast — and the thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.

Five weeks later, in mid-February, Mead and Benedict begin planning a three-week getaway together, which proves, thanks to their husbands’ schedules, to be more complicated than the two originally thought. Exasperated over all the planning, Margaret writes Ruth:

I’ll be so blinded by looking at you, I think now it won’t matter — but the lovely thing about our love is that it will. We aren’t like those lovers of Edward’s “now they are sleeping cheek to cheek” etc. who forgot all the things their love had taught them to love —

Precious, precious. I kiss your hair.

By mid-March, Mead is once again firmly rooted in her love for Benedict:

I feel immensely freed and sustained, the dark months of doubt washed away, and that I can look you gladly in the eyes as you take me in your arms. My beloved! My beautiful one. I thank God you do not try to fence me off, but trust me to take life as it comes and make something of it. With that trust of yours I can do anything — and come out with something precious saved.

Sweet, I kiss your hands.

As the summer comes, Mead finds herself as in love with Benedict as when they first met six years prior, writing in a letter dated August 26, 1926:

Ruth dearest,

I am very happy and an enormous number of cobwebs seem to have been blown away in Paris. I was so miserable that last day, I came nearer doubting than ever before the essentially impregnable character of our affection for each other. And now I feel at peace with the whole world. You may think it is tempting the gods to say so, but I take all this as high guarantee of what I’ve always temperamentally doubted — the permanence of passion — and the mere turn of your head, a chance inflection of your voice have just as much power to make the day over now as they did four years ago. And so just as you give me zest for growing older rather than dread, so also you give me a faith I never thought to win in the lastingness of passion.

I love you, Ruth.

Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls, 1926. (Library of Congress)

In 1928, Mead’s marriage to Crossman expired, but her love for Benedict, while complicated, remains ablaze. She closes a letter to Ruth with the sort of restless exhale one would expect of new lovers:

Oh, sweetheart I’m lonely for your arms.

That summer, Mead met and decided to marry her second husband, the New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune. Traveling by train for their marriage in September, she sends Ruth a bittersweet letter reflecting on the relationships:

Perhaps only one person can make a sufficiently fundamental impression on me to hold me to unswerving fidelity. Perhaps the capacity and attention which I have left for other people beside you is somewhere a little off center and incapable of rising to such heights. The psychoanalysts could fix that up to suit themselves but still I think that it might be explained in terms of a basic orientation of the personality, the only orientation which that personality was capable of. And maybe what I give any man is less than half.

This whole thing is much harder for me to understand than anything which has happened yet. Schematizing my life, there has been you and you steadfastly since you came into it. Nothing has ever threatened that fact.

[…]

My feeble attempts to go on with my marriage once I had rejected it don’t count in my sense of having willed what I wanted. But I didn’t will this. I have a sense of very definitely not willing it, of having felt no place for any other important relationship in my life, and of having quite clearly done what I could to avoid it.

She continues with a poetic meditation on the nature of her relationship to Ruth and its fundamental difference from any of her marriages:

Our relationship and any relationship to a man are as separate and incomparable as they seem, operating on different sets of wheels. . . . It would make a fascinating study to work out just in what respects two people could gradually come to depend upon a common mind, selecting one function from one mind and one from the other, counting one person’s experience to explain one set of points, drawing on the other’s memory to clear up others, etc. We come awfully near to doing that in everything from science to love. I wonder if you’ll feel as mentally amputated as I do. I have just one definite urge and that is to write to you, write to you, write to you.

[…]

The great pieces of space, the steadily falling hours of time which are passing without being woven closely in the net of our common knowledge, terrify me. It’s as if in a long, woven strip suddenly blank spaces were to appear where before all had been rainbowed and patterned. Something has happened to the weft, it runs brown and gray, gray and brown through my hurrying fingers. I weave desperately fast, but under my window pass fields gold and lovely with flowers which you will never see and my elbow is sore and irritated from a bad cut which you didn’t know I’d gotten by falling down on the Museum steps. Brown and gray and only every twenty or thirty threads can I slip in a colorful one and regain one note in the pattern which winds woven and beautiful all about me, woven by our four hands in the last six years.

The next day, in another letter, Mead explodes with reawakened gratitude and love:

Darling, you will never know what a priceless and so undeserved gift you have given me in giving me a perfect love no least inch of which I need ever repudiate — Oh — I love you, my beautiful. I kiss your eyes.

A day later, on September 5, another bittersweet letter to Ruth leaves us speculating about what might have been different had the legal luxuries of modern love been a reality in Mead’s day, making it possible for her and Ruth to marry and formalize their steadfast union under the law:

Darling,

[…]

I’ve slept mostly today trying to get rid of this cold and not to look at the country which I saw first from your arms.

Mostly, I think I’m a fool to marry anyone. I’ll probably just make a man and myself unhappy. Right now most of my daydreams are concerned with not getting married at all. I wonder if wanting to marry isn’t just another identification with you, and a false one. For I couldn’t have taken you away from Stanley and you could take me away from [Reo] — there’s no blinking that.

[…]

Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand. Do you mind terribly when I say these things? You mustn’t mind — ever — anything in the most perfect gift God has given me. The center of my life is a beautiful walled place, if the edges are a little weedy and ragged — well, it’s the center which counts — My sweetheart, my beautiful, my lovely one.

Your Margaret

By 1933, despite the liberal arrangements of her marriage, Mead felt that it forcibly squeezed out of her the love she had for Benedict. In a letter to Ruth from April 9, she reflects on those dynamics and gasps at the relief of choosing to break free of those constraints and being once again free to love fully:

Having laid aside so much of myself, in response to what I mistakenly believed was the necessity of my marriage I had no room for emotional development. … Ah, my darling, it is so good to really be all myself to love you again. . . . The moon is full and the lake lies still and lovely — this place is like Heaven — and I am in love with life. Goodnight, darling.

Over the years that followed, both Margaret and Ruth explored the boundaries of their other relationships, through more marriages and domestic partnerships, but their love for each other only continued to grow. In 1938, Mead captured it beautifully by writing of “the permanence of [their] companionship.” Mead and her last husband, Gregory Bateson, named Benedict the guardian of their daughter. The two women shared their singular bond until Benedict’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. In one of her final letters, Mead wrote:

Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you.

To Cherish the Life of the World features more of their tender correspondence. Complement it with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s love letters to Edith Wynne Matthison and Virginia Woolf’s short and stirring epistle to Vita Sackville-West.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.