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A Placid Ecstasy: Walt Whitman’s Most Direct Reflection on Happiness

“What is happiness, anyhow? … so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge…”

A Placid Ecstasy: Walt Whitman’s Most Direct Reflection on Happiness

“One can’t write directly about the soul,”, Virginia Woolf wrote. “Looked at, it vanishes.” So with happiness — as slippery as “the soul,” as certain to crumble upon deconstruction. Philosophers have contemplated its nature for millennia, psychologists have attempted to unearth its existential building blocks and delineate its stages. And yet at the heart of it remains a mystery — wildly various across lives and within any one life, a fickle visitation unbeckonable by external lures, as anyone who has sorrowed on a sunny-skied day knows. “There’s no accounting for happiness,” Jane Kenyon wrote in her sublime poem about the ultimate elusion, “or the way it turns up like a prodigal who comes back to the dust at your feet having squandered a fortune far away.”

One of the simplest, fullest definitions of happiness I’ve encountered comes from Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries on subjects like the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art imbues even the bleakest moments with beauty, and what makes life worth living.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

In an entry from October 20, 1876, fifty-seven-year-old Whitman composes his most direct meditation on the meaning of happiness. A century before Mary Oliver contemplated what it takes to inhabit a moment of happiness, he writes:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)

What is happiness, anyhow? Is this one of its hours, or the like of it? — so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure — so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt.

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether spirit-quenching Specimen Days with Willa Cather’s delicious definition of happiness, Albert Camus on the antidote to its slipperiness, and Agnes Martin on our greatest obstacle to it, then revisit Whitman on how to live a vibrant and rewarding life.


Nietzsche on Depression and the Rehabilitation of Hope

In praise of “the rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,… of impending adventures, of seas that are open again.”

“The gray drizzle induced by depression,” William Styron wrote in his classic memoir of what depression is really like, “takes on the quality of physical pain.” In my own experience, the most withering aspect of depression is the way it erases, like physical illness does, the memory of wellness. The totality of the erasure sweeps away the elemental belief that another state of being is at all possible — the sensorial memory of what it was like to feel any other way vanishes, until your entire being contracts into the state of what is, unfathoming of what has been, can be, and will be. If Emily Dickinson was correct, and correct she was, that “confidence in daybreak modifies dusk,” the thick nightfall of depression smothers all confidence in dawn.

And yet daybreak does come, with a shock and a rapture, to find us asking ourselves in half-belief: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”

This rapturous rehabilitation of hope is what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900), poet laureate of the troubled psyche, describes in the preface to the second edition of his most personal book, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (public library) — a chronicle of “high spirits, unrest, contradiction,” which gave us his vitalizing New Year’s resolution and his famous proclamation that “God is dead.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche writes just before his thirty-seventh birthday:

Gratitude pours forth continually, as if the unexpected had just happened — the gratitude of a convalescent — for convalescence was unexpected. “Gay Science”: that signifies the saturnalia of a spirit who has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure — patiently, severely, coldly, without submitting, but also without hope — and who is now all at once attacked by hope, the hope for health, and the intoxication of convalescence. Is it any wonder that in the process much that is unreasonable and foolish comes to light, much playful tenderness that is lavished even on problems that have a prickly hide and are not made to be caressed and enticed? This whole book is nothing but a bit of merry-making after long privation and powerlessness, the rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened faith in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of seas that are open again, of goals that are permitted again, believed again.

Nietzsche offers a complementary sentiment in the 268th of the aphorisms collected in the book:

What makes Heroic? — To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.

Complement this particular portion of The Gay Science with poet Jane Kenyon on life with and after depression, Rebecca Solnit on hope in the dark, and Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, then revisit Nietzsche on how to find yourself, what it really means to be a free spirit, and why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty.


Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being merely the rosary of moments the future strings of its pasts. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.

I have long believed that critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Where are we to turn for lucid hope, then, in cultural moments that inflame despair, which so easily metastasizes into cynicism? That is what the inimitable Zadie Smith explores in a piece titled “On Optimism and Despair,” originally delivered as an award acceptance speech and later adapted for her altogether fantastic essay collection Feel Free (public library).

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.

Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:

My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Echoing the great Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel’s reflection on the meaning of human rights in a globalized yet divided world, she adds:

I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. On 10 November The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the fifties, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others. Meanwhile some on the left have time-travel fancies of their own, imagining that the same rigid ideological principles once applied to the matters of workers’ rights, welfare and trade can be applied unchanged to a globalized world of fluid capital.

Smith reframes the question of her shift in literary sensibility not as a decline toward defeatism but as an evolution toward greater complexity and more dimensional awareness of existence:

The art of mid-life is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. This fact, still obscure to the twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one.

In consonance with Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger’s classic humanistic antidote to cynicism, Smith locates our reasons for optimism by widening the pinhole of the present:

Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.

Smith supplements these grounds for hope with a sobering counterpoint to the historical nostalgia so alluring to the hegemony and so ruinous to the rest of us:

Meanwhile the dream of time travel — for new presidents, literary journalists and writers alike — is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now, it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done — or more to the point, what would have been done to me — in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.

But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history.

Applying the tenth of her ten rules of writing“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” — to life itself, Smith adds:

We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.


He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.

This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.

One of William Blake’s engravings for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s insistence on the moral responsibility of the writer and Ursula K. Le Guin’s conviction that “an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community,” Smith concludes by considering the writer’s role as a bastion of collective memory and an instrument of what is most symphonic in human nature:

People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

In the remainder of the thoroughly resplendent Feel Free — which includes the fantastic “Find Your Beach” — Smith applies her formidable mind in language to subjects as varied as music, the connection between dancing and writing, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media. Complement this particular part with Simone de Beauvoir on moving beyond the simplistic divide of optimism and pessimism, Toni Morrison on the artist’s task through turbulent moments, and Albert Camus on how to strengthen our spirits in difficult times.


An Openness to Life: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dag Hammarskjöld on Love, Failure, and What It Means to Be Yourself

“Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situation of others.”

An Openness to Life: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dag Hammarskjöld on Love, Failure, and What It Means to Be Yourself

Months after his death in a plane crash while traveling to negotiate a ceasefire during the budding civil war in Congo, the Swedish diplomat, economist, and author Dag Hammarskjöld (July 29, 1905–September 18, 1961) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld became one of only two people in history awarded the Nobel posthumously. John F. Kennedy considered him the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.

Hammarskjöld left behind a most unusual manuscript, eventually published as Markings (public library) — a compendium of reflections and poems constellating a luminous record of one person’s struggle for a foothold of meaning, radiating universal human truth. Partway between young Tolstoy’s diaries, Walt Whitman’s prose meditations, and artist Ann Truitt’s journals, these fragments of thought and feeling embody what it means for a person who has devoted their life to moral action to also have a rich inner life of contemplation — the rare, bountiful marriage of via activa and via contemplativa, as W.H. Auden observes in his admiring foreword to the book. Hammarskjöld contemplates love, justice, devotion, morality, and empathy, united by a larger inquiry into the nature of being, which he explores through the relationship between self and other, self and world, self and self-containing consciousness.

Das Hammarskjöld

Writing at the peak of WWII, as he is still orienting himself in his own sense of purpose, thirty-six-year-old Hammarskjöld examines the interplay of emotion and the intellect in how we relate to ourselves and to others:

Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situation of others. What is necessary? — to wrestle with your problem until its emotional discomfort is clearly conceived in an intellectual form — and then act accordingly.

In another entry from the same period, Hammarskjöld considers the dignity in our human capacity for devoting ourselves to the improbable, the unreasonable, that which is bound to break our own hearts:

It makes one’s heart ache when one sees that a man has staked his soul upon some end, the hopeless imperfection and futility of which is immediately obvious to everyone but himself. But isn’t this, after all, merely a matter of degree? Isn’t the pathetic grandeur of human existence in some way bound up with the eternal disproportion in this world, where self-delusion is necessary to life, between the honesty of the striving and the nullity of the result? That we all — every one of us — take ourselves serious is not merely ridiculous.

Four years later, Hammarskjöld echoes young Borges’s insistence on the illusoriness of the self and probes the crux of our self-delusion:

At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the elector and the elected. Only one — which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.

Nowhere does our overinvestment in the I swell to more self-harming proportions than in our relationship with other I’s to whom we feel bound by the threads of deep and demanding emotion — threads on which we pull greedily, unreasonably, unlatching the inevitable Rube Goldberg machine of unmeetable expectation, disappointment, and heartbreak. More than half a century before Hilton Als considered the art of receptivity at the heart of love, Hammarskjöld reflects:

When you have reached the point where you no longer expect a response, you will at last be able to give in such a way that the other is able to receive, and be grateful. When Love has matured and, through a dissolution of the self into light, become a radiance, then shall the Lover be liberated from dependence upon the Beloved, and the Beloved also be made perfect by being liberated from the Lover.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Hammarskjöld finds that what mitigates this tension of need between self and self is a surrender to the relationship between self and nature. “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on,” Whitman exulted in contemplating hat gives life meaning, “[and] have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.” Generations after Whitman, Hammarskjöld writes:

So rests the sky against the earth. The dark still tarn in the lap of the forest. As a husband embraces his wife’s body in faithful tenderness, so the bare ground and trees are embraced by the still, high, light of the morning.

I feel an ache of longing to share in this embrace, to be united and absorbed. A longing like carnal desire, but directed towards earth, water, sky, and returned by whispers of the trees, the fragrance of the oil, the caresses of the wind, the embrace of water and light. Content? No, no, no — but refreshed, rested — while waiting.

In another entry, he considers what it takes to surrender ourselves to Nature’s embrace:

The extrahuman in the experience of the greatness of Nature. This does not allow itself to be reduced to an expression of our human reactions, nor can we share in it by expressing them. Unless we each find a way to chime in as one note in the organic whole, we shall only observe ourselves observing the interplay of its thousand components in a harmony outside our experience of it as harmony.

Landscape: only your immediate experience of the detail can provide the soil in your soul where the beauty of the whole can grow.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Like Whitman, Hammarskjöld saw this harmony between humanity and the natural world as inseparable from, and in some deep sense essential for, the harmony within the human world, between human beings. Two years into his post as Secretary-General of the United Nations, he writes:

Salty and wind-swept, but warm and glittering. Keeping in step with the measure under the fixed stars of the task. How many personal failures are due to a lack of faith in this harmony between human beings, at once strict and gentle.

In his fiftieth year, Hammarskjöld echoes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel’s poignant lament about the loneliness of leadership and reflects:

For him who has responded to the call of the Way of Possibility, loneliness may be obligatory.

That year, Hammarskjöld records a kind of personal resolution, governed by the humanistic ideals that became the animating ethos of his public life:

To remain a recipient — out of humility. And preserve your flexibility.

To remain a recipient — and be grateful. Grateful for being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand.

Markings is a singular and singularly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Nobel laureate André Gide’s rules of moral conduct and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being.


Werner Heisenberg Falls in Love: The Love Letters of the Nobel-Winning Pioneer of Quantum Mechanics and Originator of the Uncertainty Principle

“Life’s essence should always be clearly noticeable behind the love, or the music, or the work.”

Werner Heisenberg Falls in Love: The Love Letters of the Nobel-Winning Pioneer of Quantum Mechanics and Originator of the Uncertainty Principle

Between the time Albert Einstein composed his courtship letters and Richard Feynman wrote his extraordinary letter to his departed wife, another Nobel-winning physicist contributed to the small and singularly beautiful canon of scientists’ love letters.

Two years after he received the Nobel Prize for his uncertainty principle — a supreme bow before the limits of knowledge, stating that the more precisely we know the position of a given particle, the less precise our measurement of its momentum, and vice versa — Werner Heisenberg (December 5, 1901–February 1, 1976) lurched into the ultimate unknown with absolute certainty: He fell in love.

Troubled by the tensions cusping on war, accused of being a “white Jew” by the Nazi media for teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity in his university course, and feeling like dark political agendas were keeping him from his calling — “the undisturbed inquiry into nature” — Heisenberg found solace in his spiritual practice: playing music (which we now know benefits the brain more than any other activity).

Werner Heisenberg

On the evening of January 28, 1937, at a musical gathering where he played piano accompanied by two violinist friends, thirty-five-year-old Heisenberg met twenty-one-year-old Elisabeth Schumacher — a bright and beautiful young woman who had just left art school to pursue a career in publishing. He was instantly taken with her, and she with his Beethoven. (What consonance Heisenberg would have felt in Margaret Fuller’s assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics.”) Brought together by music, Werner and Elisabeth quickly found that their very souls spoke a common language. Fourteen days later, they were engaged. They remained together until death did them part.

In the first of their surviving love letters, collected and edited by their eldest daughter in My Dear Li: Correspondence, 1937–1946 (public library), Heisenberg, elated in his contained way, writes to his mother exactly two weeks after the fateful encounter:

Yesterday — assuming your approval — I became engaged. The friendship with Elisabeth is scarcely fourteen days old and arose out of an, at first, seemingly casual conversation at a social gathering, in which a close affinity of opinions on matters of central importance emerged between the two of us. This mutual understanding, in which one, as it were, only needed to continue a conversation begun a long time ago, soon went so deep that it seemed natural to me to ask Elisabeth whether she would like to be with me forever.

The newly engaged Werner and Elisabeth, 1937.

Werner and Elisabeth set their wedding date for April 29 — exactly three months after the day they met — and began planning their life together, peering with the eyes of new love into a shared future of limitless possibility. On March 15, Heisenberg speaks to the sense, familiar to anyone who has ever been in love, of having known the beloved since the dawn of time:

Dear Elisabeth!

It is strange to think that this is the first letter I am writing to you. For it actually seems to me as though, for many years already, we have been close and acquainted, and the present state of being alone is only a painful interruption in an ever-beautiful, already almost accustomed shared life. I am indebted to you for bringing me so much peace and security and am looking forward with my every thought to the time when, together, we can enjoy the daily changes between the serious and the beautiful. Thank you for everything!

After telling Elizabeth that he has just received a warm congratulatory letter from his friend Wolfgang Pauli — who has in the midst of co-inventing synchronicity with Carl Jung — Heisenberg adds a note of unadorned sweetness:

What might you be doing this evening? I want to get in an hour of piano practice, and then catch up on sleep, and I hope that you too are fully compensating for the shorter periods of sleep over the last few weeks.

Elisabeth, meanwhile, is trapped in a difficult home commanded by a severe, combustible patriarch “dissatisfied with everything,” further riled by his daughter’s impending liberation from his grip. “You need unbelievable inner strength here at home,” she tells Werner, “if you want to drown out the stifling atmosphere.” Five weeks before the wedding, she confides in her beloved:

That is the same old misery here, which I always had from when I was a child. They never understand what brings me the greatest joy in life, and what I love about people. And I am not someone who can enjoy happiness all on my own. How good it is to have you, that you are there, and that I can make you a gift of everything and all that I have.


Good night, love! You are so terribly dear to me, and I find myself almost stranded here without you. I will be with you again in five days. Li.

A day later, she rejoices in the ineffable glory of love:

I have actually not been quite conscious of the fact that these are the first letters we are writing to each other, so much do we already belong together. But today, now, I’m sensing the meagreness of letter writing a bit because my heart is so full, and only such a very small part of it can reach you. And when that is with you, it will have become something quite independent, when in reality it belongs right in the middle of a whole mountain of thoughts and feelings.

The letters flow daily. Heisenberg begins to feel resentful of his work, of how it takes his time and thoughts away from Elisabeth. He tells her:

As soon as you are here again, I want to forget everything that is not only about us. I believe it would be good in general if, during this summer, physics were pushed into a dark corner, to be picked up again later, for first I have more to learn from you than from all the treatises in the world.

Elisabeth’s response presages what would become one of the central pillars of their love and life together — their unconditional support of the other’s fulness of being:

If you wish to take some time off from physics in the summer, dearest, that would naturally be for me a little like being in paradise. And you can be quite sure that I will never be upset later on, when you spend long periods of time on nothing else but physics. It needs you, too — I know that. And I am good on my own, when I know that you love me.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

There weeks before the wedding, Elisabeth rejoices at the improbable miracle of two people finding one another:

Love, I often think how strange it is that suddenly everything is on solid ground, all dreams have become reality. How few people have such good fortune!

Werner, meanwhile, struggles to reconcile his trusty faculty of reason with the unreasonableness at the heart of love:

My thoughts are always circling around joining our lives, that common goal in front of us, and it becomes really difficult to wait for the 29th. The truth is I already cannot quite cope without you, although I always remind myself that I have been able to manage for many years and so, according to conventional wisdom, it ought to be possible still. The present mindset is reminiscent of the typical nights before a major tour in the mountains, when you toss and turn in bed in joyful anticipation of the coming morning and with just a little trepidation, lest not all should go well. And only at the moment when you pick up the ice axe in front of the hut do you know that all will go smoothly. How beautiful everything will be, once we are together in the dark by our lake.

There is sweetness even in how benign their first major disagreement is. During a train ride together, when Elisabeth, overcome with joy, began singing, Werner asked her to stop. She took it as a kind of rejection. The next day, in apologizing for having inadvertently hurt her feelings, he self-consciously confesses his pathological reserve and his core insecurity in being “always afraid of showing something animated to people.” Elisabeth — the more unselfconsciously poetic of the two — responds with loving assurance, sharing her own core vulnerability:

Love, I am so incredibly happy about our every time together. I am so aware how we always move forward in our relationship, how it moves us along, one great step each time. And now one can see ever more clearly and with certainty how likely it is that we will reach all that one possibly can reach. And, you know, the times when I am filled with fear that you might be disappointed with me will be rarer and rarer. People have always objected to my intensity; but I know that you only have to take this into your hand for me to become quite tame again. When I am doubtful, it is never about you but stems from the fact that I do not have very much self-esteem. But if you love me properly, then I will get it too… I think I am only able to help by loving you so much that you soon believe it in the deepest reaches of your own heart.

In a letter penned sixteen days before the wedding, “very late and very tired,” Elisabeth lays out the roadmap for their shared life:

Once we have left the chauffeur at the station and then drive on alone into the totally silent wood at dusk, over the peak where we once watched the sunset — my love, then we will have our whole life ahead of us, and I believe it will be good.


We must always support each other a lot, so that we do not let the lived life and reality slip through our hands.

Exactly two weeks before the wedding, Werner shares his own vision for their life — a lovely kind of pre-wedding vow:

That we will be together forever, starting in fourteen days — I cannot quite wrap my mind around it; but if it were not to be, I could not do anything at all with my life anymore. In the beginning I will not do much thinking and simply be happy, realizing, gradually, that you are always with me. But later we will want to be conscious of creating a shared life, mindful that honesty is paramount, that life’s essence should always be clearly noticeable behind the love, or the music, or the work.

A week before the wedding, the couple receives a peculiar gift from Elisabeth’s family — eight volumes of Beethoven piano music for four hands, an inheritance from her grandfather. “I think I will never have enough courage to play them with you!” she sweetly tells Werner. Three days before the start of their new life, Werner shares a sentiment that appears quite dry on the outside but contains at its heart the most meaningful measure of union there is:

I have the firm conviction that we are a good match for each other and that we are better able to do justice to our place in the world by being together.

The Heisenbergs on their wedding day, April 29, 1937, Berlin.

In the first two years of their marriage, Werner and Elisabeth were inseparable, having little occasion to write letters. At the end of 1937, Elisabeth, pregnant with their first child — which turned out to be children: the twins Wolfgang and Maria — encouraged Werner to take her thirteen-year-old brother skiing. On New Year’s Eve, he writes to his beloved bride from the mountains:

My dear sweet Li… How much beauty the past year has brought me through you! And yet everything up to now strikes me as a mere beginning, only to be followed by even more beauty and togetherness; together we are now able to really shape our lives. I am looking forward so very much to the next period.

As humanity is about to topple into WWII, Elisabeth sends a bittersweet reply:

My love!

Thank you a thousand times for your loving, poignant letter. For me too, it is as though everything up to now has only been a beginning, and that so much more, even better, should come out of this last year. But when I dream about it, I often flinch; and I hesitate to look toward the future with hope. It is full of horrible apparitions. I cannot believe that there will not be a high price to pay, considering the way people are living now: arrogantly dismissive, in a frenzied intoxication, mocking God. And then all of us will be in for it, regardless. So I am trying to take hold of the present as much as I possibly can and to be happy with the current riches. And these are good enough to be happy from the bottom of our hearts, right?

They remained happy for forty more years — as new parents during a world war, as lifelong partners in each other’s flourishing — until Heisenberg died at the age of seventy-five. The letters from the first nine years of their relationship, collected in My Dear Li, are strewn with Heisenberg’s reflections on science and life — a rare glimpse of the interior world of a scientist who changed our relationship with the universe. Complement them with the love letters of pioneers in other domains of culture — Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, Franz Kafka, Kahlil Gibran, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, John Cage, and Hannah Arendt — then revisit Heisenberg’s account of Nobel laureate Niels Bohr’s nuanced reflections on science and spirituality and the story of how Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics, told in jazz for kids.


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