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Walt Whitman on Donald Trump, How Literature Bolsters Democracy, and Why a Robust Society Is a Feminist Society

“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.”

Walt Whitman on Donald Trump, How Literature Bolsters Democracy, and Why a Robust Society Is a Feminist Society

In 1855, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) made his debut as a poet and self-published Leaves of Grass. Amid the disheartening initial reception of pervasive indifference pierced by a few shrieks of criticism, the young poet received an extraordinary letter of praise and encouragement from his idol — Ralph Waldo Emerson, the era’s most powerful literary tastemaker. This gesture of tremendous generosity was a creative life-straw for the dispirited artist, who soon became one of the nation’s most celebrated writers and went on to be remembered as America’s greatest poet.

In the late 1860, working as a federal clerk and approaching his fiftieth birthday, Whitman grew increasingly concerned that America’s then-young democracy had grown in danger of belying the existential essentials of the human spirit. He voiced his preoccupations in a masterful and lengthy essay titled Democratic Vistas, later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Both Whitman’s spirited critique of American democracy and his proposed solution — which calls for an original and ennobling national body of literature as the means to cultivating the people’s mentality, character, and ideals — ring remarkably true today, perhaps even truer amid our modern disenchantment and dearth of idealism, accentuated by the spectacle of an election season.

waltwhitman

Literature, Whitman argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world” — its archetypal characters shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world have crumbled, he reminds us, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature. He writes:

At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy. Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.

[…]

In the civilization of to-day it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates, serves beyond all — shapes the character of church and school — or, at any rate, is capable of doing so. Including the literature of science, its scope is indeed unparallel’d.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Lamenting the vacant materialism of consumer society, Whitman writes:

We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in.

[…]

Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results… In vain have we annex’d Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.

[…]

To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models — to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future — these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind.

The savior of the nation’s soul, Whitman insists, is not the politician but the artist:

Should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.

Art by Maurice Sendak from his 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, his darkest yet most hopeful book

In a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would’ve made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes:

I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.

[…]

America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well… America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.

The sole antidote, Whitman reminds us, lies in our own hands and the ballots they hold — in not shirking our duty as voters. He shares his advice to the young:

Enter more strongly yet into politics… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

The role of government and those in power, he argues, is not to rule by authority alone — the mark of dictatorship rather than democracy — but “to train communities … beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.” Above all, the task of democratic leadership is to bind “all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family.” Many decades before women won the right to vote and long before Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for humanity, Whitman argues that a robust democracy is one in which women are fully empowered and included in that “brotherhood” on equal terms:

I have sometimes thought … that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.

Reflecting on the perils of inequality in any guise, for any group, he adds:

Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.

The supreme tool of reconstructing a more equal society, Whitman asserts, is literature — a body of literature that gives voice to the underrepresented, that elevates and expands and invigorates their spirits by mirroring them back to themselves as indelibly worthy of belonging to society. (I’m reminded of a contemporary counterpart: Jacqueline Woodson on why she writes characters of color.)

Whitman writes:

A new founded literature, not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called taste … but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men — and, as perhaps the most precious of its results, achieving the entire redemption of woman … and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race… — is what is needed.

But Whitman’s most pertinent point is that true dedication to democracy isn’t a mere fleeting fixture of election season. Rather, it permeates the very fabric of society and must be upheld in every aspect of our lives, at every moment — something best effected by literature:

Far, far, indeed, stretch, in distance, our Vistas! How much is still to be disentangled, freed! How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance! Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges, and schools — democracy in all public and private life.

[…]

The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.

Democratic Vistas is a stirring and magnificently timely read in its entirety, as is all of Whitman’s Poetry and Prose. Complement it with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture, Carl Sagan on science as a tool of democracy, and Adrienne Rich on capitalism and freedom, then revisit Whitman’s raunchy ode to New York City and this beautiful illustrated tribute to his “Song of Myself.”

BP

A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: The Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

“You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.”

A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: The Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

Nearly a century after his death, the Lebanese-American painter, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) endures as one of humanity’s most universally beloved voices of truth and transcendence. But there would have been no Gibran as we know and love him without the philanthropist and patron of the arts Mary Elizabeth Haskell — his greatest champion, frequent collaborator, and unusual beloved.

Haskell and Gibran met on May 10, 1904, at a friend’s studio. He was twenty-one and she nearly thirty-one. Impressed with his art, Haskell soon offered to send Gibran to Paris to study painting, with a stipend of $75 a month, equivalent to about $2,000 today. He accepted. In a letter to a friend written shortly before he departed for Paris in 1908, Gibran described Haskell as “a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.” Shortly after arriving, he wrote: “The day will come when I shall be able to say, ‘I became an artist through Mary Haskell.'”

But the open hands of Haskell’s generosity branched from an equally open heart, from some larger kindness of which Gibran soon became enamored. He came to see her as more than a benefactress — a kindred spirit, a woman of uncommon tenderness, and, above all, a person willing to descend into the deepest trenches of his psyche and climb to its highest mounts in order to understand him, which he considered the greatest measure of love. It was through her generosity that he survived as an artist, and it was through her selfless love that he found himself as a man.

Mary Haskell and Kahlil Gibran. Portrait and self-portrait by Gibran.

Their relationship, like that of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, defies classification and the containment of simplistic labels, but one unquestionable postulate radiates from the dazzling richness and complexity of their decades-long emotional entanglement: the enormous and eternal love they had for one another, which blooms to life in Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal (public library).

In one of his first letters to Haskell from Paris, Gibran captures what is perhaps the greatest gift of love, whatever its nature — the gift of being seen by the other for who one really is:

When I am unhappy, dear Mary, I read your letters. When the mist overwhelms the “I” in me, I take two or three letters out of the little box and reread them. They remind me of my true self. They make me overlook all that is not high and beautiful in life. Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives.

On Christmas Day that year, he writes:

I think of you today, beloved friend, as I think of no other living person. And as I think of you Life becomes better and higher and much more beautiful. I kiss your hand, dear Mary, and in kissing your hand I bless myself.

Over the year that followed, their relationship intensified. Haskell records the pivotal sequence of events in her journal the day before her thirty-seventh birthday in 1910:

Kahlil spent the evening. Told me he loved me and would marry me if he could, but I said my age made it out of the question.

“Mary,” he said, “whenever I try to get nearer to you in speech, to be personal at all — you fly up into remote regions and are inaccessible.” “But I take you with me,” said I. And I said I wanted to keep our friendship enduring, and feared to spoil a good friendship for a poor love-affair. This was after Kahlil had explained what he meant.

The next afternoon Kahlil was here a while and I told him yes.

But the following spring, their relationship took its single most defining and transcendent turn — the decision, absolutely radical at the time, not to get married after all but to remain each other’s most intimate partner in life. The reason for it, which Haskell articulates with remarkable poeticism in another diary entry from April of 1911, was her grandest gesture of magnanimity:

It seemed to me that it was the moment of the opening of the door between Kahlil and the world that shall love him and into whose heart he shall surely feel he is pouring his work. I think his future is not far away now!

And so I made up my mind to follow what seems to me the final finger of God — I put definitely to myself the possibility of being his wife. And though every waking hour since has been drenched with inner tears, I know I am right, and that the tears mean joy, not pain, for the future. My age is simply the barrier raised between us and the blunder of our marrying. Not my age constitutes the objection — but the fact that for Kahlil there waits a different love from that he bears me — an apocalypse of love — and that shall be his marriage. His greatest work will come out of that — his greatest happiness, his new, full life. And it is not many years distant. Toward the woman of that love, I am but a step. And though my susceptible eyes weep, I think of her with joy — and I don’t want to have Kahlil, because I know she is growing somewhere for him, and that he is growing for her.

Kahlil Gibran, “Four Faces,” heavily inspired by Haskell.

The following day, Haskell delivered her emotionally ambivalent yet intellectually firm decision to Gibran and said to him, “My heart longs to be overpersuaded. Still I know in the end I should not be persuaded.” She reports his response in her diary:

He wept and I got him a handkerchief. But he could not speak. Near the beginning in one of my many pauses he said brokenly, “Mary, you know I cannot say things, when I am this way,” and hardly another word. The only comment he made was to love me. When it was over I opened my arms to him — but he soon had me in his, and the heart is not flesh that would not have been comforted…. When it grew late I put his right palm to my lips — and then indeed the tears came — but they drew me simply nearer to him. I kissed that wonderful hand as I have often longed to do, but as I have not before, because a mere touch on it moves him so. It answered like a heart… Again at the door I cried a little — while he wiped my eyes, saying only, “Mary — Mary — Mary.” And as he went he said as well as he could, “You’ve given me a new heart tonight.”

Upon my tears after I went to bed it was suddenly as if a great peace and light broke — and he and I were in it — so that I cried, “Thank you, God, thank you!” again and again. I was so ineffably happy. That I have given him up I realize. But it has not parted us — it has brought us even much nearer together.

“I’ve always known our relation was permanent,” Haskell would later reflect on the decision. “I wanted continuity of conscious togetherness.” This notion, arising from the enormous magnanimity of her nonpossessive love, would eventually lead Gibran to his superb and timeless advice on healthy relationships.

A month after the decision against marriage, Gibran channels precisely such a “continuity of conscious togetherness” in a letter to Haskell from New York:

Just came from the museum. O how much I want to see these beautiful things with you. We must see these things together someday. I feel so lonely when I stand alone before a great work of art. Even in Heaven one must have a beloved companion in order to enjoy it fully.

Good night, dear. I kiss your hands and your eyes.

Kahlil

Bedridden in June with one of his frequent bouts of illness, he writes to Haskell, who spent her summers in solitude in the mountains of the West:

Now, Mary dear, I am going to rest. I shall close my eyes and turn my face to the wall and think and think and think of you — you the mountain climber — you the life hunter.

Good night, beloved.

Kahlil

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

As the months wear on, his letters grow more and more animated by that uncommon blend of infatuation’s restless longing and the solid togetherness of an unperturbeable partnership. He writes to her on October 31, 1911:

Your last letter is a flame, a winged globe, a wave from That Island of strange music.

[…]

Do you not know what it is to burn and burn, and to know while burning, that you are freeing yourself from everything around you? Oh, there is no greater joy than the joy of Fire!

And now let me cry out with all the voices in me that I love you.

Kahlil

Alongside Gibran’s passionate proclamations is a calm bellowing tenderness emanating from the depths of his being, which he articulates beautifully in a letter from early January of 1912:

Now I will say goodnight, as any other time. I kiss you and then I say goodnight and then I open the door and then I go out to the streets with a full heart and a hungry soul. But I always come again to kiss you and to say goodnight and to open the door and to go out to the street with hungry soul and full heart.

With equally poetic passion, Haskell writes to Gibran the same week:

Dear Hand, dear Eye, dear Thought, dear Fire, dear Love —

[…]

All I am ever finally impelled to say, rather than not say, to you of yourself seems resolvable into, “Kahlil, you are in my heart — you are in my heart, Kahlil.” When I look back over the years, it seems always to have been that — with changes only of depth and heat of your heart-place.

The following month, she writes:

God lends me His heart to love you with. I asked for it when I found my own was too small, and it really holds you, and leaves you room to grow.

In the spring, Haskell writes to Gibran in New York, channeling her unselfish love and her longing in parallel in a letter that could well be a poem:

What are you writing — and how does it go? And what are you thinking about — and how does it go? And what do you want to talk with me about? — and how do You go?

And why aren’t your arms six hours long to reach to Boston?

[…]

And when will You come to me in a dream and make night sweeter than night?

That October, Gibran repays the “continuity of conscious togetherness” that Haskell had always trusted would bloom between them even though, and perhaps precisely because, they chose not to marry:

The most wonderful thing, Mary, is that you and I are always walking together, hand in hand, in a strangely beautiful world, unknown to other people. We both stretch one hand to receive from Life — and Life is generous indeed.

In another letter, he captures one of the small enormities that define love:

I love to be silent with you, Mary.

A few days later, responding to Gibran’s concern that his physical illness and its attendant creative block might disappoint her, Haskell sends the most beautiful and generous assurance a person who is loved could hope for:

I don’t even want you to be a poet or painter: I want you to be whatever you are led or impelled to become.

[…]

Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception that I’d like to see you be or do. I have no desire to foresee you, only to discover you. You can’t disappoint me.

The following year, as Gibran continues to struggle, she grants him the ultimate gift of love — the equal embrace of his inner darkness and his inner light:

Your work is not only books and pictures. They are but bits of it. Your work is You, not less than you, not parts of you… These days when you “cannot work” are accomplishing it, are of it, like the days when you “can work.” There is no division. It is all one. Your living is all of it; anything less is part of it. — Your silence will be read with your writings some day, your darkness will be part of the Light.

Kahlil Gibran, “Spirit of Light”

With a sensitivity to Gibran’s growing mastery of English, she adds:

It is like the resolution of greatest dissonances in great music. You know the use of that word resolution in music, don’t you? — so deep and beautiful. — And it is like the reconciliation of life. And do you know Reconciliation used in that way? To me it is one of the profoundest and fullest of our words.

A few months later, having pushed through his creative and spiritual stagnation, Gibran attempts to put words around the immensity of his gratitude for this supreme gift of being seen, and loved, in his wholeness:

I wish I could tell you, beloved Mary, what your letters mean to me. They create a soul in my soul. I read them as messages from life. Somehow they always come when I need them most, and they always bring that element which makes us desire more days and more nights and more life. Whenever my heart is bare and quivering, I feel the terrible need of someone to tell me that there is a tomorrow for all bare and quivering hearts and you always do it, Mary.

Four years before the American publication of Gibran’s slim masterpiece The Madman, in which he wrote, “I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us,” he sees Haskell as the sole counterpoint to that conviction and writes to her in the summer of 1914:

You have the great gift of understanding, beloved Mary. You are a life-giver, Mary. You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.

I have always held, with my Madman, that those who understand us enslave something in us. It is not so with you. Your understanding of me is the most peaceful freedom I have known. And in the last two hours of your last visit you took my heart in your hand and found a black spot in it. But just as soon as you found the spot it was erased forever, and I became absolutely chainless.

The hundreds of letters collected in Beloved Prophet are a transcendent read in their entirety. Complement them with Gibran on the seeming self vs. the authentic self and the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in love, then revisit the stirring love letters of Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, and James Thurber.

BP

The Art of Knowing What to Do in Life: Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Purpose Beyond Expectation and Choice Unbounded by Convention

On rising above the maze of conditions and conditionings that limit who we can be.

The Art of Knowing What to Do in Life: Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Purpose Beyond Expectation and Choice Unbounded by Convention

“To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy,” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889), who paved the way for American women in science, wrote as she contemplated science and life in her diary. A century earlier, the French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, who defied the vocational expectations of her era to become a world authority on Newtonian physics, articulated the same sentiment in writing about gender and the nature of genius: “One must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.”

And yet there are myriad conditions and conditionings outside ourselves that color and confuse that knowing — not even the fortunate few whose inner eye is animated by an uncommon clarity of vision can claim such a thing as absolute purity of purpose. Even if we were to lay aside the perennially thorny question of free will, the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.

Maria Mitchell

I was reminded of this dependency in a recent conversation with an astrophysicist friend about Maria Mitchell and the following generation of women astronomers, many of whom never married and chose science over family life. We wondered how much of a choice that really was — what the opportunities were for women, decades before they could vote or even attend university, to pursue and excel at occupations only available to men at the time, men who were able to devote their days to science because they had someone at home to launder their long-johns and boil their breakfast porridge.

My friend then relayed a turning point in her own life and career as a scientist: In watching a male colleague emulate their shared elders — those typically and therefore stereotypically masculine scientists of yore — she realized, almost with a shock, that being this person was simply not an option available to her. But with the horror and the wistfulness of the realization also came a tremendous sense of liberation — it was in that moment that she found herself free to create different options, to be a different kind of scientist unbounded by the convention of expectations she could never meet. That she is now one of the world’s most venerated astrophysicists is in no small measure thanks to that moment of permission to choose for herself a destiny beyond convention — one which was, then and only then, not a prescription but truly a choice.

In a complete revolution, our conversation reminded me of something Maria Mitchell herself, always eons ahead of her time, had articulated in her diary exactly a decade after America’s first class of women astronomers graduated from her program at Vassar. In an entry from August of 1886, found in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook), Mitchell considers the interplay of convention and opportunity with relation to gender in light of the then-novel trend of cooking colleges for women:

I am always afraid of manual-labor schools. I am not afraid that these girls could not read, for every American girl reads, and to read is much more important than to cook; but I am afraid that not all can write — some of them were not more than twelve years old.

And what of the boys? Must a common cook always be a girl? and must a boy not cook unless on the top of the ladder, with the pay of the president of Harvard College?

Maria Mitchell, at telescope, with her students

It seems both obvious and necessary to note that the gendered hierarchy and pay scale in the culinary world has hardly changed in the century and a half since. But Mitchell’s larger point has to do with the question of meritocracy — with the necessity of institutions and social structures that nurture excellence in fields freely chosen on the basis of individual interest and talent rather than on societal expectation. Far from looking down upon the culinary arts as demeaning of women, she argues instead that such careers should be chosen only by those, be they male or female, who are truly passionate about them; that, most important, an equal opportunity for pursuit should be offered in intellectual endeavors, so that the choice between cooking and science becomes truly a choice.

With her characteristic wit and spirited wisdom, she writes:

If the food for the body is more important than the food for the mind, let us destroy the latter and accept the former, but let us not continue to do what has been tried for fifteen hundred years, — to keep one half of the world to the starvation of the mind, in order to feed better the physical condition of the other half.

Let us have cooks; but let us leave it a matter of choice, as we leave the dressmaking and the shoe-making, the millinery and the carpentry, — free to be chosen!

There are cultivated and educated women who enjoy cooking; so there are cultivated men who enjoy Kensington embroidery. Who objects? But take care that some rousing of the intellect comes first, — that it may be an enlightened choice, — and do not so fill the day with bread and butter and stitches that no time is left for the appreciation of Whittier, letting at least the simple songs of daily life and the influence of rhythm beautify the dreary round of the three meals a day.

Complement with Mitchell on why women are better suited for astronomy than men, the story of how the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician and Mitchell’s contemporary Mary Somerville, and pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter and whose own career was inspired by Mitchell, on what it’s like to be a woman in science, then revisit Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are.

BP

Anaïs Nin on How Reading Awakens Us from the Slumber of Almost-Living

“It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it.”

Anaïs Nin on How Reading Awakens Us from the Slumber of Almost-Living

Galileo believed that books are our only means of having superhuman powers. For Carl Sagan, a book was “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Proust considered the end of a book’s wisdom the beginning of our own. For Mary Oliver, books did nothing less than save her life. The social function of great literature, the poet Denise Levertov insisted, is “to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”

The transcendent mechanism of the awakening that books furnish in us is what Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903–January 14, 1977) explores in a beautiful entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol. 1 (public library).

A generation after Kafka wrote to his best friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” 28-year-old Nin writes in December of 1931:

You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book (Lady Chatterley, for instance), or you take a trip, or you talk with [someone], and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.

With a thankful eye to D.H. Lawrence — whose writing, she believed, first awakened her in this fashion and whom, in a gesture of gratitude, she made the subject of her first book — Nin adds:

Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken. But I am not in danger because my home, my garden, my beautiful life do not lull me. I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly numinous The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol. 1 with Nin on why emotional excess is essential for writing, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the elusive nature of joy, and how to truly unplug during vacation, then revisit Neil Gaiman on why we read, Rebecca Solnit on the life-saving power of books, and James Baldwin on how reading changed his destiny.

BP

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