Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

John Steinbeck on the Loneliness of Success and His Surprising Source of Self-Salvation

“The loneliness and discouragement… I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement.”

As a writer, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) remains one of the most beloved artists of the past century, whose exceptional work ethic and unrelenting pursuit of the impossible earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. As a person, he was animated by a deep humanity, uncommon integrity, and lucid optimism.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) unfolds the record of a rare man who was a Complete Human Being, a living spectrum, who would with equal earnestness give his son timeless advice on falling in love and perform the difficult art of the friend breakup, would visit the carpenter who built his house in the hospital when the man broke his back, would unselfconsciously sign his letters to friends “love, john,” and would write to President Roosevelt: “Please forgive this informality, but frankly, I don’t know anyone else in authority whom I can address informally.”

John Steinbeck

In the fall of 1940, two years after he had first begun to taste the dark side of success, Steinbeck contemplates the private loneliness of public acclaim in a letter to his dear friend and onetime college roommate, Carlton A. Sheffield:

The loneliness and discouragement are by no means a thing that has passed. In fact they seem to crowd in more than ever. Only now I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement. Only they aren’t. The last time I saw Chaplin (this don’t repeat please but it is a part of the same thing) it was the night when the little lady [Paulette Goddard] was leaving him for good. And he said, “When I get this picture opened and all the formal things done, can I please go up to your ranch and kick all the servants out and just talk a little bit quietly about how lonely and sad I am? It will be self indulgence but I’d like to do it.” He is a good little man. And he knows so much better than I do the horrors of being a celebrity.

Later that year, he writes to another old college friend from Stanford (after whom Steinbeck named his manuscript-devouring dog):

Dear Toby:

Why is it, do you suppose, that we don’t get together any more? Of course, I know you are carrying some big secret in you that is bigger than you and that you’ve turned inward on your secret. And I suppose I’ve turned inward on something too.

[…]

Sometimes I get so dreadfully homesick I can’t stand it and then realize that it’s not for any home I ever had. And the passionate youthful desire to communicate was the same kind of homesickness. It’s curious and it doesn’t get any better, only one learns not to talk about it. And if everyone is that way, I wonder why they all learn not to talk about it. Their eyes get dull with disgust or pain or tiredness. I haven’t crossed the hump I guess or I wouldn’t be writing this letter.

But I sit upon this beautiful ranch in this comfortable chair with a perfect servant and a beautiful dog and I think I’m more homesick than ever.

Steinbeck found one surprising way of transfiguring this homesick loneliness into nourishing aloneness. Upon approaching his fortieth birthday, he began taking flying lessons near his home in Northern California. In the skies, he shed all the earthly trappings with which success had trapped him. There, he was able to be his barest human self. He captures that transcendent freedom in another letter to Sheffield:

I’m taking flying lessons up at the Palo Alto Airport and I love it. There’s something so god damned remote and beautiful and detached about being way to hell and gone up on a little yellow leaf. It isn’t like the big transports at all because this little thing floats and bobs and yet is very steady and — there’s no sense of power at all but rather a sense of being alone in the best sense of the word, not loneliness at all but just an escape into something delightful. I think you used to get it after you had had a lot of guests and they all went home and the house was finally cleaned up and you could turn on the radio and cook your own kind of stew and read and look up and know god damned well that you were alone. And there’s something about seeing a cumulus cloud way off and going over there to see what it is like.

My first reason for getting a license was that here I am only about a year and a half from forty and I wanted to learn to handle the controls while my reflexes were still malleable. I saw my father try to learn to drive a car when he was sixty five and he never could do it unconsciously. He had to think every time for the gear shift and he had to think about how to get out of a mess. Well, I wanted to get the controls into my unconscious before I got too old. And the moment I began going up I found something much more than that. Some very delicious thing with no name for it yet anyway, but it does seem to be some extension of aesthetics.

Complement the endlessly rewarding Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with the beloved writer on racism and bigotry, the crucible of creativity, and the necessary contradictions of human nature, then revisit Bruce Lee on the only meaningful measure of achievement and Joni Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the paradox of success.

BP

The Tragic Heroism of Hopefulness: The Myth of Sisyphus in a Gorgeous 1974 Oscar-Nominated Hungarian Animation

An evocative homage to one of humanity’s most human heroes by the great Hungarian graphic artist and animator Marcell Jankovics.

Standing among the most memorable heroes of Greek mythology is Sisyphus — the prince whose moral foibles Zeus punished by dooming him to roll a boulder up a hill eternally, the rock rolling back down each time Sisyphus manages to muscle it to the top. In the millennia since, his myth has permeated the fabric of culture, most famously by inspiring Albert Camus’s 1942 masterwork The Myth of Sisyphus, which contains one of the most arresting opening sentences in all of literature and poses philosophy’s deepest question: whether or not life is worth living.

In modern life, Sisyphus has become a metaphor for laborious futility. We call Sisyphean the task of, say, replying to messages in an exponentially overflowing inbox. But residing in Sisyphus is also something invisible to the pitying or scornful cynic’s eye — not the foolishness of his plight, but its fundamental hopefulness. Inherent to doing a task so self-defeating over and over without losing heart is the elemental belief that it can be done. Rather than letting his crushing despair crush him under the collapsing rock, Sisyphus presses on and on and on. He may be a tragic hero, but he is first and foremost a hero, precisely for this unrelenting faith in the possibility of accomplishing the impossible. His optimistic tenacity renders him the epitome of the creative spirit captured in Steinbeck’s assertion that a great artist “always works at the impossible.”

In this beautiful Oscar-nominated 1974 animated film, Hungarian graphic artist and animator Marcell Jankovics (b. October 21, 1941) brings to life the myth of Sisyphus in a minimalist, maximally evocative black-and-white visual narrative.

BP

Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves

“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves

In a 1928 letter to her sister, Virginia Woolf described the great English writer Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) as “hard as nails, very distrustful, and no beauty … a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.” (Because Woolf regarded her with such amused admiration, she was pleased when West lauded Orlando as “a poetic masterpiece of the first rank” in her New York Herald Tribune review later that year.)

It was this great and rugged intellect that West poured into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (public library) — her remarkable 1941 account of her three visits to Yugoslavia. Published at the peak of WWII and exploring a country made by WWI, the book accomplished with unparalleled poignancy West’s aim of revealing “the past side by side with the present it created.”

Dame Rebecca West

While recovering from surgery in an English hospital in the fall of 1934, West heard on the radio that Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I had been assassinated — the first monarch of a young country born out of the horrors of WWI, murdered by the same fascist forces that would pave the way for WWII. She recognized instantly, with a sorrowful urgency, that such local crises of inhumanity never exist in isolation from the whole of humanity. A quarter century before Martin Luther King urged us to see that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” West reflected on hearing the radio announcement:

I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing at all about the south-eastern corner of Europe … that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.

And indeed, from West’s regional focus on my native Balkans radiates a larger inquiry into the collective fate of humanity, with all its tragedy and tenaciousness, and the ultimate resilience of the human spirit — nowhere more so than in a passage describing her encounter with a woman on a mountain road in Montenegro. West relays the woman’s response to being asked how she had ended up there, across the country from her hometown of Durmitor:

She laughed a little, lifted her ball of wool to her mouth, sucked the thin thread between her lips, and stood rocking herself, her eyebrows arching in misery. “It is a long story. I am sixty now,” she said. “Before the war I was married over there, by Durmitor. I had a husband whom I liked very much, and I had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1914 my husband was killed by the Austrians. Not in battle. They took him out of our house and shot him. My son went off and was a soldier and was killed, and my daughter and I were sent to a camp. There she died. In the camp it was terrible, many people died. At the end of the war I came out and I was alone. So I married a man twenty years older than myself. I did not like him as I liked my first husband, but he was very kind to me, and I had two children of his. But they both died, as was natural, for he was too old, and I was too old, and also I was weak from the camp. And now my husband is eighty, and he has lost his wits, and he is not kind to me any more. He is angry with everybody; he sits in his house and rages, and I cannot do anything right for him. So I have nothing.”

To the question of where she is headed on that mountain road, the woman responds:

“I am not going anywhere. I am walking about to try to understand why all this has happened. If I had to live, why should my life have been like this? If I walk about up here where it is very high and grand it seems to me I am nearer to understanding it.” She put the ball of wool to her forehead and rubbed it backwards and forwards, while her eyes filled with painful speculation. “Good-bye,” she said, with distracted courtesy, as she moved away, “good-bye.”

Public domain photograph via Swedish National Heritage Board

With this, West delivers her stroke of genius in revealing the animating force of human existence, that which gives rise to all art and all science and the irrepressible roving curiosity that has given us everything we call culture:

This woman [was] the answer to my doubts. She took her destiny not as the beasts take it, nor as the plants and trees; she not only suffered it, she examined it. As the sword swept down on her through the darkness she threw out her hand and caught the blade as it fell, not caring if she cut her fingers so long as she could question its substance, where it had been forged, and who was the wielder. She wanted to understand … the mystery of process.

I knew that art and science were the instruments of this desire, and this was their sole justification, though in the Western world where I lived I had seen art debauched to ornament and science prostituted to the multiplication of gadgets. I knew that they were descended from man’s primitive necessities, that the cave man who had to hunt the aurochs drew him on the rock-face that he might better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting and was the ancestor of all artists, that the nomad who had to watch the length of shadows to know when he should move his herd to the summer pasture was the ancestor of all scientists. But I did not know these things thoroughly with my bowels as well as my mind. I knew them now, when I saw the desire for understanding move this woman. It might have been far otherwise with her, for she had been confined by her people’s past and present to a kind of destiny that might have stunned its victims into an inability to examine it. Nevertheless she desired neither peace nor gold, but simply knowledge of what her life might mean. The instrument used by the hunter and the nomad was not too blunt to turn to finer uses; it was not dismayed by complexity, and it could regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind and measure the diffuse shadows cast by history. And what was more, the human will did not forget its appetite for using it.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s timelessly incisive perspective on the only effective antidote to evil, found in the fact that “one man will always be left alive to tell the story,” West considers the essential quality of spirit which the Montenegrin woman modeled:

If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe. We shall discover what work we have been called to do, and why we cannot do it. If a mine fails to profit by its riches and a church wastes the treasure of its altar, we shall know the cause: we shall find out why we draw the knife across the throat of the black lamb or take its place on the offensive rock, and why we let the grey falcon nest in our bosom, though it buries its beak in our veins. We shall put our own madness in irons.

Complement this particular portion of the densely illuminating Black Lamb and Grey Falcon with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering and Viktor Frankl, who was deported to a Nazi concentration camp just after the publication of West’s classic, on the human search for meaning and the key to spiritual survival.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated