Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

James Joyce’s Love Letters

“If I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.”

As an ardent lover of love letters, I have encountered few exemplars of the genre more piercing than those penned by James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

In 1904, just after his first major essay was rejected from publication, 22-year-old Joyce met Nora Barnacle — a young chambermaid he described as “a simple honorable soul,” one “incapable of any of the deceits which pass for current morality.” From the moment they met until Joyce’s dying day, the two were bound by an uncommon love that translated into a relationship unconventional in many ways, especially by the era’s standards — they had a son and a daughter out of wedlock and didn’t marry until 27 years into their lifelong relationship.

Nora’s unselfish honesty was intensely alluring to Joyce. Only with her was he, a man otherwise guarded and chronically mistrustful, capable of complete self-revelation — she was the nonjudgmental, loving receptacle for his dueling enormities of ambition and self-consciousness that often bled into self-loathing. The unflinching trust that developed between them became the supreme engine of their love — for what is love if not the net we trust will catch us as we fall from grace into our deepest imperfections, then bounce us back up to our highest selves?

In a letter from October of 1909, found in Joyce’s altogether spectacular Selected Letters — the same treasure trove that gave us the teenage author’s beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero, and his poetic plea to Lady Gregory — 27-year-old Joyce writes to Nora during a trip to Dublin:

You dear strange little girl! And yet you write to ask if I am tired of you! I shall never be tired of you, dearest… I cannot write you so often this time as I [am] dreadfully busy from morning to night. Do not fret, darling. If you do you will ruin my chances of doing anything. After this I hope we shall have many many many long years of happiness together.

My dear true good little Nora do not write again doubtfully of me. You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.

Two days later, still away and working hard to have Dubliners published, Joyce is seized with longing for Nora and grows even more homesick:

My darling Tonight the old fever of love has begun to wake again in me. I am a shell of a man: my soul is in Trieste [the couple’s home]. You alone know me and love me.

A century before philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s terrific treatise on why embracing our neediness is essential for healthy relationships, Joyce embraces his and pleads with Nora in the same letter:

I am a jealous, lonely, dissatisfied, proud man. Why are you not more patient with me and kinder with me? The night we went to Madame Butterfly together you treated me most rudely. I simply wanted to feel your soul swaying with languor and longing as mine did when she sings the romance of her hope in the second act Un bel di: “One day, one day, we shall see a spire of smoke rising on the furthest verge of the sea; and then the ship appears.” I am a little disappointed in you. Then another night I came home to your bed from the café and I began to tell you of all I hoped to do, and to write, in the future and of those boundless ambitions which are really the leading forces in my life. You would not listen to me. It was very late I know and of course you were tired out after the day. But a man whose brain is on fire with hope and trust in himself must tell someone of what he feels. Whom should I tell but you?

But after this lamentation, the letter rises above these trifling resentments and takes a most heartening turn toward the ultimate assurance of love — that however short we may fall of our highest selves, however much we may disappoint our loved ones, they will love us anyway and love us not despite but because of our imperfect humanity. Decades before Joseph Campbell admonished against the deadliness of perfectionism in love, Joyce writes:

I love you deeply and truly, Nora. I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. In spite of these things which blacken my mind against you I think of you always at your best… Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is), any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.

But against the backdrop of this all-consuming love, an unexpected drama unfolded — that fall, during the same trip to Dublin, Joyce was led to mistakenly believe that Nora had been unfaithful to him in the early days of their romance five years earlier, a period he cherished as one of sacred intimacy. He wrote to her from what he would later characterize as a state of “utter despair,” attacking her for the betrayal, berating himself for being unworthy of her love, and treating her infidelity as proof of his unworthiness. In the midst of all this, Nora — who had been tasked with singlehandedly managing the household and raising the children while Joyce was away trying to get Dubliners published — grew increasingly frustrated and threatened to leave him.

When it became apparent that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding and Nora had never been unfaithful, he proceeded to send her a series of letters, both breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking, further berating himself for having so misjudged his beloved’s character and beseeching her to forgive him. In an intensely self-flagellating letter from early November of 1909, Joyce writes:

You write like a queen. As long as I live I shall always remember the quiet dignity of that letter, its sadness and scorn, and the utter humiliation it caused me.

I have lost your esteem. I have worn down your love. leave me then. Take away your children from me to save them from the curse of my presence. Let me sink back again into the mire I came from. Forget me and my empty words. Go back to your own life and let me go alone to my ruin. It is wrong for you to live with a vile beast like me or to allow your children to be touched by my hands.


Leave me. It is a degradation and a shame for you to live with a low wretch like me. Act bravely and leave me. you have given me the finest things in this world but you were only casting pearls before swine.

If you leave me I shall live for ever with your memory, holier than God to me. I shall pray to your name.

Nora, remember something good of the poor wretch who dishonored you with his love. Think that your lips have kissed him and your hair has fallen over him and that your arms have held him to you.

I will not sign my name because it is the name you called me when you loved me and honoured me and have me your young tender soul to wound and betray.

Art by Mimmo Paladino for a special edition of Ulysses

And yet the most hope-giving part of the episode is that the perceived breach of trust only strengthened their bond. Perhaps it is no accident that we use the heart — a mighty muscle — as the symbolic seedbed of love. It’s a biologically apt metaphor: We can’t build our bodily muscles without first tearing down the fibers of which their tissue is woven — hypertrophy, or muscle growth, occurs when the body repairs the fibers torn down during exercise, thickening them in the repair process. Trust, too, grows by hypertrophy.

A day later, Joyce writes to Nora — or of Nora, for he uses the third person to relay to her a diaristic vignette intended to convey the depth of his feelings for her:

I received two very kind letters from her today so that perhaps after all she still cares for me. Last night I was in a state of utter despair when I wrote to her. Her slightest word has an enormous power over me. She asks me to try to forget the ignorant Galway [Nora’s hometown] girl that came across my life and says I am too kind to her. Foolish good-hearted girl! Does she not see what a worthless treacherous fool I am? Her love for me perhaps blinds her to it.

I shall never forget how her short letter to me yesterday cut me to the quick. I felt that I had tried her goodness too far and that at last she had turned on me with quiet scorn.

Today I went to the hotel where she lived when I first met her. I halted in the dingy doorway before going in I was so excited.


I have been in the room where she passed so often, with a strange dream of love in her young heart. My God, my eyes are full of tears! Why do I cry? I cry because it is so sad to think of her moving about that room, eating little, simply dressed, simple-mannered and watchful, and carrying always with her in her secret heart the little flame which burns up the souls and bodies of men.

I cry too with pity for her that she should have chosen such poor ignoble love as mine: and with pity for myself that I was not worthy to be loved by her.


Twice while I was writing these sentences tonight the sobs gathered quickly in my throat and broke from my lips.

I have loved in her the image of the beauty of the world, the mystery and beauty of life itself, the beauty and doom of the race of whom I am a child, the images of spiritual purity and pity which I believe in as a boy.

Her soul! Her name! Her eyes! They seem to me like strange beautiful blue wild-flowers growing in some tangled, rain-drenched hedge. And I have felt her soul tremble beside mine, and have spoken her name softly to the night, and have wept to see the beauty of the world passing like a dream behind her eyes.

Jim and Nora remained together for the remainder of the author’s days. Complement the amorous portion of Joyce’s wholly magnificent Selected Letters with the love letters of Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.


Madness and Genius: Cosmologist Janna Levin on the Vitalizing Power of Obsessiveness, from Newton to Einstein

“Are all of nature’s greatest secrets encrypted in our own selves?”

One aphoristic definition of madness is repeating a behavior that has previously led to disappointing results over and over again, expecting a different outcome each time. Freud coined the concept of “repetition compulsion” around this notion. But I’m a post-Freudian optimist — I believe that we repeat our perilous patterns not out of blind compulsion but because this is how we evolve. This, after all, is how evolution works in a scientific sense — repetition is its primary driving force. Organisms only ever change by countless iterations, making subtle and imperceptible self-transformations with each turn of the reproductive cycle — adaptive changes in the service of their optimal survival, iterative intimations of continual betterment whispered into the ear of time until the organism emerges as an entirely new creature.

Since our biology and our psychology are so symbiotically entwined, this too must be how our consciousness evolves and how any meaningful change comes about. The history of innovation offers plenty of testaments — most of the people we celebrate as geniuses, whose breakthroughs forever changed our understanding of the world and our experience of life, labored under David Foster Wallace’s definition of true heroism — “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Marie Curie toiled in her lab until excessive exposure to radiation begot the finitude of her flesh, wholly unprotected by her two Nobel Prizes. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” And then there was light.

Art by Lauren Redniss from Radioactive, an illustrated celebration of Marie Curie’s life and legacy

“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Joni Mitchell observed in contemplating madness and the creative mind. But perhaps the singular turmoil of creative geniuses is precisely this compulsion for iterative betterment, which may give the illusion of madness to the outside world but which remains a central vitalizing force in the interior life of genius.

This relationship between genius and madness is what theoretical cosmologist and astrophysicist Janna Levin examines in a portion of How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (public library) — an infinitely rewarding and unusual book, both rigorous and lyrical, aglow with the trifecta of what makes great science writing.

Levin, who characterizes her fascination with the madness of mathematicians as “morbid but harmless” and wonders whether “brushes with insanity are occupational hazards,” writes:

Insanity, madness, obsession, math, objectivity, truth, science and art. These friends always impress me. They’re sculptors and tailors, not scientists or spies. I’ve chosen them with the peculiar attentiveness of a shell collector stupidly combining the overwhelming multitude of broken detritus to hold up one shell so beautiful that it finds its way into my pocket, lining my clothes with sand. And then another. Not too many, so that the sheer number could never diminish the value of one.

With an eye to her historical compatriots in this kingdom of scientific obsession, she reflects:

Some very clever people were obsessive-compulsive. I don’t believe insanity is either a requirement or a guarantee for brilliance. But I find the anecdotes so interesting, so much more interesting than the usual hero worship. I’m subjected to my brothers in science… I find their weaknesses so much more touching.

Newton wasn’t obsessive-compulsive to my knowledge, but the tenacity of his mental health has certainly been called into question, particularly in his later years. Newton was a secret alchemist, conducting covert experiments in his college rooms in Cambridge, including very peculiar ones that involved staring at the sun and stabbing himself in the eye with a small dagger. His mental ailments are usually described as paranoia and depression. Some have even suggested that he was as mad as a hatter, meaning his insanity was induced by mercury and other chemicals he ingested in the course of his alchemy — chemicals that led to the mental disintegration of traditional hatmakers. Others suggest his emotional breakdowns were incited by the trials of his covert homosexuality. A broken heart, that sounds more likely.

Any mental lapses seem to have had little impact on his intense scientific clarity, art least for most of his production. Newton was so right about so many things that it seems ungenerous to dwell on where he was wrong.

Among the things about which Newton was trailblazingly right was the intuition that the laws of physics should hold equally true for all observers moving uniformly without any forces acting upon them. This, of course, was the seed of relativity theory, which Einstein developed into his landmark contribution.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

It is Levin’s account of Einstein, in fact, that best captures this wonderfully optimistic view of the relationship between maddening compulsiveness and genius. She writes of his struggle to find an equation for general relativity, one that would describe his pioneering model of curved space:

Armed with the crudest mathematical instruments, he pierced the surface and saw through to the core. First he identified the object of pursuit, geometry. Then he realized he was completely unequipped to handle a battle with such complex geometry.


Einstein had created an unwieldy monster that in a way he couldn’t tame. He conjured up a theory reliant on mathematics in a curved space-time that still demands years of its students’ attention. Though he managed to use those tools, compared to his mathematician friends he used them clumsily. Isn’t that great? I love that. His fragility, his defiant brilliance in the face of his own limitations… He ploughed right past his inadequacy. Maybe this is what he meant when he said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Like a bad plumber he hacked and hammered and slapped together a mathematical model of curved space, correcting error after error in his own formulation. Sloshing between despair, doubt and conviction. When he finally pulled something together, something that worked, he was overcome with elation for days. He had trudged through the darkness of his own confusion and found what he set out to discover; a theory of gravity based on curved spacetime and faithful to his principle of relativity. It’s like Michelangelo revealing the sculpture he believed hidden within each stone.

Out of this iterative obsessiveness verging on insanity spring the advancements we experience as groundbreaking — repetition becomes the wellspring of revelation. Somehow, though they may appear blinded by their compulsions, minds of genius see more clearly into the nature of things, into some microscopic or monumental aspect of the world that evades the rest of us.

Levin considers the root of Einstein’s visionary powers of perception:

The rest of us live in this fog that he could just see through. He followed his intuition like a beacon, distrusting his calculations but not faltering his faith. Where does this kind of knowledge come from? Is it there in his mind? In my mind? Yours? Waiting to be mined? Are all of nature’s greatest secrets encrypted in our own selves? I hope so. I think so.

How the Universe Got Its Spots is a thoroughly wonderful read in its totality, using the perennial puzzlement of whether the universe is infinite or finite to tell the larger story of how we came to know what we know about space, time, and what we call reality. Complement this particular portion with a look at the relationship between creativity and mental illness, then revisit Einstein on the nature of the human mind and the true rewards of work.


How Arthur Rackham’s 1907 Drawings for Alice in Wonderland Revolutionized the Carroll Classic, the Technology of Book Art, and the Economics of Illustration

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

How Arthur Rackham’s 1907 Drawings for Alice in Wonderland Revolutionized the Carroll Classic, the Technology of Book Art, and the Economics of Illustration

In the 150 years since Lewis Carroll first told the story of Wonderland to the real-life Alice, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has attracted a number of stunning visual interpretations ranging from Salvador Dalí to Yayoi Kusama, but none more influential than those Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939) created in 1907.

Rackham had an uncommon gift for art from a young age. As a child, he would often stay up late, drawing by candlelight under the covers, and Alice in Wonderland was among the books that most stirred his imagination. But, the son of a civil servant and a survivor in a family that had lost five of its children, young Arthur took the sensible path of becoming a junior insurance clerk at the age of seventeen, making £40 a year — about £4,500 in today’s money. At eighteen, he began studying art part-time at the Lambeth School of Art.

Rackham recounts his trying beginnings in a letter quoted in Derek Hudson’s biography of the artist:

For the next seven years or so I worked as hard as I could out of business hours (9–5) to equip myself as an artist — not being able to embark on a professional career till I was nearly twenty-five, and then for many years getting the barest living from my profession and having to do much distasteful hack work.

Arthur Rackham, self-portrait, 1934
Arthur Rackham, self-portrait, 1934

But part of what made him so extraordinary was that throughout his life, even as he came to be celebrated as the greatest illustrator of the Edwardian era, he maintained the appearance of a straight-laced, humble insurance clerk. And yet his gaunt, solemn face concealed a wild imagination; from behind his wire-rimmed glassed looked out eyes of wonder. Carroll’s Alice so enchanted Rackham perhaps precisely because it bridges reality and reverie, plunging the reader into the extraordinary hidden behind the ordinary.

A Mad Tea Party

It took a remarkable woman to unleash Rackham’s creative potency — the prominent Irish portrait artist and sculptor Edyth Starkie, whom he met over a garden wall in 1898 and married five years later. Despite her training as a portraitist, Edyth’s imagination was anything but literal — playful and full of mischievous whimsy, she was the perfect counterpoint to Arthur’s seriousness. Both his greatest champion and his most conscientious critic, she encouraged him to pursue his fantasy watercolors and convinced him to exhibit them at the Royal Watercolor Society, where Rackham feared his dreamy drawings would be ridiculed alongside more traditional work. Instead, they were lauded as imaginative and innovative, and led to commissions that finally allowed him to leave behind the “distasteful hack work” he so detested and to channel his talent into classics like the works of Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm.


In 1907, at the peak of the first two decades of the twentieth century known as the Golden Age of Illustration, the text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland entered the public domain in the United Kingdom, immediately catalyzing several illustrated editions. Among them was Rackham’s, containing thirteen color plates and fifteen black-and-white line drawings.

A number of elements made Rackham’s visual interpretation a turning point in the history of both the Carroll classic and the art of illustration. First and foremost was his distinctive aesthetic at the intersection of the sentimental and the grotesque — sensitive and dark at the same time, like a Neil Gaiman story or a Patti Smith song. But public reception was polarizing — while many instantly recognized that a singular creative genius was before them, others felt that Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice had become so central to the beloved story that any other interpretation was a sacrilege. Still, Rackham’s drawings came to captivate the popular imagination and paved the way for a century of artistic takes on Carroll’s tale.

The Pool of Tears

Another point of significance in Rackham’s edition was the often neglected but powerful way in which the evolution of technology and the evolution of art fuel one another. Previously, illustrators handed their work over to engravers, who translated the drawings into rough lines cut onto wood or metal plates, which were then inked and pressed onto the page in the printing process. But Rackham, aware that his delicate and expressive lines would be lost in translation, began photographing his drawings and having them mechanically reproduced. This removed the engravers as middlemen, but also increased production cost since illustrated pages now had to be printed on glazed paper and inserted into the regularly printed book.

They all crowded round it panting and asking, “But who has won?”

This shift introduced a third major element of innovation at the intersection of culture and commerce, changing the economics of illustration and pioneering a new way for artists to make a living. To subsidize the higher cost of preserving the integrity of his artwork in print, Rackham partnered with the publisher William Heinnemann and they came up with a profitable model — each book was issued in a small limited-edition run of signed, beautifully bound, expensive copies, and a large run of affordable mass-market copies. Accompanying each book was also a gallery exhibition of the original artwork, which not only helped Rackham — and other artists who adopted this model — earn substantial additional income, but established illustration as a notable work of art in its own right rather than mere adornment of a literary masterpiece, as it had been previously perceived.

“Why, Mary Ann, what are you doing out here?”

The combined effect of these shifts created a new market for beautiful gift books, elevated illustration from commercial commodity to fine art, and made Rackham one of the most widely known and successful illustrators of his time. By 1920, he was earning £7,000 a year — more than £280,000 in today’s money, or sixfold what he made as an insurance clerk.


On a recent trip to London, I wandered into an antiquarian bookshop and had the great fortune of discovering an original 1907 edition of Rackham’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library), complete with a prefatory poem by the great English poet and essayist Austin Dobson — a lovely homage both to the timelessness of the Carroll classic and to Rackham’s innovative genius, paid in verse:

‘Tis two score years since Carroll’s art,
With topsy-turvy magic,
Sent Alice wondering through a part
Half-comic and half-tragic.

Enchanting Alice! Black-and-white
Has made your deeds perennial;
And naught save “Chaos and old Night”
Can part you now from Tenniel;

But still you are a Type, and based
In Truth, like Lear and Hamlet;
And Types may be re-draped to taste
In cloth-of-gold or camlet.

Here comes a fresh Costumier, then;
That Taste may gain a wrinkle
From him who drew with such deft pen
The rags of Rip Van Winkle!

Advice from a Caterpillar
An unusually large saucepan flew close by it, and very nearly carried it off
It grunted again so violently that she looked down onto its face in some alarm
The Queen turned angrily away fro him and said to the Knave, “Turn them over”
The Queen never left off quarreling with the other players, and shouting “Off with his head!” or, “Off wit her head!”
The Mock Turtle drew a long breath and said, “That’s very curious”
Who stole the tarts?
At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her

Rackham’s interpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an enormous creative catalyst for him. The following year, he created what is celebrated as his greatest work — his illustrations for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and his only daughter, Barbara, was born. His aesthetic went on to influence generations of beloved artists as wide-ranging as Maurice Sendak, Neil Gaiman, and Patti Smith.

For more notable collaborations between great visual artists and great storytellers across time and space, see Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Norman Rockwell’s art for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Aubrey Beardsley’s groundbreaking illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.


Keats on the Joy of Singledom and How Solitude Opens Our Creative Channels to Truth and Beauty

“The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children… I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds.”

Keats on the Joy of Singledom and How Solitude Opens Our Creative Channels to Truth and Beauty

“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude,” the great French artist Eugène Delacroix counseled himself in 1824. Just a few years earlier, another timeless patron saint of the creative spirit extolled the rewards of solitude as a supreme conduit to truth and beauty.

Celebrated as one of the greatest poets humanity has ever produced, John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) married an extraordinary capacity for transcendence with an uncommon share of sorrow. His short life was suffused with loss from a young age — his father died after a horseback accident when Keats was eight and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen. And yet even amid his darkest despair, Keats maintained a luminous faith in truth, beauty, and the power of the imagination.

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton
Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

In an 1817 letter to a distressed friend, found in Keats’s altogether enthralling Selected Letters (public library), the 22-year-old poet writes:

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination — What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not — for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.

For Keats, the sacred road to love and beauty passed through the gates of solitude. With loss as his constant companion since childhood, he had no choice but to seek solace in the only certainty that couldn’t be taken away from him: his own living self.

In his early twenties, Keats found himself warmed for the first time by the fire of romantic love. But just as he was beginning to surrender to the possibility of happiness in communion, his brother Tom began exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms of tuberculosis. In nursing him, the young poet exposed himself to the infection that would eventually take his own life three years later. Watching Tom fade, Keats was faced once again with the impending devastation of having his loved ones taken from him one by one, leaving him even more alone than before — and more determined than ever to use his solitude for creative sustenance.

In a letter from late October of 1818, 23-year-old Keats offers a most magnificent testament to the power of what Bertrand Russell called “fruitful monotony,” that great fertilizer of creative flourishing. The young poet writes to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina:

Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. Though the most beautiful Creature were waiting for me at the end of a Journey or a Walk; though the carpet were of Silk, the Curtains of the morning Clouds; the chairs and Sofa stuffed with Cygnet’s down; the food Manna, the Wine beyond Claret, the Window opening on Winander mere, I should not feel — or rather my Happiness would not be so fine, as my Solitude is sublime. Then instead of what I have described, there is a Sublimity to welcome me home — The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children. The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness — an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as a part of that Beauty. But I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart. I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds — No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office which is equivalent to a King’s body guard… I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone… I have written this that you might see I have my share of the highest pleasures and that though I may choose to pass my days alone I shall be no Solitary… I am as happy as a Man can be… with the yearning Passion I have for the beautiful, connected and made one with the ambition of my intellect.

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

With an eye to the perennial problem of how woefully we misjudge each other’s inner worlds based on outward appearances, Keats adds:

Think of my Pleasure in Solitude, in comparison of my commerce with the world — there I am a child — there they do not know me not even my most intimate acquaintance — I give into their feelings as though I were refraining from irritating a little child — Some think me middling, others silly, others foolish — every one thinks he sees my weak side against my will; when in truth it is with my will — I am content to be thought all this because I have in my own breast so great a resource.

Tom died five weeks later. The bereavement only intensified Keats’s communion with solitude, and yet he channeled it as a creative force, tapping ever more deeply into that great resource within his own breast. The trying period after Tom’s death marked the beginning of Keats’s annus mirabilis — the yearlong spell of creative vitality under which he produced most of the work for which he is best beloved today, including his “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Complement this particular fragment of Keats’s wholly enchanting Selected Letters with Edward Abbey’s sublime 1968 love letter to solitude and this modern-day manifesto for how to be alone, then revisit psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why “fertile solitude” is essential for creative work.


James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

In 1989, Paris Review founding editor and trailblazing interviewer George Plimpton edited a wonderful collection titled The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library). Among them was novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987), whom Plimpton had interviewed on two separate occasions in early 1984, half a century after Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into the pantheon of literary greatness.

In a fantastic addition to the collected wisdom of celebrated writers, Baldwin looks back on his formidable career and shares what he has learned about the creative process, the psychological drivers of writing, and the habits of mind one must cultivate in order to excel at the craft.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

Reflecting on what motivates great writers to write — an enduring question also addressed beautifully by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Baldwin sides with Bukowski and argues that the supreme animating force of the writer is the irrepressible impossibility of not-writing:

Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that. Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

Endurance, indeed, is perhaps the sole common denominator among successful authors. Any aspiring writer, he admonishes, should have no illusion about the endurance required but should want to write anyway. A generation after Jack Kerouac considered the vital difference between talent and genius, Baldwin notes:

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Joan Didion’s observation that she writes in order to gain better access to her own mind, Baldwin speaks to the consciousness-clarifying function of the creative impulse:

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Much of that self-revelation, Baldwin points out, happens not during the first outpour of writing but during the grueling process of rewriting. Echoing Hemingway’s abiding wisdom on the crucial art of revision, he adds:

Rewriting [is] very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it… The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

But as essential as that sense of incompleteness may be in guiding the revision process, it must be mediated by the awareness that completeness is a perennial mirage. (Decades later, Zadie Smith would observe in her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”) Baldwin offers:

When you’ve finished a novel, it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.

Adding to the endlessly fascinating daily rhythms of great writers, which reflect the wide range of differences in the cognitive conditions of the ideal writing routine, Baldwin shares his work habits:

I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young — I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.

Complement The Writer’s Chapbook — a treasure so wisdom-packed that it is a tragedy to see it fall out of print — with Joseph Conrad on what makes a great writer, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and Jane Kenyon on what remains the finest ethos to write and live by, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s role in society and his terrifically timely conversation with Margaret Mead about race and identity.


Happy Birthday, Mendeleev: How the Trailblazing Scientist Invented His Periodic Table in a Dream

“Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”

Happy Birthday, Mendeleev: How the Trailblazing Scientist Invented His Periodic Table in a Dream

Trailblazing chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (February 8, 1834–February 2, 1907) came to scientific greatness via an unlikely path, overcoming towering odds to create the periodic table foundational to our understanding of chemistry. Born in Siberia as one of anywhere between 11 and 17 children — biographical accounts differ, as infant mortality rate in the era was devastatingly high — he was immersed in tragedy from an early age. His father was a professor of fine arts, philosophy, and politics, but grew blind and lost his teaching position. His mother became the sole breadwinner, working at a glass factory. When Dmitri was thirteen, his father died. Two years later, a fire destroyed the glass factory.

The following year, determined to ensure her son’s education, his mother took him across the country hoping to him into a good university. The University of Moscow rejected him. At last, they made it to Saint Petersburg, Russia’s then-capital. Saint Petersburg University — his father’s alma mater and, incidentally, both of my parents’ — admitted him and the family relocated there despite their poverty.

A promising scholar, Mendeleev — also spelled Mendeleyev in English — published papers by the time he was 20 and attended the world’s first chemistry conference at 26. By his mid-thirties, he was intensely preoccupied with classifying the 56 elements known by that point. He struggled to find an underlying principle that would organize them according to sets of similar properties and eventually reaped the benefits of the pattern-recognition that fuels creativity.


But rather than by willful effort, he arrived at his creative breakthrough by the unconscious product of what T.S. Eliot called idea-incubation — one February evening, after a wearying day of work, Mendeleev envisioned his periodic table in a dream.

In Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements (public library), novelist Paul Strathern reconstructs the landmark moment from the scientist’s letters and diaries, and reimagines it with a dose of satisfying literary flourishing:

As Mendeleyev’s eyes ran once more along the line of ascending atomic weights, he suddenly noticed something that quickened his pulse. Certain similar properties seemed to repeat in the elements, at what appeared to be regular numerical intervals. Here was something! But what? A few of the intervals began with a certain regularity, but then the pattern just seemed to peter out. Despite this, Mendeleyev soon became convinced that he was on the brink of a major breakthrough. There was a definite pattern there somewhere, but he just couldn’t quite grasp it… Momentarily overcome by exhaustion, Mendeleyev leaned forward, resting his shaggy head on his arms. Almost immediately he fell asleep, and had a dream.

The dream, of course, was just a function of what the human brain normally does during sleep — organizing and consolidating the ideas, images, and bits of information that occupy our waking hours. And what Mendeleev’s waking mind was so vigorously occupied with was the quest for a classification system that would order the elements. “It’s all formed in my head,” he lamented, “but I can’t express it.” It was only when he reentered his own head under the spell of sleep’s uninhibited state that the disjointed bits fell into a pattern and the larger idea expressed itself.

Mendeleev himself would recount in his diary:

I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.

Mendeleev's 1869 handwritten draft of the periodic table
Mendeleev’s 1869 handwritten draft of the periodic table

Complement Mendeleyev’s Dream with Margaret Mead’s existentially revelatory dream about the meaning of life and John Steinbeck’s prophetic dream about how the commercial media are killing creative culture, then revisit the science of what the brain actually does while we sleep.


Strung Out In Heaven: Amanda Palmer on Patronage vs. Commerce, Art as Non-Ownable Nourishment, and the Story Behind Her Bowie String Quartet Tribute

“People don’t trust you without getting to know you and watching you work and seeing you make good on your word.”

On a gray January morning, I was taking a run through a London cemetery, the BBC in my ear, when news of David Bowie’s death broke. It was astonishing to observe the immediate and intense global outpour of grief for this artist who had inspired and emboldened generations of creative rebels. Among them was friend and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer, who was moved to channel her mourning into a spontaneous secret project now released as Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute — six sublime covers of beloved Bowie songs with string arrangements by Jherek Bischoff and vocals by Amanda, featuring appearances by Neil Gaiman, Anna Calvi, and John Cameron Mitchell, and original artwork for each of the tracks by six different visual artists.

Because Amanda’s art, like Brain Pickings, is supported via direct patronage from her audience, she had the agility to release this record on a remarkable timeline, translating an idea into art in less than two weeks — a pace that would have been impossible under a traditional record label.

The project is also a supremely heartening testament to what art can do and be in its highest, purest form — born out of an artist’s irrepressible creative impulse to pay homage to her departed hero, giving voice to her audience’s shared grief and gratitude, funded entirely by that audience, and released back into the world under a true art-for-everybody ethos at only $1 per download. More than half of the proceeds go back to the David Bowie estate and all remaining proceeds from the first month of sales go toward the cancer research wing of Tufts Medical Center in memory of Bowie.

On the day of the release, I sat down with Amanda for a conversation about the rewards and challenges of replacing the commercial model of art with a patronage model, the indivisible unity of the artist’s life and the artist’s art, and how the profound cultural shifts since Bowie’s heyday have changed the way artists and audiences connect around art.

MP: A few years ago, Bowie answered the Proust Questionnaire. When asked who his real-life heroes were, he responded: “The consumer.” Perhaps he was just being facetious, but in a way it’s a rather literal answer — while he made a career out of being a sort of space oddity, a creative weirdo not even marching to his own drum but inventing a whole new space-instrument to march to, he was also very much conscious of his reach and aware of his audience, incredibly savvy in engineering commercial appeal, and he even pioneered the commercial debt security model known as a “celebrity bond.”

And now here you come, paying tribute to Bowie, as an artist who has replaced the consumer model with the patron model. You too are doing your very own thing, making art out of being a space oddity, and yet you’re funding it in an entirely different way. Were you conscious of the contrasts and parallels between the two of you while recording this EP?

AP: I actually was, because the minute he died and everyone was doing their Bowie think-pieces and recirculating all of his old interviews, one of the things that came at me was people flagging me down and saying, “Oh, look, David Bowie presaged everything that you’re doing now.” David Bowie looked into the Magic 8 ball of the Internet and could see where everything was headed, 15 years ago — because David Bowie was really smart.

And so when David Bowie said that his hero is the consumer, I think a lot of it semantics — how is he defining “hero,” and how is he defining “consumer”? Because I think David Bowie and I, in the Venn diagram of music and performance world, have mostly overlap. But, like many of my other heroes — like Morrissey, like Robert Smith, like … name a titan of the dark nineties — he learned how to learn a system that is now defunct, and he became an expert in using the music industry, as they all did.

I was recently talking to Hasit Shah from Harvard’s Berkman Center, who is writing an article about Prince and the Internet for NPR. We had this long conversation about why everyone is constantly looking at Prince and saying, “Uhhh, he’s a grumpy old man.” I look at that entire era of musicians whom we all worshipped for decades, who are now they’re getting into their sixties. A lot of people look at them as grumpy old people, but I look at them as a kind of tragedy — because they spent their lives becoming fluent in a language that’s no longer spoken. And it’s no wonder that they’re upset — they spent their lives learning how to game a particular system that then collapsed as soon as they were ready to retire. If you were going to make music in 1985, you looked at the system and figured out what your options were. Very few people decided to change the system. 99.99999% said, “okay, I’m going to find a record label to sign with” — because that was the method of distribution in 1985.

MP: This makes me think of Simone Weil, who wrote in the early 1940s: “When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?”

AP: Prince famously wrote “SLAVE” on his face when he was trying to get off his record label.

MP: How perfect! But now, the “consumer” who was Bowie’s hero is in many ways behaving like a slave in the marketplace and finding a master, in terms the kinds of things we consent to as audiences in an increasingly commercial culture.

AP: Well, yes, but if you look at tens of thousands of years of human history as three people — the audience, the artist, and the guy at the door — there have been countless iterations of how that can work. The interesting thing about our relationship with art after the emergence of music as recorded artifact is that we can “have” it — we can own it. We forget constantly that this relationship is really new. Music in the past was not haveable — it was playable, it was sharable, you could buy sheet music. Our whole relationship with music as something you can hold in your hand — you can put on your record player, you can play on your iPhone — is very new. And we’re all very confused right now, but I do think the pendulum is eventually going to swing back into the world of music being not something you have and own but something you share and you convene around, music as community glue. And that’s going to mean the simultaneous death of the superstar — it’s going to mean the death of the David Bowie types who can sell millions and millions and millions of records and be glorified by a system that no longer exists.

MP: What’s interesting is that there was another turning point that paralleled the phenomenon of haveness — the moment at which music became haveable — and that’s the emergence of the mass market and capitalism’s transactionalist culture as related to the arts. That’s also when patronage plummeted and the man at the door became advertising and its kindred forms of commercial middlemanning between artist and audience. And the backlash you’re describing, this return to non-haveable experiences, is paralleled by a backlash of the audience moving toward a patronage model — you being a trailblazing example — and telling the man at the door to go away, refusing to allow a middleman to meddle in the experience of art. I wonder how these two shifts fed into and off of each other.

AP: It’s a really good question — it’s so fascinating, now. Even five years ago, people had ideas about where the money was going to come from in the music industry and in music culture and to the artists, and even just post-Napster, people’s theories have been really wrong. I made the case early on that if you set the Internet up like the street, music could work a lot like busking — because your average appreciator wants to pay, which is what you’ve found with Brain Pickings. And a lot of it is context — personness and not corporateness.

MP: And the values that you’re supporting in addition to the art — which brings us to the curious question of people bringing the market mentality to the patronage model. You experienced this recently with a fan.

AP: Right. A woman tweeted that she had withdrawn her patronage from my Patreon because she was “livid” that I was donating “her” money — also known as my salary — to the Bernie Sanders campaign, vocally. It turned into a discussion of whether or not she would feel the same way if I was an iTunes artist and she was just throwing down a dollar for my latest single and I was then taking the profit and giving it to anything — any charitable cause, any politician — because that would be my prerogative.

What I found was what I expected to find — there wasn’t a single person on Twitter who took the position of this woman, in part because I’ve been trying to educate and expound on what patronage is going to mean now, in these Internet days.

MP: Perhaps the pivotal educational moment came when you did your magnificent BBC open letter to the fan who said she wanted to withdraw her patronage now that you were going to be a mother, because she had signed on to support your art and not your baby’s diapers, and you wrote beautifully about how your art is inseparable from your baby’s diapers — from your life as a human being in its entirety.

AP: Right. The blurred line between the artist and the art and the marketing of the art is all just living in one very messy place. People have, since the early days of my career and later through Kickstarter, been giving me money not just for the art but for the whole story — for my writing on the blogs, and my existence.

One very interesting way to think about it is this: If what my patrons wish for me in their $10 patronage is that I spend my time and energy making art, then if I don’t buy diapers, I have to spend my whole day just cleaning baby shit off the floor. I’d have no time to listen to string arrangements and go into a studio. So it is the same thing — it is all one thing.

And if you wanted to clock the hours that I have spent as communicator, helper, therapist, sharer of ideas with my fans over Twitter and Facebook, it would probably log in the thousands of hours. But I consider that part of the you-ness and the me-ness of what our patrons are paying for. It comes down to this: I want to make everything, I won’t want to work within a nickel-and-diming capitalist system, and I want you patrons to just generally pay my salary — which is where things get very complicated with the Patreon model, because a lot of it is somewhat random. For instance: I’m going to put out a record with my dad this year, and it costs too much time and energy to just put out as one thing, but do I put it out as five things and charge $150,000 for it? That seems a little extreme. Do I put it up as two things, do I split it up into three? And when I start thinking this way, I realize, I have complete control.

I could sit there and take Polaroids and draw on them and put one up a day, and just charge my fans. They would probably stop trusting me and go away. I talked about this so much when the Kickstarter happened — which happened because people trusted me. And then there was conversation number two, which was about why people trusted me, and that became The Art of Asking, because it’s not a two-sentence answer. But they trusted me because I toured the world for ten years and got to know them — and people don’t trust you without getting to know you and watching you work and seeing you make good on your word.

MP: Which is something much larger than art as sellable artifact.

AP: True. Which brings us back to the art-as-consumable-thing question. Years ago, someone told me about an art service that would repaint classical art in a color scheme that better suits the decor of your house.

MP: Starry Night with a little more green to match the drapes?

AP: Exactly. A bizarro-world example of art as product. And one of the questions that keeps coming up in my life, and kept coming up endlessly in the Kickstarter, was people asking whether I feel like I would be beholden to my fans — which is another way of asking whether I’m afraid of turning my audience into consumers. And that was so outside the realm of my imagination that it hadn’t even occurred to me to be worried about that until journalists started asking all the time. And my answer was always “no.” I’m not worried about that because I don’t have that kind of relationship with my audience — they’ve given me their support not because they have an expectation of a particular product that they want to arrive in their inbox, but because they have a curiosity about where my path is going to take me and they want to see what’s created.

MP: It seems like what you’re describing is a shift from an ethic of expectation, which is the market model, to an ethic of enthusiasm, which is the patronage model — people are just excited to support the artist and to offer up that enthusiasm in tangible form, as a relationship.

AP: Right. But the boundaries are also very fluid. When I pitched my audience Patreon, I pitched them a mystery into which we were all going to be going. But, as their art-maker and enthusiasm-provider, there’s a part of me that just wants to make them happy and delight them and surprise them and impress them and emotionally challenge them. And there’s a part of me that takes delight in finding new ways to do that rather than just sitting down and writing another delightful, emotionally challenging ukulele song every two weeks for which I get paid — that would be so fucking boring.

And this, actually, takes us full-circle to Bowie — because Bowie, like a certain lineage of shape-shifting art-world artists who didn’t just follow the script, fed off doing the unexpected while not departing so far off to the left that they lost their audience. And that’s a dance that you do with expectation — a dance between your audience’s expectation and the awareness that if you give them what they actually expect, you’d lose them.

It makes me think of Henry Ford’s famous remark that if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses — and instead he made a car. His job wasn’t to give them what they wanted — it was to give them what they needed.

MP: And yet the commercial music industry today is very much a “faster horses” model — song after song after song, algorithmically optimized to refine what people already know and want. The tricky thing happens when the audience begins expecting a product — the artist can thrive and grow only when people expect a process. The market model is predicated on product and the patronage model on process.

AP: Getting away from art-as-product reminds me of the Bread and Puppet manifesto: “Art is not business! It does not belong to banks & fancy investors. Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you.”

MP: Or, as Susan Sontag put it in 1964: “Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit).”

AP: Yes. It’s the idea that we look at our art-providers as having a logical and valuable job — like the shoemaker and the doctor and the teacher — the idea that being a musician is just an ordinary job, as opposed to being an extraordinary job with terrible odds of success, that whole paradigm of how difficult it is to get a job in the arts. Instead, we’re going to the old way of looking at art and talent, which is that if you want to take that on as a job, you will train and you’ll get good at it and you’ll be appreciated, and maybe you won’t be fabulously wealthy, but nobody should be fabulously wealthy — not if we’re all living in a community where things are basically fair.

MP: In a way, the patronage model is allowing for precisely that — translating the appreciation of an artist into a tangible recognition of that very ordinary, very important job of feeding the soul of the people by feeding the artist. Which brings us back to the Bowie project.

AP: When David Bowie died, I wanted to immerse myself in David Bowie and give myself a work project, because I had been so immersed in motherhood and was struggling with reconciling that with my identity as an artist. I wanted desperately to work, but had cleared my plate of projects because I didn’t know what my life as a mother would be like and I needed to make room for that. So I had this semi-vacuum of time where I was coming to terms with mother-schedule, but I looked at the Bowie tribute and realized I could do most of the project from home, on my computer, in collaboration with Jherek, and I could spend two days at the studio and find a babysitter. I looked at the entire project and thought it was manageable, I could do it right now, which is the way I like to work — fast and furious and surprising and very chaotic and manic.

Jherek was on board to go with the pace, and I knew that if we waited seven months to put out our David Bowie tribute, it just wouldn’t feel the same. It is of the moment, and it was of the moment to sit on the couch and listen to Bowie songs with Neil [Gaiman] and read my patrons’ favorite Bowie songs and go on hunts for obscure tracks and sit there with the baby between me and Neil, immersing ourselves in this artist’s world — because all that felt like part of the project, it felt like part of the patronage.

That was our way of mourning, and that became our ritualistic David Bowie funeral.

MP: But that pace, that surrender to the moment, wouldn’t have been possible under a traditional label.

AP: Right. What I love about Patreon is that I can now work at the pace that I require. If I were doing this at the pace of my old record label, I would have called them in an excited fury and they would now be sitting down in a boardroom, in a meeting, saying, “If Amanda wants to do this David Bowie tribute, should we try to slot it in release week November 2016, in between Slipknot and Nickleback?” So there is a staggering liberation in being able to just take a pile of money and make the music happen. And this album won’t make a lot of money — it’s not going to be sold in stores, it’s only going to be available digitally for $1, more than half of which goes to David Bowie’s publishing estate. But I didn’t do it because I wanted to make a lot of money — I did it because I wanted to do it and I wanted to pay for it and I wanted it to be sustainable. And, hopefully, my Patreon will grow and grow and grow — and I’ll continually spend the entire budget back on the art, but that’s what I always wanted to do anyway.

MP: But that’s the point — that’s what patronage is.

AP: That is the point. It’s about making enough money to make art, and making enough money to live, and making enough money to give to Bernie Sanders if I wanted to. Actually, this is going to be a very interesting question for me in the next five or ten years — how transparent am I expected to be and how demanding are my patrons going to be, because none of us have ever done this before and there is no rulebook.

MP: Well, in the immortal words of the Talking Heads, we’ll “make it up as we go along.”

Treat yourself to the phenomenal Strung Out In Heaven, then join me in supporting Amanda’s art on Patreon and making a larger cultural case for the power of patronage.


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