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The Great Indian Poet and Philosopher Tagore on Truth, Human Nature, and the Interdependence of Existence

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.”

The Great Indian Poet and Philosopher Tagore on Truth, Human Nature, and the Interdependence of Existence

“Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason… Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.” So wrote the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he contemplated how we come to know truth. Nearly a century later, the great Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861–August 7, 1941) explored this question from a kindred angle, bringing to it the tools of philosophy, scientific knowledge, and spiritual inquiry.

In May of 1930, two months before his famous conversation with Einstein about the intersection of science and spirituality and seventeen years after he became the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Tagore delivered a series of lectures at Oxford University exploring human nature, spirituality, and our experience of reality. The following year, they were collected in The Religion of Man (public library).

Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore — whose legacy has inspired writings as diverse as physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic ode to science and philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s investigation of our political emotions — begins the opening lecture, “Man’s Universe,” with a poetic cosmogony of life:

Light as the radiant energy of creation started the ring-dance of atoms in a diminutive sky and also the dance of the stars in the vast lonely theatre of time and space. The planets came out of their bath of fire and basked in the sun for ages. They were the thrones of the gigantic Inert, dumb and desolate, which knew not the meaning of its own blind destiny and majestically frowned upon a future when its monarchy would be menaced.

Then came a time when life was brought into the arena in the tiniest little monocycle of a cell. With its gift of growth and power of adaptation it faced the ponderous enormity of things and contradicted the unmeaningness of their bulk. It was made conscious not of the volume but of the value of existence which it ever tried to enhance and maintain in many-branched paths of creation, overcoming the obstructive inertia of Nature by obeying Nature’s Law.

But the miracle of creation did not stop here in this isolated speck of life launched on a lonely voyage to the Unknown. A multitude of cells were bound together into a larger unit, not through aggregation but through a marvellous quality of complex inter-relationship maintaining a perfect co-ordination of functions. This is the creative principle of unity, the divine mystery of existence, that baffles all analysis. The larger cooperative units could adequately pay for a greater freedom of self-expression, and they began to form and develop in their bodies new organs of power, new instruments of efficiency. This was the march of evolution ever unfolding the potentialities of life.

When humans emerged, Tagore argues, we “turned the course of this evolution from an indefinite march of physical aggrandisement to a freedom of a more subtle perfection” — a realization of the unity between the physical and spiritual dimensions of existence, between one and all. He writes:

The leather binding and title-page are parts of the book itself; and this world that we perceive through our senses and mind and life’s experience is profoundly one with ourselves.

The divine principle of unity has ever been that of an inner inter-relationship. This is revealed in some of its earliest stages in the evolution of multicellular life on this planet. The most perfect outward expression has been attained by man in his own body. But what is most important of all is the fact that man has also attained its realisation in a more subtle body outside his physical system. He misses himself when isolated he finds his own larger and truer self in his wide human relationship. His multicellular body is born and it dies; his multi-personal humanity is immortal.

Illustration by Rob Hunter from A Graphic Cosmogony

Inhabiting this sense of belonging to the interconnectedness of things, Tagore suggests, is the closest our mortal selves can get to an experience of immortality. In a sentiment which the trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson would echo a few years later in asserting that appreciation of nature’s wholeness gives us the only real taste of immortality, Tagore writes:

In this ideal of unity [man] realizes the eternal in his life and the boundless in his love. The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth.

[…]

We have our eves, which relate to us the vision of the physical universe. We have also an inner faculty of our own which helps us to find our relationship with the supreme self of man, the universe of personality. This faculty is our luminous imagination which in its higher stage is special to man. It offers us that vision of wholeness which for the biological necessity of physical survival is superfluous; its purpose is to arouse in us the sense of perfection which is our true sense of immortality.

Tagore argues that we find this sense of immortality — or, rather, we create it — in our works of art, in philosophy and science, in service. He writes:

On the surface of our being we have the ever-changing phases of the individual self, but in the depth there dwells the Eternal Spirit of human unity beyond our direct knowledge. It very often contradicts the trivialities of our daily life and upsets the arrangements made for securing our personal exclusiveness behind the walls of individual habits and superficial conventions. It inspires in us works that are the expressions of a Universal Spirit; it invokes unexpectedly in the midst of a self-centred life a supreme sacrifice. At its call, we hasten to dedicate our lives to the cause of truth and beauty, to unrewarded service of others.

Reflecting on his own experience of first contacting this immortal awareness of the interconnectedness of things, he adds:

The first stage of my realisation was through my feeling of intimacy with Nature — not that Nature which has its channel of information for our mind and physical relationship with our living body, but that which satisfies our personality with manifestations that make our life rich, stimulate our imagination in their harmony of forms, colours, sounds and movements… that which lavishly displays its wealth of reality to our personal self having its own perpetual reaction upon our human nature.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio, an alternative origin story exploring the grand questions of existence

Nearly six decades before the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler proffered his “It from Bit” theory, in which he asserted that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Tagore considers the relationship between the consciousness of the human observer and the truth this consciousness perceives:

Even the impersonal aspect of truth dealt with by science belongs to the human Universe. But men of Science tell us that truth, unlike beauty, and goodness, is independent of our consciousness. They explain to us how the belief, that truth is independent of the human mind, is a mystical belief, natural to man but at the same time inexplicable. But may not the explanation be this, that ideal truth does not depend upon the individual mind of man but on the universal mind which comprehends the individual? For to say that truth, as we see it, exists apart from humanity is really to contradict science itself; because science can only organise into rational concepts those facts which man can know and understand, and logic is a machinery of thinking created by the mechanic man.

Interestingly, Tagore is writing the selfsame year that the mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, demonstrating through mathematics rather than philosophy that there are limits to how much of reality scientific logic can grasp. Perhaps Gödel would have been pleased by the example with which Tagore illustrates his point:

The table that I am using with all its varied meanings appears as a table for man through his special organ of senses and his special organ of thoughts. When scientifically analysed the same table offers an enormously different appearance to him from that given by his senses. The evidence of his physical senses and that of his logic and his scientific instruments are both related to his own power of comprehension; both are true and true for him. He makes use of the table with full confidence for his physical purposes and with equal confidence makes intellectual use of it for his scientific knowledge. But the knowledge is his who is a man. If a particular man as an individual did not exist, the table would exist all the same, but still as a thing that is related to human mind. The contradiction that there is between the table of our sense perception and the table of our scientific knowledge has its common centre of reconciliation in human personality.

The same thing holds true in the realm of idea. In the scientific idea of the world there is no gap in the universal law of causality. Whatever happens could never have happened otherwise. This is a generalisation which has been made possible by a quality of logic which is possessed by the human mind. But this very mind of man has its immediate consciousness of will within him which is aware of its freedom and ever struggles for it. Every day in most of our behaviour we acknowledge its truth; in fact our conduct finds its best value in its relation to its truth. Thus this has its analogy in our daily behaviour with regard to a table. For whatever may be the conclusion that Science has unquestionably proved about the table, we are amply rewarded when we deal with it as a solid fact and never as a crowd of fluid elements that represent certain kinds of energy.

But, in a sentiment which Karl Popper would echo decades later in his admonition against the dangers of relativism, Tagore takes care to ground his point in the lively conviction that science remains our best method for ascertaining truth with accuracy and, as such, offers a model for exploring the human mind itself:

I do not imply that the final nature of the world depends upon the comprehension of the individual person. Its reality is associated with the universal human mind which comprehends all time and all possibilities of realisation. And this is why for the accurate knowledge of things we depend upon science that represents the rational mind of the universal man and not upon that of the individual who dwells in a limited range of space and time, and the immediate needs of life. And this is why there is such a thing as progress in our civilisation; for progress means that there is an ideal perfection which the individual seeks to reach by extending his limits in knowledge, power, love, enjoyment, thus approaching the universal. The most distant star whose faint message touches the threshold of the most powerful telescopic vision has its sympathy with the understanding mind of man, and therefore we can never cease to believe that we shall probe further and further into the mystery of their nature. As we know the truth of the stars we know the great comprehensive mind of man.

A century after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, asserted that “everything is naturally related and interconnected,” Tagore considers how this unity of the elements of existence — of observer and observed, of physical and psychic — illuminates the human experience:

The truth, which is Man, has not emerged out of nothing at a certain point of time, even though seemingly it might have been manifested then. But the manifestation of Man has no end in itself — not even now. Neither did it have its beginning in any particular time we ascribe to it. The truth of man is in the heart of eternity, the fact of it being evolved through endless ages. If Man’s manifestation has round it a background of millions of light years still it is his own background. He includes in himself the time, however long, that carries the process of his becoming.

Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.

Complement this particular portion of The Religion of Man with Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, Lewis Thomas on the transmutation of ignorance into truth, Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

BP

Are You An Echo: The Remarkable Story of the Forgotten Young Woman Who Became Japan’s Most Beloved Children’s Poet

A celebration of indiscriminate empathy and a sensitive reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist.

Are You An Echo: The Remarkable Story of the Forgotten Young Woman Who Became Japan’s Most Beloved Children’s Poet

In 1966, while leafing through an obscure book, a 19-year-old Japanese aspiring poet by the name of Setsuo Yazaki discovered a poem that stopped him up short with its staggering generosity of empathy and existential truth conferred with great simplicity:

BIG CATCH

At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!

On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold
funerals
for the tens of thousands dead.

The poem had been written many decades earlier by a young forgotten poet named Misuzu Kaneko (April 11, 1903–March 10, 1930). Yazaki hungered to know more about her life and work, but was met with a near-total vacuum. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family.

Yazaki spent sixteen years trying to track down this ghostly genius. In 1982, by then in his mid-thirties, he finally made a breakthrough — he found and met with Kaneko’s 77-year-old younger brother, who brought her three worn pocket diaries containing the only extant record of the 512 children’s poems she had written in her blink of a lifetime, most never published.

Misuzu Kaneko, January 1930

Her poems have something of Whitman in their empathetic reverence for the splendor of the earth and its creatures, something of Blake in their precision of insight into the nature of things, and something of Plath in both the largehearted appetite for loving the world and the poet’s heartbreaking death. Her short life is a rare reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist, and that the barely bearable emotional porousness with which some people are endowed is the common root of both their sorrowful sensitivity and their uncommon capacity for compassion.

Yazaki set about enchanting the popular imagination with the grounding and elevating power of the lost poems he had found. Over the years that followed, as he published these forgotten treasures, Kaneko was resurrected as Japan’s foremost poet for young readers. Children in public schools could recite her verses by heart. Her gentle face adorns a national postage stamp. When a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, television companies stopped commercials and instead played her poem “Are You an Echo?” as a public service announcement that adrenalized nearly one million volunteers to flock to the site of the disaster.

ARE YOU AN ECHO?

If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”

If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”

If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

And then, after a while,
becoming lonely

I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”

Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

But despite her immense popularity in Japan, the English-speaking world has been deprived of Kaneko’s poetry for nearly a century — until now, thanks to Seattle’s independent Chin Music Press: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (public library) introduces young readers to the life and work of this extraordinary woman, whose writing continues to salve generations by wrapping the delicate consciousness of words around what so many unconsciously feel but cannot articulate.

A labor of love by David Jacobson, who first fell in love with Kaneko’s poetry in its original Japanese, this unusual bilingual book translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi tells the story of the poet’s life alongside some of her most beloved poems, illustrated in tender watercolor by Japanese artist Toshikado Hajiri.

Kaneko was born at the dawn of the twentieth century in a small fishing village. Her mother, who became a single parent after the girl’s father died when she was three, ran a bookstore and felt strongly about reading and education. Unlike most Japanese girls in that era, whose formal education ended after sixth grade, Misuzu remained in school until the age of seventeen. A precocious child, she read voraciously about faraway lands and was animated by a sympathetic curiosity about the natural world. Like Oliver Sacks, who would lie in the garden and wonder what it’s like to be a rose, young Misuzu would puzzle over what it’s like to be snow and how orphaned whale calves grieve their parents after a whale hunt.

SNOW PILE

Snow on top
must feel chilly,
the cold moonlight piercing it.

Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.

In her early twenties, Kaneko began writing short poems for children based on vivid memories from her own childhood. She submitted some of them to five magazines that held regular competitions for young writers. To her amazement, four of the five accepted her poems and printed them in the same month of 1923. Soon, her poems began appearing in magazines all over the country. Barely in her twenties, she became a literary celebrity.

In a sensitive insight, Jacobson considers how Kaneko must have felt as she released her art into the world, and finds an analogy in one of her own poems:

FLOWER SHOP MAN

The flower shop man
went to town to sell flowers
and sold them all.

Poor lonely flower shop man.
The flowers he cared for are all gone.

The flower shop man
is now alone in his hut
as the sun goes down.
The flower shop man
dreams of happiness
for the flowers he sold.

But while the public shone its adoring attention on Kaneko, darkness was brewing in her private life. The man she had married — a clerk in her family bookstore — turned out to be a terrible, unfaithful husband. As Jacobson tactfully puts it, she “contracted a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” To compound the physical agony, he forced her to stop writing.

The little girl they had together was the light of Kaneko’s life, but when she finally decided to rise from the pit of unhappiness by leaving her husband, she collided with further heartbreak: Japanese law automatically granted the father indisputable custody and Kaneko’s husband didn’t hesitate to use it — he declared that he was to take their daughter away. Bedeviled by debilitating bodily pain and anguished by the loss of her daughter, Kaneko sank into further despair.

One evening, after bathing her daughter and sharing with her their favorite desert — sakuramochi, a pink ball of sweet sticky-rice wrapped in a salty cherry tree leaf — Kaneko went into her study, wrote a letter to her husband asking that he let her mother raise the girl, and took her own life a month before her twenty-seventh birthday.

STARS AND DANDELIONS

Deep in the blue sky,
like pebbles at the bottom of the sea,
lie the stars unseen in daylight
until night comes.
  You can’t see them, but they are there.
  Unseen things are still there.

The withered, seedless dandelions
hidden in the cracks of the roof tile
wait silently for spring,
their strong roots unseen.
  You can’t see them, but they are there.
  Unseen things are still there.

The grandmother eventually did get to raise the little girl. Jacobson offers a touching ending to a tragic story:

Every year on the anniversary of Misuzu’s death, grandmother and granddaughter would share a sakuramochi. Together, they remembered Misuzu’s kind and gentle soul.

Given the harrowing undertones of Kaneko’s life-story, the decision to make a children’s book about it is a courageous refusal to sugar-coat the complexity of life and a reflection of Neil Gaiman’s admonition against protecting children from the dark. (The ghost of E.B. White resounds: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”)

Complement the tender and touching Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko with Wabi-Sabi, a lovely children’s book based on the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in impermanence, and Little Tree, an uncommonly beautiful and subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then revisit this collection of children’s book celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists.

BP

When a Friendship Is More Than Friendship: The Tender Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

“I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.”

When a Friendship Is More Than Friendship: The Tender Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

Half the beauty of life lies in its complexity — in those experiences whose depth and dimension cannot be sliced, flattened, and contained into neat categories. Nowhere is that complexity greater, richer, nor more replete with nuance than in the emotional universe of human relationships, the most expansive of which defy and interpolate between the various labels we try to impose on them. Those relationships we call platonic are difficult enough to taxonomize, but when a friendship becomes punctuated by the pulse-beat of romantic love, when two people cease to know what to call each other and know only what they mean to each other, the level of complexity crescendoes and can become either destructively shrill or transcendently symphonic.

Those rare symphonies of connectional complexity, like the relationships between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman and Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, continue to enchant and fascinate me. One such uncommon connection blossomed between the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896) and the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897).

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, 1853

The two became acquainted in 1853, when Clara’s beloved husband, the famed composer Robert Schumann, was struck by Brahms’s musical genius and took him under his wing. In a letter to Brahms’s father, Schumann called him a “darling of the Muses.” He then wrote an impassioned piece for one of the era’s leading music journals, extolling the young musician’s creative ingenuity and prophesying his forthcoming fame. For this Brahms was immensely grateful and wrote to his “Revered Master”: “You have made me so extremely happy that I cannot attempt to express my thanks in words. May God grant that my works will soon be able to prove to you how much your love and kindness have uplifted and inspired me.” He wished for himself to “always be worthy” of Schumann’s confidence in his talent.

But only four months after the Schumanns met Brahms and bestowed upon him their generous patronage, Robert suffered a nervous breakdown. On February 27, 1854, he climbed a bridge and threw himself into the river Rhine. He was rescued and dragged ashore, then immediately committed to a private psychiatric institution, where he spent the remaining two years of his life afflicted with auditory hallucinations and other psychological infirmities. But he remained so fond of Brahms that when Clara sent him a portrait of the young composer, Schumann wrote to Brahms saying that he had placed it “under the looking-glass” in his room — an assuring suggestion that he saw much of himself in his protégé.

Robert Schumann

Schumann never recovered from his mental illness and died in the asylum on July 29, 1856, leaving Clara to raise their three sons and four daughters as a single mother and a working artist who provided for them through her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to put them through school.

During Robert’s illness and confinement at the asylum, Clara began corresponding directly with Brahms. He soon grew to be her closest confidante and most beloved friend. The doctors at the asylum had forbidden her to visit, for fear of overstimulating the ailing Schumann’s frail nervous system, so Brahms even served as a messenger between Clara and her husband. In the darkness following Robert’s death, he became Clara’s sole source of light and their friendship took on a new dimension. Clara would later write in a letter to her children:

You hardly knew your dear Father, you were still too young to feel deep grief, and thus in those terrible years you could give me no comfort. Hope, indeed, you could bring me, but it was not enough to support me through such agony. Then came Johannes Brahms. Your Father loved and admired him, as he did no man except [the violinist Joseph] Joachim. He came, like a true friend, to share all my sorrow; he strengthened the heart that threatened to break, he uplifted my mind, he cheered my spirit when[ever] and wherever he could; in short he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word.

Indeed, between them stretched a fullness of affection defying confinement and classification, blurring the line between the filial and the romantic, between friend and lover, so that rather than two distinct territories divided by a borderline, a rich and radiant spectrum is revealed.

A century and a half later, the Pulitzer-winning poet Lisel Mueller would devote a beautiful poem to this remarkable and unclassifiable relationship, found in her collection Alive Together:

ROMANTICS

Johannes Brahms and
      Clara Schumann

The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

But we do overhear a great deal of this singular tenderness in their surviving correspondence, collected in the out-of-print 1973 gem Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms (public library).

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms

At the outset of their correspondence, Brahms addresses Clara Schumann as “Honoured Lady,” perhaps because he saw her more as a benefactress than as an object of love. But beneath his grateful admiration, a slow-burning infatuation with his guardian angel soon takes hold of his heart. In a letter from August of 1854, 21-year-old Johannes writes to 35-year-old Clara while touring across Europe:

I should not have enjoyed a single moment of the trip. The [cities] which otherwise would have thrilled me with joy, leave me cold, so dull and colorless does everything seem to me.

I will go home and play music and read to myself until you appear, and I can do so with you. If you wanted to please me very much indeed you would let me find a letter in Düsseldorf… If the great longing that has possessed me during the last few days has any influence on my playing etc. it ought soon to enable me to cast a spell over people.

Five days later, in a sentiment that offers a counterpoint to Aldous Huxley’s memorable assertion that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Brahms writes:

I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.

And yet his devotion is unpossessive, holding Clara’s happiness as its highest object — a happiness darkened by her worries about her husband’s fate at the psychiatric institution. To relieve her restless anxiety, Brahms travels to the asylum himself to check on Robert Schumann and reports back to her with as much assurance as he can wrest from the circumstances:

His look is friendly and bright, his movements are the same as ever, he keeps one hand constantly to his mouth, and smokes in short puffs as he always used to.

He infuses with romantic air even the news of his visit to this grim and dispiriting place:

Herr Sch. then turned to look at the flowers and went further into the garden towards the lovely view. I saw him disappear with a glorious halo about him, formed by the setting sun.

In these early letters, there is almost a sense of deification — Brahms seems enamored not with Clara alone but with the Schumanns as a unit that embodies what he perceives to be the loftiest qualities of the human spirit:

Even I, before I knew you, imagined that such people as you and such marriages as yours could only exist in the imagination of the rarest people.

[…]

People … do not deserve that you two, Robert and Clara, should be on earth at all, and I feel uplifted when I think that I may see the time when people will idolize you — two such wholly poetical natures. I almost wish that the world in general might forget you so that you could remain all the more sacred to the elect…

By November of that year, Clara herself is insisting that Brahms address her by “thou” — the second person singular reserved for an intimate friendship. By the following March, Brahms not only begins using her first name, but addresses his letters to “My dearly beloved Clara” and, by June, simply to “My Clara.”

In a letter from August of 1855, Brahms writes to his Clara:

Clara, dear Clara… I feel ever more happy and peaceful in my love for you. Every time I miss you more but I long for you almost with joy. That is how it is. And I knew the feeling already but never quite so warm as it is now.

The following May, he amplifies the warmth to a heat:

My Beloved Clara,

I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things that I wish you. You are so infinitely dear to me, dearer than I can say. I should like to spend the whole day calling you endearing names and paying you compliments without ever being satisfied.

At the end of another letter, penned after Clara and her four youngest children had come to celebrate Christmas with him in Düsseldorf, he signs:

With heartiest wishes for your welfare, and begging you to kiss me,

Your Johannes

Four months earlier, Richard Schumann had died in the mental asylum. Clara had been forced to begin mourning his loss while witnessing his deterioration, but his death delivered a shock of grief for which no one could prepare. Brahms’s affectionate devotion became her only comfort. She threw herself into popularizing her late husband’s compositions, which she performed unwearyingly around Europe as she single-parented their seven children. But she was equally enchanted by Brahms’s own genius — she praised and encouraged his work privately, and extolled and recommended it publicly. This mutuality of artistic admiration became a centerpiece of their layered love.

In a letter from July of 1858, penned after she had made yet another spirited recommendation of Brahms’s work, Clara protests that her creative opinion isn’t influenced by “blind enthusiasm” for him and writes tenderly:

That I am often mightily captivated by the wealth of your genius, that you always seem to be one on whom heaven has showered its fairest gifts and that I love you and honor you for so many magnificent qualities — all this is true, dearest Johannes, and has taken deep root in my heart. So do not try to kill it all in me by your cold philosophizing — it is impossible.

[…]

I have always considered myself so fortunate to be able to be to you a friend who understands you, and who is in a position to recognize your value as a musician and as a man.

Indeed, what at first appeared as one-sided infatuation and idolization on behalf of Brahms has by this point deepened into a profound symmetry of affection. At the end of her lengthy letter, Clara adds:

I am waiting for another letter, my Johannes. If only I could find longing as sweet as you do. It only gives me pain and fills my heart with unspeakable woe. Farewell! Think kindly of Your Clara.

Write me as often as you can. One requires to be cheerful during a cure and whence would good cheer come to me if not from you?

In a letter from February of 1861, Clara touches on another essential element in their bond — their shared artistic integrity:

You cannot imagine how sad I am when I feel I have not put my heart into my playing. To me it is as if I had done an injury not only to myself but also to art.

I have been talking as if you had been patiently sitting listening at my side all the while. If only it were so! Oh, write to me often, my beloved friend! You know how you can show your love in this way, particularly when I can feel that you do it willingly and from your heart. Greet your dear ones for me and for yourself a thousand greetings from Your devoted Clara.

Rather than crumbling with the erosive passage of time, the way an infatuation does, their love only deepened as the years wore on. In a letter from the spring of 1872, nearly twenty years after they first met, Brahms writes on Easter Monday:

My beloved Clara,

I always enjoy festivals in solitude, quite alone, with perhaps just a few dear ones in my room, and very quietly — for are not all my people either dead or far away? But what a joy it is to me then to remember how big with love is a certain human breast. For, after all, I am dependent upon the outside world — the hurly-burly in which we live. I do not add my laughter to its medley of voices, nor do I join its chorus of lies, — but it is as if the best in man could shut itself up, and only half of him sallied forth dreaming.

How fortunate you are, or, I should say, how beautiful, how good, how right! I mean that you bear your heart as a conscious possession, securely; whereas we are obliged every minute to conceal ours. You see everything so warmly, with such beautiful serenity, just like a reflection of yourself; and then with the same serenity you give unto each his due. All this sounds so stupid, and I cannot say what I think; although it would be even more stupid to speak of lilies and angels, and then to come back to you and your sweet nature.

It is with this loving sweetness that Clara shares in Brahms’s growing success. In the spring of 1874, shortly after the Bavarian king Ludwig II awarded him the prestigious Maximilian Order for Science and Art, she writes:

Just received your letter, so I can thank you for it at once. The joy it has given me may well compensate you for the pains it cost you to write. What I like more particularly is that you frankly acknowledge the pleasure which such recognition must give you. It cannot be otherwise; an artist’s heart must feel warmer for it. And I must say that to witness your growing fame constitutes the happiest experience that the latter years of my life could bring.

Now please sacrifice a little more time and send me a few words after the festival. Think of the lonely friend who is concentrating all her mind upon you now, and to whom every stroke of good fortune that reaches you is an added joy. Your old Clara.

When Clara Schumann died at the age of 76, Brahms survived her by only eleven months.

Complement the thoroughly satisfying though, regrettably, almost impossible to find Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms with other stirring love letters by Kahlil Gibran, 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

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