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Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.”

Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe,” the great English writer and feminist Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) wrote as she contemplated suffering, survival, and the will to keep walking the road to ourselves in her 1941 masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Three decades earlier, West had honed this heroic insistence on inquiry into suffering on the bludgeoning whetstone of her own heartbreak. At only twenty, after calling him “the Old Maid of novelists” in a scorching review of his novel Marriage, she had fallen madly in love with H.G. Wells — one of the era’s most venerated writers, twenty-six years her senior, married (to a woman who shared his skepticism about the institution of marriage), and the father of two young boys. The magmatic affair ended after several months, severed by Wells. At first attracted to West’s electric intellect, he cowered upon discovering that this selfsame electricity coursed through the whole of her being — she was too intense, her love too alive — affirmation of Henry James’s famous indictment of Wells: “so much life with (so to speak) so little living.”

In one of the most remarkable letters ever composed — a masterwork of inhabiting one’s multitudes and contradictions with the full dignity of each faction, the bold along with the desperate, the broken along with the whole — penned in March 1913 and found in Anna Holmes’s delicious Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), West channels the confused magnetic maelstrom of push and pull familiar to any rejected lover, but channels it with a level of lucidity and fiery self-awareness rarely accessible to the rest of us:

Dear H. G.,

During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.

I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.

I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.

And then, in a passage that justifies Virginia Woolf’s later description of West as “hard as nails… a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes… immense vitality… suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence,” she adds:

I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.

As the universal pendulum of the jilted swings from blame to self-blame, from self-righteousness to self-abasement, she throws herself from the clocktower of heartbreak into the always impenetrable unknown that follows the end of a great love:

You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. They are. But people like me swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.

That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your — much more precious than you imagine it to be — self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent spectacle and a reversal of the natural order of things. But you should have been too fine to feel like that.

I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.

I wish you had loved me. I wish you liked me.

Yours,

Rebecca

She adds a postscript of heartbreaking resignation:

P.S. Don’t leave me utterly alone. If I live write to me now and then. You like me enough for that. At least I pretend to myself you do.

But just as Wells had failed to account for the consanguinity of her character qualities, West too failed to account for his — the all-consuming love confessed in this letter, aimed at winning him back, was the very thing that had made him run in the first place. His curt three-line response, found in Lesley MacDowell’s excellent Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and Their Famous Literary Partnerships (public library), made this painfully clear:

How can I be your friend to this accompaniment? I don’t see that I can be of any use or help to you at all. You have my entire sympathy — but until we can meet on a reasonable basis — Goodbye.

For all her passionate nature, West’s intellect was too great to let her make the same mistake twice. She issued no more personal appeals. Instead, she threw herself into what had brought them together in the first place — her professional devotion to her craft. And then the seemingly miraculous but not altogether unexpected happened. When she published a characteristically perceptive and lyrical essay about a Spanish café singer in the July issue of The New Freewoman, she received a letter from Wells that must have honeyed her soul both as a writer and as a lover, but also bittered with its confused mosaic of professional praise and misogynistic punishment. (It is telling that Wells found and read the essay despite its publication in a literary magazine that only existed for six months — he was clearly keeping a keen eye out for her work, perhaps the era’s equivalent of Instagram stalking.) He wrote:

You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends… [Your essay] was tremendous. You are as wise as God when you write — at times — and then you are atortured, untidy… little disaster of a girl who can’t even manage the most elementary tricks of her sex. You are like a beautiful voice singing out of a darkened room into which one gropes and finds nothing.

West took her time to respond. No record survives of when and how she did. But by November, they were lovers again. In January, West found out she was pregnant and decided to keep the child. Wells would later blame himself for impairing her promising career with his carelessness:

It was our second encounter and she became pregnant. It was entirely unpremeditated. She wanted to write. It should not have happened, and since I was the more experienced person, the blame is wholly mine.

Their son, Anthony West, was born in the final months of World War I. West and Wells remained lovers for a decade, but grew increasingly unhappy in the relationship, both personally and professionally, until Wells was ready to admit that they “did harm to each other as writers.” Only when they separated did West’s career soar to its influential heights. They remained friends until Wells’s death. “We did at times love each other very much,” he reflected after the collapse of the romantic relationship. “We love each other still.”

West and Wells in 1923, just after the end of their romance. (Photograph: Alfred L. Shepherd)

Perhaps the rift came not from the absence of love but from the misalignment of values in what they both held at the center of their being: their identity as writers. Wells, by his own admission, would “rather be called a journalist than an artist.” West, in her trailblazing account of Balkan culture — the culture of which I myself am the product, — went on to pioneer a new aesthetic of journalism that was equally a work of truth and a work of art, animated by her fundamental conviction that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”

Complement with Rilke on how to break up with integrity and Van Gogh on heartbreak as a vitalizing force for creative work, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss.

BP

Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

What the weird, wondrous, otherworldly animals of this precious planet can teach us about being better creatures ourselves.

Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted nearly a century ago. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Over the long sweep of evolution, our fellow creatures have developed wondrous forms and faculties far superior to our own — from the strange splendor of the octopus, endowed with Earth’s most alien consciousness, to the olfactory prowess of the dog, capable of accessing layers of reality wholly hidden from us. (“Never say higher or lower,” Darwin scribbled in the margin of a book. “Say more complicated.”) To fathom the worlds of such creatures requires that we “shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place,” as Rachel Carson wrote in the pioneering 1937 essay that first invited the human imagination to consider this precious shared planet from the perspective of non-human creatures.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

But in the century since Carson and Beston, some of this world’s most extraordinary animals have been driven to near-extinction, vanishing from the biosphere, vanishing from the dictionary and from children’s imagination. Along with them vanish the voices we shall never hear — voices that can teach us a great deal about being better creatures ourselves.

Welsh illustrator and author Millie Marotta celebrates forty-three of these astounding creatures in A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals (public library) — a collection of short, stunningly illustrated encyclopedic “profiles” of wild and wondrous creatures: miniature dragons of the underworld, desert-dwelling fish, marsupial tree frogs, otters with a hundredfold more hairs in a square inch of fur than you have on your entire head, and the clandestine cousin of the extinct dodo. What emerges is a testament to naturalist Sy Montgomery’s conviction that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Some of Marotta’s creatures contain in their hard-wired biology subtle allegorical answers to some of our most pressing sociological concerns and aspirations — particularly around gender equality, gender identity, and gender diversity. From the seahorse — one of only three known species, along with the pipefish and the leafy seadragon, in which pregnancy is allotted to the male — we get a lesson in subverting traditional gender roles not only in child-rearing but in child-bearing, as well as a stubborn defense of true love (or what we might have to begin calling, nowadays, monoamory), almost at the price of survival. Marotta writes:

Many species of seahorse remain faithful to their mates throughout the breeding season, greeting each other each day in a courtship dance. Other pairs remain monogamous their entire lives, among them the tiger tail seahorse, so named for its distinctive stripy tail.

When breeding, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, found toward the bottom of his belly. He fertilizes them in his pouch, then keeps them there, safe and nourished, as they develop. After two to three weeks, hundreds of miniature, perfectly formed tiger tail seahorses burst out into the water. The babies, only 1 cm long, are immediately independent of their parents and drift away, at the mercy of the ocean currents.

Seahorses are rather inept at swimming, so when it comes to hunting they rely on stealth and disguise. Anchoring themselves to a piece of coral, and changing color to camouflage themselves from both predators and prey, they wait, toothless snout at the ready, to hoover up tasty brine shrimp as they drift by.

From the corpulent, fearless, luscious-lipped humphead wrasse of the Indo-Pacific coral seas — nature’s Orlando — we receive the ultimate affirmation of the transgender identity as a thoroughly natural mode of being.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Marotta writes:

Among the coral reefs of the Red Sea, a young female humphead wrasse leaves her deep — water cave to feed. She hoovers up vast quantities of mollusks, crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers… but she is also one of a few species that will tuck into the toxic crown-of-thorns starfish. This starfish eats growing corals, so in eating them the humphead wrasse is preserving her own habitat, which is already damaged by fishing methods involving dynamite and cyanide. As she hunts, she must keep an eye out for poachers: As one of the most expensive fish in Southeast Asia, she is vulnerable.

At about seven years old, she is almost ready to mate. By nine she has grown bigger than most females her age, and as she keeps growing her skin changes color, from rusty red orange to a vibrant greenish blue, and she loses her ovaries and develops testes. Incredibly, she changes sex and becomes the dominant male — known as a super male. He is a giant among his species — up to 6 ft long and a colossal 400 lbs in weight. That’s more than two average-sized men. Only the very largest of females have a chance to become super-males and mate — and they will stay male forever.

Complement the lovely Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals with Eve Ensler’s stirring letter to Mother Earth, sparked by the disappearance of 2.9 billion birds, and illustrator Jenni Desmond’s empathic picture-book invitations into the worlds of two other gravely endangered animals — the polar bear and the blue whale — then revisit this lyrical vintage chronicle of a year in the life of the majestic sperm whale and Sy Montgomery on what working with 13 animals taught her about being a good creature.

BP

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Soporific shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Melville.

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Given that it serves as the brain’s built-in therapy mechanism regulating our negative moods, given that it acts as the brain’s janitor sweeping away toxins responsible for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep may be the closest thing we have a superpower — so much so that its importance is encoded into the 13 most important things I’ve learned about life. The clearest evidence of that importance comes from the extreme disruption of our functioning when sleep is taken away — the way we we grow unmoored from our own minds, adrift an arm’s reach from reality, unable to follow the ordinary threads that link one thought to the next, that fetch the right word, the needed memory.

Insomnia, then, is a particularly unforgiving and parasitic malfunction of consciousness that feeds on its host, feeds on our very sense of being. Of the many proposed but ultimately unprovable remedies for insomnia, from the folkloric to the clinical, by far the loveliest I’ve ever encountered comes from Patti Smith in Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable and uncommonly poetic masterpiece at the borderline of dream and reality.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

In the disorienting midst of the 2016 election news cycle, when “an insidious insomnia” slowly begins to claim her nights, Smith resorts to an old mental game by which she tricks herself to sleep — a kind of shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Herman Melville and reminiscent of a Zen parable. She writes:

I imagine myself a sailor in the time of the great whaling ships on a lengthy voyage. We are in the center of a violent storm and the captain’s inexperienced son catches his foot in a length of rope and is pulled overboard. Unflinching, the sailor leaps into the storm-tossed seas after him. The men throw down massive lengths of rope and the lad is brought to deck in the arms of the sailor and carried below.

The sailor is summoned to the quarterdeck and led to the captain’s inner sanctum. Wet and shivering, he eyes his surroundings with wonder. The captain, in a rare show of emotion, embraces him. You saved my son’s life, he says. Tell me how I can best serve you. The sailor, embarrassed, asks for a full measure of rum for each of the men. Done, says the captain, but what of you? After some hesitation the sailor answers, I have slept on galley floors, bunks and hammocks since a lad, it has been a long time since I have slept in a proper bed.

The captain, moved by the sailor’s humility, offers his own bed, then retires to the room of his son. The sailor stands before the captain’s empty bed. It has down pillows and a light coverlet. There is a massive leather trunk at its foot. He crosses himself, blows out the candles and succumbs to a rare and wholly enveloping sleep.

This is the game I sometimes play when sleep is elusive, one that evolved from reading Melville, that takes me from the mat on the bathroom floor to my own bed, affording grateful slumber.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree.

Couple this tiny fragment of the wholly resplendent Year of the Monkey with Maurice Sendak’s antidote to insomnia, then revisit Smith on creativity, time, loss, and transformation, and her tribute to William Blake.

BP

Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

“I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively.”

Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

Goethe believed that the only opinion worth voicing about the work and choices of others is one that springs from “a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work… All else is vanity.” A particularly corrosive species of vanity is the habit of self-comparison, which — depending on the degrees of narcissism and insecurity in the comparer — results either in self-inflation by diminishing the worth of the other or in despair by hyperfocus on the other’s visible achievements against their invisible struggles (for our deepest struggles are always invisible). At its worst, such vanity — such absence of sympathetic enthusiasm for other people and the world at large — festers into the most uncreative, unconstructive self-contraction of all: cynicism.

A lovely antidote to such vanity comes from the visionary photographer Edward Weston (March 24, 1886–January 1, 1958) in his journal, The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II, California (public library) — the out-of-print 1966 treasure that also gave us Weston on the importance of cross-disciplinary curiosity in creative work.

Edward Weston (© Brett Weston Archive, International Center of Photography)

In 1927, after four creatively fertile years in Mexico, Weston returned to his old studio in California and found himself struggling for survival. In a particularly telling diary entry, he agonizes after his son loses a five-dollar bill — half of Weston’s earnings from a print sale. “Five dollars!” he exclaims in his daybook. “Enough for me to live on a week!” And yet a certain inner buoyancy lifted him up to begin what would become his most influential work — a radiance and generosity of spirit that extended not only to his work but to the world about him, imperfect as a world always is. On the first day of February in 1928, Weston writes:

I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively. Find all the good first. Judge by what has been done, — not by omissions or mistakes. And look well into oneself! A life can well be spent correcting and improving one’s own faults without bothering about others.

In another entry penned on that summer, Weston contemplates what makes a great artist — and a great person — by reflecting on the most admired photographer of his time, Alfred Stieglitz, then writes:

It has come to me of late that comparing one man’s work to another’s, naming one greater or lesser, is a wrong approach.

The important and only vital question is, how much greater, finer, am I than I was yesterday? Have I fulfilled my possibilities, made the most of my potentialities?

What a marvellous world if all would, — could hold this attitude toward life.

Five years earlier, Georgia O’Keeffe — Stieglitz’s muse and lover, soon to be wife, soon to be one of the most visionary artists humanity has produced — had articulated this very sentiment even more poetically in her stunning letter of advice and assurance to Sherwood Anderson, who himself had begun painting after being inspired by O’Keeffe’s work:

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.

BP

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