Brain Pickings

Search results for “hesse”

20-Year-Old Hunter S. Thompson’s Surprisingly Sage Advice on How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life

“It is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it.”

As a hopeless lover of both letters and notable advice, I was delighted to discover a letter 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005) — gonzo journalism godfather, pundit of media politics, dark philosopher — penned to his friend Hume Logan in 1958. Found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the aptly titled, superb collection based on Shaun Usher’s indispensable website of the same name — the letter is an exquisite addition to luminaries’ reflections on the meaning of life, speaking to what it really means to find your purpose.

Cautious that “all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it” — a caveat other literary legends have stressed with varying degrees of irreverence — Thompson begins with a necessary disclaimer about the very notion of advice-giving:

To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

And yet he honors his friend’s request, turning to Shakespeare for an anchor of his own advice:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

He acknowledges the obvious question of why not take the path of least resistance and float aimlessly, then counters it:

The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

Touching on the same notion that William Gibson termed “personal micro-culture,” Austin Kleon captured in asserting that “you are the mashup of what you let into your life,” and Paula Scher articulated so succinctly in speaking of the combinatorial nature of our creativity, Thompson writes:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.)* There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

Resolving to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” Thompson nonetheless strongly urges his friend to read Sartre’s Nothingness and the anthology Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre, then admonishes against succumbing to faulty definitions of success at the expense of finding one’s own purpose:

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Noting that his friend had thus far lived “a vertical rather than horizontal existence,” Thompson acknowledges the challenge of this choice but admonishes that however difficult, the choice must be made or else it melts away into those default modes of society:

A man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

He ends by returning to his original disclaimer by reiterating that rather than a prescription for living, his “advice” is merely a reminder that how and what we choose — choices we’re in danger of forgetting even exist — shapes the course and experience of our lives:

I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.

Both reflecting and supporting Usher’s heartening echelon of independent online scholarship and journalism at the intersection of the editorial and the curatorial, Letters of Note is brimming with other such timeless treasures from such diverse icons and Brain Pickings favorites as E. B. White, Virginia Woolf, Ursula Nordstrom, Nick Cave, Ray Bradbury, Amelia Earhart, Galileo Galilei, and more.

* See Anaïs Nin’s equally delightful disclaimer about the usage of the g-word.

BP

Stendhal on the Seven Stages of Romance and Why We Fall Out of Love: Timeless Wisdom from 1822

“To love is to enjoy seeing, touching, and sensing with all the senses, as closely as possible, a lovable object which loves in return.”

Love is perhaps the most fertile subject of literature, music, and all the arts. Kurt Vonnegut believed you’re only allowed to be in love three times in your life. It has been described as a matter of bravery, a limbic revision, the greatest insurance against regret. For Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, it is simply, sweetly walking hand in hand. But how, exactly, does love take hold of the heart?

In 1822, French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better-known by his pseudonym Stendhal, penned On Love (public library) — a timeless treatise attempting to rationally analyze the highest human emotion, rediscovered through a passing mention in the diaries of Susan Sontag (who famously and perhaps ironically wrote, “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”)

Illustration from An ABZ of Love Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

Stendhal sets out to bridge “the deeply sensitive and coolly analytical,” beginning with a taxonomy of the four main types of love:

There are four different kinds of love:

1. Passionate Love. This was the love of the Portuguese nun, that of Heloïce for Abelard, of the captain of Vésel, and of the gendarme of Cento.

2. Mannered Love, which flourished in Paris about 1760, and which is to be found in the memoirs and novels of the period; for example those of Crébillon, Lauzun, Duclos, Marmontel, Chamfort, and Mme d’Epinay…

A stylized painting, this, where the rosy hues extend into the shadows, where there is no place for anything at all unpleasant – for that would be a breach of etiquette, of good taste, of delicacy, and so forth. A man of breeding will know in advance all the rituals he must meet and observe in the various stages of this kind of love, which often achieves greater refinement than real love, since there is nothing passionate or unpredictable about it, and it is always witty. It is a cold, pretty miniature as against an oil painting by one of the Carrachi; and while passionate love carries us away against our real interests, mannered love as invariably respects those interests. Admittedly, if you take away vanity, there is very little left of mannered love, and the poor weakened invalid can hardly drag itself along.

3. Physical Love. You are hunting; you come across a handsome young peasant girl who takes to her heels through the woods. Everyone knows the love that springs from this kind of pleasure, and however desiccated and miserable you may be, this is where your Love-life begins at sixteen.

4. Vanity-Love. The great majority of men, especially in France, both desire and possess a fashionable woman, much in the way one might own a fine horse – as a luxury befitting a young man. Vanity, a little flattered and a little piqued, leads to enthusiasm. Sometimes there is physical love, but not always; often even physical pleasure is lacking. ‘A duchess is never more than thirty in the eyes of a bourgeois,’ said the Duchesse de Chaulnes, and the courtiers of that just king Louis of Holland cheerfully recall even now a pretty woman from The Hague who was quite unable to resist the charms of anyone who happened to be a duke or a prince. But true to hierarchical principles, as soon as a prince came to court she would send her duke packing. She was rather like an emblem of seniority in the diplomatic corps!

The happiest version of this insipid relationship is where physical pleasure grows with habit. Then memories produce a semblance of love; there is the pricking at your pride and the sadness in satisfaction; the atmosphere of romantic fiction catches you by the throat, and you believe yourself lovesick and melancholy, for vanity will always pretend to be grand passion. One thing is certain though: whichever kind of love produces the pleasures, they only become vivid, and their recollection compelling, from the moment of inspiration. In love, unlike most other passions, the recollection of what you have had and lost is always better than what you can hope for in the future.

Occasionally in vanity-love, habit, or despair of finding something better, results in a friendship of the least attractive sort, which will even boast of its stability, and so on.

Although physical pleasure, being natural, is known to all, it is only of secondary importance to sensitive, passionate people. If such people are derided in drawing rooms or made unhappy by the intrigues of the worldly, they possess in compensation a knowledge of pleasures utterly inaccessible to those moved only by vanity or money.

Some virtuous and sensitive women are almost unaware of the idea of physical pleasure; they have so rarely, if I may hazard an expression, exposed themselves to it, and in fact the raptures of passionate love have practically effaced the memory of bodily delights.

There are some men who are the victims and instruments of a hellish pride, a pride like that of Alfieri. These men, who are cruel perhaps because like Nero they are always afraid, judge everyone after their own pattern, and can achieve physical pleasure only when they indulge their pride by practicing cruelties upon the companion of their pleasures. … Only in this way can they find a sense of security.

Instead of defining four kinds of love, one might well admit eight or ten distinctions. There are perhaps as many different ways of feeling as there are of seeing, but differences of terminology do not affect the arguments which follow. Every variety of love mentioned henceforth is born, lives, dies, or attains immortality in accordance with the same laws.

Stendhal, 1840

In a chapter titled “Concerning the Birth of Love,” Stendhal outlines the process by which love takes hold. Particularly interesting is his concept of crystallization, a kind of madness Sylvia Plath so elegantly captured — the projective idealization with which we tend to see our beloveds, submerging their complete humanity in our selective, romanticized versions of reality.

HERE is what happens in the soul:

1. Admiration.

2. You think, ‘How delightful it would be to kiss her, to be kissed by her,’ and so on…

3. Hope. You observe her perfections, and it is at this moment that a woman really ought to surrender, for the utmost physical pleasure. Even the most reserved women blush to the whites of their eyes at this moment of hope. The passion is so strong, and the pleasure so sharp, that they betray themselves unmistakably.

4. Love is born. To love is to enjoy seeing, touching, and sensing with all the senses, as closely as possible, a lovable object which loves in return.

5. The first crystallization begins. If you are sure that a woman loves you, it is a pleasure to endow her with a thousand perfections and to count your blessings with infinite satisfaction. In the end you overrate wildly, and regard her as something fallen from Heaven, unknown as yet, but certain to be yours.

Leave a lover with his thoughts for twenty-four hours, and this is what will happen:

At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable.

What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.

You hear a traveller speaking of the cool orange groves beside the sea at Genoa in the summer heat: Oh, if you could only share that coolness with her!

[…]

The phenomenon that I have called crystallization springs from Nature, which ordains that we shall feel pleasure and sends the blood to our heads. It also evolves from the feeling that the degree of pleasure is related to the perfections of the loved one, and from the idea that ‘She is mine.’

Stendhal even illustrates crystallization in a visual analogy where the city of Bologna signifies indifference and Rome stands for perfect love. The traveler begins in Bologna, indifferent, then moves through the four stages of crystallization — Admiration, Acknowledgement, Hope, Delight — and arrives in Rome in love, having enormously amplified the merits of the beloved. He allegedly drew this diagram on the back of a playing card while en route to the Salzburg salt mine.

The outline continues:

This is what happens next to fix the attention:

6. Doubt creeps in. First a dozen or so glances, or some other sequence of actions, raise and confirm the lover’s hopes. Then, as he recovers from the initial shock, he grows accustomed to his good fortune, or acts on a theory drawn from the common multitude of easily-won women. He asks for more positive proofs of affection and tries to press his suit further.

He is met with indifference, coldness, or even anger if he appears too confident. In France there is even a shade of irony which seems to say ‘You think you’re farther ahead than you really are.’ A woman may behave like this either because she is recovering from a moment of intoxication and obeying the dictates of modesty, which she may fear she has offended; or simply for the sake of prudence or coquetry.

The lover begins to be less sure of the good fortune he was anticipating and subjects his grounds for hope to a critical examination.

He tries to recoup by indulging in other pleasures but finds them inane. He is seized by the dread of a frightful calamity and now concentrates fully. Thus begins:

7. The second crystallization, which deposits diamond layers of proof that ‘she loves me.’

Every few minutes throughout the night which follows the birth of doubt, the lover has a moment of dreadful misgiving, and then reassures himself, ‘she loves me’; and crystallization begins to reveal new charms. Then once again the haggard eye of doubt pierces him and he stops transfixed. He forgets to draw breath and mutters, ‘But does she love me?’ Torn between doubt and delight, the poor lover convinces himself that she could give him such pleasure as he could find nowhere else on earth.

It is the pre-eminence of this truth, and the road to it, with a fearsome precipice on one hand and a view of perfect happiness on the other, which set the second crystallization so far above the first.

The lover’s mind vacillates between three ideas:

1. She is perfect.

2. She loves me.

3. How can I get the strongest possible proofs of her love?

The most heartrending moment of love in its infancy is the realization that you have been mistaken about something, and that a whole framework of crystals has to be destroyed. You begin to feel doubtful about the entire process of crystallization.

And yet, crystallization isn’t necessarily a bad thing — in fact, Stendhal argues it might be the key to the essential attachment phase of love that biological anthropologist Helen Fisher identified nearly two centuries later. He writes:

The second crystallization ensures that love will last; for you feel that the only alternatives are to win her love or to die. The very idea of ceasing to love is absurd when your convictions are confirmed moment by moment, until the passing months make love a habit. The stronger your character, the slighter the impulse to inconstancy.

[…]

Crystallization goes on throughout love almost without a break. The process is something like this: whenever all is not well between you and your beloved, you crystallize out an imaginary solution. Only through imagination can you be sure that your beloved is perfect in any given way. After intimacy, ever-resurgent fears are lulled by more real solutions. Thus happiness never stays the same, except in its origin; every day brings forth a new blossom.

Underpinning his rationalist analysis of love is a kind of reassuring caveat, recognizing the all-too-familiar notion that love isn’t something we can will or will away. Stendhal notes:

Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will. It is chiefly in this that mannered love differs from passionate love. The charms of your beloved are not a matter of self-congratulation, except as a stroke of luck. Finally, there are no age limits for love.

In fact, he argues that love at a later age is always richer and more enduring than young love:

For the very young, love is like a huge river which sweeps everything before it, so that you feel that it is a restless current. Now a sensitive person has acquired some self-knowledge by twenty-eight; she knows that any happiness she can expect from life will come to her through love; hence a terrible struggle develops between love and mistrust. She crystallizes only slowly; but whatever crystals survive her terrible ordeal, where the spirit is moving in the face of the most appalling danger, will be a thousand times more brilliant and durable than those of the sixteen-year-old, whose privileges are simply happiness and joy. Thus the later love will be less gay, but more passionate.

On Love is a sublime read in its entirety, full of the era’s delightfully quaint biases but also of timeless, boundless, universal human truth. Complement it with a contemporary read on the paradoxical psychology of why frustration is necessary to satisfaction in love and philosopher Erich Fromm on how to master the art of loving.

BP

Richard Feynman Explains Where Trees Actually Come From and How Fire Works

How the light and heat of the sun made their way into your fireplace.

We’ve already seen that trees can be powerful purveyors of philosophy, keepers of deep time, and visual metaphors for evolution — but where do they actually come from?

There’s a reason Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations — earned himself the moniker “The Great Explainer.” In this short clip from BBC’s 1983 series Fun to Imagine, Feynman explains where trees actually come from the air and why the light and heat emanating from a burning fire are in fact the light and heat of the sun, “stored sun” that made its way into the fireplace via the substance of the tree:

Is this the second most astounding fact about the universe, or what?

Krulwich Wonders

BP

This Is a Monomania: A Love Letter from Balzac

“I cannot bring together two ideas that you do not interpose yourself between them.”

Honoré de Balzac (May 20, 1799–August 18, 1850) might be as well known for his literary legacy as he is for his tumultuous love life. At twenty-three, he fell for Mme. Berny, a woman nearly twice his age known as “la Dilecta,” whose creative and intellectual influence on Balzac had a profound impact on shaping his budding voice. When the two split up in 1832, he entered a troubled relationship with the Marquise de Castries, whom he later portrayed rather unflatteringly in The Duchesse of Langeais. That year, he received a fan letter from Countess Ewelina Haska, a married Polish noblewoman to whom he came to refer to as “The Foreigner.” They embarked upon an intense correspondence, which quickly escalated into a passionate bond, which lasted seventeen years. The two met twice — once in Switzerland the following year, and once in Vienna in 1835 — and the two vowed to marry once Ewelina’s husband died. Though the Count passed away in 1842, Balzac’s poor finances prevented the couple from marrying. In March of 1850, when he was already fatally ill, the two finally wed — five months before Balzac died in Paris.

Their correspondence, an exquisite and enduring paean to love and patience, is gathered in The Letters Of Honore De Balzac To Madame Hanska (public library). Here is a small but deliciously telling taste:

June 1835

MY BELOVED ANGEL,

I am nearly mad about you, as much as one can be mad: I cannot bring together two ideas that you do not interpose yourself between them. I can no longer think of nothing but you. In spite of myself, my imagination carries me to you. I grasp you, I kiss you, I caress you, a thousand of the most amorous caresses take possession of me. As for my heart, there you will always be — very much so. I have a delicious sense of you there. But my God, what is to become of me, if you have deprived me of my reason? This is a monomania which, this morning, terrifies me. I rise up every moment say to myself, ‘Come, I am going there!’ Then I sit down again, moved by the sense of my obligations. There is a frightful conflict. This is not a life. I have never before been like that. You have devoured everything. I feel foolish and happy as soon as I let myself think of you. I whirl round in a delicious dream in which in one instant I live a thousand years. What a horrible situation! Overcome with love, feeling love in every pore, living only for love, and seeing oneself consumed by griefs, and caught in a thousand spiders’ threads. O, my darling Eva, you did not know it. I picked up your card. It is there before me, and I talked to you as if you were here. I see you, as I did yesterday, beautiful, astonishingly beautiful. Yesterday, during the whole evening, I said to myself ‘She is mine!’ Ah! The angels are not as happy in Paradise as I was yesterday!

This gem also appears in The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time (public library) — the magnificent volume that gave us the breathtaking love letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Complement it with the love letters of Nabokov, Mozart, Beethoven, Cézanne, and Einstein.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.