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Virginia Woolf on the Nature of Memory and How It Threads Our Lives Together

“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.”

“In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable,” Teju Cole wrote in his beautiful essay on photography and “our paradoxical memorial impulses.” But what is memory, exactly? Schopenhauer believed that it mediates the blurry line between sanity and insanity. Bruce Lee wrote of “the value of an alert memory.” But although neuroscientists have identified memory as central to our experience of identity and the mechanism by which our bodies encode trauma, we remain befuddled by its nature and its function in our lives.

Most disorienting of all is its associative potency — the gentlest whiff of a certain smell can catalyze the memory of a certain time of year, during which a certain relative would cook a certain food, and suddenly you find yourself transported across time and space to the vivid kitchen table of your childhood home. That pleasurable perplexity is what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explores in yet another electrifying passage from Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her groundbreaking 1928 novel, celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which gave us Woolf’s fiction-veiled insight into deep truths about the elasticity of time, the fluidity of gender, how our illusions keep us alive, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work.

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Woolf writes:

Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon; Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer ‘Yes’; if we are truthful we say ‘No’; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect rag-bag of odds and ends within us — a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil — but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.

Orlando remains one of the most beautiful and timelessly insightful books ever written. Complement it with the true story of the great love that inspired it, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

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We Are the American Heartbreak: Langston Hughes on Race in a Rare Recording

Reflection on “the rock on which Freedom stumped its toe.”

We Are the American Heartbreak: Langston Hughes on Race in a Rare Recording

The African American poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and jazz poetry pioneer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902–May 22, 1967) was in a sense the William Blake of his generation — like Blake, he was endowed with a rare poetic genius that incurred merciless ridicule by the era’s critics and was often wholly ignored by the public. In a New York Times Book Review essay published two years after his death, Lindsay Patterson went as far as calling him “the most abused poet in America” and wrote:

Serious white critics ignored him, less serious ones compared his poetry to Cassius Clay doggerel, ands most black critics only grudgingly admired him. Some, like James Baldwin, were downright malicious about his poetic achievement. But long after Baldwin and the rest of us are gone, I suspect Hughes’s poetry will be blatantly around, growing in stature until it is recognized for its genius.

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Patterson was a far seer. Today, Hughes stands as one of the most beautiful, beloved, and important American voices of the past century, perched in time and thought partway between Walt Whitman and Ta-Nehisi Coates. His poems continue to speak to the problems and possibilities of his nation, making insistent room for responsibility and redemption in equal measure. To those of us who came to American from the outside, they offer an unparalleled framework for understanding the deep traumas and old scars of this country, which we are now inheriting and are equally tasked with healing.

Several years before his death, Hughes sat down to read his work and discuss the spirit behind it in a series of audio sessions for the BBC and Caedmon Records. Twenty-seven of these rare recordings were eventually assembled in the wonderful compilation Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes (public library). Among them is a sobering piece titled “We Are the American Heartbreak” — a discussion of the central themes and concerns fomenting Hughes’s literary imagination. He begins by reading one of his most poignant poems, “American Heartbreak,” but he changes the original opening line from “I am the American heartbreak” to “We are are the American heartbreak” — a wokeful invitation to pluralism all the timelier today:

We are the American heartbreak —
The rock on which Freedom
Stumped its toe —
The great mistake
That Jamestown made
Long ago.

That is one of my poems about the problems of the Negro people in relation to American democracy. Perhaps we should say the problems of American democracy in relation to the Negro people, because for some reason the Negro in America has always been called “a problem.”

Well, I guess we are.

Many of my poems try to capture various aspects of this problem. I’ve written poems about housing. For example, when Negroes move into some American communities, even if it’s just one Negro family moving into a block, within a few days, sign begin to go up: “For Sale.” And, usually, the real estate brokers who handle the sales double the prices on those houses — because they know that Negro people often have a hard time buying decent homes, and so they charge them more for the homes that eventually they are willing to sell them.

Well, I try to put these things — these problems — into poetry. In recent years, more and more Americans have been leaving the big cities for suburban areas and among them have been a number of Negroes who are able to buy homes in the suburbs. Well, if those folks move to, say, Saint Albans, white people flee from Saint Albans, move a little further out on Long Island. Negroes — those of means — then themselves try to move a little further out on Long Island, white people flee a little further, and after a while … you get to the ocean.

So, I suppose, suburbia eventually will be only in the sea — I don’t know where else it could be, around New York, at any rate.

Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes is a treasure in its totality, featuring Hughes’s readings of classics like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and his reflections on how he became a poet. Complement it with his little-known children’s book about jazz and read some of his poems at the Academy of American Poets, then revisit Albert Einstein and W.E.B. Du Bois’s forgotten correspondence about racial relations and racial justice.

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George Bernard Shaw on Suffering

“What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be.”

George Bernard Shaw on Suffering

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life. But what is the use of our agency if we can’t enlist it in ameliorating our suffering?

The counterintuitive relationship between the two is what George Bernard Shaw (July 26, 1856–November 2, 1950) examines in a portion of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (public library) — a clever and surprisingly timeless treatise published in 1928, shortly after Shaw received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Don’t let the title trigger an aversive reflex — Shaw was an ingenious playwright, and his title was an ingenious dramatic device. By addressing the book to this particular imaginary reader in an era when civic and educational opportunities for women were limited, Shaw was giving his actual reader permission to start from scratch; he was giving himself permission to clear the slate in order to reexamine and redefine his subject, stripping politics of the limiting labels slapped onto it — socialism, communism, capitalism — to reflect on its proper purpose in human life.

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Among his central concerns is how society — the civic and political ecosystem to which we belong — can begin to address and alleviate the perennial problem of human suffering, brought into ever-sharper relief by inequality. Nearly a century later, this aspect of Shaw’s treatise comes alive anew, particularly his counterintuitive point about the nature of human suffering and human wellbeing — a point so poignant and perceptive that it impressed even Borges, who cited it in his masterful meditation on time. Shaw writes:

And now a last word as to your own spiritual centre. All through this book, we have been thinking of the public, and of our two selves as members of the public. This is our duty as citizens; but it may drive us mad if we begin to think of public evils as millionfold evils. They are nothing of the kind. What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as angry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum: two lean women are not twice as lean as one nor two fat women twice as fat as one. Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. If you can stand the suffering of one person you can fortify yourself with the reflection that the suffering of a million is no worse: nobody has more than one stomach to fill nor one frame to be stretched on the rack.

But while suffering isn’t cumulative, Shaw argues, wellbeing is, and therefore so is the opportunity to contribute to our collective wellbeing. He writes:

A thousand healthy, happy, honorable women are not each a thousand times as healthy, happy, or honorable as one; but they can co-operate to increase the health, happiness, and honor possible for each of them.

The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism remains a superb primer on the ideas and ideologies that shaped the modern world and laid the foundations of the social, political, and cultural systems that govern our lives today. Complement this particular portion with Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from suffering, Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, and Borges on collective tragedy and collective joy, then revisit Shaw on the paradox of marriage.

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