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The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

“We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.”

The Original Marriage of Equals: The Love Letters of Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft and Political Philosopher William Godwin

At the end of the eighteenth century, no woman anywhere in the world could obtain higher education. Women’s right to vote was more than a century away in both England and America. Marriage was a tyrannical institution from which women could liberate themselves legally only with great difficult and at great cost — in the entire eighteenth century, only four women in Great Britain were able to obtain legal separation from their husbands. In divorce, which only men could initiate, children were considered the father’s property — the mother was automatically denied custody. Married women had no share of the household’s property and no legal protection — a husband could violate his wife with impunity. In Great Britain, chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals would obtain legal protection from abuse in 1824 — two decades before the first legislature addressing violence against women. Even these laws exempted husbands from prosecution — a wife was still considered personal property, to do with as the husband pleases. No term for marital rape existed and the crime wouldn’t be codified as such for another two centuries.

Against this backdrop, the self-educated political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman — the ignition spark of what we now call feminism. “I do not wish [women] to have power over men,” Wollstonecraft wrote, “but over themselves.” Her dedication of the book read:

Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.

Four years after she published her landmark Vindication, having survived a heartbreak so deep that it drove her to attempt suicide, Wollstonecraft met the political philosopher William Godwin. Their courtship was slow, even reluctant — not the mad and maddening magnetic pull of instant infatuation, but the gradual and careful advance by which two people come to know the depths of each other’s being and arrive at a love that springs from those depths.

William Godwin (portrait by James Northcote) and Mary Wollstonecraft (portrait by John Opie)

They were married on March 29, 1797, with Mary four months pregnant, and entered a true marriage of equals — a notion not merely radical but utterly countercultural at the time. Godwin, a feminist long before feminism existed, considered marriage a necessary evil in society — necessary for its structural and legal value, evil for its inequitable treatment of women. Their marriage would be different — a beautiful bond not based on bondage, one in which neither lost themselves in the other, embodying instead Rilke’s insistence that the richest love is “the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes.” They each continued working on their respective literary projects, exchanging ideas while sharing household duties.

They were different, too — undergirding Mary’s intense intellect was an emotionally expansive imagination, while William placed reason at the center of his character and conveyed his emotions, however strong, with great reserve. But these differences, despite occasionally frustrating the couple, complemented each other and enlarged each of their natures. Two centuries later, the poet Mary Oliver would speak to such complementarity in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together: “All of it, the differences and the maverick uprisings, are part of the richness of life. If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?”

Wollstonecraft and Godwin came to be admired by their contemporaries as “the most extraordinary married pair in existence.” Charlotte Gordon writes in her superb mother-daughter biography Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley (public library):

Young poets and intellectuals gathered at the Polygon to pay court to these middle-aged radicals and to admire the partnership that they had forged. The Godwin/Wollstonecraft marriage seemed to unite all the principles they held most dear: freedom, justice, reason, sensibility, and the imagination — in essence, the ideals of the Enlightenment combined with the exciting new tenets of Romanticism.

But true equality in love cannot exist solely at the level of ideas — of shared interests and values. It springs, rather, from the deepest stratum of the heart — a parity of emotional investment in the relationship and a certain symmetry, certain balance of affection and attention. Wollstonecraft and Godwin’s few surviving love letters emanate such a rare and beautiful marriage of equals at the level of the heart. Several months into her pregnancy, convinced that she is carrying a boy whom the couple nicknamed “Master William,” she writes to Godwin:

I am well and tranquil, excepting the disturbance produced by Master William’s joy, who took it into his head to frisk a little at being informed of your remembrance. I begin to love this little creature and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie. Men are spoilt by frankness, I believe, yet I must tell you that I love you better than I supposed I did, when I promised to love you for ever — and I will add what will gratify your benevolence, if not your heart, that on the whole I may be termed happy.

Godwin is not “spoilt” but stirred by her openhearted outpouring of love — instead of retreating into reserve, he responds with even greater sincerity of affection:

You cannot imagine how happy your letter made me. No creature expresses, because no creature feels, the tender affections, so perfectly as you do: &, after all one’s philosophy, it must be confessed that the knowledge, that there is some one that takes an interest in our happiness… is extremely gratifying. We love as it were to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.

The baby turned out to be not a boy but a girl, who would go on to author Frankenstein. Ten days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, the 38-year-old Wollstonecraft would die of childbed fever — one of the era’s most dangerous diseases — leaving behind the foundation upon which the next two hundred years of humanity’s model of gender equality would be built.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

Complement this particular portion of Romantic Outlaws — which stands as one of the finest, most beautifully written and rigorously researched biographies I have ever read — with the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, another rare marriage of equals in an era of grave inequality, and Kahlil Gibran on the essential balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection and devour other beautiful love letters by Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Werner Heisenberg, and Hannah Arendt.

BP

The Trailblazing 18th-Century Woman of Letters Germaine de Staël on Ambition and the Crucial Difference Between Ego and Genius

“True glory cannot be obtained by relative celebrity.”

The Trailblazing 18th-Century Woman of Letters Germaine de Staël on Ambition and the Crucial Difference Between Ego and Genius

Germaine de Staël (April 22, 1766–July 14, 1817) is celebrated as the first Modern Woman. Tolstoy counted her among the “influential forces” that have propelled humanity’s progress. Lord Byron considered her the greatest living writer. Emerson credited her with introducing him to German thought, which shaped his own influential philosophy. She was among a handful of women, alongside Joan of Arc and Sappho, included in Auguste Comte’s famous Calendar of Great Men — a compendium of 559 world-changing minds, spanning from Saint Augustine to Galileo to Zeno. (Lest we forget, brilliant women have been “men” for the vast majority of human history.) Napoleon — who banished her from Paris for a decade for opposing his dictatorial regime and punished all who visited her in exile — reportedly recognized only three powers in Europe: Britain, Russia, and Germaine de Staël.

In the midst of the French Revolution, De Staël composed A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations (public library | PDF) — a visionary inquiry into the limits of and optimal conditions for human flourishing on the interdependent scales of the one and the many.

Germaine de Staël (Posthumous portrait by François Pascal Simon, 1817)

One of the most insightful portions of the book deals with the proper aim of ambition — or what De Staël terms “the love of glory” — and the crucial difference between ego and genius. Half a century before Dostoyevsky contemplated ambition and success, De Staël writes:

Of all the passions of which the human heart is susceptible, there is none which possesses so striking a character as the Love of Glory. The traces of its operations may be discovered in the primitive nature of man, but it is only in the midst of society that this sentiment acquires its true force.

[…]

According to that sublimity of virtue which seeks in our own conscience for the motive and the end of conduct, the love of glory is the most exalted principle which can actuate the soul.

And yet this universal motive force has as its object something that eludes all but the very few who possess true genius. A century and a half before Einstein lamented the charade of celebrity, De Staël writes:

True glory cannot be obtained by relative celebrity. We always summon the universe and posterity to confirm the title of so august a crown. It cannot be preserved, then, but by genius, or by virtue.

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

Noting that the “fleeting success” attained by ambition can only resemble but is not glory — “that which is truly just and great” — De Staël admonishes that ambition syphons happiness with “the seducing brilliancy of its charms,” which yield no satisfaction of substance. She paints the social contract at the heart of vain ambition — a contract that aims at the gratification of the ego but masquerades as selfless contribution to the greater good:

The honorable and sincere friend of glory proposes a magnanimous treaty with the human race. He thus addresses them: “I will consecrate my talents to your service. My ruling passion will incessantly impel me to communicate happiness to the greatest portion of mankind by the fortunate result of my efforts. Even countries and nations unknown to me shall have right to the fruit of my wakeful toils. Every thinking being possesses common relations to me; and, free from the contracted influence of individual sentiments, I measure the degree of my happiness only by the extent of my beneficence. As the reward of this devoted attachment, all I ask is, that you celebrate its author, that you command fame to discharge your debt of gratitude. Virtue, I know, constitutes its own enjoyment and reward. For me, however, I require your assistance, in order to obtain that reward which is necessary to my happiness, that the glory of my name be united to the merit of my actions.” What openness, what simplicity in this contract! How is it possible … that genius alone should have fulfilled its conditions?

More than a century and a half before the pioneering mathematician G.H. Hardy asserted that “the noblest ambition is that of leaving behind something of permanent value,” De Staël wryly argues that there is egotism rather than nobility in such an aim:

Doubtless it is a most fascinating enjoyment, to make the universe resound with our name, to exist so far beyond ourselves that we can reconcile our minds to any illusion, both as to the nature of space and the duration of life, and believe that we constitute some of the metaphysical attributes of the Eternal. The soul swells with elevated delight, by the habitual consciousness that the whole attention of a great number of men is directed towards you, that you exist in their hopes, that every idea that rises in your mind may influence the destiny of multitudes, that great events ripen and unfold themselves in your breast, and in the name of the people who rely upon your knowledge demand the most lively attention to your own thoughts. The acclamations of the multitude agitate the soul at once by the reflexions which they inspire, and by the commotions which they produce.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Blob by Joy Sorman — a lovely picture-book about how the lust for approval and acclaim hijacks our self-esteem.

The vision of such electrifying acclaim, De Staël argues, is a powerful animating force, particularly for those still young and hungry to establish themselves as worthy of the world’s admiration. It is curious and disquieting to consider how, a quarter millennium later, the Pavlovian feedback loop of social media is only deepening the groove of this perilous human hunger for glory — or, in our modern case, the vacant simulacra of glory in the form of “likes.” De Staël considers the addictive allure of this pursuit of validation:

The paths which lead to this great end are strewed with charms. The exertions which the ardour of attaining it prescribes, are themselves accompanied with delight; and in the career of success, sometimes the most fortunate incidents with which it is attended arise from the interests by which it was preceded, and which communicate an active energy to life.

Such vain ambition hangs happiness on the amount of attention and acclamation one receives from one’s peers and contemporaries. As its counterpoint, De Staël paints true genius, which unmoors its happiness from both popular opinion and time:

Every discovery which knowledge has produced, by enriching the mass, diminishes the empire of the individual. Human kind is the heir of genius, and the truly great men are those who have rendered such superior beings as themselves less necessary to future generations. The more the mind is allowed to expatiate in the future career of possible perfectibility, the more we see the advantages of understanding surpassed by positive knowledge, and the spring of virtue more powerful than the passion of glory.

Complement this particular fragment of A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions Upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations with David Foster Wallace on the double-edged sword of ambition, Thoreau on defining your own success, and a lovely picture-book about how the hunger for fame hijacks self-esteem, then revisit De Staël’s timeless insight into the tragic psychology of envy.

BP

Werner Heisenberg Falls in Love: The Love Letters of the Nobel-Winning Pioneer of Quantum Mechanics and Originator of the Uncertainty Principle

“Life’s essence should always be clearly noticeable behind the love, or the music, or the work.”

Werner Heisenberg Falls in Love: The Love Letters of the Nobel-Winning Pioneer of Quantum Mechanics and Originator of the Uncertainty Principle

Between the time Albert Einstein composed his courtship letters and Richard Feynman wrote his extraordinary letter to his departed wife, another Nobel-winning physicist contributed to the small and singularly beautiful canon of scientists’ love letters.

Two years after he received the Nobel Prize for his uncertainty principle — a supreme bow before the limits of knowledge, stating that the more precisely we know the position of a given particle, the less precise our measurement of its momentum, and vice versa — Werner Heisenberg (December 5, 1901–February 1, 1976) lurched into the ultimate unknown with absolute certainty: He fell in love.

Troubled by the tensions cusping on war, accused of being a “white Jew” by the Nazi media for teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity in his university course, and feeling like dark political agendas were keeping him from his calling — “the undisturbed inquiry into nature” — Heisenberg found solace in his spiritual practice: playing music (which we now know benefits the brain more than any other activity).

Werner Heisenberg

On the evening of January 28, 1937, at a musical gathering where he played piano accompanied by two violinist friends, thirty-five-year-old Heisenberg met twenty-one-year-old Elisabeth Schumacher — a bright and beautiful young woman who had just left art school to pursue a career in publishing. He was instantly taken with her, and she with his Beethoven. (What consonance Heisenberg would have felt in Margaret Fuller’s assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics.”) Brought together by music, Werner and Elisabeth quickly found that their very souls spoke a common language. Fourteen days later, they were engaged. They remained together until death did them part.

In the first of their surviving love letters, collected and edited by their eldest daughter in My Dear Li: Correspondence, 1937–1946 (public library), Heisenberg, elated in his contained way, writes to his mother exactly two weeks after the fateful encounter:

Yesterday — assuming your approval — I became engaged. The friendship with Elisabeth is scarcely fourteen days old and arose out of an, at first, seemingly casual conversation at a social gathering, in which a close affinity of opinions on matters of central importance emerged between the two of us. This mutual understanding, in which one, as it were, only needed to continue a conversation begun a long time ago, soon went so deep that it seemed natural to me to ask Elisabeth whether she would like to be with me forever.

The newly engaged Werner and Elisabeth, 1937.

Werner and Elisabeth set their wedding date for April 29 — exactly three months after the day they met — and began planning their life together, peering with the eyes of new love into a shared future of limitless possibility. On March 15, Heisenberg speaks to the sense, familiar to anyone who has ever been in love, of having known the beloved since the dawn of time:

Dear Elisabeth!

It is strange to think that this is the first letter I am writing to you. For it actually seems to me as though, for many years already, we have been close and acquainted, and the present state of being alone is only a painful interruption in an ever-beautiful, already almost accustomed shared life. I am indebted to you for bringing me so much peace and security and am looking forward with my every thought to the time when, together, we can enjoy the daily changes between the serious and the beautiful. Thank you for everything!

After telling Elizabeth that he has just received a warm congratulatory letter from his friend Wolfgang Pauli — who has in the midst of co-inventing synchronicity with Carl Jung — Heisenberg adds a note of unadorned sweetness:

What might you be doing this evening? I want to get in an hour of piano practice, and then catch up on sleep, and I hope that you too are fully compensating for the shorter periods of sleep over the last few weeks.

Elisabeth, meanwhile, is trapped in a difficult home commanded by a severe, combustible patriarch “dissatisfied with everything,” further riled by his daughter’s impending liberation from his grip. “You need unbelievable inner strength here at home,” she tells Werner, “if you want to drown out the stifling atmosphere.” Five weeks before the wedding, she confides in her beloved:

That is the same old misery here, which I always had from when I was a child. They never understand what brings me the greatest joy in life, and what I love about people. And I am not someone who can enjoy happiness all on my own. How good it is to have you, that you are there, and that I can make you a gift of everything and all that I have.

[…]

Good night, love! You are so terribly dear to me, and I find myself almost stranded here without you. I will be with you again in five days. Li.

A day later, she rejoices in the ineffable glory of love:

I have actually not been quite conscious of the fact that these are the first letters we are writing to each other, so much do we already belong together. But today, now, I’m sensing the meagreness of letter writing a bit because my heart is so full, and only such a very small part of it can reach you. And when that is with you, it will have become something quite independent, when in reality it belongs right in the middle of a whole mountain of thoughts and feelings.

The letters flow daily. Heisenberg begins to feel resentful of his work, of how it takes his time and thoughts away from Elisabeth. He tells her:

As soon as you are here again, I want to forget everything that is not only about us. I believe it would be good in general if, during this summer, physics were pushed into a dark corner, to be picked up again later, for first I have more to learn from you than from all the treatises in the world.

Elisabeth’s response presages what would become one of the central pillars of their love and life together — their unconditional support of the other’s fulness of being:

If you wish to take some time off from physics in the summer, dearest, that would naturally be for me a little like being in paradise. And you can be quite sure that I will never be upset later on, when you spend long periods of time on nothing else but physics. It needs you, too — I know that. And I am good on my own, when I know that you love me.

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

Three weeks before the wedding, Elisabeth rejoices at the improbable miracle of two people finding one another:

Love, I often think how strange it is that suddenly everything is on solid ground, all dreams have become reality. How few people have such good fortune!

Werner, meanwhile, struggles to reconcile his trusty faculty of reason with the unreasonableness at the heart of love:

My thoughts are always circling around joining our lives, that common goal in front of us, and it becomes really difficult to wait for the 29th. The truth is I already cannot quite cope without you, although I always remind myself that I have been able to manage for many years and so, according to conventional wisdom, it ought to be possible still. The present mindset is reminiscent of the typical nights before a major tour in the mountains, when you toss and turn in bed in joyful anticipation of the coming morning and with just a little trepidation, lest not all should go well. And only at the moment when you pick up the ice axe in front of the hut do you know that all will go smoothly. How beautiful everything will be, once we are together in the dark by our lake.

There is sweetness even in how benign their first major disagreement is. During a train ride together, when Elisabeth, overcome with joy, began singing, Werner asked her to stop. She took it as a kind of rejection. The next day, in apologizing for having inadvertently hurt her feelings, he self-consciously confesses his pathological reserve and his core insecurity in being “always afraid of showing something animated to people.” Elisabeth — the more unselfconsciously poetic of the two — responds with loving assurance, sharing her own core vulnerability:

Love, I am so incredibly happy about our every time together. I am so aware how we always move forward in our relationship, how it moves us along, one great step each time. And now one can see ever more clearly and with certainty how likely it is that we will reach all that one possibly can reach. And, you know, the times when I am filled with fear that you might be disappointed with me will be rarer and rarer. People have always objected to my intensity; but I know that you only have to take this into your hand for me to become quite tame again. When I am doubtful, it is never about you but stems from the fact that I do not have very much self-esteem. But if you love me properly, then I will get it too… I think I am only able to help by loving you so much that you soon believe it in the deepest reaches of your own heart.

In a letter penned sixteen days before the wedding, “very late and very tired,” Elisabeth lays out the roadmap for their shared life:

Once we have left the chauffeur at the station and then drive on alone into the totally silent wood at dusk, over the peak where we once watched the sunset — my love, then we will have our whole life ahead of us, and I believe it will be good.

[…]

We must always support each other a lot, so that we do not let the lived life and reality slip through our hands.

Exactly two weeks before the wedding, Werner shares his own vision for their life — a lovely kind of pre-wedding vow:

That we will be together forever, starting in fourteen days — I cannot quite wrap my mind around it; but if it were not to be, I could not do anything at all with my life anymore. In the beginning I will not do much thinking and simply be happy, realizing, gradually, that you are always with me. But later we will want to be conscious of creating a shared life, mindful that honesty is paramount, that life’s essence should always be clearly noticeable behind the love, or the music, or the work.

A week before the wedding, the couple receives a peculiar gift from Elisabeth’s family — eight volumes of Beethoven piano music for four hands, an inheritance from her grandfather. “I think I will never have enough courage to play them with you!” she sweetly tells Werner. Three days before the start of their new life, Werner shares a sentiment that appears quite dry on the outside but contains at its heart the most meaningful measure of union there is:

I have the firm conviction that we are a good match for each other and that we are better able to do justice to our place in the world by being together.

The Heisenbergs on their wedding day, April 29, 1937, Berlin.

In the first two years of their marriage, Werner and Elisabeth were inseparable, having little occasion to write letters. At the end of 1937, Elisabeth, pregnant with their first child — which turned out to be children: the twins Wolfgang and Maria — encouraged Werner to take her thirteen-year-old brother skiing. On New Year’s Eve, he writes to his beloved bride from the mountains:

My dear sweet Li… How much beauty the past year has brought me through you! And yet everything up to now strikes me as a mere beginning, only to be followed by even more beauty and togetherness; together we are now able to really shape our lives. I am looking forward so very much to the next period.

As humanity is about to topple into WWII, Elisabeth sends a bittersweet reply:

My love!

Thank you a thousand times for your loving, poignant letter. For me too, it is as though everything up to now has only been a beginning, and that so much more, even better, should come out of this last year. But when I dream about it, I often flinch; and I hesitate to look toward the future with hope. It is full of horrible apparitions. I cannot believe that there will not be a high price to pay, considering the way people are living now: arrogantly dismissive, in a frenzied intoxication, mocking God. And then all of us will be in for it, regardless. So I am trying to take hold of the present as much as I possibly can and to be happy with the current riches. And these are good enough to be happy from the bottom of our hearts, right?

They remained happy for forty more years — as new parents during a world war, as lifelong partners in each other’s flourishing — until Heisenberg died at the age of seventy-five. The letters from the first nine years of their relationship, collected in My Dear Li, are strewn with Heisenberg’s reflections on science and life — a rare glimpse of the interior world of a scientist who changed our relationship with the universe. Complement them with the love letters of pioneers in other domains of culture — Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, Franz Kafka, Kahlil Gibran, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, John Cage, and Hannah Arendt — then revisit Heisenberg’s account of Nobel laureate Niels Bohr’s nuanced reflections on science and spirituality and the story of how Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics, told in jazz for kids.

BP

Great Writers on the Letters of the Alphabet, Illustrated by David Hockney

A choral serenade to the building blocks of language starring Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, John Updike, and more titans of literature.

Great Writers on the Letters of the Alphabet, Illustrated by David Hockney

In the final years of his life, the English poet, novelist, essayist, and social justice advocate Sir Stephen Spender undertook a playful and poignant labor of love — he asked artist David Hockney to draw each letter of the alphabet, then invited twenty-nine of the greatest writers in the English language to each contribute a short original text for one of the letters. The result was the 1991 out-of-print treasure Hockney’s Alphabet (public library) — a sublime addition to the canon of imaginative alphabet books, with all proceeds going toward AIDS research and care for people living and dying with AIDS.

The twenty-nine pieces — essays, poems, micro-memoirs — come from such titans of literature as Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, Martin Amis, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Ted Hughes, Ian McEwan, Erica Jong, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Iris Murdoch.

X by David Hockney

“I have never liked the look of E,” Gore Vidal declares, “so very like a comb, unsnarling hyacinthine locks, taming Medusan curls — E — a cry!” Anthony Burgess writes a long elegy for X, the “unnecessary” letter that is also our mightiest cypher, “the great unknown.” Dorris Lessing takes P on a culinary adventure in pumpkin. “‘Why’ is the only question which bothers people enough to have an entire letter of the alphabet named after it,” quips Douglas Adams as he launches into an eulogy for the unanswerable. Norman Mailer alone declined to participate in the project, but his feisty rejection so befits the letter F he had been assigned that, with his permission, it appears in the book in place of an actual contribution.

B by David Hockney

One of the most beautiful, arresting, and nuanced entires comes from Joyce Carol Oates, for B — a roaming part-Aristotelian, part-Darwinian, wholly Oatsian meditation on existence, time, and the universe itself:

Of all Bs surely BIRTH is the most profound. The most mysterious. BIRTH. BEGET. BEING. BEGINNING. BEFORE. Nothing is so intimidating, so elusive. No riddle so haunting. If death is decomposition, and (mere) decomposition is death, the disintegration of BEING, still we can grasp its principle: the shattering of a pane of glass, the melting of a snowflake, the shredding of a flower’s perfect petals by a fool’s nervous fingernails, so idle, so purposeless, so common. But BIRTH? BEGETTING? BEGIN? Who can grasp such principles, such phantasmagoria? Out of what void can BEING spring? — not NON-BEING, surely. Is there a time BEFORE time? Are we BEGOTTEN out of nothing? at a point equidistant from various nowheres? How I wish, before I die, I could know how, still less why, a seemingly undirected flow of energy washes life, consciousness, particularity, BEING into the universe!

Our BIRTHS are double. The human, historical BIRTHDAY. A time, a place; a mother, a father. The BIRTHDAY to be linked, eventually, with a deathday. But there is also the BIRTH of the idea of us; the BIRTH of the species, excruciatingly slow, apparently blind, groping, relentless; the BIRTH of all animate matter, out of the inanimate materials of stars; the mysterious composition of disparate elements out of the singularity of time zero. Our collective BIRTH out of a single BEGETTING, how many billions of years ago.

Thus BIRTH, of all Bs the most profound. The most mysterious.

C by David Hockney

Iris Murdoch, who herself had once considered the interplay of causality and chance in human existence, takes a much lighter lens to the letter C:

I find the letter C a warm comforting friendly sort of letter, perhaps because I first came across it in action in the word cat. However, there is much to be said against it. It lacks authority. It is not interesting or imposing, certainly not self-assertive. When scrawled by hand it can be easily overwhelmed by its more prominent neighbors. It may even be described as a mean shadowy unattractive little sign, scarcely more than an enlarged comma. It is not elegant and comely to contemplate; by comparison, for instance, with A or M it lacks form, it cannot claim to be in itself a little work of art. (Esthetically, surely the handsomest of letters is the Russian Ж.) Moreover, a different charge, C may be said to be actually otiose. Some of our local languages do without it, leaving its tasks to unambiguous S and K signs, others persecute it almost to extinction or disfigure it with unseemly hats or tails. It suffers all sorts of bizarre pronunciations. Nevertheless, for the sake of that old friendship, I feel affection for the poor little letter. After all, who wants a kat?

D by David Hockney

Paul Theroux picks up where Oates left off — or, rather, where Emily Dickinson left off a century earlier — and takes on D for Death, that great consecrator of life:

Death is oblivion, the end of life. Sudden or slow, it is an impartial terror, respecting no one, visiting every being on earth, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the wise and the foolish, the innocent and the wicked.

We are dying every second and that unstoppable tick of our mortal clock can fill us with such anxiety that our fear may make us brilliant and ingenious. Throughout history people have invented ways to defy death, by creating works of art, imagining strange gods, taking risks, making sacrifices, attempting to appease its terror, even constructing a whole kingdom beyond death in order to bestow immortality on ourselves.

Death for some is a virus, for others a bullet, a dagger, an oncoming car. It can be a fatal dose of gas or water or fire. For most it is within, the age and decay of the body — struggle, then collapse.

Still death grins at us, omnipotent, godlike — often death is depicted as a fearless skeleton with no sex, a bony comedian wearing a lipless grin. Some see death as evil, a murderer, a revenger, because it is all-powerful. But why see death as a hangman when it is truer to see it as a harvester leveling the earth with its scythe?

Oddly, we take hope from the seasons — the rebirth of spring after the death of winter — or from the rising and setting of the sun. But no spring, no dawn beyond death, has ever been proven. Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.

G by David Hockney

Seamus Heaney contributes a poem for G — an ode to language itself, the riverine fluidity and richness of it:

Guh. Guh.
Like breath being shunted.
The sound of the Gaelic
word for voice —
written as guth
and in the plural
having the sense
of vowels and rhymes.
Another, different
voice is glór,
voice of the river, say,
voice of the wind
that shakes the barley in
gort, a cornfield.
And gort is the Irish
name for the letter:
field full of guh-grain,
granary of G-ness.

H by David Hockney

“H is for Homosexual” for Martin Amis, who relays a heartbreaking childhood memory of awakening to his difference, then writes:

I wish I understood homosexuality. I wish I could intuit more about it — the attraction to like, not to other. Is it nature or nurture, a predisposition, is it written in the DNA? When I think about it in relation to myself … its isolation and disquiet become something lifelong. In my mind I call homosexuality not a “condition” (and certainly not a “preference”), I call it a destiny. Because all I know for certain about homosexuality is that it asks for courage. It demands courage.

J by David Hockney

In a recollection that parallels Virginia Woolf’s epiphany about the interconnectedness of everything and echoes Willa Cather’s memorable passage about the essence of happiness, Ian McEwan chooses Joy for J:

When I was nine and living in Tripoli, Libya, I had an experience of joy, thirty seconds or so that count as the real beginning of my conscious life.

One early morning during the summer holidays my mother dropped me off at the local beach on her way in to work. I was to spend a few hours there alone. I had packed lunch and some piasters to spend on a fizzy drink.

It was probably seven-thirty when I stood at the top of a low cliff by a set of wooden stairs. The tranquility of the Mediterranean — a cleaner, brighter sea then — seemed inseparable from a sweetness in the air and the sound of small waves breaking. The beach of white sand was deserted. It was all mine. The space which separated me from what I saw sparkled with significance. Everything I looked at — yesterday’s footprints in the sand, an outcrop of rock, the wooden rail beneath my hand — seemed overpoweringly unique, etched in light, and somehow to be aware of itself, to “know.” At the same time, everything belonged together, and that unity was knowing, too, and seemed to say, Now you’ve seen us. I felt myself dissolving into what I saw. I was no longer a son or a schoolboy or a Wolf Cub. And yet I felt my individuality intensely, as though for the first time. I was coming into being. I murmured something like, “I am me,” or “This is me.” Even now, I sometimes find this kind of formulation useful.

The rest of that day is lost. As soon as I moved from where I stood, the memory fades. I suppose I must have run down the steps and across the sand to the water to begin…

W by David Hockney

Susan Sontag fills the twin trenches of W with her singular gift for wresting from the mundane the miraculous, the existential, the sublime:

W might be for the weather, an accordion topic of proven use in avoiding the not supposed to be mentioned or dwelt on… I usually don’t want to talk about weather… But why not have a white topic, one that carries as much or as little weight as we wish?

Weather is always happening, always changing. What’s going to happen? we ask fearfully. Whatever happens, it will be something else.

When we’re talking about the weather, well, we’re giving ourselves a break.

The wonder is that one thing does succeed another. Distracting us from the wound, from awareness of what coexists. I am walking in the woods or gulping fresh water or encircling a child with watchful tenderness. And at that very moment, at this very moment, in the final agonies of a torture session in the wicked war a nearby government is waging against its citizens, inside a cardboard box in the doorway of the windward corner of my street, someone is, someone has just…

I don’t know, it’s been explained, it’s called having a whole world.

I was sleepy. Id’ stayed up all night working on my book. But I went to the museum. It was the last day. It was worth it, the paintings were wonderful. Then came the news we were waiting for. She wept. He wept. I wept. What amazing weather we’ve been having. Then we wandered over to a bar (this is Berlin) very near where the wall was (how we had rejoiced) and drank some wine (and went on weeping). We move from one mood to another, giving due attention to each. (“Our moods do not believe in one another,” Emerson said.) There is no final mood. It is winter now.

Hockney’s Alphabet is magnificent in its totality, and perhaps its oblivion will not be total — perhaps someday, the publisher who mistook the temporal for the dated will bring its timeless splendor back into print. Complement it with David Hockney’s rare illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, then revisit other uncommonly wonderful alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Oliver Jeffers, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Quentin Blake, and Maira Kalman.

Thanks, Maria Konnikova

BP

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