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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

Sam Shepard in Praise of Writing Letters as an Incomparable Art of Human Connection and a Creative Practice

An ode to the art of relationship sculpted in time.

Sam Shepard in Praise of Writing Letters as an Incomparable Art of Human Connection and a Creative Practice

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised a nineteenth-century guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.” Virginia Woolf made a beautiful case for letter writing as “the humane art” and Lewis Carroll proposed that it be governed by a set of rules which, if applied to today’s dominant communication media, would make the whole of modern life kinder and more humane.

A century after the golden age of the epistolary art began to set as the letter commenced dying its incremental death by telegraph, telephone, and email, the polymathic playwright Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943–July 27, 2017) both enacted and explicitly extolled its unsetting splendors in Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (public library) — the magnificent volume of his correspondence with his dearest friend, former father-in-law, and spiritual brother, which also gave us Shepard on love.

Sam Shepard, 1983 (Photograph courtesy of University of Texas Press)

In the late summer of 2010, four decades into their correspondence, 66-year-old Shepard writes to Dark:

Dear John,

One thing I realize I love about the ‘letter’ as a form is that it’s conversation; — always available. You can just sit down any old morning & have a conversation whether the person’s there or not. You can talk about anything & you don’t have to wait politely for the other person to finish the train of thought. You can have long gaps between passages — days can go by & you might return & pick it up again. And the great difference in all other forms of writing is that it is dependent to a large extent on the other person. It’s not just a solo act. You’re writing in response to or in relationship to someone else — over time. I think that’s the key — over time. We’re very lucky, I figure, to have continued the desire to talk to each other by mail for something like 40 years. But then again, what else were we going to do? It is probably the strongest through-line I’ve maintained in this life.

Counting his letters as not only a part of his body of work but an essential part of the same meaning-making that animates his art, Shepard adds:

Everything else seems to be broken — except, of course, my other writing which has been with me constantly since about 1963. I’ll never forget the elation of finishing my first one-act play. I felt I’d really made something for the first time. Like the way you make a chair or a tale. Something was in the world now that hadn’t been there before.

He ends the letter with the very thing that makes the epistolary art so singularly powerful — its ability to transport the recipient to the sender’s world and welcome one consciousness into the felt experience of another:

Another beautiful morning here. Dew on the pasture. Horses grazing. It’s a ‘Kentucky Bluegrass’ postcard. Just a hint of fall in the air, the humidity has lifted & it’s like somebody just pulled a big heavy blanket off yr shoulders.

Two Prospectors is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with the illustrated epistles of great artists, then dive into my ever-expanding library of uncommonly beautiful letters.

BP

Living and Loving Through Loss: Beautiful Letters of Consolation from Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists

Words of comfort and compassion from Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Johannes Brahms, and Charles Dickens.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her classic memoir of loss. But however uncertain its guise may be, its arrival is one of the central certainties of existence — no human life is unplundered by loss, in one form or another, at one time or another. And when grief does come, when its tidal force anneals us to the rawest axis of our being, it seems like nothing at all can unmoor us from its all-consuming gravity. Consolation of the bereaved is therefore an immensely difficult art and one of the most generous human gestures, perhaps even the most acutely life-saving.

Gathered here are several such masterworks of consolation, beautiful and heartbreaking and aglow with the resilience that is the hallmark of life, from some of humanity’s greatest minds and largest spirits.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.

But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein offered thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library), the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.

Albert Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

Shortly before his fifty-fifth birthday, Einstein writes:

Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.

And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.

Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.

RACHEL CARSON

Undoubtedly the most unusual and the hardest kind of consolation is that whose subject is one’s own imminent death and whose object is a loved one about to be left bereaved, for it requires one to simultaneously face the anguish of one’s own looming nonexistence and to rise above it in order to soften the loved one’s impending loss. To grieve one’s own death while consoling from the grave-to-be is therefore a supreme act of generosity and self-transcendence.

That is precisely what trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), crowning figure of Figuring, did as she lay dying from breast cancer shortly after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her courageous refusal to keep silent about the government’s assault on nature. Even as she faced her own death, Carson was most concerned about her best friend and beloved, Dorothy Freeman.

Rachel Carson

In September of 1963, several months before her death and shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, Carson sent Freeman a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):

Dear One,

This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.

Rachel

In her final letter, written as Freeman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Carson’s death, she writes:

My darling,

You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.

[…]

Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.

Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.

Rachel

ALAN TURING

In addition to pioneering modern computing, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) remains the greatest code-breaker of all time. His decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have saved anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives in shortening WWII by two to four years. But despite his humanitarian heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.

Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.

When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.

Young Alan Turing

All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely. That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library).

Turing writes to Christopher’s mother in a letter from April 20, 1933:

My dear Mrs. Morcom,

I was so pleased to be at the Clockhouse for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.

Turing visited Clock House again in July, for what would have been Christopher’s twenty-second birthday. Seeking to reconcile the irrepressible spiritual aliveness felt in grief with the undeniable definitiveness of physical death, as much for himself as for Christopher’s mother, he wrote in another letter to her under the heading “Nature of Spirit”:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale. This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are pre-destined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.

[…]

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.

In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”

That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi. A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to rise from the depths of his or her personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter, later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library).

abrahamlincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

CHARLES DICKENS

Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was a man of multitudes, brilliant and flawed, but among the strongest and most unambivalent animating forces of his life was the love he had for his younger sister, Letitia.

In 1862, Letitia lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library | free ebook), Dickens envelops his sister in equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms.

Charles Dickens

Dickens writes:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do… I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

JOHANNES BRAHMS

The beautiful and unclassifiable relationship between the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896) and the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) blessed both with a lifetime of love, but it began with the heartache of death. When the composer Robert Schumann — Clara’s beloved husband and Johannes’s revered mentor — succumbed to mental illness and died in the asylum where he was committed, Clara was left to raise their three sons and four daughters as a single mother and a working artist who provided for them through her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to put them through school. Johannes, fourteen years her junior, became her closest confidante, her most steadfast source of affection, and her sturdiest pillar of support through the grief.

In a letter from the autumn of 1857, Brahms sets out to remind her of the wider, longer view of life, which grief so swiftly narrows and blunts. While such perspective may not be the most helpful in the immediate aftermath of loss, and may in fact compound the pain of the bereaved by making him or her feel rushed through the process of grief, here Brahms is offering it after more than a year of bereavement, as a gentle and loving invitation to reawaken to life’s fullness against the backdrop of somnolent hollowness that grief casts.

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, 1853

He writes:

My dear Clara, you really must try hard to keep your melancholy within bounds and see that it does not last too long. Life is precious and such moods as the one you are in consume us body and soul. Do not imagine that life has little more in store for you. It is not true… The more you endeavor to go through times of sorrow calmly and accustom yourself to do so, the more you will enjoy the happier times that are sure to follow. Why do you suppose that man was given the divine gift of hope? And you do not even need to be anxious in your hope, for you know perfectly well that pleasant months will follow your present unpleasant ones, just as they do every period of unhappiness.

CHARLES DARWIN

After he weighed the pros and cons of marriage, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) decided in favor of matrimony and was wedded to his beloved, Emma Wedgwood. They went on to have a long and loving marriage, made all the stronger by their devotion to the ten children they had together. Darwin’s letters reveal that while he loved all of his children intensely, he especially cherished his eldest daughter, Annie — a sensitive and unselfconsciously awkward girl, kindhearted and voraciously curious about the world, in whom he saw much of himself.

In 1850, Annie fell ill with what was most likely a type of tuberculosis. Despite the Darwins’ frantic efforts in every direction of a cure, she died on April 23, 1851, at the Malvern spa where she’d been taken for treatment. She was ten. Her father was at her dying bedside and her mother home at Down House, caring for the other nine children.

Charles Darwin

Although the loss plunged Darwin into a depth of misery from which he never fully surfaced, his first priority was to console his bereaved beloved. In a letter included in Adam Gopnik’s magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library), Darwin writes to Emma the day of Annie’s death:

My dear dearest Emma

I pray God Fanny’s note may have prepared you. She went to her final sleep most tranquilly, most sweetly at 12 oclock today. Our poor dear dear child has had a very short life but I trust happy, & God only knows what miseries might have been in store for her. She expired without a sigh. How desolate it makes one to think of her frank cordial manners. I am so thankful for the daguerreotype. I cannot remember ever seeing the dear child naughty. God bless her. We must be more & more to each other my dear wife — Do what you can to bear up & think how invariably kind & tender you have been to her… My own poor dear dear wife.

C. Darwin

Daguerrotype of Annie Darwin, 1849

Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on learning to live with loss, a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief, and these uncommon children’s books that guide kids through the messiness of mourning.

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Bruce Lee’s Never Before Revealed Letters to Himself About Authenticity, Personal Development, and the Measure of Success

“Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that… actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being.”

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” So wrote young Leo Tolstoy in his diary of moral development. Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) was around Tolstoy’s age when he turned to this central question of existence more than a century later and approached it with the same subtleness of insight and sincerity of spirit with which he approached all of life.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

Revered by generations as the greatest martial artist in popular culture, Lee is increasingly being recognized as the unheralded philosopher that he was, from his famous metaphor for resilience to his recently revealed unpublished writings on willpower, imagination, and confidence. But his most intently philosophical work was the personal credo statement he wrote in the final year of his life, at the age of thirty-one, as a series of letters to himself under the heading “In My Own Process.” The piece underwent nine drafts, never finished and never published, which I’m delighted to share for the first time with special permission from Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, and the Bruce Lee Foundation.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

The timing of “In My Own Process” is also significant, for Lee began writing it at a pivotal point in his life. After years of being sidelined by the Hollywood studio system, which continued to cast Caucasian actors to play Asian lead characters, Lee finally got his big break and was cast as the lead in Enter the Dragon, the script for which he helped write. But when Warner Brothers pushed to cut out all the philosophy and turn the film into a mindless action movie, Lee refused to show up on set in protest — he firmly believed that the kung fu was merely the vehicle for the deeper philosophical message, rather than the philosophy being a distraction from the kung fu, as Warner Brothers implied.

Well aware that his principles could cost him the fulfillment of his lifelong dream, he stood his ground. After a two-week standstill, the studio relented and let Lee keep the philosophical elements, so production began.

Bruce Lee on set (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the midst of this busiest and most tumultuous period of his career, Lee made deliberate time for self-reflection in drafting his credo. It was in these letters to himself, written in his third language over the course of several months on a colorful variety of stationery, that he arrived at the concept of being an “artist of life.” In them, he examines with great simplicity and wisdom some of the most elemental questions of existence. Decades before the Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert made his memorable assertion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Lee considers with acute self-awareness the mutability of what we experience as the “self.” Echoing the poet Laura Riding’s conviction that “nothing is really important but being oneself,” he maintains through the various revisions that all knowledge is self-knowledge — the seedbed of his oft-cited assertion that “the greatest help is self-help” — and that personal authenticity is the object of life and the only real measure of success.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 1 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the first draft, he writes:

Any attempt to write a somewhat meaningful article — or else why write it at all — on how I, Bruce Lee by name, emotionally feel or how my instinctive honest reaction toward circumstances is no easy task. Why? Because I am a changing as well as an ever-growing man. Thus what I held true a couple of months ago might not [be] the same now.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 2 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the second draft, after relaying the difficulty of conducting this self-examination in the midst of his grueling work schedule, he insists on the importance of personal authenticity above all else and considers the vital difference between what Hannah Arendt called being vs. appearing and Kahlil Gibran contrasted as the seeming self vs. the authentic self. Lee writes:

Of course, this writing can be made less demanding should I allow myself to indulge in the standard manipulating game of role playing, but my responsibility to myself disallows that… I do want to be honest, that is the least a human being can do… I have always been a martial artist by choice, an actor by profession, but above all, am actualizing myself someday to be an artist of life. Yes, there is a difference between self-actualization and self-image actualization.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 3 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the third draft, he considers our chronic fear of the unfamiliar in a sentiment of particular poignancy at this political moment:

Among people, a great majority don’t feel comfortable at all with the unknown — that is anything foreign that threatens their protected daily mould — so for the sake of their security, they construct chosen patterns to justify.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 4 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the fourth draft, Lee turns to the perpetual evolution of personhood, which renders the idea of static self-definition unnecessary and unhelpful:

I have come to accept life as a process, and am satisfied that in my ever-going process, I am constantly discovering, expanding, finding the cause of my ignorance, in martial art and especially in life. In short, to be real…

“In My Own Process,” Draft 5 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the fifth draft, the revisits the inherent paradox of the quest to define himself and his process:

I don’t believe in the manipulation game of creating a self image robot.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 6 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
“In My Own Process,” Draft 7 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the seventh draft, he echoes Walt Whitman’s incantation to “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and writes in a passage of especial relevance to our present epidemic of unquestioned “alternative facts”:

Surely we all admit that we are intelligent beings, though in reality we are being crammed with ready-made facts handed down to us ever since [childhood]. Some of us even went through college but something is the matter because … some of these facts are examined in the form of self-inquiry, but in most cases we accept most of these facts unexamined.

[…]

We possess a pair of eyes to help us to observe as well as to discover, yet most of us simply do not see in the true sense of the word. However, when it comes to observing faults in others, most of us are are quick to react with condemnation. But what about looking inwardly for a change? To personally examine who we really are and what we are, our merits as well as our faults — in short, to see oneself as [one] is for once and to take responsibility [for] oneself.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 8 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the penultimate draft, he turns from the intellectual dimension of self-knowledge to its emotional rewards:

I am happy because I am daily growing and honestly not knowing where the limit will yet lie. To be certain, every day can be a revelation or a new discovery. However, the most satisfaction is yet to come to hear another human being say, “Hey, here is something real.”

He touches on the deeper significance martial art held for him as a spiritual practice and not the merely the decorative performance Hollywood made it out to be:

By martial art I mean, like any art, an unrestricted expression of our individual soul… The human soul is what interests me. I live to express myself freely in creation.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

Lee’s reflection on what it means to be a great actor applies equally to every art, as well as to the art of life itself:

An actor, a good actor that is, not the shallow stereotyped artist, is an ever-growing process of learning, expansion and constant discoveries… To be of quality in acting means … lots of painful hard work and lots of undivided dedication to practicing what one believes.

“In My Own Process,” Draft 9 (Courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

In the ninth and last draft — which is still a draft, for his untimely death intercepted the completion of the piece — Lee reassembles the mosaic of the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional dimensions of selfhood, and returns to his central ethos of personal authenticity:

Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being, a sort of “being” vs. having — that is, we do not “have” mind, we are simply mind. We are what we are.

Complement with Lee on self-actualization and the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and the philosophy and origin of his famous water metaphor, then hear Shannon Lee discuss her father’s work on “In My Own Process” with cohost Sharon Lee in this episode of the excellent Bruce Lee Podcast:

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