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How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.”

How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

In 1926, having just divorced her first husband at the age of twenty-five, the American poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) moved to England and founded, together with her friend the poet Robert Graves, a small independent press. Like Anaïs Nin’s publishing venture, all of their early publications — which included work by Gertrude Stein — were typeset and printed by hand.

In 1930, Riding and Graves moved their offices to Majorca. That year, 29-year-old Riding wrote a series of letters to 8-year-old Catherine — the daughter of Graves and the artist Nancy Nicholson. Originally published by a Parisian press in a limited edition of 200 copies each signed by the author, Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (public library) endures as a small, miraculous book, reminiscent in spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and in style and substance of the Zen teachings of Seung Sahn or Thich Nhat Hanh. With great simplicity and unpretentious sincerity, both comprehensible and enchanting as much to this particular little girl as to any child or even any wakeful grownup at all, Riding addresses some of the most elemental questions of existence — how to live a life of creativity and integrity, why praise and prestige are corrosive objects of success, and above all what it means to be oneself.

Laura Riding

Riding eventually returned to America in 1939, remarried and became Laura (Riding) Jackson, continued to write, and lived to be ninety — a long life animated by the conviction that language is “the essential moral meeting-ground.” When she reflected on these letters three decades after writing them, she remarked wistfully that she might no longer be inclined to write “such easy-speaking letters, treating with so much diffident good-humor the stupendous, incessantly-urgent matter of Virtue and the lack of it,” by which she meant “the eternal virtue of good Being, not the mortal virtue of good Custom.” And yet, mercifully, she did once write them, and they did survive, and today they continue to nourish souls of all ages with their unadorned wisdom and transcendent truthfulness.

In the first of the four letters, a meandering meditation on young Catherine’s remark that grownups sometimes seem to “know everything about everything,” Riding explores the nature of knowledge and its essential seedbed of self-knowledge. She writes:

A child should be allowed to take as long as she needs for knowing everything about herself, which is the same as learning to be herself. Even twenty-five years if necessary, or even forever. And it wouldn’t matter if doing things got delayed, because nothing is really important but being oneself.

Nearly a century after Kierkegaard extolled the virtues of idleness and two decades before the German philosopher Joseph Pieper argued that not-doing is the basis of culture, Riding urges young Catherine not to worry about being accused of laziness and considers the basic goodness of simply being oneself:

You seem to spend a lot of time dreaming about nothing at all. And yet you are, as the few people who really know you recognise, a perfect child… This is because when you seem to be dreaming about nothing at all you are not being lazy but thinking about yourself. One doesn’t say you are lazy or selfish. If a person is herself she can’t be a bad person in any way; she is always a good person in her own way. For instance, you are very affectionate, but that’s because you are a good person. You are not a good person just because you are affectionate. It wouldn’t matter if you weren’t affectionate, because you are a good person. You are yourself, and whatever you do is sure to be good.

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

In a passage that radiates a prescient admonition against the perils of our modern Parenting Industrial Complex, Riding adds:

It is very sad then that so many children are hurried along and not given time to think about themselves. People say to them when they think that they have been playing long enough: “You are no longer a child. You must begin to do something.” But although playing is doing nothing, you are really doing something when you play; you are thinking about yourself. Many children play in the wrong way. They make work out of play. They not only seem to be doing something, they really are doing something. They are imitating the grown-ups around them who are always doing as much instead of as little as possible. And they are often encouraged to play in this way by the grown-ups. And they are not learning to be themselves.

In an essential caveat that teases out the nuance of her point, Riding notes that rather than selfishness or narcissism, such thinking about oneself is the only way to conceive of one’s place within a larger world and therefore to think of the world itself. In a sentiment that calls to mind Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Riding offers an almost Buddhist perspective:

People are by themselves in being themselves, but together with everyone and everything else in being everything. And this is what makes a world, and people in it. Things that don’t think about themselves aren’t people; they are just everything. And by themselves they are nothing. And even all together, as everything, they are nothing because they know nothing about everything. We are something because we think about ourselves. And being part of everything we think about everything too and make something of it.

In the second letter in the book, Riding picks up the subject from another angle and examines, well before the golden age of modern productivity, how our compulsive doing is keeping us from being — that is, from the essential self-knowledge out of which our entire experience of life arises. She writes to young Catherine:

There are many people who are not entirely themselves because as children they were not given time to think about themselves. And because they don’t know everything about themselves they can’t know everything about everything. But no one likes to admit that she doesn’t know everything about everything. And so these people try to make up for not knowing everything about everything by doing things.

[…]

People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing. They try to pretend that doing is thinking.

Noting that doing certainly has its uses, she considers its misuses. In a passage that calls to mind Bruce Lee’s wisdom on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and Anna Deavere Smith’s own letters to young artists about the true measure of confidence, Riding writes:

The wrong kind of doing is doing that people do not for comfort or fun but in order to prove to themselves and to other people that they are people. Of course, the only kind of people that people of this sort could impress would be people like them, who wished to seem people in a general way although they weren’t particularly speaking people. In a place where most of the people were like this the object of life would be busyness. And, dear Catherine, this is the way the world is. Only a small part of the doings in it are done for comfort or fun. The rest is just showing-off.

Writing only a decade after women claimed the right to vote, Riding adds:

The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this world is ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but over-doing. A world of simple doing would need no ruling. It takes really very little doing to keep comfortably and happily alive. We ought not to pay much more attention to doing than to breathing.

All this extra doing interferes, in fact, with comfort and fun and makes a bad kind of laziness instead of a good kind. Good laziness is thinking — knowing about yourself and knowing also about everything when you want to… You would not be surprised if you realised that it didn’t take brains to do things. Birds, bees, ants, dogs, tress, earth, the sky — all these and everything do the most marvelous things, but they haven’t brains like ours. Never be impressed by what people do, dear Catherine. Doing is only natural.

Once again admonishing against the way in which praise and prestige come to displace the true confidence that comes from self-knowledge, she offers an incisive definition:

Praise … is the confidence in yourself that you get from people whom you have succeeded in pleasing when you haven’t any confidence in yourself.

Riding considers how self-knowledge becomes the foundational structure upon which all other knowledge is built:

If a person knows everything about herself, then she is herself, which is a part of everything. But if she can think further than this, then she can perhaps make that part into a whole, into everything — not just an everything that is everything and anything, but an everything that is herself, or, you might say, an everything that is precious instead of just ordinary. This good thing, this little everything — well, it might be a poem or anything that a thinking might be, and it would be a good thing because it wasn’t a doing.

[…]

A poem or anything like that that is thinking and not doing … is of course much harder work than making a chair, but it is work done with laziness not with busyness. By this I mean that in making a poem there is no hurry or purpose as there is in making a chair; it has nothing to do with fun or comfort, it is better than fun or comfort. Having fun and being comfortable is connected with being alive for a good long time, a year or maybe a hundred years. But making a poem is like being alive for always: this is what I mean by laziness and there being no hurry or purpose. A good poem, then, or any good thinking thing, wouldn’t try to give comfort or fun to people: it would be good because of what it was, not because of what it did, and so give people something better than comfort or fun — a feeling of laziness, of being alive for always. Only someone who knows herself in an everything way could make such a thing, but to make such a thing is nothing to be proud of or show off about. For if you are able to make a poem, it doesn’t seem a wonderful thing to do; it seems just a necessary-natural thing to do.

But this ability to make a good poem, Riding argues, springs from the same source as the ability to make a good chair — that is, a poem or chair that doesn’t show off — which is, at bottom, what also makes a good person. (Nearly a century later, the poet Mary Oliver would call that source “the third self.”) Riding writes:

A person might be able to make poems but be unable to make chairs, not because she could only make poems, but because it didn’t happen to her to make chairs. In the long run a person who could make good poems would certainly come round to making good chairs, and the other way round.

Four Unposted Letters to Catherine is an enormously rewarding read in its slim totality. Complement it with Rilke on what it takes to be an artist and the poet Ann Lauterbach on why we make art and how art makes us.

Thanks, Ann

BP

A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: The Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

“You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.”

A Partnership Larger Than Marriage: The Stunning Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell

Nearly a century after his death, the Lebanese-American painter, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) endures as one of humanity’s most universally beloved voices of truth and transcendence. But there would have been no Gibran as we know and love him without the philanthropist and patron of the arts Mary Elizabeth Haskell — his greatest champion, frequent collaborator, and unusual beloved.

Haskell and Gibran met on May 10, 1904, at a friend’s studio. He was twenty-one and she nearly thirty-one. Impressed with his art, Haskell soon offered to send Gibran to Paris to study painting, with a stipend of $75 a month, equivalent to about $2,000 today. He accepted. In a letter to a friend written shortly before he departed for Paris in 1908, Gibran described Haskell as “a she-angel who is ushering me toward a splendid future and paving for me the path to intellectual and financial success.” Shortly after arriving, he wrote: “The day will come when I shall be able to say, ‘I became an artist through Mary Haskell.'”

But the open hands of Haskell’s generosity branched from an equally open heart, from some larger kindness of which Gibran soon became enamored. He came to see her as more than a benefactress — a kindred spirit, a woman of uncommon tenderness, and, above all, a person willing to descend into the deepest trenches of his psyche and climb to its highest mounts in order to understand him, which he considered the greatest measure of love. It was through her generosity that he survived as an artist, and it was through her selfless love that he found himself as a man.

Mary Haskell and Kahlil Gibran. Portrait and self-portrait by Gibran.

Their relationship, like that of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, defies classification and the containment of simplistic labels, but one unquestionable postulate radiates from the dazzling richness and complexity of their decades-long emotional entanglement: the enormous and eternal love they had for one another, which blooms to life in Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal (public library).

In one of his first letters to Haskell from Paris, Gibran captures what is perhaps the greatest gift of love, whatever its nature — the gift of being seen by the other for who one really is:

When I am unhappy, dear Mary, I read your letters. When the mist overwhelms the “I” in me, I take two or three letters out of the little box and reread them. They remind me of my true self. They make me overlook all that is not high and beautiful in life. Each and every one of us, dear Mary, must have a resting place somewhere. The resting place of my soul is a beautiful grove where my knowledge of you lives.

On Christmas Day that year, he writes:

I think of you today, beloved friend, as I think of no other living person. And as I think of you Life becomes better and higher and much more beautiful. I kiss your hand, dear Mary, and in kissing your hand I bless myself.

Over the year that followed, their relationship intensified. Haskell records the pivotal sequence of events in her journal the day before her thirty-seventh birthday in 1910:

Kahlil spent the evening. Told me he loved me and would marry me if he could, but I said my age made it out of the question.

“Mary,” he said, “whenever I try to get nearer to you in speech, to be personal at all — you fly up into remote regions and are inaccessible.” “But I take you with me,” said I. And I said I wanted to keep our friendship enduring, and feared to spoil a good friendship for a poor love-affair. This was after Kahlil had explained what he meant.

The next afternoon Kahlil was here a while and I told him yes.

But the following spring, their relationship took its single most defining and transcendent turn — the decision, absolutely radical at the time, not to get married after all but to remain each other’s most intimate partner in life. The reason for it, which Haskell articulates with remarkable poeticism in another diary entry from April of 1911, was her grandest gesture of magnanimity:

It seemed to me that it was the moment of the opening of the door between Kahlil and the world that shall love him and into whose heart he shall surely feel he is pouring his work. I think his future is not far away now!

And so I made up my mind to follow what seems to me the final finger of God — I put definitely to myself the possibility of being his wife. And though every waking hour since has been drenched with inner tears, I know I am right, and that the tears mean joy, not pain, for the future. My age is simply the barrier raised between us and the blunder of our marrying. Not my age constitutes the objection — but the fact that for Kahlil there waits a different love from that he bears me — an apocalypse of love — and that shall be his marriage. His greatest work will come out of that — his greatest happiness, his new, full life. And it is not many years distant. Toward the woman of that love, I am but a step. And though my susceptible eyes weep, I think of her with joy — and I don’t want to have Kahlil, because I know she is growing somewhere for him, and that he is growing for her.

Kahlil Gibran, “Four Faces,” heavily inspired by Haskell.

The following day, Haskell delivered her emotionally ambivalent yet intellectually firm decision to Gibran and said to him, “My heart longs to be overpersuaded. Still I know in the end I should not be persuaded.” She reports his response in her diary:

He wept and I got him a handkerchief. But he could not speak. Near the beginning in one of my many pauses he said brokenly, “Mary, you know I cannot say things, when I am this way,” and hardly another word. The only comment he made was to love me. When it was over I opened my arms to him — but he soon had me in his, and the heart is not flesh that would not have been comforted…. When it grew late I put his right palm to my lips — and then indeed the tears came — but they drew me simply nearer to him. I kissed that wonderful hand as I have often longed to do, but as I have not before, because a mere touch on it moves him so. It answered like a heart… Again at the door I cried a little — while he wiped my eyes, saying only, “Mary — Mary — Mary.” And as he went he said as well as he could, “You’ve given me a new heart tonight.”

Upon my tears after I went to bed it was suddenly as if a great peace and light broke — and he and I were in it — so that I cried, “Thank you, God, thank you!” again and again. I was so ineffably happy. That I have given him up I realize. But it has not parted us — it has brought us even much nearer together.

“I’ve always known our relation was permanent,” Haskell would later reflect on the decision. “I wanted continuity of conscious togetherness.” This notion, arising from the enormous magnanimity of her nonpossessive love, would eventually lead Gibran to his superb and timeless advice on healthy relationships.

A month after the decision against marriage, Gibran channels precisely such a “continuity of conscious togetherness” in a letter to Haskell from New York:

Just came from the museum. O how much I want to see these beautiful things with you. We must see these things together someday. I feel so lonely when I stand alone before a great work of art. Even in Heaven one must have a beloved companion in order to enjoy it fully.

Good night, dear. I kiss your hands and your eyes.

Kahlil

Bedridden in June with one of his frequent bouts of illness, he writes to Haskell, who spent her summers in solitude in the mountains of the West:

Now, Mary dear, I am going to rest. I shall close my eyes and turn my face to the wall and think and think and think of you — you the mountain climber — you the life hunter.

Good night, beloved.

Kahlil

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

As the months wear on, his letters grow more and more animated by that uncommon blend of infatuation’s restless longing and the solid togetherness of an unperturbeable partnership. He writes to her on October 31, 1911:

Your last letter is a flame, a winged globe, a wave from That Island of strange music.

[…]

Do you not know what it is to burn and burn, and to know while burning, that you are freeing yourself from everything around you? Oh, there is no greater joy than the joy of Fire!

And now let me cry out with all the voices in me that I love you.

Kahlil

Alongside Gibran’s passionate proclamations is a calm bellowing tenderness emanating from the depths of his being, which he articulates beautifully in a letter from early January of 1912:

Now I will say goodnight, as any other time. I kiss you and then I say goodnight and then I open the door and then I go out to the streets with a full heart and a hungry soul. But I always come again to kiss you and to say goodnight and to open the door and to go out to the street with hungry soul and full heart.

With equally poetic passion, Haskell writes to Gibran the same week:

Dear Hand, dear Eye, dear Thought, dear Fire, dear Love —

[…]

All I am ever finally impelled to say, rather than not say, to you of yourself seems resolvable into, “Kahlil, you are in my heart — you are in my heart, Kahlil.” When I look back over the years, it seems always to have been that — with changes only of depth and heat of your heart-place.

The following month, she writes:

God lends me His heart to love you with. I asked for it when I found my own was too small, and it really holds you, and leaves you room to grow.

In the spring, Haskell writes to Gibran in New York, channeling her unselfish love and her longing in parallel in a letter that could well be a poem:

What are you writing — and how does it go? And what are you thinking about — and how does it go? And what do you want to talk with me about? — and how do You go?

And why aren’t your arms six hours long to reach to Boston?

[…]

And when will You come to me in a dream and make night sweeter than night?

That October, Gibran repays the “continuity of conscious togetherness” that Haskell had always trusted would bloom between them even though, and perhaps precisely because, they chose not to marry:

The most wonderful thing, Mary, is that you and I are always walking together, hand in hand, in a strangely beautiful world, unknown to other people. We both stretch one hand to receive from Life — and Life is generous indeed.

In another letter, he captures one of the small enormities that define love:

I love to be silent with you, Mary.

A few days later, responding to Gibran’s concern that his physical illness and its attendant creative block might disappoint her, Haskell sends the most beautiful and generous assurance a person who is loved could hope for:

I don’t even want you to be a poet or painter: I want you to be whatever you are led or impelled to become.

[…]

Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception that I’d like to see you be or do. I have no desire to foresee you, only to discover you. You can’t disappoint me.

The following year, as Gibran continues to struggle, she grants him the ultimate gift of love — the equal embrace of his inner darkness and his inner light:

Your work is not only books and pictures. They are but bits of it. Your work is You, not less than you, not parts of you… These days when you “cannot work” are accomplishing it, are of it, like the days when you “can work.” There is no division. It is all one. Your living is all of it; anything less is part of it. — Your silence will be read with your writings some day, your darkness will be part of the Light.

Kahlil Gibran, “Spirit of Light”

With a sensitivity to Gibran’s growing mastery of English, she adds:

It is like the resolution of greatest dissonances in great music. You know the use of that word resolution in music, don’t you? — so deep and beautiful. — And it is like the reconciliation of life. And do you know Reconciliation used in that way? To me it is one of the profoundest and fullest of our words.

A few months later, having pushed through his creative and spiritual stagnation, Gibran attempts to put words around the immensity of his gratitude for this supreme gift of being seen, and loved, in his wholeness:

I wish I could tell you, beloved Mary, what your letters mean to me. They create a soul in my soul. I read them as messages from life. Somehow they always come when I need them most, and they always bring that element which makes us desire more days and more nights and more life. Whenever my heart is bare and quivering, I feel the terrible need of someone to tell me that there is a tomorrow for all bare and quivering hearts and you always do it, Mary.

Four years before the American publication of Gibran’s slim masterpiece The Madman, in which he wrote, “I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us,” he sees Haskell as the sole counterpoint to that conviction and writes to her in the summer of 1914:

You have the great gift of understanding, beloved Mary. You are a life-giver, Mary. You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.

I have always held, with my Madman, that those who understand us enslave something in us. It is not so with you. Your understanding of me is the most peaceful freedom I have known. And in the last two hours of your last visit you took my heart in your hand and found a black spot in it. But just as soon as you found the spot it was erased forever, and I became absolutely chainless.

The hundreds of letters collected in Beloved Prophet are a transcendent read in their entirety. Complement them with Gibran on the seeming self vs. the authentic self and the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in love, then revisit the stirring love letters of Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, and James Thurber.

BP

Rock Climbing and the Meaning of Life: Vita Sackville-West’s Letters to Virginia Woolf on the Intimacy-Building Power of Travel and How Nature Reveals Us to Ourselves

“I don’t believe one ever knows people in their own surroundings; one only knows them away, divorced from all the little strings and cobwebs of habit.”

Rock Climbing and the Meaning of Life: Vita Sackville-West’s Letters to Virginia Woolf on the Intimacy-Building Power of Travel and How Nature Reveals Us to Ourselves

“I simply adore Virginia Woolf… She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well,” Vita Sackville-West (March 9, 1892–June 2, 1962) wrote in a letter to her husband after meeting the famed author with whom she would embark upon one of literature’s greatest romances — a romance that would inspire Woolf’s groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando, memorably described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

The origin of that uncommon and uncommonly beautiful love story unfolds in Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (public library). Although their relationship lasted until death did them part and metamorphosed across the spectrum of the romantic and the platonic, their early correspondence is imbued with a special kind of magic. It bears all the markings of a proper Victorian courtship, but is also fused with a certain uncontainable wildness of desire, so that the subtlest sentence can hold enormous erotic charge.

“Dear Mrs. Nicolson,” Virginia writes in one of their first letters, immediately adding a parenthetically guarded plea for greater intimacy: “(But I wish you could be induced to call me Virginia.)” Vita complies eagerly, addressing her next letter as “My dear Virginia” and adding her own parenthetical petition: “(You see I don’t take much inducing. Could you be induced likewise, do you think?)” This mutual induction didn’t take long. Soon, they were courting each other, albeit with careful psychological parentheses, though the most seductive medium they each knew — literature. Virginia invited Vita to be one of the first authors to contribute a book to Hogarth Press, the hand-printed press she cofounded with her husband Leonard in 1917. Vita gladly obliged.

In a letter from July 16 of 1924, Vita writes:

My dear Virginia…

You asked me to write a story for you. On the peaks of mountains, and beside green lakes, I am writing it for you. I shut my eyes to the blue gentians, to the coral of androsace; I shut my ears to the brawling of rivers; I shut my nose to the scent of pines; I concentrate on my story.

[…]

An amphitheater of mountains encloses one’s horizons and one’s footsteps. Today I climbed up to the eternal snows, and there found bright yellow poppies braving alike the glacier and the storm; and was ashamed before their courage… This is how one ought to feel, I am convinced. I contemplate young mountaineers hung with ropes and ice-axes, and think that they alone have understood how to live life… I told you once I would rather go to Spain with you than with anyone, and you looked confused, and I felt I had made a gaffe, — been to personal, in fact, — but still the statement remains a true one, and I shan’t be really satisfied till I have enticed you away.

For two people who barely knew each other in a temporal sense, Vita and Virginia seemed to know each other’s soul deeply — the mark, perhaps, of all great loves. Even this letter from the dawn of their lifelong is suffused with Vita’s acute psychological insight into Virginia’s conflicted genius — an intellect so fertile as to change the course of culture yet so formidable as to cut Virginia off from her heart (as Proust believed the intellect is apt to do) and from the passions of her animal self.

Escaping into nature together, Vita believed, would free Virginia from the self-imposed shackles of her mind and help her surrender to the creaturely place where passion lives. Vita writes:

Oh yes, you like people through the brain better than through the heart, — forgive me if I am wrong. Of course there must be exceptions; there always are…

I don’t believe one ever knows people in their own surroundings; one only knows them away, divorced from all the little strings and cobwebs of habit. Long Barn, Knole, Richmond, and Bloomsbury. All too familiar and entrapping. Either I am at home, and you are strange; or you are at home, and I am strange; so neither is the real essential person, and confusion results.

But in the Basque provinces … We should both be equally strange and equally real.

Virginia took more than a month to respond. And when she did, it was clear that Vita had sliced through her thickest defenses, touching into the most vulnerable core of her being. She writes back on August 19, 1924, with painful and painfully evident self-restraint:

I enjoyed your intimate letter from the Dolomites. It gave me a great deal of pain — which is I’ve no doubt the first stage of intimacy — no friends, no heart, only an indifferent head. Never mind: I enjoyed your abuse very much…

But I will not go on else I should write you a really intimate letter, and then you would dislike me, more, even more, than you do.

Virginia’s forced restraint didn’t last long. By the following summer, the two — both of whom thrived in what we would call open marriages today — had fallen madly in love and were soon writing each other exquisite love letters. While she was crafting Orlando under Vita’s enchantment, Vita’s husband wrote to Virginia in a telegram:

I am glad that Vita has come under an influence so stimulating and so sane… You need never worry about my having any feeling except a longing that Vita’s life should be as rich and as sincere as possible. I loathe jealousy as I loathe all forms of disease.

Complement the exhilaratingly beautiful Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf with Woolf on what makes relationships last and nature as a creative catalyst for art.

BP

John Cage’s Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Merce Cunningham

“i would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”

John Cage’s Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Merce Cunningham

Composer, writer, artist, and Zen Buddhist John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) pioneered the aesthetics of silence, but he was animated by a clamorous inner life. When he was twenty-two, while dating another young man, Cage met artist Xenia Kashevaroff — the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest. He fell instantly in love — perhaps with Xenia herself, perhaps with the promise of life that conformed to social convention and appeased his inner conflictedness about his orientation, perhaps with some combination of the two. They were married in the spring of 1935. But as Cage continued to discover his voice creatively, he had no choice but to make room for his whole self. By the early 1940s, the couple had begun to grow apart and their marriage soon ended in divorce.

John Cage age his piano, 1947 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust / Berliner Festspiele)
John Cage age his piano, 1947 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust / Berliner Festspiele)

It was around the same time that Cage met the dance prodigy Merce Cunningham, who would go on to become one of the most innovative and influential choreographers of all time. Then in his early twenties, Cunningham was one of several choreographers with whom Cage had begun working in his quest to explore the physical dimension of sound. Although their relationship began as a creative collaboration, a vitalizing romantic electricity developed between them as they got to know each other. Cunningham became Cage’s great love and remained his spouse for the remainder of the composer’s life.

The correspondence from the dawn of their uncommon and intensely beautiful romance, found in The Selected Letters of John Cage (public library), is on par with Nabokov’s love letters — that gold standard of this most intimate genre of the written word — and makes a crowning addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.

John Cage and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, 1948 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust)
John Cage and Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, 1948 (Photograph courtesy of the John Cage Trust)

In their first surviving romantic correspondence, postmarked June 28, 1943, Cage writes:

Dear Merce,

Saturday night nearly went crazy, because, not solving my problems until they occur, I ever suddenly realized you were gone. Fly away with you but was in a zoo.

[…]

I don’t know when it was that I found out how to let this month go by without continual sentimental pain. It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently. That’s a happy way to be.

In a sublime testament to the interplay of frustration and satisfaction in love, Cage adds:

I’m unsentimental but I’m sitting at one of our tables and looking in a mirror where you often were.

[…]

I don’t know: this gravity elastic feeling to let go and fall together with you is one thing, but it is better to live exactly where you are with as many permanent emotions in you as you can muster. Talking to myself.

Your spirit is with me.

songformerce

The following day, Cage writes:

Rain finally came + it’s beautifully cool. Wonder how long it will last. It was marvelous because it started suddenly and then was alternately terrific and gentle.

I think of you all the time and therefor have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you.

[…]

Love you.

In this letter, Cage encloses a poem he has written for his new love:

POEM. CAUSE: I LOVE YOU.

As leaf with tree, I long to be
With you. A twig connection
If no other, would satisfy.

Sap from your trunk to vivify
My tissues; my one election:
On food you give to have satiety.

Will leaf turn dry and dead? My
Deep need to pale affection
Fade? Will snail transform to tree?

If leaf dies, Spring will mystify
The Winter. No death for tree:
Leaf adorned, ’twill live in ev’ry
section.

Three days later, on July 2, Cage writes from the pit of longing:

I get terribly lonesome for you.

[…]

I nearly left this earth a few minutes ago — ecstasy — word from you. Pretty soon I’ll write music for you.

Scene from Beach Birds by Cunningham at the Lyon Opera Ballet, with music by cage (Photograph: Michael O'Neill)
Scene from Beach Birds by Cunningham at the Lyon Opera Ballet, with music by Cage (Photograph: Michael O’Neill)

Later that month, while Cunningham was in residence with the Martha Graham Dance Company at Bennington College in Vermont, Cage beseeches from New York with affectionate impatience:

Please be lonesome enough to come back in not too distant time.

[…]

I love you and often think of fancy reasons why: spirit is very close to me and mine, I sent it, close to you.

[…]

My whole desire is to run up and down the sea coast looking for you.

Love

cage_kiss

Over the year that followed, their love only intensified. In a particularly poetic and picturesque letter from July of 1944, Cage writes:

your letters i just plain love: they bring you so close that at any moment i expect the door will open and you will see me camouflaged in enigmatic home, built on shoes you made.

[…]

Country was beautiful, and lying on the grass so that i could sometimes see the net a tree is against the sky or turning make a space for eyes between two trees and watch bird-movements across and in it. Beautiful daisies and a jungle of tiger lilies. Multitudinous lakes and canoes. I could tell how distinctly happy you would be in country wherever; and i really need not be with you for me or for you, because there was facility in inventing your presence and knowing that just then you were merely not visible or not audible.

Nine days later, Cage writes:

your last letter is so beautiful i cannot answer it, only read it and lie on it.

[…]

i am often in deep pain; i am afraid i am not human being
i talk to you all day long but when i start to write i cannot

Later that month, many decades after Van Gogh articulated how love catalyzes creative work, Cage speaks to this all-consuming muse:

today is beautiful and i am dreaming of you and enigma and how we are together today: your words in my ears making [me] limp and taut by turns with delight. oh, i am sure we could use each other today.

i like to believe that you are writing my music now: god knows i’m not doing it, because it simply seems to happen. the pretissimo is incredible the way you are and is perhaps a description and song about you.

[…]

pardon the intrusion: but when in september will you be back? i would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.

Cage and Cunningham continued to fill the air between them with love until the composer’s final breath.

John Cage and Merce Cunningham, 1986 (Photograph: Jack Mitchell / Getty Images)
John Cage and Merce Cunningham, 1986 (Photograph: Jack Mitchell / Getty Images)

The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Bard College professor and John Cage Trust director Laura Kuhn, is a beautiful read in its hefty totality. Complement it with Cage on human nature and Kay Larson’s sublime cartography of his interior life, then revisit the love letters of John Keats, Hannah Arendt, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Margaret Mead, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.

BP

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