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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 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.


Werner Herzog Recommends Five Books Every Aspiring Filmmaker Should Read

From Virgil to JFK’s assassination report, an eclectic fomenting of the cinematic imagination.

“Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation,” Werner Herzog counseled in his no-nonsense advice to aspiring filmmakers. But a robust and wide-ranging foundation of literature is integral to the completeness of that life-experience. Like Hemingway, who once recommended a reading list of books every aspiring writer should read, Herzog offers the five books he considers most essential to the education of young filmmakers, shared in the second installment of his conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber.


  1. The Peregrine (public library) by J.A. Baker (1967)
  2. [It’s a book] about watching peregrines, but it’s a book that everyone who makes films should read. The kind of immersion into your subject and the passion and the caliber of prose … we haven’t seen anything like this since the short stories of Joseph Conrad.

  3. Georgics (public library | free ebook) by Virgil (29 B.C.)
  4. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway (1936), found in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (public library)
  5. The Conquest of New Spain (public library) by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1963)
  6. The Warren Commission Report: The Official Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (public library) by The United States Warren Commission (1964)
  7. Just a wonderful piece of reading — the best crime story you can ever read and a phenomenal conclusiveness in its logic.

Complement with Herzog on creativity, self-reliance, and how to make a living out of what you love. For other notable reading lists, see those of Oliver Sacks, Patti Smith, Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.


Baudelaire on the Political and Humanitarian Power of Art: An Open Letter to Those in Power and of Privilege

“Art is an infinitely precious possession, a refreshing and warming drink that restores the stomach and the mind to the natural balance of the ideal.”

Baudelaire on the Political and Humanitarian Power of Art: An Open Letter to Those in Power and of Privilege

A generation before Walt Whitman wrote about why the humanities are essential to democracy, the great French poet, essayist, and critic Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821–August 31, 1867) made what remains the most elegant and increasingly timely case for why those in power and those of privilege should use their resources to support art and embrace it as an invaluable political and humanitarian tool.

In “The Salon of 1846” — the sequel to “The Salon of 1845,” the critical debut that launched 24-year-old Baudelaire’s career as an art reviewer — there appeared a piece titled “To the Bourgeois,” later included in the indispensable 1972 Penguin anthology Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature (public library). Baudelaire, whose father was a civil servant and self-taught artist, issued what was essentially an open letter to the ruling class — he defined the bourgeois as “king, law-giver or merchant” — urging the privileged and the powerful to acknowledge and advance the project of art as essential to a healthy society.

Portrait of Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844
Portrait of Baudelaire by Emile Deroy, 1844

Baudelaire begins with a clear awareness of the power of flattery in persuasion:

You are the majority, in number and intelligence; therefore you are power; and power is justice.

Some of you are “learned”; others are the “haves.” A glorious day will dawn when the learned will be “haves,” and the “haves” will be learned. Then your power will be complete and nobody will challenge it.

Until such time as this supreme harmony is ours, it is just that the mere “haves” should aspire to become learned; for knowledge is a form of enjoyment no less than ownership.

The governance of the state is yours, and that is as it should be, because you have the power. But you must also be capable of feeling beauty, for just as not one of you today has the right to forgo power, equally not one of you has the right to forgo poetry. You can live three days without bread; without poetry, never; and those of you that maintain the contrary are mistaken; they do not know themselves.


Enjoyment is a science, and the exercise of the five senses demands a special initiation that can be achieved only by willingness to learn and by need.

And you need art, make no mistake.

Art is an infinitely precious possession, a refreshing and warming drink that restores the stomach and the mind to the natural balance of the ideal.

Aware that lofty ideals may remain an unpersuasive abstraction, Baudelaire appeals to the self-serving tendencies of the powerful, pointing out art’s concrete usefulness in their daily lives and casting it is a domain of knowledge and experience that is rightfully theirs. Enlisting a sort of reverse psychology, he tickles the power-hungry impulses of the bourgeois and rallies them to reclaim art from the “monopoly” of the artists in order to reap its benefits in their own lives:

A keener desire, a more active reverie, will at such moments prove a relaxation from your daily strivings. But the monopolists have tried to keep you away from the fruits of knowledge, because knowledge is their counter and their shop, to be guarded jealously. If they had denied you the power of creating works of art or of understanding the techniques used in their creation, they would have been proclaiming a truth that you would not have taken offense at, because public business and trade absorb three quarters of your day. As for the leisure hours, they must therefore be used for enjoyment and pleasure.

But the monopolists have decreed that you shall not have the right to enjoyment, because you lack the technical knowledge of the arts, although possessing that of the law and business.

Yet it is only right, if two thirds of your time is taken up by techniques, that the other third should belong to feeling, and it is by feeling alone that you are to understand art; — and that is how the balance of your spiritual forces will be built up… Just as you have extended men’s rights and benefits in your political life, so you have stablished in the arts a greater and more abundant communion.

Having appealed to how art will serve them, he ends by appealing to their altruism in how they can serve art:

You are the natural friends of the arts, because some of you are rich and the others learned.

Having given society your knowledge, your industry, your work, your money, you demand payment in the form of bodily, intellectual and imaginative enjoyment. If you recover the quantity of enjoyment necessary to restore the balance of all parts of your being, you will be well filled, happy and kindly, just as society will be well filled, happy and kindly when it has found its general and absolute equilibrium.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly excellent Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature with Ursula K. Le Guin on power, freedom, and how literature expands our scope of the possible and Alain de Botton on the seven psychological functions of art.


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