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Lou Andreas-Salomé, the World’s First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Creativity and the Relationship Between the Mind and the Body, in Letters to Rilke

“All art begins [as] a calling forth of life in its still concealed mysteriousness.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the World’s First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Creativity and the Relationship Between the Mind and the Body, in Letters to Rilke

In an era when the self-actualization opportunities for women of genius amounted to little more than becoming wives of geniuses, the Russian-born writer and intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) realized a life commensurate with her brilliance. At the age of fifty, already an established poet and philosopher, she trained with Freud and became the world’s first female psychoanalyst. Her extraordinary intellectual gravity and creative grace made her a muse to some of Europe’s most celebrated minds. Nietzsche, whose masterwork Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by Andreas-Salomé, set down his ten rules for writers in a letter to her. Young Rilke became besotted with her, wrote her exquisite love letters, and dedicated his Book of Hours to her. It was at her urging that he changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer,” which she found more virile and Germanic. Even after their romance ended in 1900, she remained Rilke’s closest confidante and, in many ways, his most important influence.

Nowhere does Andreas-Salomé’s uncommon insight into the human spirit come more fully abloom than in their prolific correspondence, published as Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) and spanning a quarter century of intellectual intercourse well after the end of their affair.

In June of 1914, shortly after her correspondence with Freud about human nature, she writes to assuage Rilke’s frustration with the creative block that had befallen him:

[When] a creative period [is] about to begin in response to [one’s] new human experiences … a terrible danger is as close as a great victory. Life is easy for those people who are granted a very small portion of creativity to go along with their strong experiences and can expend the former entirely on the latter; and now and then those others, the ones who are creative by nature, succeed the other way around; but much more often the two as it were meet somewhere in the middle and die there, since they collide on their one path rather than proceed along it together.

A few days later, Rilke breaks through his creative block and sends her a newly written poem titled “Turning,” containing the following verse:

For gazing, you see, has its limits.
And the more gazed-upon world
wants to prosper in love.

Work of the eyes is done,
begin heart-work now
on those images in you, those captive ones;
for you conquered them: but you still don’t know them.

In her response, poured out of her dual identity of muse and analyst, Andreas-Salomé offers a beautiful testament to the embodied experience of creative revelation and to what John Dewey would later term the vital “live creature” aspect of the artist. She writes of Rilke’s creative breakthrough:

It has been on its way for so long, has been prepared for, indeed has already almost arrived. Your body knew of its coming, as it were, before you yourself did, yet in the way that only bodies know of things, — with such infinite innocence and directness that in the end this knowledge could temporarily create for it a new misunderstanding with the mind. Do you know by what sign this revealed itself? By the eyes, — those gazing ones… But they, these eyes, left only to themselves in their arduous searchings, beyond the bounds of that which, in their normal function, they needed only to convey to the mind, — they could in their gazing only become ever more corporeal and — confusing, as it were, the more subterranean processes with those consummated at the visibly open and observable body surface — lead only to strange forms of torment; for the “heart-work” to be done on what had previously been only artistically gazed upon would have to occur in some innermost region were it to succeed.

That success, she argues, hinges on “the great love that transforms outside and inside into a completely new,” of which she writes:

What love does in this union is dark and difficult and glorious — and stands on the side of life; who would dare or even want to guess more about it than that; and indeed, you will experience it. Certainly not without interruptions and doubts.

Three days later, having lived with the poem and let it work its slow-burning magic, Andreas-Salomé writes to Rilke again, further reflecting on the poem’s power. Embedded in her words is a meditation on what all transcendent works of art accomplish in our interiority:

There is something in it as of a newly conquered domain, one whose boundaries are still out beyond one’s ken, its compass extending farther than one could walk: one senses more terrain; senses many trails and long wanderings along paths that until now had always been shrouded in fog. And adding a little daylight, just enough so that one can see where to take the next step, would be, from one poem to the next poem, like a real advance of footsteps, one never as yet achieved, on grounds where (in contrast to “mere” art) illumination and action are still as one; this domain can indeed only be made into poetry insofar and to the extent that one has conquered it and thus made it part of a new experience. Somewhere in this realm, deep down, all art begins again with renewed force, arises as from its primordial origin, where it was magic formula, incantation, — a calling forth of life in its still concealed mysteriousness, — yes, where it was at once prayer and the most intense breaking-forth of power.

The calling forth of life that is art, Andreas-Salomé points out, happens not only in the mind but also in the body, the integration of the two being the seedbed of our selfhood and the supreme mark of the creative person:

This running up against our body … is yet the outermost outside in its most intimate sense, the first partition that differentiates us from ourselves, makes us the “inner being” lodged in it like the face in a hedgehog; and yet: our very body, with its hands, feet, eyes, ears, all the parts we enumerate as “us”; this perplexing tangle generally unfurls only in response to the loving comportment of an other, who alone legitimates, in a manner we can bear, our body as “us.” In a “creative person,” though, these components perpetually loosen and renew their ties: which is why, instead of repetition, new reality emanates from him.

Rilke and Andreas-Salomé is an immeasurably rich read in its entirety. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe’s magnificent letter to Sherwood Anderson on what it really means to be an artist and pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creativity, then revisit Rilke on how difficulty can fuel creativity and the symbiosis between the body and the soul.

BP

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

On the lifelong pleasure of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

“One of the most powerful men in the United States is a dark-haired young bachelor with a mobile face, who was born in Brooklyn in 1928.” So wrote Brian O’Doherty in his 1963 New York Times profile of Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012), a storyteller whose work “springs from his earliest self, from the vagrant child that lurks in the heart of all of us.” (Beautifully true as the rest may be, one claim was an ugliness of the era’s pre-DOMA bigotry: Sendak wasn’t a bachelor at all — by that point, he already lived with Dr. Eugene Glynn, who would be his spouse for the remaining half-century of Glynn’s life.)

But the most timeless truth about Sendak’s genius lies in how his books granted and continue to grant validity to children’s imagination — not only in its boundless light but in its deepest darkness, too. For the latter he offered solace not through escapism but through solidarity: Yes, he seems to say, life is difficult and scary — but if we spend half of it in darkness, we might as well find rays of hope in the shadows and befriend the monsters lurking there as indelible companions in our conquest of the luminous half.

Illustration from Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s deeply philosophical first book

In 1970, 42-year-old Sendak sat down with Pulitzer-winning oral historian and interviewer extraordinaire Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) for a wide-ranging conversation about his creative evolution as a storyteller; about his influences and the inspiration behind his most celebrated books; about starting out as an illustrator of other writers’ stories — most notably, his early collaborations with Ruth Krauss — and then becoming a writer himself with the 1957 publication of his first solo book, the forgotten and wonderfully philosophical gem Kenny’s Window. “If you’re an illustrator,” he tells Terkel, “you’re almost a writer — or you want to be a writer. You sort of hug words when you illustrate a book, and eventually do think you’re going to be a writer — and then, hopefully, you become a writer.”

The conversation became the sincerest and most creatively revealing interview Sendak ever gave.Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On why William Blake became his great lifelong influence:

I love … Blake’s adoration of the child self as being the best part of the human self. How sad that as adults, we just drop it along the way — or are embarrassed by it, often. There are so many adults who enjoy a book for children but are vaguely embarrassed at enjoying it, as though only their children should enjoy it and there’s something strange about them enjoying it — which is such an odd twisting and distortion of the pleasure of having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence

On how ideas are born:

It’s an emotional quality — and they come up, they really well up, like when I wrote In the Night Kitchen… As the book grew, you’re just never so happy… You’re living two lives — you’re a 42-year-old man, and you’re a four-year-old boy. And it’s a little confusing, but it’s memorable. It’s a stupendous feeling — it’s the greatest joy in the world. And you know the validity of it because it comes pouring into your head.

On the artificiality of designating something as a “children’s book,” against which Tolkien too admonished and which Sendak repeated in his last on-camera interview shortly before his death:

I don’t set out to write for children. I don’t consciously set out to write a book for some imaginary child. I just write the book because I have to… I don’t have any audience in mind except my own pleasure.

One of Sendak’s 1973 illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

On the secret to illustration as a storytelling medium and the relationship between text and image:

What I love [about] illustrating a book is that words and pictures do things for each other. To just illustrate a word is pointless — you’re just laying down a picture. But if you have the picture doing something other than what the word is doing, then something marvelous might be happening… You get a dimension in a book.

[…]

That’s the beauty of book writing and illustrating. There’s nothing so dull as translating books that are beautifully written into a picture — the author’s already done that, so you as an illustrator must contribute something else: adorn the word, or go inside the word, or go around the word, but extend it in some marvelous way to make it a beautiful thing. And that’s the great fun.

On the fragmentary nature of creativity, which David Lynch echoed decades later, and the incubation period of ideas, which T.S. Eliot extolled decades earlier:

There are always ideas that sit in your head… A stray sentence from ’58 sits in my head, a stray sentence from ’62 sits in my head; I have a title for the past eight years now, which I just love, but I don’t have the story to go with it; I even have a subtitle, but don’t have a story to go with it… You get these little hunks of fragments [and] you just wait, and you’ve got to be very patient. Eventually, if they’re good enough, they come together. If they stink, they fall away.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating libraries and reading

On honoring children’s inherent Baloney Detection Kit:

Be as foolish and as silly and whatever as you want, but you tell the truth in some way… Kids know instantly when you’re not, and how awful to not tell the truth — what’s the point, really?

Complement with Sendak’s darkest yet most truthful and optimistic book, his rare and formative illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and his posthumous love letter to the world, then join me in supporting the Studs Terkel Radio Archive digital conservation initiative.

BP

Eternal Echoes: Irish Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on Belonging and How Our Restlessness Fuels Our Creativity

“There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves.”

Eternal Echoes: Irish Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on Belonging and How Our Restlessness Fuels Our Creativity

“Longing is the transfiguration of aloneness,” David Whyte wrote. To master the art of being alone — which is perhaps the most challenging and anxiety-producing art of our time — is to acknowledge our longing for connection, for a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, and to orient ourselves differently toward that core yearning, to envelop it with more gentleness and less judgment.

The alchemy of that transfiguration is what the great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (public library) — an immensely insightful lens on the timeless turbulences of the human heart, informed by ancient wisdom and addressed to the modern experience of life.

johnodonohue

O’Donohue writes:

We live in a world that responds to our longing; it is a place where the echoes always return, even if sometimes slowly… The hunger to belong is at the heart of our nature. Cut off from others, we atrophy and turn in on ourselves. The sense of belonging is the natural balance of our lives… There is some innocent childlike side to the human heart that is always deeply hurt when we are excluded… When we become isolated, we are prone to being damaged; our minds lose their flexibility and natural kindness; we become vulnerable to fear and negativity.

[…]

The ancient and eternal values of human life — truth, unity, goodness, justice, beauty, and love — are all statements of true belonging; they are the also the secret intention and dream of human longing.

And yet, although we long for integration, we are fundamentally fragmentary. The dynamic interaction between these two poles, O’Donohue argues, is a central animating force of the human experience:

No thing is ultimately at one with itself. Everything that is alive holds distance within itself. This is especially true of the human self. It is the deepest intimacy which is nevertheless infused with infinite distance. There is some strange sense in which distance and closeness are sisters, the two sides of the one experience. Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging. Yet they are always in a dynamic interflow with each other.

[…]

Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Much like our neediness maps out our incompleteness and, in doing so, provides the essential emotional intelligence necessary for true human connection, our longing to belong brings us closer both to ourselves and to one another. O’Donohue writes:

There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves.

[…]

There is a lovely balance at the heart of our nature: each of us is utterly unique and yet we live in the most intimate kinship with everyone and everything else… Our hunger to belong is the desire to awaken this hidden affinity.

swan

And yet belonging is always and invariably incomplete. The subtle sense of homelessness that this incompleteness seeds in us is the root of the creative impulse — something the great choreographer Martha Graham captured in her wonderful notion of “divine dissatisfaction.” O’Donohue considers how we interpolate between our longing for connection and the solitary urgency that gives rise to the creative impulse:

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart. Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart. As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.” All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.

[…]

The restlessness in the human heart will never be finally stilled by any person, project, or place. The longing is eternal. This is what constantly qualifies and enlarges our circles of belonging. There is a constant and vital tension between longing and belonging. Without the shelter of belonging, our longings would lack direction, focus, and context; they would be aimless and haunted, constantly tugging the heart in a myriad of opposing directions. Without belonging, our longing would be demented. As memory gathers and anchors time, so does belonging shelter longing.

[…]

When longing dies, creativity ceases. The arduous task of being a human is to balance longing and belonging so that they work with and against each other to ensure that all the potential and gifts that sleep in the clay of the heart may be awakened and realized in this one life.

How to awaken these gifts is what O’Donohue goes on to examine in the remainder of Eternal Echoes. Complement it with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why frustration is essential for satisfaction, Tove Jansson’s philosophical Moomin parable of belonging, and David Whyte on how to belong with yourself, then revisit O’Donohue on beauty and desire and the essence of true friendship.

BP

Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer

“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.”

Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer

Recently, in listening to a dear and brilliant friend rationalize her choice to stay at a soul-sucking corporate job under the seemingly sensible pretext that it would eventually grant her the financial freedom to be a full-time writer, I was reminded of how one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century struggled with, and eventually extracted herself from, a similar predicament.

In 1906, Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) left teaching and moved to New York City to join the staff of McClure’s Magazine — the most successful and prestigious periodical of the era, famous for its fierce investigative reporting and for publishing trailblazing fiction by writers like Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

But its success was also driven by brutally ambitious corporate management that saw journalism as a profitable business and writing as a marketable commodity that bordered on what might be called content-farming today. Cather was originally hired as a fiction editor, but when the majority of McClure’s staff — including the great Lincoln Steffens — left en masse over discontentment with the magazine’s corporate ruthlessness, she was tasked with the onerous work of an intense investigative project, which became a sensation and exploded the magazine’s circulation. “Mr. McClure tried three men at this disagreeable task, but none of them did it very well, so a month ago it was thrust upon me,” she wrote to a friend shortly before she was promoted to managing editor.

Willa Cather

Cather was excellent at the job, enjoyed being called an “executive,” and couldn’t deny the gratifications of the attractive pay. But she eventually came to feel that the hamster wheel of journalistic productivity drained her creative capacity, steering her further from her calling as a literary writer. And yet she remained unable to tear herself away, for all the complex and conflicted reasons that any of us stay in situations, relationships, and jobs that contract rather than magnifying our spirit.

Everything changed on December 13, 1908, when Cather received a remarkable letter of advice from her friend and mentor, the writer Sarah Jewett. Found in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — the marvelous tome that gave us Cather on writing through times of trouble and her only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — the letter was at once a hard shake of the shoulders and a warm embrace. It provided precisely the kind of prod Cather needed in order to awaken from her trance of corporate productivity and revive her creative energies as a writer.

Sarah Jewett
Sarah Jewett

Jewett wrote:

Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.

Cather was shaken, in the best possible way. Her reply to Jewett is masterwork of self-awareness and insight into a great many perennial perplexities of the human spirit:

My Dear, Dear Miss Jewett;

Such a kind and earnest and friendly letter as you sent me! I have read it over many times. I have been in deep perplexity these last few years, and troubles that concern only one’s habits of mind are such personal things that they are hard to talk about. You see I was not made to have to do with affairs — what Mr. McClure calls “men and measures.” If I get on at that kind of work it is by going at it with the sort of energy most people have to exert only on rare occasions. Consequently I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bars — it’s catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself. My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep. I really do stand and look at it sometimes and threaten not to take it in at all — I get to hating it so for not being any more good to me. Then reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words. I feel diluted and weakened by it all the time — relaxed, as if I had lived in a tepid bath until I shrink from either heat or cold.

At the heart of Cather’s lament is the acute sense of the tradeoff between productivity and creativity, calling to mind Parker Palmer’s incisive observation that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on.”

She writes to Jewett:

Your mind becomes a card-catalogue of notes that are meaningless except as related to their proper subject.

[…]

[Mr. McClure] wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible — and, I fear perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.

Willa Cather (Library of Congress)
Willa Cather (Library of Congress)

McClure, for his part, was a deft manipulator of the interior conditions that kept his staff from hopping off the corporate hamster wheel, feeding their confidence at the specific productivity he needed and fueling their self-doubt about larger creative pursuits. Cather writes:

Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, it has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four, one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story.

And yet Cather remained awake to the tradeoff, animated by unshakable restlessness about the sacrifice she was making in buying into this particular model of success at the expense of her creative satisfaction:

The question of work aside, one has a right to live and reflect and feel a little. When I was teaching I did. I learned more or less all the time. But now I have the feeling of standing still except for a certain kind of facility in getting the sort of material Mr. McClure wants. It’s stiff mental exercise, but it is about as much food to live by as elaborate mental arithmetic would be. — Of course there are interesting people and interesting things in the day’s work, but it’s all like going round the world in a railway train and never getting off to see anything closer. I have not a reportorial mind — I can’t get things in fleeting glimpses and I can’t get any pleasure out of them. And the excitement of it doesn’t stimulate me, it only wears me out.

Now the kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it? It can’t be the kind of life one was meant to live. I do think that kind of excitement does to my brain exactly what I have seen alcohol do to men’s. It seems to spread one’s very brain cells apart so that they don’t touch. Everything leaks out as the power does in a broken circuit. So whether or not the chief is right about my never doing much writing, I think one’s immortal soul is to be considered a little. He thrives on this perpetual debauch, but five years more of it will make me a fat, sour, ill-tempered lady — and fussy, worst of all! And assertive; all people who do feats on the flying trapeze and never think are as cocky as terriers after rats, you know.

Her mind then performs the same acrobatics of rationalization we all engage in when we justify tolerating circumstances that don’t serve us in the grand scheme of a life:

I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don’t think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — “and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book].” It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange.

willacather_stamp

Cather began working on her first novel shortly thereafter. Although it took her another three years to finally leave McClure’s — by that point, she was one of the most powerful women in journalism — once she did, she never looked back. Her debut novel was published that year to critical acclaim and was followed by thirteen books over the next three decades, which earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize and established her as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with Cather on happiness, then revisit William James on choosing purpose over profit, Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, and Charles Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-draining day job to become a full-time writer.

BP

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