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A Breakup Letter from Simone de Beauvoir

“I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me.”

As a lover of letters, especially exquisite love letters, I find myself enamored with Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) by Anna Holmes — a moving, rigorously researched collection of breakup letters from women across ten centuries, known and unknown, including favorites like Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath, and divided thematically — the tell-offs, the “just friends,” the marriage refusals, the unsent letters, and more. (Bonus points: The foreword is by none other than Francine Prose.)

One of the most stirring letters in the anthology comes from French writer, feminist, intellectual, and existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, author of the cult-classic treatise The Second Sex. In 1947, while visiting Chicago, she began an affair with Nelson Algren, best-known for The Man with the Golden Arm, and the two sustained a long-distance relationship across the Atlantic for a number years. But the strain of separation eventually took its toll on Algren and, in 1950, he became withdrawn from the relationship, wanting someone permanent in his life. (He eventually remarried his ex-wife, Amanda Kontowicz, in 1953.)

This letter, which de Beauvoir penned in September of 1950 en route back to Paris after visiting a withdrawn Algren in Chicago, is saturated with the palpable tension between the urgency of her longing and the ease which she tries to create for this man she still loves. To give space when what one most yearns for is closeness, that is both the great test and great tragedy of love.

I am better at dry sadness than at cold anger, for I remained dry eyed until now, as dry as smoked fish, but my heart is a kind of dirty soft custard inside.

[…]

I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away fro myself, not really believing you are now so far, so far, you so near. I want to tell you only two things before leaving, and then I’ll not speak about it any more, I promise. First, I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you — not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. When you’ll wish it, just tell. I shall not assume that you love me anew, not even that you have to sleep with me, and we have not to stay together such a long time — just as you feel, and when you feel. But know that i’ll always long for your asking me. No, I cannot think that I shall not see you again. I have lost your love and it was (it is) painful, but shall not lose you. Anyhow, you gave me so much, Nelson, what you gave me meant so much, that you could never take it back. And then your tenderness and friendship were so precious to me that I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me. I do hope this tenderness and friendship will never, never desert me. As for me, it is baffling to say so and I feel ashamed, but it is the only true truth: I just love as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms, that means with my whole self and all my dirty heart; I cannot do less. But that will not bother you, honey, and don’t make writing letters of any kind a duty, just write when you feel like it, knowing every time it will make me very happy.

Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.

Your own Simone

Hell Hath No Fury is a trove of literary breakup zingers in its entirety. Complement it with Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s illustrated anatomy of a breakup, then revisit Sartre’s love letters to Simone de Beauvoir.

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Design, Knowledge, and Human Intelligence: RIP Bill Moggridge, Designer of the First Laptop

“You can’t really, truly expect to explain design unless you explain intelligence.”

Sad days for the design world: We’ve lost Bill Moggridge (1943-2012) — visionary pioneer, designer of the world’s first laptop, director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and one infinitely kind man. No attempt to capture the full scope of his legacy and cultural imprint would be remotely adequate, but revisiting his inimitable insight into the essence, purpose, and sociocultural capacity of design is a poignant reminder of just what we’ve lost with his passing — and how much we’ve gained through his timeless wisdom.

In 2007, shortly after the publication of his now-iconic Designing Interactions, Moggridge gave an interview for Ambidextrous Magazine, in which he articulates with his signature blend of insight and irreverence some of the most critical issues that still keep design a culturally misunderstood discipline and design education a broken model.

One of the paradoxes Moggridge addresses is that of the usefulness of “useless” knowledge and the fetishizing of factual knowledge:

[Academia is] all about explicit knowledge. And design, by definition — along with the other arts like poetry or writing — is mostly not so explicit. It’s mostly tacit knowledge. It has to do with people’s intuitions and harnessing the subconscious part of the mind rather than just the conscious. And the result is if you try and couch the respectability of a professor or some form of research grant in terms that are normal for science, then it looks very weak. And so you have to have a different attitude, really, in order to see the strength that it could offer or the value that it could offer. And that’s a big difficulty both in academia and in terms of foundations.

[…]

If you think about the structure of the mind, there just seems to be a small amount that is above the water—equivalent to an iceberg—which is the explicit part…And most academic subjects are designed to live in that explicit part that sticks out of the water. If you can find a way to harness, towards a productive goal, the rest of it, the subconscious [understanding], the tacit knowledge, the behavior — just doing it and the intuition — all those, then you can bring in the rest of the iceberg. And that is hugely valuable.

NASA astronaut using the first notebook computer, Moggridge’s GRiD Compass, on a space shuttle flight.

Moggridge draws a fascinating parallel between design and science, echoing the idea that intuition is essential to both scientific discovery and creativity:

Every scientist is an intuitive person, and most ‘ahas’ come from intuition anyway. And we all know that we fall in love with things and that we’re interested in subjective qualitative values. It’s just whether you recognize it as having something that you can use in a respective environment or a respectable sense.

Ultimately, and perhaps precisely because it requires this kind of abstract knowledge and combinatorial creativity, Moggridge frames design as a form of intelligence:

I really don’t think you’re going to understand design and art until you understand intelligence [and how the brain works]. So you can dent it, you can sort of make things so there are interesting insights and will help people, and you can explain process, but you can’t really, truly expect to explain design unless you explain intelligence.

He leaves us with a seemingly simple but infinitely important reminder, wrapped in a hope for better design writing and education:

So few people seem to realize that everything’s designed. And until we get some good people telling the story, that’s probably going to continue to be the case. So I’d love it if there was a consciousness in the public mind that mathematics and reading and writing is not enough — you also need to learn how to do design. Because everything is designed, and the way our world exists around us depends on how well it’s designed.

Fortunately, we’ve had some really good people telling design’s story. But what tragedy to lose one of the best of them — Bill Moggridge, you will be missed.

In 2010, Moggridge followed up with Designing Media — a modern treasure.

Images via Smithsonian courtesy IDEO, Associated Press

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The First Ads for Famous Books

Because even genius needs share of voice to succeed.

In Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements (public library), New York Times book critic Dwight Garner offers “a visual survey of book advertisements, plucked from yellowing newspapers, journals and magazines large and small, from across the United States during the twentieth century” — more than 300 of them, to be precise, including some of modern history’s most beloved literary classics by favorite authors like Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, Anaïs Nin, and Ray Bradbury. What emerges is a curious alternative history of literature and its parallel evolution alongside twentieth-century communication arts and advertising. But, perhaps most importantly, it serves as a necessary antidote to the genius myth, demonstrating that icons are very much made, not merely celebrated for their “God”-given talent.

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Garner writes of the new visual language of the 60s:

Author photographs, in the 1960s, were increasingly put to bold use. Susan Sontag pops out of a 1963 ad for her first novel, The Benefactor, glancing provocatively from the page as if she were an intellectual Cleopatra.

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