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What Is Love? Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History

“Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.”

After those collections of notable definitions of art, science, and philosophy, here comes a selection of poetic definitions of a peculiar phenomenon that is at once more amorphous than art, more single-minded than science, and more philosophical than philosophy itself. Gathered here are some of the most memorable and timeless insights on love, culled from several hundred years of literary history — enjoy.

Kurt Vonnegut, who was in some ways an extremist about love but also had a healthy dose of irreverence about it, in The Sirens of Titan:

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

Anaïs Nin, whose wisdom on love knew no bounds, in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953:

What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is.

Stendhal in his fantastic 1822 treatise on love:

Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will. … there are no age limits for love.

C. S. Lewis, who was a very wise man, in The Four Loves:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Lemony Snicket in Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid:

Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby — awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.

Susan Sontag, whose illustrated insights on love were among last year’s most read and shared articles, in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.

Charles Bukowski, who also famously deemed love “a dog from hell,” in this archival video interview:

Love is kind of like when you see a fog in the morning, when you wake up before the sun comes out. It’s just a little while, and then it burns away… Love is a fog that burns with the first daylight of reality.

Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.

Ambrose Bierce, with the characteristic wryness of The Devil’s Dictionary:

Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Katharine Hepburn in Me : Stories of My Life:

Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.

Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, he of great wisdom, in The Conquest of Happiness:

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts it even more forcefully in The Brothers Karamazov:

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a letter to his ten-year-old daughter explaining the importance of evidence in science and in life:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Paulo Coelho in The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession:

Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused.

James Baldwin in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction, 1948-1985:

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore:

Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Airman’s Odyssey: Night Flight / Wind Sand & Stars / Flight to Arras:

Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.

Honoré de Balzac, who knew a thing or two about all-consuming love, in Physiologie Du Mariage:

The more one judges, the less one loves.

Louis de Bernières in Corelli’s Mandolin:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

E. M. Forster in A Room with a View:

You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.

English novelist Iris Murdoch, cited by the great Milton Glaser in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer:

Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.

But perhaps the truest, if humblest, of them all comes from Agatha Christie, who echoes Anaïs Nin above in her autobiography:

It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.

Archival postcards courtesy the New York Public Library

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2012

Everything you missed and everything you’d want to revisit, in one place.

On this last day of the year, what better way to send 2012 off than with a look back at the its most stimulating reads? Gathered here are the most read and shared articles published on Brain Pickings this year, to complement the recent omnibus of the year’s best books. Enjoy, and may 2013 be inspired in every possible way.

  1. How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love
    Why prestige is the enemy of passion, or how to master the balance of setting boundaries and making friends – insights from seven thinkers who have contemplated the art-science of making your life’s calling a living.
  2. The Daily Routines of Famous Writers
    “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” E. B. White, Ray Bradbury, Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Joan Didion, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary icons share their writing habits, painstakingly culled from decades’ worth of interviews and diary entires.
  3. Susan Sontag on Love: Illustrated Diary Excerpts
    “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.” Artist Wendy MacNaughton illustrates Sontag’s most poignant, most private meditations on love – candid, vulnerable, hopeful, hopeless – culled from the author’s recently released journals.
  4. Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and Others on the Meaning of Life
    “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine asked 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers, what the meaning of life might be. Here is a selection of the answers.
  5. 10 Tips on Writing from David Ogilvy
    “Never write more than two pages on any subject.” Timeless wisdom on writing from the original Mad Man.
  6. John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter
    “If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” A moving letter of advice to the author’s teenage son upon his first love.
  7. A 5-Step Technique for Producing Ideas circa 1939
    “…the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”
  8. Ted Hughes on the Universal Inner Child, in a Moving Letter to His Son
    “The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated.”
  9. Internal Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired
    Debunking the social stigma around late risers, or what Einstein has to do with teens’ risk for smoking.
  10. This Will Make You Smarter: 151 Big Thinkers Each Pick a Concept to Enhance Your Cognitive Toolkit
    The importance of “the umwelt,” or why failure and uncertainty are essential for science and life.
  11. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing & Daily Creative Routine
    “When you can’t create you can work.”
  12. Why Emotional Excess is Essential to Writing and Creativity
    “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
  13. How to Avoid Work: A 1949 Guide to Doing What You Love
    “Life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want.”
  14. The Seven Lady Godivas, His Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes
    In 1939, when Theodor Seuss Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf – that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. This is the little-known result.
  15. Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story
    “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
  16. John Cleese on the 5 Factors to Make Your Life More Creative
    “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
  17. Austin Kleon on 10 Things Every Creator Should Remember But We Often Forget
    What T.S. Eliot has to do with genetics and the optimal investment theory for your intellectual life.
  18. Jack Kerouac’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life
    “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”
  19. 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design
    From visual puns to the grid, or what Edward Tufte has to do with the invention of the fine print.
  20. New Year’s Resolution Reading List: How To Read More and Write Better
    As far as New Year’s resolutions go, hardly anything does one’s mental, spiritual, and creative health more good than resolving to read more and write better. This reading list, originally published in early January 2012, addresses these parallel aspirations. And since the number of books written about reading and writing likely far exceeds the reading capacity of a single human lifetime, this omnibus couldn’t be – shouldn’t be – an exhaustive list. It is, instead, a collection of timeless texts bound to radically improve your relationship with the written word, from whichever side of the equation you approach it.
  21. Women in Science: Einstein’s Advice to a Little Girl Who Wants to Be a Scientist
    The heartening correspondence between Einstein and a South African little girl named Tyffany.
  22. How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
    “Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”
  23. A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell on the Ten Commandments of Teaching
    “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
  24. Charles Darwin’s List of the Pros and Cons of Marriage
    “My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.”
  25. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
    “The useless days will add up to something….These things are your becoming.”
BP

Trailblazing Graphic Designer Paula Scher on Creativity

“To invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience.”

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library), Debbie Millman sits down with twenty of today’s most celebrated graphic designers to unravel the secrets of their creative process, work ethic, and general philosophy on life. The result is a kind of modern-day equivalent of the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, presenting a rare glimpse of the creative machinery behind some of today’s most talented and influential designers through conversations that reveal in equal measure their purposeful brilliance and tender humanity.

One of the most stimulating interviews is with the inimitable Paula Scher — identity and branding goddess, Pentagram partner, maker of magnificent hand-drawn maps, tireless champion of combinatorial creativity — who echoes Thoreau in this beautiful, poetic definition of success:

If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that’s success for me.

Like many of history’s greatest scientists, Scher speaks to the power of intuition and additive knowledge in sparking those creative Eureka! moments, stressing the importance of what novelist William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture.” She illustrates the point with an exquisite metaphor:

There’s a certain amount of intuitive thinking that goes into everything. It’s so hard to describe how things happen intuitively. I can describe it as a computer and a slot machine. I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there. It’s all on one side of the brain.

And on the other side of the brain is a specific brief that comes from my understanding of the project and says, okay, this solution is made up of A, B, C, and D. And if you pull the handle on the slot machine, they sort of run around in a circle, and what you hope is that those three cherries line up, and the cash comes out.

But rather than willing the cherries into alignment, the essence of creative alchemy, says Scher, is in allowing for unconscious processing — that intuitive incubation period, to use T.S. Eliot’s term, that allows for all the combinatorial pieces gathered over years of being alive and awake to the world to click into place, to congeal into what we call “invention”:

I am conscious of resolving the brief, but I don’t think about it too hard. I allow the subconscious part of my brain to work. That’s the accumulation of my whole life. That is what’s going on in the other side of my brain, trying to align with this very logical brief.

And I’m allowing that to flow freely, so that the cherries can line up in the slot machine. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I’ve had periods of time when the cherries never line up, and that’s scary, because then you have to rely on tricks you already have up your sleeve — the tricks in your knowledge from other jobs. And very often you rely on this.

But mostly what you want to do is invent. And to invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience on one side of the brain, and on the other side, the necessity for the brief to make sense. And you’re drawing from that knowledge to make an analogy and to find a way to solve a problem, to find a means of moving forward — in a new way — things you’ve already done.

When you succeed, it’s fantastic. It doesn’t always happen. But every so often, you take a bunch of stuff from one side of your head, and a very logical list of stuff from the other side, and through that osmosis you’re finding a new way to look at a problem and resolve a situation.

Perhaps George Lois was right, after all, when he stated that creativity is discovering ideas rather than “creating” them and John Cleese correctly defined it as “a way of operating” rather than a mystical talent.

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

Photograph via AIGA

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