In this fascinating micro-documentary, Dr. Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for Time Services at the U.S. Naval Observatory — the same federal agency that hired astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman employed by the government — takes us on a tour of the USNO’s 100 atomic clocks, where the time on your iPhone originates. Dr. Matsakis explains how these atomic clocks — which won’t fall behind or race forward by a single second in 300 million years, rendering them the most accurate measuring devices ever created by humanity — also synchronize GPS, coordinate military operations, dictate financial transactions, and orchestrate internet communication. He then peers into the future to imagine the time-accuracy that is to come, as well as the dark side of such precision.
Time is a coordinate that lets us most simply understand the evolution of the universe.
In one sense, we’ve figured out everything from a practical point of view — the fundamentals — and in another sense, we don’t know anything at all… There are people who say time could stop, time could have a beginning, time is a derived quantity and not a fundamental quantity, and those are things I can’t give answers to. It’s something like being a doctor who may know how to keep someone alive, but doesn’t know what life is. I know how to compute the second — that’s my job.
What is love? This question haunts the human psyche perhaps more persistently than any other. It has occupied our collective imagination for millennia, it has baffled scientists, taunted philosophers, and tantalized artists. So mystified by love were the Ancient Greeks that they itemized six types of it. But nothing defines it with more exquisite expressiveness than the love letter. At its best, it makes the personal universal, then personal again — a writer from another era or another culture captures the all-consuming complexity of love with more richness and color and dimension than we ourselves could, making us feel at once less alone and more whole in our understanding of love and of ourselves.
As we turn the leaf on a new chapter of modern history that embraces a more inclusive definition of love — both culturally and, at last, politically — here is a celebration of the human heart’s highest capacity through history’s most beautiful and timelessly bewitching LGBTQ love letters.
VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VITA SACKVILLE-WEST
The gender-bending protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s pioneering novel Orlando, which subverted censorship to revolutionize the politics of queer love, was based on the English poet Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s onetime passionate lover and lifelong dear friend. In fact, the entire novel is thought to have been written about the affair — so much so that Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, has described it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” Be that as it may, the two women also exchanged some gorgeous love letters in real life, found in the altogether wonderful collection The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time (public library). Here is one from Virginia to Vita from January of 1927, shortly after the two had fallen madly in love:
Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.
On January 21, Vita sends Virginia this disarmingly honest, heartfelt, and unguarded letter, which stands in beautiful contrast with Virginia’s passionate prose:
…I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.
On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita received a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specifically for her in Niger leather and engraved with her initials on the spine.
MARGARET MEAD AND RUTH BENEDICT
Margaret Mead endures as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, who not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her studies of attitudes towards sex. In addition to broadening cultural conventions through her work, she also embodied the revolution in her personal life. Married three times to men, she dearly loved her third husband, the renowned British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter. But the most intense and enduring relationship of her life was with a woman — the anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, Mead’s mentor at Columbia university, fourteen years her senior. The two shared a bond of uncommon magnitude and passion, which stretched across a quarter century until the end of Benedict’s life.
In August of 1925, 24-year-old Mead sailed to Samoa, beginning the journey that would produce her enormously influential treatise Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. (Mead, who believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationship,” was married at the time to her first husband and they had an unconventional arrangement that both allowed her to do field work away from him for extended periods of time and accommodated her feelings for Ruth.) On her fourth day at sea, she writes Benedict with equal parts devotion and urgency:
Ruth, dear heart,
. . . The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.
A few days later:
Ruth, I was never more earthborn in my life — and yet never more conscious of the strength your love gives me. You have convinced me of the one thing in life which made living worthwhile.
You have no greater gift, darling. And every memory of your face, every cadence of your voice is joy whereon I shall feed hungrily in these coming months.
In another letter:
[I wonder] whether I could manage to go on living, to want to go on living if you did not care.
Does Honolulu need your phantom presence? Oh, my darling — without it, I could not live here at all. Your lips bring blessings — my beloved.
In December of that year, Mead was offered a position as assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where she would go on to spend the rest of her career. She excitedly accepted, in large part so that she could at last be closer to Benedict, and moved to New York with her husband, Luther Cressman, firmly believing that the two relationships would neither harm nor contradict one another. As soon as the decision was made, she wrote to Benedict on January 7, 1926:
Your trust in my decision has been my mainstay, darling, otherwise I just couldn’t have managed. And all this love which you have poured out to me is very bread and wine to my direct need. Always, always I am coming back to you.
I kiss your hair, sweetheart.
Four days later, Mead sends Benedict a poignant letter, reflecting on her two relationships and how love crystallizes of its own volition:
In one way this solitary existence is particularly revealing — in the way I can twist and change in my attitudes towards people with absolutely no stimulus at all except such as springs from within me. I’ll awaken some morning just loving you frightfully much in some quite new way and I may not have sufficiently rubbed the sleep from my eyes to have even looked at your picture. It gives me a strange, almost uncanny feeling of autonomy. And it is true that we have had this loveliness “near” together for I never feel you too far away to whisper to, and your dear hair is always just slipping through my fingers. . . .
When I do good work it is always always for you … and the thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.
Five weeks later, in mid-February, Mead and Benedict begin planning a three-week getaway together, which proves, thanks to their husbands’ schedules, to be more complicated than the two originally thought. Exasperated over all the planning, Margaret writes Ruth:
I’ll be so blinded by looking at you, I think now it won’t matter — but the lovely thing about our love is that it will. We aren’t like those lovers of Edward’s “now they are sleeping cheek to cheek” etc. who forgot all the things their love had taught them to love —
Precious, precious. I kiss your hair.
By mid-March, Mead is once again firmly rooted in her love for Benedict:
I feel immensely freed and sustained, the dark months of doubt washed away, and that I can look you gladly in the eyes as you take me in your arms. My beloved! My beautiful one. I thank God you do not try to fence me off, but trust me to take life as it comes and make something of it. With that trust of yours I can do anything — and come out with something precious saved.
Sweet, I kiss your hands.
As the summer comes, Mead finds herself as in love with Benedict as when they first met six years prior, writing in a letter dated August 26, 1926:
I am very happy and an enormous number of cobwebs seem to have been blown away in Paris. I was so miserable that last day, I came nearer doubting than ever before the essentially impregnable character of our affection for each other. And now I feel at peace with the whole world. You may think it is tempting the gods to say so, but I take all this as high guarantee of what I’ve always temperamentally doubted — the permanence of passion — and the mere turn of your head, a chance inflection of your voice have just as much power to make the day over now as they did four years ago. And so just as you give me zest for growing older rather than dread, so also you give me a faith I never thought to win in the lastingness of passion.
I love you, Ruth.
In September of 1928, as Mead travels by train to marry her second husband after her first marriage crumbled, another bittersweet letter to Ruth leaves us speculating about what might have been different had the legal luxuries of modern love been a reality in Mead’s day, making it possible for her and Ruth to marry and formalize their steadfast union under the law:
I’ve slept mostly today trying to get rid of this cold and not to look at the country which I saw first from your arms.
Mostly, I think I’m a fool to marry anyone. I’ll probably just make a man and myself unhappy. Right now most of my daydreams are concerned with not getting married at all. I wonder if wanting to marry isn’t just another identification with you, and a false one. For I couldn’t have taken you away from Stanley and you could take me away from [Reo] — there’s no blinking that.
Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand. Do you mind terribly when I say these things? You mustn’t mind — ever — anything in the most perfect gift God has given me. The center of my life is a beautiful walled place, if the edges are a little weedy and ragged — well, it’s the center which counts — My sweetheart, my beautiful, my lovely one.
By 1933, despite the liberal arrangements of her marriage, Mead felt that it forcibly squeezed out of her the love she had for Benedict. In a letter to Ruth from April 9, she reflects on those dynamics and gasps at the relief of choosing to break free of those constraints and being once again free to love fully:
Having laid aside so much of myself, in response to what I mistakenly believed was the necessity of my marriage I had no room for emotional development. … Ah, my darling, it is so good to really be all myself to love you again. . . . The moon is full and the lake lies still and lovely — this place is like Heaven — and I am in love with life. Goodnight, darling.
Over the years that followed, both Margaret and Ruth explored the boundaries of their other relationships, through more marriages and domestic partnerships, but their love for each other only continued to grow. In 1938, Mead captured it beautifully by writing of “the permanence of [their] companionship.” Mead and her last husband, Gregory Bateson, named Benedict the guardian of their daughter. The two women shared their singular bond until Benedict’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. In one of her final letters, Mead wrote:
Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you.
From the wonderful 1998 anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries (public library) — a diverse collection of missives covering the universalities of romantic love, from longing and infatuation to jealousy and rejection to tenderness and loyalty — comes the correspondence of Beat Generation godfather Allen Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. The two had met in San Francisco in 1954, embarking upon what Ginsberg called their “marriage” — a lifelong relationship that went through many phases, endured multiple challenges, but ultimately lasted until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.
Their letters, filled with typos, missing punctuation, and the grammatical oddities typical of writing propelled by bursts of intense emotion rather than literary precision, are absolutely beautiful.
In a letter from January 20, 1958, Ginsberg writes to Orlovsky from Paris, recounting a visit with his close friend and fellow beatnik, William S. Burroughs, another icon of literature’s gay subculture:
O Heart O Love everything is suddenly turned to gold! Don’t be afraid don’t worry the most astounding beautiful thing has happened here! I don’t know where to begin but the most important. When Bill [ed: William S. Burroughs] came I, we, thought it was the same old Bill mad, but something had happened to Bill in the meantime since we last saw him . . . . but last night finally Bill and I sat down facing each other across the kitchen table and looked eye to eye and talked, and I confessed all my doubt and misery — and in front of my eyes he turned into an Angel!
What happened to him in Tangiers this last few months? It seems he stopped writing and sat on his bed all afternoons thinking and meditating alone & stopped drinking — and finally dawned on his consciousness, slowly and repeatedly, every day, for several months — awareness of “a benevolent sentient (feeling) center to the whole Creation” — he had apparently, in his own way, what I have been so hung up in myself and you, a vision of big peaceful Lovebrain. . . .
I woke up this morning with great bliss of freedom & joy in my heart, Bill’s saved, I’m saved, you’re saved, we’re all saved, everything has been all rapturous ever since — I only feel sad that perhaps you left as worried when we waved goodby and kissed so awkwardly — I wish I could have that over to say goodby to you happier & without the worries and doubts I had that dusty dusk when you left… — Bill is changed nature, I even feel much changed, great clouds rolled away, as I feel when you and I were in rapport, well, our rapport has remained in me, with me, rather than losing it, I’m feeling to everyone, something of the same as between us.
A couple of weeks later, in early February, Orlovsky sends a letter to Ginsberg from New York, in which he writes with beautiful prescience:
…dont worry dear Allen things are going ok — we’ll change the world yet to our dessire — even if we got to die — but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill. . . .
As soon as he receives the letter the day after Valentine’s Day, Ginsberg writes back, quoting Shakespeare like only a love-struck poet would:
I have been running around with mad mean poets & world-eaters here & was longing for kind words from heaven which you wrote, came as fresh as a summer breeze & “when I think on thee dear friend / all loses are restored & sorrows end,” came over & over in my mind — it’s the end of a Shakespeare Sonnet — he must have been happy in love too. I had never realized that before. . . .
Write me soon baby, I’ll write you big long poem I feel as if you were god that I pray to —
In another letter sent nine days later, Ginsberg writes:
I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .
Citing another conversation he had had with Burroughs, he goes on to presage the enormous leap for the dignity and equality of love that we’ve only just seen more than half a century after Ginsberg wrote this:
Bill thinks new American generation will be hip & will slowly change things — laws & attitudes, he has hope there — for some redemption of America, finding its soul. . . . — you have to love all life, not just parts, to make the eternal scene, that’s what I think since we’ve made it, more & more I see it isn’t just between us, it’s feeling that can [be] extended to everything. Tho I long for the actual sunlight contact between us I miss you like a home. Shine back honey & think of me.
He ends the letter with a short verse:
Goodbye Mr. February.
as tender as ever
swept with warm rain
love from your Allen
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY AND EDITH WYNN MATTHISON
In 1917, during her final year at Vassar College — which she had entered at the unusually ripe age of 21 and from which she was almost expelled for partying too much — Edna St. Vincent Millay met and befriended British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, fifteen years her senior. Taken with Matthison’s fierce spirit, majestic beauty, and impeccable style, Millay’s platonic attraction quickly blossomed into an intense romantic infatuation. Edith, a woman who made no apologies for relishing life’s bounties, eventually kissed Edna and invited her to her summer home. A series of disarmingly passionate letters followed. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us Millay on her love of music and her playfully lewd self-portrait — these epistolary longings capture that strange blend of electrifying ardor and paralyzing pride familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love.
Writing to Edith, Edna cautions of her uncompromising frankness:
Listen; if ever in my letters to you, or in my conversation, you see a candor that seems almost crude, — please know that it is because when I think of you I think of real things, & become honest, — and quibbling and circumvention seem very inconsiderable.
In another, she pleads:
I will do whatever you tell me to do. … Love me, please; I love you. I can bear to be your friend. So ask of me anything. … But never be ‘tolerant,’ or ‘kind.’ And never say to me again — don’t dare to say to me again — ‘Anyway, you can make a trial’ of being friends with you! Because I can’t do things that way. … I am conscious only of doing the thing that I love to do — that I have to do — and I have to be your friend.
In yet another, Millay articulates brilliantly the “proud surrender” at the heart of every materialized infatuation and every miracle of “real, honest, complete love”:
You wrote me a beautiful letter, — I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. — I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. … nothing that has happened to me for a long time has made me so happy as I shall be to visit you sometime. — You must not forget that you spoke of that, — because it would disappoint me cruelly. … I shall try to bring a few quite nice things with me; I will get together all that I can, and then when you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to you; I don’t talk like that to many people.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT AND LORENA HICKOK
Eleanor Roosevelt endures not only as the longest-serving American First Lady, but also as one of history’s most politically impactful, a fierce champion of working women and underprivileged youth.
But her personal life has been the subject of lasting controversy.
On March 5, 1933, the first evening of FDR’s inauguration, Roosevelt wrote Hick:
Hick my dearest–
I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.
Then, the following day:
Ah, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.
And the night after:
All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think “she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!”
And in yet another letter:
I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.
Hick herself responded with equal intensity. In a letter from December 1933, she wrote:
I’ve been trying to bring back your face — to remember just how you look. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.
Granted, human dynamics are complex and ambiguous enough even for those directly involved, making it hard to assume anything with absolute certainty from the sidelines of an epistolary relationship long after the correspondents’ deaths. But wherever on the spectrum of the platonic and romantic the letters in Empty Without You may fall, they offer a beautiful record of a tender, steadfast, deeply loving relationship between two women who meant the world to one another, even if the world never quite condoned or understood their profound connection.
OSCAR WILDE AND SIR ALFRED “BOSIE” DOUGLAS
Even as we make historic progress on the dignity and equality of human love, it’s hard to forget the enormous indignities to which the lovers of yore have been subjected across the 4,000-year history of persecuting desire. Among modernity’s most tragic victims of our shameful past is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned multiple times for his “crime” of homosexuality, driven into bankruptcy and exile, and finally succumbed to an untimely death. But Wilde’s most “sinful” quality — his enormous capacity for passionate, profound love — was also one of the most poetic gifts of his life.
In June of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet, who would come to be the author’s own Dorian Gray — his literary muse, his evil genius, his restless lover. It was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Salomé and the four great plays which to this day endure as the cornerstones of his legacy. Their correspondence, collected Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters (public library), makes for an infinitely inspired addition to the most beautiful love letters exchanged between history’s greatest creative and intellectual power couples.
In January of 1893, Wilde writes to Bosie:
My Own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.
Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.
Always, with undying love, yours,
In early March of 1893, Wilde channels love’s exasperating sense of urgency:
Dearest of All Boys — Your letter was delightful — red and yellow wine to me — but I am sad and out of sorts — Bosie — you must not make scenes with me — they kill me — they wreck the loveliness of life — I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion; I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me — don’t do it — you break my heart — I’d sooner be rented* all day, than have you bitter, unjust, and horrid — horrid.
I must see you soon — you are the divine thing I want — the thing of grace and genius — but but I don’t know how to do it — Shall I come to Salisbury — ? There are many difficulties — my bill here is £49 for a week! I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames — but you, why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy — ? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead —
Ever your own,
* “renter” was slang for male prostitute in London
Their affair was intense, bustling with dramatic tempestuousness, but underpinning it was a profound and genuine love. In a letter from late December of 1893, after a recent rift, Wilde writes to Douglas:
My dearest Boy,
Thanks for your letter. I am overwhelmed by the wings of vulture creditors, and out of sorts, but I am happy in the knowledge that we are friends again, and that our love has passed through the shadow and the light of estrangement and sorrow and come out rose-crowned as of old. Let us always be infinitely dear to each other, as indeed we have been always.
I think of you daily, and am always devotedly yours.
In July of the following year, Wilde writes:
My own dear Boy,
I hope the cigarettes arrived all right. I lunched with Gladys de Grey, Reggie and Aleck York there. They want me to go to Paris with them on Thursday: they say one wears flannels and straw hats and dines in the Bois, but, of course, I have no money, as usual, and can’t go. Besides, I want to see you. It is really absurd. I can’t live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful. I think of you all day long, and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, the delicate fancy of your genius, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights towards north and south, towards sun and moon — and, above all, yourself. The only thing that consoles me is what Sybil of Mortimer Street (whom mortals call Mrs. Robinson) said to me*. If I could disbelieve her I would, but I can’t, and I know that early in January you and I will go away together for a long voyage, and that your lovely life goes always hand in hand with mine. My dear wonderful boy, I hope you are brilliant and happy.
I went to Bertie, today I wrote at home, then went and sat with my mother. Death and Love seem to walk on either hand as I go through life: they are the only things I think of, their wings shadow me.
London is a desert without your dainty feet… Write me a line and take all my love — now and for ever.
Always, and with devotion — but I have no words for how I love you.
* The fortuneteller’s prophesy apparently came true — Wilde and Douglas travelled to Algiers together the following January.
In 1895, at the height of his literary success, with his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest drawing continuous acclaim across the stages of London, Wilde had Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, prosecuted for libel. But the evidence unearthed during the trial led to Wilde’s own arrest on charges of “gross indecency” with members of the same sex. Two more trials followed, after which he was sentenced for two years of “hard labor” in prison. On April 29 of that year, having hit emotional and psychological rock-bottom, his reputation ruined and his health deteriorating, Wilde wrote to Douglas on the eve of the final trial:
My dearest boy,
This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. If prison and dishonour be my destiny, think that my love for you and this idea, this still more divine belief, that you love me in return will sustain me in my unhappiness and will make me capable, I hope, of bearing my grief most patiently. Since the hope, nay rather the certainty, of meeting you again in some world is the goal and the encouragement of my present life, ah! I must continue to live in this world because of that.
Another letter, written on August 31, 1897, shortly after Wilde’s release from prison, reads:
Café Suisse, Dieppe
My own Darling Boy,
I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends. Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.
I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other. Goodnight, dear. Ever yours,
But perhaps the most eloquent articulation of their relationship comes from a letter Wilde wrote to Leonard Smithers — a Sheffield solicitor with a side business of printing erotica, who became the only publisher interested in Wilde’s books in his post-prison years — on October 1, 1897:
How can you keep on asking is Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples? You know quite well he is — we are together. He understands me and my art, and loves both. I hope never to be separated from him. He is a most delicate and exquisite poet, besides — far the finest of all the young poets in England. You have got to publish his next volume; it is full of lovely lyrics, flute-music and moon-music, and sonnets in ivory and gold. He is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, lovable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him — it is the only thing to do.
What made Andersen particularly enchanting was his singular gift for noticing and depicting not only the whimsical, but also the wistful.
By Maria Popova
Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805–August 4, 1875) forever changed storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, but he was also among those rare famous creators with multiple talents: After he received a small travel grant from the King of Denmark in his late twenties, Andersen, a prolific diarist, set out to tour Europe and populated the pages of his journals with beautiful passages about the places he visited during his travels, accompanied by his own sketches of the sights and scenes that spoke to him. Found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library), these little-known and lovely sketches, both literary and visual, bespeak the celebrated writer’s capacity for not only witnessing life with extraordinary presence of heart and mind, but also for capturing its vibrancy in minute, expressive detail — the kind that the ordinary person dismisses as mundane but the great storyteller transmogrifies into magical material for world-building.
Andersen drew his very first sketch in 1821, when he was sixteen — he was already enamored with the theater as a youth, dreaming of escaping from his small hometown of Odense to become an actor in Copenhagen, so it is of little surprise that he chose to depict a theater stage in that seminal drawing:
But over the next decade, Andersen devoted himself to poetry and other literary pursuits. By 1831, he had established himself as a promising young writer, but as any rising talent, he wasn’t immune to attacks. After one that particularly hurt him — Henrik Hertz’s anonymously published 1830 critique Letters of a Ghost — Andersen decided to escape on a six-month trip across the Herz Mountains to Leipzig and Dresden, eventually returning to Copenhagen via Berlin and Hamburg. In the mountains, he visited the highest peak, Brocken, the legends of which were famously extolled in Goethe’s Faust.
In 1833, Andersen traveled to Paris, then the Jura Mountains and the Brig district of Switzerland. Only twenty-eight, he had already begun to experience his first brush with international celebrity.
In a diary entry from September 18, 1833, he describes an encounter that struck him:
Went for a short walk in a black jacket, vest and trousers. The farmers probably took me for a cleric, because they stood still and tipped their hats. All of a sudden an old fellow came toward me and fell on his knees; then I got really scared and turned back. — This is the first time anyone has knelt in front of me.
This was the period when Andersen first began honing the literary talent that would later manifest in his travelogues, describing with exquisite emotionality the natural landscapes and architectural landmarks he was encountering on his travels. In an entry from September 19, 1833, he relays being overwhelmed by awe while traveling through the Alps:
The huge masses of stone gripped me; on one side a mighty waterfall plunged far down. — Everything was granite — it was like driving through the earth’s backbone.
Two days later, he adds with equal parts awe and pride:
Everything smelled fragrant; everything was so peaceful. . . . The Alps looked like the glass mountains of the fairy tale, and now I had crossed them.
Andersen arrived in Milan a day later, then traveled to Genoa and Florence. On October 2, 1933, he wrote in the diary:
If France is the country of reason, then Italy is the country of the imagination. (Germany and Denmark, of the heart.) — Here is all you could wish for in a landscape — the oranges hanging so yellow between the lush greenery; big, grass-green lemons greeted us with their fragrance. — Everything was like a painting…
One of the most beautiful passages comes from a diary entry for October 26, which reads like a fairy tale:
On the big, silent Campagna the lonely ruins of the huge aqueduct stood. (Near Albano, the grave of Ascanius.) — In the little valley in Campagna lay some ground fog. We went through it. It was as if an elfin maid had wrapped her cloak around me; it was a dank shroud. I pressed my lips together to avoid the kiss.
By the summer of the following year, Andersen is still traveling across Italy. In an entry from July 25, 1835, he marvels:
We heard the sound of surf and then saw the endless blue sea off Sorrento; the moon was shining on the foam. Cape Mysenium, Procida and Ischia lay large as life before me. I was in paradise! It was masterful!
Between 1835 and 1846, Andersen entered his most prolific creative period, during which he penned three novels, six collections of fairy tales, and six musical dramas. It was also then that his diaries got to their most expressive, suggesting that for Andersen, fairy tales were not a fancy but a record of his inner world and lived experience as he perceived it. For instance, he writes in a journal entry from November 3 of 1840, while traveling through Germany:
Yesterday we passed a forest; with its brown foliage it looked exactly like a copper forest. There was something so utterly magical about it that the big steers we encountered on the muddy road appeared to me to be enchanted people, for the one, of course, had to correspond to the other.
In 1841, he visits Athens, which he finds foreign and disorienting, but still revels in the whimsy of the new experience:
Imagine for yourself a town built in a hurry, as if for a big market, and that the market is in full swing — and there you have the new Athens. … The tall, solitary palm trees and cypresses nearby, the picturesque costumes! — I don’t understand it myself; I still don’t have any idea about it all, but I’m happy. I can’t really believe that I am in Greece, in Athens! The city is growing as I walk here!
From there, he visits Turkey — a brush with an even more unfamiliar culture. In a diary entry from April 29, 1841, he describes visiting a Turkish cemetery:
We went to the cemetery, which was very extensive. The graves of dervishes have dervish turbans; there are green turbans on the graves of those who themselves, or one of whose forefathers, have been to the Prophet’s grave. We walked so far that we could see the town Chalcedon and the Sea of Marmara. (In Scrutari we saw Ali Pasha’s grave, which had something like a wire birdcage over it and fountains.) Carved in the burial stones by the graves there is one big hole or two small ones for water, so that dogs can quench their thirst — this is a blessing for the dead.
But as a native Bulgarian who has frequently witnessed foreigners’ perplexity by traditional Balkan music, I was especially amused by Andersen’s description of the Turks’ singing and dancing:
A strange song with shifting rhythms was sung by a few of [the dervishes] and then by them all. It was something with scales and runs, as if a musically gifted savage had heard an Italian singer for the first time and now in his own way was trying to imitate him.
He describes a dancing dervish with the same bemused colonialist’s judgment:
His body moved to the one side, then into obscene positions; finally all his limbs were moving as if they were driven by a steam engine. All the dancers were groaning and drawing in deep breaths. The sweat was dripping from their pale faces; at last they sank to the ground. I felt really discomforted.
The dervishes took off their tunics and now stood in their brimless, high-crowned white hats, in open green jackets and long green skirts that were extremely wide, looking like funnels on them when they whirled themselves around on the same spot with their arms stretched out and half raised. There were two in the middle; the others were turning around them and around themselves. A priest walked very quietly among the ones in the middle and those on the outside. Their faces were extremely pale. There was the sound of music and the singing. They stopped suddenly and stood still for a moment; then they began to dance the same dance again. They looked just like lifeless dolls; they were portraying the course of the planets.
The next day, May 1, another magical passage depicting nature as a fairy tale:
The nightingales were jugging, and the turtledoves were cooing in the high cypresses. The Sea of Marmara was like glass; the mountains in Asia seemed ethereal; in the clear air beyond lay a chain of snow-covered mountains. Ships with all their sails were lying at anchor like swans mirroring themselves in the water; the small boats were gliding like back snakes across the current.
But what made Andersen a particularly enchanting storyteller was that he was able to notice and convey not only the whimsical, but also the wistful. On May 6, upon arriving on the desolate and barren coast of Constanta, Romania, he writes:
A dead stork was lying by the sea; it had a melancholy effect on me — it had just reached the sea and then sunk down dead. … A wet, cold fog; the entire sea hidden from sight. Close to the dead stork there was a dead dog; I didn’t make a note of it — the stork appealed to my imagination; the dog had perhaps been noble and faithful, and now went unnoticed.
The irony, of course, is that he did make a note of it, and therein lies Andersen’s greatest, most timeless talent — his singular ability to notice what goes unnoticed by most, and to imbue it with a story that speaks to our deepest fears and our highest aspirations: In the dead dog, he saw the human virtues of honor and loyalty, as well as the tragedy of dying without having mattered, and what could be more resonant with the human condition than that?
“How to pursue the art of living has become the great quandary of our age… The future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past.”
By Maria Popova
“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth,” Goethe famously proclaimed. Thomas Hobbes extolled “the principal and proper work of history being to instruct, and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future.” It is this notion of “applied history” that cultural historian and philosopher Roman Krznaric — who gave us How to Find Fulfilling Work, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2013 — places at the center of How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (public library). Part psychological manual, part cultural manifesto, part philosophical memoir of our civilization’s collective conscience, the book explores yesteryear’s great works of philosophy, social science, economics, anthropology, and cultural mythology. Krznaric trawls the timeless to surface the timely and excavate practical ideas about the art of living, about how we, today, can live better, richer, more fulfilling lives — ideas across love, work, family, time, money, death, creativity, and more.
He writes in the introduction:
How to pursue the art of living has become the great quandary of our age.
I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life. What secrets for living with passion lie in medieval attitudes towards death, or in the pin factories of the Industrial Revolution? How might an encounter with Ming-dynasty China, or Central African indigenous culture, change our views about bringing up our kids and caring for our parents? It is astonishing that, until now, we have made so little effort to unveil this wisdom from the past, which is based on how people have actually lived rather than utopian dreamings of what might be possible.
I think of history as a wonderbox, similar to the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance — what the Germans called a Wunderkammer. Collectors used these cabinets to display an array of fascinating and unusual objects, each with a story to tell, such as a miniature Turkish abacus or a Japanese ivory carving. Passed down from one generation to another, they were repositories of family lore and learning, tastes and travels, a treasured inheritance. History, too, hands down to us intriguing stories and ideas from a cornucopia of cultures. It is our shared inheritance of curious, often fragmented artefacts that we can pick up at will and contemplate in wonder. There is much to learn about life by opening the wonderbox of history.
Rather than approaching that wonderbox as an instructional manual, however, Krznaric looks at history as a choose-your-own-adventure compendium of do’s as well as don’ts. In addition to shining light on yesteryear’s forgotten wisdom on living, he also seeks to highlight the habitual attitudes we’ve unwittingly inherited from the past and to bring mindfulness to the bad and the harmful as well, so we can begin to decondition them — those toxic belief systems that sell us impossible romantic ideals, strain our relationship with time, force us into work that falsely prizes narrow specialization over wide intellectual expansion, measure our success in material terms, and otherwise warp the meaning of life:
We need to trace the historical origins of these legacies which have quietly crept into our lives and surreptitiously shaped our worldviews. We may choose to accept them, understanding ourselves all the better for it, or we may reject them and cut ourselves free from an unwanted inheritance, ready to invent anew. That is the sublime power we wield when we have history in our hand.
In a chapter on love, Krznaric contends that our modern definition of love is too narrow, which both deprives us of the breadth of this grand human capacity and sets us up for disappointment:
We can navigate these difficulties of love — and enhance its joys — by grasping the significance of two great tragedies in the history of the emotions. The first is that we have lost knowledge of the different varieties of love that existed in the past, especially those familiar to the ancient Greeks, who knew love could be discovered not just with a sexual partner, but also in friendships, amongst strangers, and with themselves. The second tragedy is that over the last thousand years, these varieties have been incorporated into a mythical notion of romantic love, which compels us to believe that they can all be found in one person, a unique soulmate. We can escape the confines of this inheritance by looking for love outside the realm of romantic attachments, and cultivating its many forms.
To lift our culturally conditioned blinders, he turns to the six varieties of love found in ancient Greek philosophy: eros, or sexual passion; phila, a more virtuous love often translated as “friendship”; ludus, the playful affection between children or casual lovers; pragma, the mature love and deep understanding that develop in lasting relationships; agape, the selfless love extended to all human beings, offered unconditionally and with no expectation of reciprocity; and philautia, or self-love, which can be both negative, manifested as greed and narcissism (after the myth of Narcissus), and positive, as a nourishing broadening of our capacity for all love, starting from within.
One of the universal questions of emotional life has always been, “What is love?” I believe that this is a misleading question, and one which has caught us in futile knots of confusion in an attempt to identify some definitive essence of “true love.” The lesson from ancient Greece is that we must instead ask ourselves, “How can I cultivate the different varieties of love in my life?” That is the ultimate question of love that we face today. But if we wish to nurture these varieties, we must first dispel the potent myth of romantic love which stands in the way.
Krznaric argues that the myth of romantic love, whose origin he traces across three stages over the course of civilization — the poetry and music of medieval Persia in the first millennium, the courtly love ideal of Europe in the Middle Ages, and the utilitarian union of passion and companionship of the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century — is a toxic myth that only robs us of love’s dimension and leads us to believe all forms of love should be found in a single person. Instead, he suggests that returning to the ancient Greek taxonomy would enrich our lives and give greater freedom in cultivating our capacity for love:
The varieties of love invented by the ancient Greeks … are what we should be striving to cultivate, and with a range of people rather than just one person. I am not saying that you should get your pragma from a steady marriage but then satisfy your eros in a series of lustful affairs. That is bound to be a destructive strategy, for sexual jealousy is part of our natures and few people can tolerate open relationships. What I mean is that we ought to acknowledge that we may only be fulfilled in love if we can nurture it in a multitude of ways and tap into its many sources. So we should foster our philia through having profound friendships outside our main relationship, and make space for our lover to do the same without resenting the time they spend apart from us. We can seek the joys of ludus not just in sex but in other forms of play, from tango dancing and performing in amateur theatre to laughing with children around the family dining table. And we must recognize that being drawn too far into self-love, or limiting our love to only a small circle of people, will not be enough to meet our inner need to feel part of a larger whole. So we should all make a place for agape in our lives, and transform love into a gift for strangers. That is how we can reach a point where our lives feel abundant with love.
In a chapter on family, Krznaric explores the lost history of the househusband — presently an exotic species statistically outnumbered by housewives by a ratio of forty to one, and yet a species that used to be far more common in pre-industrial society. In a chapter on empathy, he invokes the famous anecdote of St. Francis swapping his clothes with a beggar in order know what it was like to be a pauper, then writes:
Empathy matters not just because it makes you good, but because it is good for you. It has the power to heal broken relationships, erode our prejudices, expand our curiosity about strangers and make us rethink our ambitions. Ultimately empathy creates the human bonds that make life worth living.
He once again offers an important caveat to our current cultural understanding — or misunderstanding — of empathy:
It is important when thinking about empathy to distinguish it from the so-called Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Although a worthy notion, it is not empathy, since it involves considering how you — with your own views — would wish to be treated. Empathy is harder: it requires imagining others’ views and then acting accordingly. George Bernard Shaw understood the difference when he remarked, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you — they may have different tastes.”
But it is another legendary writer to whom Krznaric points as the “one person who did more than most others to transform this experiential form of empathy into an extreme sport” — George Orwell. Raised in a privileged upper-middle-class British family, with the benefit of an elite education, Orwell found himself suddenly disillusioned with imperialism when he spent five years as a colonial officer in Burma in his early twenties. More than that, he couldn’t live with his own contribution to the system he came to so vehemently disdain — he wrote that the job made him “see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters” and left him oppressed “with an intolerable sense of guilt.” Those five years were Orwell’s training ground for empathy. Krznaric traces how the beloved writer put his own twist on the St. Francis approach:
If Burma was his apprenticeship as an empathist, Orwell’s formative training took place in London in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Determined to be a writer, he came up with a plan that would give him both a literary and a moral education: to conduct a radical experiment in experiencing poverty. He wanted to know what it was really like to be downtrodden, to exist on the margins of society, to be short of food, money and hope. Reading about it was not enough — his aim was to live it.
So, for several years, Orwell regularly dressed as a tramp in shabby clothes and shoes, and ventured out virtually penniless to frequent the “spikes” — hostels for the homeless — and doss-houses of the East End of London, wandering the streets with beggars and other destitutes. He would stay for anything from a few days to several weeks. At all times he did so without concessions or compromise, without carrying spare money for an emergency or wearing extra layers of clothes against the winter cold.
Orwell’s empathy grew out of an attempt to liberate himself from his elite background and the imperialism of which he had been a foot soldier. But he also wanted to touch injustice with his own hands rather than be just another clever intellectual who pitied the poor from a comfortable distance. And in this he undoubtedly succeeded.
He also succeeded in showing how empathy was about far more than ethics. His tramping excursions certainly challenged his prejudices and shifted his moral values, but they also gained him new friendships, nurtured his curiosity, expanded his ability to talk to people from different social backgrounds and provided him with a rich seam of literary materials which would last him for years. For a young man who had once worn a top hat at Eton,his experiments in living down and out were an intense, exhilarating and often challenging lesson in life itself, catapulting him out of the narrowness of his privileged past. Trying to survive on the streets of East London was the greatest travel experience he would ever have.
Though Krznaric notes that few of us can go to the extremes Orwell did in our pursuit of embodied empathy, he draws from the writer’s experience a seemingly simple yet, when applied, profound everyday aspiration:
The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with “being good.” But experiential empathy should really be regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next vacation at an exotic resort or visiting standard tourist sites. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives — and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, “Where can I go next?,” the question on our lips should be, “Whose shoes can I stand in next?”
Our concept of time is similarly structured by metaphors, and we need to become aware of the subtle ways they work on our minds. One of the most prevalent metaphors already mentioned, which emerged during the Industrial Revolution, is of time as a commodity: spending time, buying time, wasting time, saving time, “time is money,” “living on borrowed time.” Another dating from the same period is time as a possession: “my time is my own,” “give me a moment of your time.” These two metaphors, in tandem, constitute the psycholinguistic roots of our problems with time. If our time is like private property, it becomes possible not only for it to be freely granted to others, but possibly owned by them or appropriated at an unfair price against our wishes.
I’ve always been extremely wary of the notion of “work-life balance,” which pits work as something undesirable that takes away from the desirable parts of life and must thus be balanced against those, kept to a reasonable level, quarantined. This dichotomy leaves no room for the kind of purposeful work that is life. Curiously, the very concept of “work-life balance” tends to use time as the currency by which balance is measured, so I find Krznaric’s admonition against conceiving of time as a commodity especially resonant when it comes to how we think about work and play:
One manifestation of the “time as a commodity and possession” metaphor is when we talk about taking “time off” from work. This expression is essentially saying that we have given our employer ownership of our time. . . . Each year the firm will give us back a little of our time, usually no more than a few weeks. This vacation period is usually referred to as “time off”; it is their gift to us, a temporary pause in the regular pattern, in which being at work is, by implication, “time on.”
Krznaric traces the history of time as a commodity to the dawn of the Protestant ethic, which equates productivity and efficiency with virtue. Coupled with that is the cultural legacy of our fear of boredom, beneath which Krznaric finds a deeper anxiety:
On some level we fear boredom. A deeper explanation is that we are afraid that an extended pause would give us the time to realize that our lives are not as meaningful and fulfilled as we would like them to be. The time for contemplation has become an object of fear, a demon.
He argues that we can begin to undo this baleful legacy by borrowing the mindset of Gustave Flaubert, who famously observed that “anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” Krznaric even proposes a somewhat radical pragmatic intervention: a “chronological diet” that banishes timekeeping devices from your wrist, your smartphone display, and your walls — a tactic, however disorienting at first, that promises to make you “less likely to interrupt a conversation or a thought with a glance at your watch which sends you scuttling off to the next task.”