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Rilke’s Love Letters

“Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.”

As a lover of famous correspondence, especially extraordinary love letters, and of Rilke, I was instantly enamored with Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) — a magnificent collection of letters exchanged between Rilke and the Russian-born writer, intellectual, psychoanalyst, and “muse of Europe’s fin-de-siècle thinkers and artists” Lou Andreas-Salomé, fifteen years his senior.

The relationship, which began when 21-year-old Rilke met the 36-year-old and married Salomé, commenced with the all-too-familiar pattern of one besotted lover, Rilke, flooding the resistant object of his desire with romantic revelations, only to be faced with repeated, composed rejection as Salomé claimed to wish she could make him “go completely away.” But Rilke’s love didn’t flinch and the two eventually developed a passionate bond which, over the thirty-five-year course of their correspondence that followed, we see change shape and morph from friends to mentor and protégé to lovers to literary allies — a kaleidoscope of love that irradiates across the romantic, the platonic, the creative, the spiritual, the intellectual, and just about everything in between.

Rilke with Lou Andreas-Salomé (1897) On the balcony of the summer house of the family Andreas near Munich. Left to right: Professor Andreas, August Endell, Rilke, and Lou Andreas-Salomé.

In a letter dated May 13, 1897, at the very onset of the relationship, Rilke writes:

You see, gracious lady, through the unsparing severity, through the uncompromising strength of your words, I felt that my own work was receiving a blessing, a sanction. I was like someone for whom great dreams, with all their good and evil, were coming true; for your essay was to my poems as reality is to a dream, as fulfillment is to a desire.

[…]

I always feel: when one person is indebted to another for something very special, that indebtedness should remain a secret between just the two of them.

On May 31 and June 1, 1897, Rilke and Salomé took a two-day trip to a small village south of Munich and it was during that trip that the two first became lovers. In a letter dated June 3rd, Rilke writes:

Songs of longing!

And they will resound in my letters, just as they always have, sometimes loudly and sometimes secretly so that you alone can hear them… But they will also be different — different from how they used to be, these songs. For I have turned and found longing at my side, and I have looked into her eyes, and now she leads me with a steady hand.

In a lengthy letter dated July 6, 1898:

Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.

Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters is remarkably rich and dimensional in its entirety, each of the 200 letters revealing a different facet of Rilke’s exceptional heart and mind, and of the universal commonalities of love itself.

Thanks, Michael

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Gorgeous Vintage Soviet Art and Propaganda Posters

What war, peace, and mass culture have to do with theater masterpieces and literary classics.

The convergence of vintage design and propaganda is a thing of beauty and power, be it in science or in politics. Ben Perry’s massive collection of 20th-century Soviet and Russian propaganda, advertising, and art posters, created between 1917 and 1991, offers a beautiful perspective on mid-century design and the modernist aesthetic from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

For more such gems, in context, see Maria LaFont’s excellent Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection.

Doobybrain

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What a Plant Knows

How a plant can tell whether you’re wearing a blue or red shirt as you’re approaching it.

As I was planting my seasonal crop of tomatoes last month, a good friend (and my personal gardening guru) informed me that they liked their leaves rubbed, “like petting a pet’s ears,” which I received with equal parts astonishment, amusement, and mild concern for my friend. But, as Tel Aviv University biologist Daniel Chamovitz reveals in What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (public library), that might not be such a crazy idea after all. Plants, it turns out, possess a sensory vocabulary far wider than our perception of them as static, near-inanimate objects might suggest: They can smell their own fruits’ ripeness, distinguish between different touches, tell up from down, and retain information about past events; they “see” when you’re approaching them and even “know” whether you’re wearing a red or blue shirt; like us, they have unique genes that detect light and darkness to wind up their internal clock.

A key reason why plants have evolved such complex sensory system is that, unlike us and our fellow animals, they can’t escape a bad environment, pursue a good one, run away when danger approaches, or get up for a glass of water. Their “rootedness,” which keeps them immobile, is an enormous evolutionary constraint and, like all such constraints, responsible for a great many adaptations. Chamovitz explains:

While most animals can choose their environments, seek shelter in a storm, search for food and a mate, or migrate with the changing seasons, plants must be able to withstand and adapt to constantly changing weather, encroaching neighbors, and invading pests, without being able to move to a better environment. Because of this, plants have developed complex sensory and regulatory systems that allow them to modulate their growth in response to ever-changing conditions. An elm tree has to know if its neighbor is shading it from the sun so that it can find its own way to grow towards the light that’s available. A head of lettuce has to know if there are ravenous aphids about to eat it up so that it can protect itself by making poisonous chemicals to kill the pests. A Douglas fir tree has to know if whipping winds are shaking its branches so it can grow a stronger trunk. Cherry trees have to know when to flower.

Even though plants don’t have a central nervous system where this “knowledge” resides and is enacted, their sophisticated vessels connect their various parts into one responsive whole. In many ways, Chamovitz points out, plants are significantly less genetically different from us than we tend to think — yet his arguments are reserved and rooted in research, far from arguing that plants are just like us. What does emerge from What a Plant Knows, however, is a fascinating inside look at what a plant’s life is like, and a new lens on our own place in nature.

Scientific American has an interview with Chamovitz.

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