Hey you! If you missed last week's edition – how our intuition misleads us, Eudora Welty on writing, magnificent ultra-high-resolution images of Mars, ancient Indian women's art adapted as modern storytelling, and more – you can catch up here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.
As a hopeless lover of both letters and famous advice, I was delighted to discover a letter 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson – gonzo journalism godfather, pundit of media politics, dark philosopher – penned to his friend Hume Logan in 1958. Found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) – the aptly titled, superb collection based on Shaun Usher's indispensable website of the same name – the letter is an exquisite addition to luminaries' reflections on the meaning of life, speaking to what it really means to find your purpose.
Cautious that "all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it" – a caveat other literary legends have stressed with varying degrees of irreverence – Thompson begins with a necessary disclaimer about the very notion of advice-giving:
To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal – to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.
And yet he honors his friend's request, turning to Shakespeare for an anchor of his own advice:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”
And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect – between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.
He acknowledges the obvious question of why not take the path of least resistance and float aimlessly, then counters it:
The answer – and, in a sense, the tragedy of life – is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.
Touching on the same notion that William Gibson termed "personal micro-culture," Austin Kleon captured in asserting that "you are the mashup of what you let into your life," and Paula Scher articulated so succinctly in speaking of the combinatorial nature of our creativity, Thompson writes:
Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?
The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.)* There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.
* See Anaïs Nin's equally delightful disclaimer about the usage of the g-word.
Resolving to steer clear of the word "existentialism," Thompson nonetheless strongly urges his friend to read Sartre's Nothingness and the anthology Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre, then admonishes against succumbing to faulty definitions of success at the expense of finding one's own purpose:
To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life – the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.
Noting that his friend had thus far lived "a vertical rather than horizontal existence," Thompson acknowledges the challenge of this choice but admonishes that however difficult, the choice must be made or else it melts away into those default modes of society:
A man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance. So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”
And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know—is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.
He ends by returning to his original disclaimer by reiterating that rather than a prescription for living, his "advice" is merely a reminder that how and what we choose – choices we're in danger of forgetting even exist – shapes the course and experience of our lives:
I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that – no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.
Both reflecting and supporting Usher's heartening echelon of independent online scholarship and journalism at the intersection of the editorial and the curatorial, Letters of Note is brimming with other such timeless treasures from such diverse icons and Brain Pickings favorites as E. B. White, Virginia Woolf, Ursula Nordstrom, Nick Cave, Ray Bradbury, Amelia Earhart, Galileo Galilei, and more.
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"Still this childish fascination with my handwriting," young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1949. "To think that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers." This is the sort of sensuous potentiality that comes aglow in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor (public library) – the magnificent new collection of hand-lettered poems and illustrated essays by friend-of-Brain-Pickings and frequent contributor Debbie Millman, who recently offered an exclusive glimpse of her creative process in making this extraordinary "21st-century illuminated manuscript," as Paula Scher so aptly describes this singular visual form in the introduction.
Personal bias aside, these moving, lovingly crafted poems and essays – some handwritten, some drawn with colored pencils, some typeset in felt on felt – vibrate at that fertile intersection of the deeply personal and the universally profound.
In "Fail Safe," her widely read essay-turned-commencement-address on creative courage and embracing the unknown from the 2009 anthology Look Both Ways, Millman wrote:
John Maeda once explained, "The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do nothing unless commanded to do so." I think people are the same – we like to operate within our abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. Two decades since determining my code, and after 15 years of working in the world of branding, I am now in the process of rewriting the possibilities of what comes next. I don’t know exactly what I will become; it is not something I can describe scientifically or artistically. Perhaps it is a “code in progress.”
Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, a glorious large-format tome full of textured colors to which the screen does absolutely no justice, is the result of this progress – a brave and heartening embodiment of what it truly means, as Rilke put it, to live the questions; the stunning record of one woman's personal and artistic code-rewriting, brimming with wisdom on life and art for all.
With the artist's permission, here is one of the pieces from the book – a poem titled "Reflections on a Puddle," a choice particularly fitting as Debbie originally wrote it in college, when she was certain she was going to be a poet; though life's defaults took her elsewhere, the poem stayed with her and she revisited and illustrated it more than two decades later, after having courageously rewritten her own code of possibility and arrived at this artistic reawakening.
Self-Portrait as Your Traitor is exquisite in its entirety, featuring ten other pieces that dance vibrantly across the spectrum of the granular and the universal, the personal and the philosophical, the vulnerable and the bold.
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"For the first time in history," Bertrand Russell asserted in reflecting on the impact of the Industrial Revolution, "it is now possible … to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness." Indeed, we've pounced on that chance with overzealous want: Ours is a culture so consumed with the relentless pursuit of happiness, its secrets and its science, that it layers over the already uncomfortable state of unhappiness a stigma of humiliation and shame. But unhappiness can have its own dignity and can tell us as much, if not more, about who we are than happiness. That's precisely what French philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, born 100 years ago today, considers in a portion of his private writings, collected in Notebooks 1951–1959 (public library).
In a meditation on Oscar Wilde's relationship with art, Camus considers the notion of sorrow, the exorcism of which is one of art's 7 therapeutic functions, and adds to history's finest definitions of art:
[Oscar Wilde] wanted to place art above all else. But the grandeur of art is not to rise above all. On the contrary, it must blend with all. Wilde finally understood this, thanks to sorrow. But it is the culpability of this era that it always needed sorrow and constraint in order to catch a glimpse of a truth also found in happiness, when the heart is worthy. Servile century.
In a 1956 letter to a hospitalized friend, Camus explores how body and mind conspire in sorrow and happiness:
The solidarity of bodies, unity at the center of the mortal and suffering flesh. This is what we are and nothing else. We are this plus human genius in all its forms, from the child to Einstein.
No, … it is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometimes humiliating, but the suffering of being cannot be, it is life. … What you must do now is nothing more than live like everybody else. You deserve, by what you are, a happiness, a fullness that few people know. Yet today this fullness is not dead, it is a part of life and, to its credit, it reigns over you whether you want it to or not. But in the coming days you must live alone, with this hole, this painful memory. This lifelessness that we all carry inside of us – by us, I mean to say those who are not taken to the height of happiness, and who painfully remember another kind of happiness that goes beyond the memory.
Sometimes, for violent minds, the time that we tear off for work, that is torn away from time, is the best. An unfortunate passion.
Camus later revisits this osmosis between the physical and the metaphysical in a poignant reflection on our self-imposed prisons of unhappiness:
It is not true that the heart wears out – but the body creates this illusion.
Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.
"All true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order," Benjamin Franklin wrote, and yet, as Camus so stirringly reminds us, order itself, when worshiped too blindly and rigidly, can consume our fragile chance of happiness.
Complement Notebooks 1951–1959 with the story of Camus's unlikely and extraordinary friendship with pioneering biologist Jacques Monod.
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"I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd," young Italo Calvino wrote of his visit to America, and it is frequently argued that hardly any place embodies the "Lonely Crowd" better than New York, city of "avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways." That, perhaps, is what children's book writer Isobel Harris set out to both affirm and decondition in Little Boy Brown (public library) – a magnificent ode to childhood and loneliness, easily the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness ever written, illustrated by the famed Hungarian-born French cartoonist and graphic designer André François. Originally published in 1949, this timeless story that stirred the hearts of generations has been newly resurrected by the wonderful Claudia Zoe Bedrick, whose Brooklyn-based indie picture-book publisher Enchanted Lion has given us such heartening gems as Mark Twain's Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex's Ballad, Seasons, and People, the breathtaking My Father's Arms Are a Boat, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird.
This is the tale of a four-year-old boy living with his well-to-do mother and father in a Manhattan hotel, in which the elevator connects straight to the subway tunnel below the building and plugs right into the heart of the city. And yet Little Boy Brown, whose sole friends are the doormen and elevator operators, feels woefully lonely – until, one day, his hotel chambermaid Hilda invites him to visit her house outside the city, where he blossoms into a new sense of belonging.
Underpinning the charming tale of innocence and children's inborn benevolence is a heart-warming message about connection across the lines of social class and bridging the gaps of privilege with simple human kindness.
Hilda's mother kissed me before she even knew who I was!
Hilda's family is smarter than we are. They can all speak two different languages, and they can close their eyes and think about two different countries. They've been on the Ocean, and they've climbed high mountains. They haven't got quite enough of anything. It makes it exciting when a little more comes!
The story itself, at once a romantic time-capsule of a bygone New York and a timeless meditation on what it's like feel so lonesome in a crowd of millions, invites us to explore the tender intersection of loneliness and loveliness. François, who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of iconic New Yorker covers, and belongs to the same coterie of influential mid-century creative legends as Sir Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer, and his close friend and collaborator of Ronald Searle, brings all this wonderful dimensionality to life in his singular illustrations, all the more special given this was his first children's book.
Immeasurably wonderful, Little Boy Brown is without exaggeration one of the loveliest picture-books of all time, with layers upon layers of meaning rediscovered with every read and each new look at François's infinitely expressive illustrated vignettes, to which the screen does absolutely no justice.
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Sylvia Plath – beloved poet, lover of the world, repressed "addict of experience", steamy romancer, editorial party girl – was among that small and special coterie of creators with surprising semi-secret talents in a medium radically different from that of their primary cultural acclaim. Though her strikingly deft sketches and drawings have been previously exhibited, they are now collected with more depth and breadth in Sylvia Plath: Drawings (public library) – an enthralling portfolio of pen-and-ink illustrations amidst a context of the poet's letters and diary entries, edited by the poet's daughter, Frieda Hughes, for whom Plath wrote her two little-known and lovely children's books.
Created during Plath's pivotal period at Cambridge, where she met and married Ted Hughes, these drawings embody Plath's lifelong attraction to art as her greatest inspiration and most consistent form of therapy: In a March 1958 letter to her mother, Plath writes:
I've discovered my deepest source of inspiration, which is art: the art of the primitives like Henri Rousseau, Gauguin, Paul Klee, and De Chirico. I have got out piles of wonderful books from the Art Library (suggested by this fine Modern Art Course I'm auditing each week) and am overflowing with ideas and inspirations, as I've been bottling up a geyser for a year.
In a letter to Hughes she penned one Sunday morning in October of 1956, twenty-four-year-old Plath traces her initial toe-dipping in art:
Yesterday, right after lunch, I took my sketch-paper and strode out to the Grandchester Meadows where I sat in the tall grass amid cow dung and drew two cows; my first cows. They sat obligingly while I drew the first, couchant, its head very cowish, but its body, more like a horesehair sofa, very flat and unmodeled; then, suddenly, they all got hungry and got up in a drove; I think they were bulls; they seemed to have no udders. So I forged ahead, sat down on the river brink, and did a quick sketch of one grazing, or, rather, of several put into one, as they all moved continually, so the side muscles are all wrong, but most decorative; I got a kind of peace from the cows; what a curious broody looks they gave me; what marvelous colossal shits and pissings. I shall go back soon; I shall do a volume of cow-drawings.
Later in the same letter, she adds:
I brought, from my walk yesterday, a purple thistle and a dandelion cluster home with me, and drew them both in great and loving detail; I also did a rather bad drawing of a teapot and some chestnuts, but will improve with practice; it gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything. I can close myself completely in the line, lose myself in it. . . .
And oh how bittersweet to consider what may have become of Plath's dreamsome aspiration:
My latest ambition [is] to make a sheaf of detailed stylized small drawings of plants, mail-boxes, little scenes, and send them to the New Yorker which is full of these black-and-white things – if I could establish a style, which would be a kind of child-like simplifying of each object into design, peasantish decorative motifs, perhaps I could become one of the little people who draws a rose here, a snowflake there, to stick in the middle of a story to break the continuous mat of print; they print everything from wastebaskets to city-street scenes.
In a "Monday P.S." addition to the same letter, Plath relays to Hughes yet another drawing episode with equal parts irreverence and earnest excitement:
Yesterday I drew a good umbrella and a chianti bottle, better chestnuts, bad shoes and a beaujolais bottle. Soon I will go about fanatically doing exact and painstaking landscapes of grass-blades – but I bet if I covered a page of grass-blades it would sell; I keep seeing Infinity in a grain of sand.
Complement Sylvia Plath: Drawings with this rare 1961 BBC interview with Plath and her poignant diary meditation on love, death, hope, and happiness.
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