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Nicole Krauss’s Beautiful Letter to Van Gogh on Fear, Bravery, and How to Break the Loop of Our Destructive Patterns

“Bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.”

“Feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to order them and, in so doing, gain a sense of control over them,” the great psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom wrote in his magnificent meditation on uncertainty and our search for meaning. But as our terror of losing control compels us to grasp for order and certainty, we all too often end up creating patterns that ultimately don’t serve us, then repeat those patterns under the illusion of control. These patterns of belief — about who we are, about who others are, about how the world works — come to shape our behavior, which in turn shapes our reality, creating a loop that calls to mind physicist David Bohm’s enduring wisdom: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”

To keep repeating a baleful pattern without recognizing that we are caught in its loop is one of life’s greatest tragedies; to recognize it but feel helpless in breaking it is one of our greatest trials; to transcend the fear of uncertainty, which undergirds all such patterns of belief and behavior, is a supreme triumph.

nicolekrauss_vangogh3

That triumphant transcendence of the pattern is what novelist Nicole Krauss explores in an exquisite response to Vincent van Gogh’s 1884 letter to his brother about fear and risk-taking. Her piece is part of an exhibition by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in which twenty-three contemporary artists and writers respond to the letters of Van Gogh in paintings, sculptures, letters, poems, photographs, and videos.

Krauss writes:

Dear Vincent,

You write about fear: Fear of the blank canvas, but also, on a larger scale, of the “infinitely meaningless, discouraging blank side” that life itself always turns toward us, and which can only be countered when a person “steps in and does something,” when he “breaks” or “violates.”

It’s extraordinary that I should have been given your letter now, because it is exactly that act of breaking that has been on my mind this last year, and which I feel has everything to do with how I want to make art, and how I want to live.

It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly, when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

And yet it is unquestionably within our power to break the loop; to “violate” what presents itself as our nature by choosing to think — and to see, and act — in a different way. It may require enormous effort and focus. And yet for the most part it isn’t laziness that stops us from breaking these loops, it’s fear. In a sense, one could say that fear is the otherwise irrelevant moon that we allow to govern the far larger nature of our minds.

And so before we can arrive at the act of breaking, we first have to confront our fear. The fear that the blank canvas and the blank side of life reflects back to us, which is so paralyzing, as you put it, and seems to tell us that we can’t do anything.” It’s an abstract fear, though it finds a way to take on endless shapes. Today it may be the fear of failure, but tomorrow it will be the fear of what others will think of us, and at a different time it will be fear of discovering that the worst things we suspect about ourselves are true. My lover says that the fear, which seems always to be there when one wakes up in the morning, and which he feels in the hollow between his ribs (above his stomach and below his heart) comes from the “other world,” a phrase that always brings tears to his eyes, and by which he means the awareness of our finitude, our lack of the infinite and eternal. I think he’s right, but I would also add to that that fear, being anticipatory, is always without knowledge. It is a mental calculation based on the future unknown. And yet the experience of fear is the experience of being in the grip of a sensation that seems to possess an unassailable conviction in itself. To be afraid that the plane will crash is, in a sense, to assume that the plane will crash. And yet even if we could scrape away the many forms our fear takes and get to the underlying source-our mortality, our division from the infinite — we would still discover that our fear is not based on actual knowledge, unlike the part of us that chooses to be free. Bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion. You implied as much in your letter: “However meaningless and vain, however dead life appears to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that,” you wrote. “He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, “violates.”

And so we find ourselves, once again, in front of the blank canvas. The blank canvas, which reflects both our fear and our opportunity to break it. In Jewish mysticism, the empty space — the Chalal Panui, in Hebrew — has tremendous importance, because it was the necessary pre-condition for God’s creation of the world. How did the Ein Sof — the being without end, as God is called in Kabbalah — create something finite within what is already infinite? And how can we explain the paradox of God’s simultaneous presence and absence in the world? And the answer to this, according to the Kabbalah, is that when it arose in God’s will to create the world, He first had to withdraw Himself, leaving a void. To create the world, God first had to create an empty space.

And so we might say: The first act of creation is not a mark, it is the nullification of the infinity that exists before the first mark. To make a mark is to remember that we are finite. It is to break, or violate, the illusion that we are nature that goes around in a loop forever. But it is also a confirmation of our knowledge and freedom, which is all we have in this world.

Sincerely,

Nicole Krauss

Many thanks to reader Carla Taylor for kindly bringing the Krauss letter to my attention. Complement it with Brené Brown on courage and vulnerability, these five spectacular books on fear and the creative process, and a six-year-old’s heartwarming advice on overcoming fear, then revisit Van Gogh on art and the power of love.

BP

How Van Gogh Found His Purpose: Heartfelt Letters to His Brother on How Relationships Refine Us

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.”

Long before Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) became a creative legend and attained such mastery of art that he explained nature better than science, he confronted the same existential challenge many young people and aspiring artists face as they set out to find their purpose and do what they love — something that often requires the discomfiting uncertainty of deviating from the beaten path.

In January of 1879, twenty-six-year-old Van Gogh, who had dropped out of high school, was given a six-month appointment as a preacher in a small village — a job that consisted of giving Bible readings, teaching schoolchildren, and caring for the sick and poor. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the task and, in solidarity with the poor, gave away all of his possessions to live in a tiny hut, where he slept on the ground. But his commitment backfired — the church committee that had hired him saw this as extravagant posturing of humility and fired him. In August, Van Gogh moved to a nearby village and took up drawing and writing — which he had been doing recreationally for years, for his own pleasure — as a more serious endeavor. That summer, his beloved brother Theo visited to discuss Vincent’s future, making it clear that the family was concerned with his lack of direction. (Vincent was the eldest of six children, which only compounded the expectations.) The uncomfortable talk, which initially caused a rift between the brothers, affected Van Gogh profoundly and became a serious turning point in his life.

Young Vincent van Gogh

On August 14, 1879, he wrote an exquisite letter to Theo, found in the newly released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library). The letter endures as a piercing testament to the conviction that, as another famous young man wrote in his own defense of the unbeaten path, “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it.”

Van Gogh begins by turning a wise eye to the silver lining of why the conversation had hurt and riled him so:

It’s better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses toward one another, the more so because as long as one has no real right to be called a corpse by being legally dead, it smacks of hypocrisy or at least childishness to pose as such… The hours we spent together in this way have at least assured us that we’re both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I had the same feeling I used to have more than I do now, as though life were something good and precious that one should cherish, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I had been for a long time, cause in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another, considering that we need one another and are making the same journey as traveling companions. Proper self-respect, however, is also very dependent on relations with others.

Noting the “salutary effect” his brother’s visit had on him, Van Gogh speaks to the soul-nurturing power of close relationships:

A prisoner who’s kept in isolation, who’s prevented from working &c., would in the long run, especially if this were to last too long, suffer the consequences just as surely as one who went hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamp-post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving an emptiness and feeling their lack, like any other generally civilized and highly respectable man.

Theo van Gogh

The letter, however, takes on the tone of an impassioned plea as Van Gogh seeks to convince his brother that he, Vincent, is not the failure the family believes him to be. Lamenting what “the damage, the sorrow, the heart’s regretfulness” inflected by his uncle’s most recent attempt to convince him to return to school and pursue a proper occupation, Van Gogh scoffs at the formulaic life-path laid before those who pursue traditional education:

I would rather die a natural death than be prepared for it by the academy, and have occasionally had a lesson from a grass-mower that seemed to me more useful than one in Greek.

Improvement in my life — should I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?

In addressing his brother’s accusation of having “a taste for idling,” Van Gogh points out that there are degrees of doing nothing and speaks beautifully to the idea that what seems like boredom is an essential faculty of creativity:

Such idling is really a rather strange sort of idling. It’s rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I would be sorry if you couldn’t eventually see this in a different light. I also don’t know if I would do well to counter such accusations by following the advice to become a baker, for example. That would really be a sufficient answer (supposing it were possible for us to assume the guise of a baker or hair-cutter or librarian with lightning speed) and yet actually a foolish response, rather like the way the man acted who, when accused of heartlessness because he was sitting on a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued on his way with the donkey on his shoulders.

Putting jest aside, Van Gogh professes being “overcome by a feeling of sorrow” and a constant “struggle against despair” in the knowledge that his family sees him as “annoying or burdensome,” “useful for neither one thing nor another,” for his lack of purpose and direction in life. Expressing a wish for the relationship between the brothers to be “more trusting on both sides,” he makes a passionate case for being afforded some space, support, and optimism as he finds his own course:

If it were indeed so, then I’d truly wish that it be granted me not to have to go on living too long. Yet whenever this depresses me beyond measure, all too deeply, after a long time the thought also occurs to me: It’s perhaps only a bad, terrible dream, and later we’ll perhaps learn to understand and comprehend it better. But is it not, after all, reality, and won’t it one day become better than worse? To many it would no doubt appear foolish and superstitious to believe in any improvement for the better. Sometimes in winter it’s so bitterly cold that one says, it’s simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw. Comparing the natural state of the weather with our state of mind and our circumstances, subject to variables and change, I still have some hope that it can improve.

A letter from Vincent to Theo, 1879

Nearly a year elapses until the brothers reconnect — the longest break in their lifetime of letters and loving support — during which time Van Gogh sinks into a state of destitution and despair. On June 24 of the next year, he finally reaches out to Theo upon receiving 50 francs from him — around $200 in today’s money — which the aspiring artist accepts “certainly reluctantly, certainly with a rather melancholy feeling.” Indeed, he attests to the creative value of melancholy and echoes Nietzsche’s belief in the spiritual benefits of suffering as he writes to Theo:

What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed, but it’s not to be done in public, however; it’s scarcely entertaining, it’s not cheerful, so it’s a matter of making oneself scarce.

[…]

Instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant.

Considering how he adapted to this state of “active melancholy” as he immersed himself in making art, Van Gogh makes a wonderfully self-aware remark about his notorious unkept appearance:

The man who is absorbed in all that is sometimes shocking, to others, and without wishing to, offends to a greater or lesser degree against certain forms and customs of social convention. It’s a pity, though, when people take that in bad part. For example, you well know that I’ve frequently neglected my appearance, I admit it, and I admit that it’s shocking. But look, money troubles and poverty have something to do with it, and then a profound discouragement also has something to do with it, and then it’s sometimes a good means of ensuring for oneself the solitude needed to be able to go somewhat more deeply into this or that field of study with which one is preoccupied.

Reflecting on having spent the past five years “more or less without a position, wandering hither and thither,” Van Gogh revisits the question of finding his purpose. In a sentiment reminiscent of Picasso’s remark that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” he offers a magnificent counterpoint to the myth that so frequently paralyzes people, especially young people, who set out to live a life of purpose — the idea that the path must reveal itself before you embark upon it, that you must “find yourself” before you begin your creative journey. Van Gogh writes:

On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.

But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. The goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s admonition that most people succumb to conformity by seeking out “a solid position in life” — that is, a humdrum jobby job — Van Gogh adds wryly:

One of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.

Countering his brother’s accusation that he has changed a great deal since their youthful walks together, Van Gogh argues that merely his circumstances changed, while his innermost values only deepened as he immersed himself more fully in his two great loves, art and literature:

What has changed is that my life was less difficult then and my future less dark, but as far as my inner self, as far as my way of seeing and thinking are concerned, they haven’t changed. But if in fact there were a change, it’s that now I think and I believe and I love more seriously what then, too, I already thought, I believed and I loved.

[…]

If you now can forgive a man for going more deeply into paintings, admit also that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other.

‘Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh

He returns to the heart of the matter — the anguish of not having settled into his sense of purpose:

In my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?

And yet as cut off from the capacity for affection as he may feel, Van Gogh nonetheless believes that love is the only conduit to connecting with one’s purpose, with divinity itself:

I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.

Remarking on having benefited from “the free course at the great university of poverty,” Van Gogh envisions finding his purpose after a long period of floundering:

One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action, shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

Once again, he appeals to his brother to see him as “something other than some sort of idler” and to learn to distinguish between the two types of idling, the destructive and the constructive:

There are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.

There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature… Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t’ always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler.

Bleeding from Van Gogh’s words is the hope that his brother would see him not as the first but as the second kind of “idler” — a hope he amplifies with a moving metaphor in closing the lengthy letter, one that speaks with harrowing elegance to the hastiness with which we tend to judge others and to mistake their circumstances for their capabilities:

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.

[…]

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…

He concludes by returning to the ennobling, liberating nature of close relationships:

You know, what makes the prison disappear is very deep, serious attachment. To be friends, to be brothers, to love; that opens the prison through sovereign power, through a most powerful spell. But he who doesn’t have that remains in death. But where sympathy springs up again, life springs up again.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh

That summer, Vincent resolved to pursue art as his lifelong endeavor. It was Theo who first urged him to turn art into a career, and he soon became Van Gogh’s greatest champion and most selfless supporter — one of creative history’s greatest unsung sidekicks. Despite his well-documented and ultimately fatal struggle with mental illness, Van Gogh wrote frequently of the sublime joy and immense fulfillment he found in art — a sense of purpose without which his life would have been undoubtedly grimmer and quite possibly even shorter, and creative culture vastly impoverished.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters is a revelatory read in its hefty totality, brimming with insights into the rich and turbulent inner life of one of humanity’s greatest creative luminaries. Complement it with Vincent’s letters to Theo on art and the power of love, then marvel at how his greatest masterpiece explains the scientific mysteries of fluid dynamics.

BP

Vincent van Gogh on Art and the Power of Love in Letters to His Brother

“Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!”

“You can only go with loves in this life,” Ray Bradbury memorably proclaimed. Whether love be bewitching or tormenting, whether pondered by the poets or scrutinized by the scientists, one thing is for certain — it is art’s most powerful and enduring muse, fuel for the creative process more potent than anything the world has known. A poignant testament to this, and a fine addition to history’s most beautiful reflections on love, comes from the visionary Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) in My Life & Love Are One (public library) — a slim 1976 treasure that traces “the magic and melancholy of Vincent van Gogh” by culling his thoughts on love, art, and turmoil from his letters to his brother Theo, which were originally published in 1937 as the hefty tome Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh. The title comes from a specific letter written during one of the painter’s periods of respite from mental illness, in which he professes to his brother: “Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.”

In one letter, Van Gogh extols the grounding, self-soothing quality of love’s intrinsic wisdom:

Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

It was certainly an armor he needed — he lived his life in poverty, and the residents of the town where he settled in his final years petitioned to have him evicted from the artist commune he shared with Paul Gauguin and two other artists, on account of his madness. He soon moved into an asylum, where he continued to paint. Another letter to Theo rings with the paradoxical poignancy of desperation and resilience:

What am I in the eyes of most people? A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man, somebody who has no position in society and never will have. Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh, winter 1887/1888

And what a heart it was. In a different letter, Vincent relays to Theo the consciousness-expanding capacity of love — which Kierkegaard so eloquently captured — at the dawn of a new love affair:

Since the beginning of this love I have felt that unless I gave myself up to it entirely, without any restriction, with all my heart, there was no chance for me whatever, and even so my chance is slight. But what is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? I mean, must I consider this when I love? No, no reckoning; one loves because one loves. Then we keep our heads clear, and do not cloud our minds, nor do we hide our feelings, nor smother the fire and light, but simply say: Thank God, I love.

To be sure, Van Gogh has the prudence to recognize that friendship is at least as great a gift as romantic love. In another letter, he tells Theo:

Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is every deep serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, these open the prison by supreme power, by some magic force. Where sympathy is renewed, life is restored.

And in another still:

Love a friend, love a wife, something, whatever you like, but one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper, better, and more.

This all-inclusive approach to love — this casting of a wide net of affections — is something Van Gogh believed wholeheartedly, and something Ray Bradbury would come to echo a century and a half later in telling aspiring writers, “I want your loves to be multiple.” Vincent writes to Theo:

It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!

And later:

The best way to know God is to love many things.

Van Gogh sees the human capacity for love as integral to the creative process:

In order to work and to become an artist one needs love. At least, one who wants sentiment in his work must in the first place feel it himself, and live with his heart.

Van Gogh’s first sketchbook from The Secret Museum

Indeed, it is this capacity for love — for living from one’s heart — that sustains the artist through struggle and rejection. In another letter, Van Gogh writes:

I believe more and more that to work for the sake of the work is the principle of all great artists: not to be discouraged even though almost starving, and though one feels one has to say farewell to all material comfort.

For Van Gogh, this heart-first approach to art and life was the root of all that is worthy. In another letter to Theo, he articulates what might well be his deepest underlying credo:

Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment.

Though long out of print, surviving copies of My Life & Love Are One are still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with a peek inside Van Gogh’s never-before-revealed sketchbooks, then revisit Susan Sontag on love.

BP

Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.”

Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe,” the great English writer and feminist Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) wrote as she contemplated suffering, survival, and the will to keep walking the road to ourselves in her 1941 masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Three decades earlier, West had honed this heroic insistence on inquiry into suffering on the bludgeoning whetstone of her own heartbreak. At only twenty, after calling him “the Old Maid of novelists” in a scorching review of his novel Marriage, she had fallen madly in love with H.G. Wells — one of the era’s most venerated writers, twenty-six years her senior, married (to a woman who shared his skepticism about the institution of marriage), and the father of two young boys. The magmatic affair ended after several months, severed by Wells. At first attracted to West’s electric intellect, he cowered upon discovering that this selfsame electricity coursed through the whole of her being — she was too intense, her love too alive — affirmation of Henry James’s famous indictment of Wells: “so much life with (so to speak) so little living.”

In one of the most remarkable letters ever composed — a masterwork of inhabiting one’s multitudes and contradictions with the full dignity of each faction, the bold along with the desperate, the broken along with the whole — penned in March 1913 and found in Anna Holmes’s delicious Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), West channels the confused magnetic maelstrom of push and pull familiar to any rejected lover, but channels it with a level of lucidity and fiery self-awareness rarely accessible to the rest of us:

Dear H. G.,

During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.

I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.

I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.

And then, in a passage that justifies Virginia Woolf’s later description of West as “hard as nails… a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes… immense vitality… suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence,” she adds:

I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.

As the universal pendulum of the jilted swings from blame to self-blame, from self-righteousness to self-abasement, she throws herself from the clocktower of heartbreak into the always impenetrable unknown that follows the end of a great love:

You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. They are. But people like me swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.

That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your — much more precious than you imagine it to be — self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent spectacle and a reversal of the natural order of things. But you should have been too fine to feel like that.

I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.

I wish you had loved me. I wish you liked me.

Yours,

Rebecca

She adds a postscript of heartbreaking resignation:

P.S. Don’t leave me utterly alone. If I live write to me now and then. You like me enough for that. At least I pretend to myself you do.

But just as Wells had failed to account for the consanguinity of her character qualities, West too failed to account for his — the all-consuming love confessed in this letter, aimed at winning him back, was the very thing that had made him run in the first place. His curt three-line response, found in Lesley MacDowell’s excellent Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and Their Famous Literary Partnerships (public library), made this painfully clear:

How can I be your friend to this accompaniment? I don’t see that I can be of any use or help to you at all. You have my entire sympathy — but until we can meet on a reasonable basis — Goodbye.

For all her passionate nature, West’s intellect was too great to let her make the same mistake twice. She issued no more personal appeals. Instead, she threw herself into what had brought them together in the first place — her professional devotion to her craft. And then the seemingly miraculous but not altogether unexpected happened. When she published a characteristically perceptive and lyrical essay about a Spanish café singer in the July issue of The New Freewoman, she received a letter from Wells that must have honeyed her soul both as a writer and as a lover, but also bittered with its confused mosaic of professional praise and misogynistic punishment. (It is telling that Wells found and read the essay despite its publication in a literary magazine that only existed for six months — he was clearly keeping a keen eye out for her work, perhaps the era’s equivalent of Instagram stalking.) He wrote:

You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends… [Your essay] was tremendous. You are as wise as God when you write — at times — and then you are atortured, untidy… little disaster of a girl who can’t even manage the most elementary tricks of her sex. You are like a beautiful voice singing out of a darkened room into which one gropes and finds nothing.

West took her time to respond. No record survives of when and how she did. But by November, they were lovers again. In January, West found out she was pregnant and decided to keep the child. Wells would later blame himself for impairing her promising career with his carelessness:

It was our second encounter and she became pregnant. It was entirely unpremeditated. She wanted to write. It should not have happened, and since I was the more experienced person, the blame is wholly mine.

Their son, Anthony West, was born in the final months of World War I. West and Wells remained lovers for a decade, but grew increasingly unhappy in the relationship, both personally and professionally, until Wells was ready to admit that they “did harm to each other as writers.” Only when they separated did West’s career soar to its influential heights. They remained friends until Wells’s death. “We did at times love each other very much,” he reflected after the collapse of the romantic relationship. “We love each other still.”

West and Wells in 1923, just after the end of their romance. (Photograph: Alfred L. Shepherd)

Perhaps the rift came not from the absence of love but from the misalignment of values in what they both held at the center of their being: their identity as writers. Wells, by his own admission, would “rather be called a journalist than an artist.” West, in her trailblazing account of Balkan culture — the culture of which I myself am the product, — went on to pioneer a new aesthetic of journalism that was equally a work of truth and a work of art, animated by her fundamental conviction that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”

Complement with Rilke on how to break up with integrity and Van Gogh on heartbreak as a vitalizing force for creative work, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss.

BP

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