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Zadie Smith on What Writers Can Learn from Some of History’s Greatest Dancers

“Between propriety and joy choose joy.”

Zadie Smith on What Writers Can Learn from Some of History’s Greatest Dancers

“Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed when she experienced dance for the first time in legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s studio. Graham herself saw a parallel between her particular art and all creative endeavors of the mind, in which “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action.”

That parallel is what Zadie Smith, one of the great thought-artists of our time, explores in “Dance Lessons for Writers,” found in her altogether fantastic essay collection Feel Free (public library) — the source of Smith’s incisive meditation on the interplay of optimism and despair.

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Smith writes:

The connection between writing and dancing has been much on my mind recently: it’s a channel I want to keep open. It feels a little neglected — compared to, say, the relationship between music and prose — maybe because there is something counter-intuitive about it. But for me the two forms are close to each other: I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do.

Citing Martha Graham’s famous advice on creative work, intended for dancers but replete with wisdom for writers, Smith considers the common ground beneath the surface dissimilitudes between these two art forms:

What can an art of words take from the art that needs none? Yet I often think I’ve learned as much from watching dancers as I have from reading. Dance lessons for writers: lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style, some of them obvious, some indirect.

Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly

She proceeds to explore these dimensions through a set of contrasts between famous performers, beginning Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly:

“Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, in old age, “and I represent the proletariat.” The distinction is immediately satisfying, though it’s a little harder to say why. Tall, thin and elegant, versus muscular and athletic — is that it? There’s the obvious matter of top hat and tails versus T-shirt and slacks. But Fred sometimes wore T-shirts and slacks, and was not actually that tall, he only stood as if he were, and when moving always appeared elevated, to be skimming across whichever surface: the floor, the ceiling, an ice-rink, a bandstand. Gene’s center of gravity was far lower: he bends his knees, he hunkers down. Kelly is grounded, firmly planted, where Astaire is untethered, free-floating. Likewise, the aristocrat and the proletariat have different relations to the ground beneath their feet, the first moving fluidly across the surface of the world, the second specifically tethered to a certain spot: a city block, a village, a factory, a stretch of fields.

When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating. The ground I am thinking of in this case is language as we meet it in its “commonsense” mode. The language of the television, of the supermarket, of the advert, the newspaper, the government, the daily “public” conversation. Some writers like to walk this ground, re-create it, break bits of it off and use it to their advantage, whereas others barely recognize its existence. Nabokov — a literal aristocrat as well as an aesthetic one — barely ever put a toe upon it. His language is “literary,” far from what we think of as our shared linguistic home. One argument in defense of such literary language might be the way it admits its own artificiality. Commonsense language meanwhile claims to be plain and natural, “conversational,” but is often as constructed as asphalt, dreamed up in ad agencies or in the heart of government — sometimes both at the same time. Simultaneously sentimental and coercive (“the People’s Princess,” “the Big Society,” “Make America Great Again”), commonsense language claims to take its lead from the way people naturally speak, but any writer who truly attends to the way people speak will soon find himself categorized as a distinctive stylist or satirist or experimentalist. Beckett was like this, and the American writer George Saunders is a good contemporary example.

Echoing Goethe — whose insistence on the importance of “divine discontent” in creative work predates Martha Graham’s “divine dissatisfaction” by a century and a half, and who argued that self-comparison to Shakespeare’s greatness calibrates the ambition of any aspiring writer — Smith, in many ways a Nabokov of our time, concludes her Astaire/Kelly dichotomy:

Kelly quoted the commonplace when he danced, and he reminds us in turn of the grace we do sometimes possess ourselves… [Astaire] is “poetry in motion.” His movements are so removed from ours that he sets a limit on our own ambitions. Nobody hopes or expects to dance like Astaire, just as nobody really expects to write like Nabokov.

Next, she examines the writer’s sometimes parallel, sometimes perpendicular responsibilities to representation and joy by contrasting the brothers Harold and Fayard Nicholas:

Writing, like dancing, is one of the arts available to people who have nothing. “For ten and sixpence,” advises Virginia Woolf, “one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare.” The only absolutely necessary equipment in dance is your own body. Some of the greatest dancers have come from the lowliest backgrounds. With many black dancers this has come with the complication of “representing your race.” You are on a stage, in front of your people and other people. What face will you show them? Will you be your self? Your “best self”? A representation? A symbol? The Nicholas Brothers were not street kids — they were the children of college-educated musicians — but they were never formally trained in dance. They learned by watching their parents and their parents’ colleagues performing on the “Chitlin” circuit, as black vaudeville was then called. Later, when they entered the movies, their performances were usually filmed in such a way as to be non-essential to the story, so that when these films played in the south their spectacular sequences could be snipped out without doing any harm to the integrity of the plot. Genius contained, genius ring-fenced. But also genius undeniable. “My talent was the weapon,” argued Sammy Davis Jr., “the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.” Davis was another Chitlin hoofer, originally, and from straitened circumstances. His logic here is very familiar: it is something of an article of faith within the kind of families who have few other assets. A mother tells her children to be “twice as good,” she tells them to be “undeniable.” My mother used to say something like it to me. And when I watch the Nicholas Brothers I think of that stressful instruction: be twice as good. The Nicholas Brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw. They are progressing down a giant staircase doing the splits as if the splits is the commonsense way to get somewhere. They are impeccably dressed. They are more than representing — they are excelling. But I always think I spot a little difference between Harold and Fayard, and it interests me, I take it as a kind of lesson. Fayard seems to me more concerned with this responsibility of representation when he dances: he looks the part, he is the part, his propriety unassailable. He is formal, contained, technically undeniable: a credit to the race. But Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible Afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back. Between propriety and joy choose joy.

Among the contrasting dancing styles through which Smith examine the various stylistic, aesthetic, rhetorical, and conceptual choices a writer must make — Prince vs. Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson vs. Madonna vs. Beyoncé, Rudolf Nureyev vs. Mikhail Baryshnikov — are those of David Byrne and David Bowie, singular in the choice they illustrate by way of negative space. Smith writes:

The art of not dancing — a vital lesson. Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad. To express other possibilities for bodies, alternative values, to stop making sense. It’s interesting to me that both these artists did their “worst” dancing to their blackest cuts. “Take me to the river,” sings Byrne, in square trousers twenty times too large, looking down at his jerking hips as if they belong to someone else. This music is not mine, his trousers say, and his movements go further: Maybe this body isn’t mine, either. At the end of this seam of logic lies a liberating thought: maybe nobody truly owns anything.

In consonance with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s agreement that our identities are often established by defining what we are not — exclusionary self-definition that serves to contract rather than expand us — Smith adds:

People can be too precious about their “heritage,” about their “tradition” — writers especially. Preservation and protection have their place but they shouldn’t block either freedom or theft. All possible aesthetic expressions are available to all peoples — under the sign of love. Bowie and Byrne’s evident love for what was “not theirs” brings out new angles in familiar sounds. It hadn’t occurred to me before seeing these men dance that a person might choose, for example, to meet the curve of a drum beat with anything but the matching curving movement of their body, that is, with harmony and heat. But it turns out you can also resist: throw up a curious angle and suddenly spasm, like Bowie, or wonder if that’s truly your own arm, like Byrne.

Feel Free is a spectacular read in its totality, dancing across the ladder of culture to demolish, with uncommon elegance of thought and language, the artificial categories of high and low in a way Susan Sontag would have appreciated. Complement it with Smith on the psychology of the two types of writers and her ten rules of writing.

BP

T.S. Eliot on Writing: His Warm and Wry Letter of Advice to a Sixteen-Year-Old Girl Aspiring to Become a Writer

“Don’t write at first for anyone but yourself.”

T.S. Eliot on Writing: His Warm and Wry Letter of Advice to a Sixteen-Year-Old Girl Aspiring to Become a Writer

“If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson advised a blind girl aspiring to be a writer, “you will interest other people.” Six years earlier, around Valentine’s Day of 1952, a sixteen-year-old self-described “aspiring Young Writer” by the name of Alice Quinn reached out to T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) — by that point one of the most famous writers in the world — hoping he might answer several questions about the creative process, what it takes to be a writer, and how he himself developed his creative faculties.

T.S. Eliot

Unlike Carson and unlike Albert Einstein, who also frequently replied to fan letters, particularly those from young people, Eliot rarely did. But something about the young woman’s earnest inquiry touched him. His response — thoroughly warm and just the right amount of wry, full of simply worded wisdom — may be his most direct statement of advice on writing. It was only ever published in Hockney’s Alphabet (public library) — that wonderful, forgotten 1991 charity project raising funds for AIDS research through short essays by famous writers about the letters of the alphabet, each illustrated by artist David Hockney. Provided by his Eliot’s, Valerie, his response to Alice Quinn — the only posthumous contribution to the volume — appears under the letter Q.

“Q” by David Hockney from Hockney’s Alphabet.

Nearly four decades after he stunned the world with his masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and four years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Eliot writes to the young aspiring writer:

Dear Miss Alice Quinn,

I do not often answer letters, because I am too busy; but I liked your letter, and I am glad that you are at a Catholic school.

I cannot tell you how to concentrate, because that is something I have been trying to learn all my life. There are spiritual exercises in concentration, but I am not the person to teach what I am trying to learn. All I know is that if you are interested enough, and care enough, then you concentrate. But nobody can tell you how to start writing. The only good reason for writing is that one has to write. You ask seven questions. No one event in one’s childhood starts one writing: no doubt a number of “events” and other causes. That remains mysterious.

In consonance with Carson, Eliot adds:

My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.

Alice apparently asked Eliot about some of the criticism aimed at his poetry and his person — the perennial lazy accusation that anything sophisticated is automatically elitist — for he reflects:

I am interested to hear that Kunitz & Haycraft say that I prefer to associate with Nobility and Church Dignitaries, but I like to know every sort of person, including Nobility and Dignitaries. I also like to know Policemen, Plumbers and People.

He returns to the subject of how one grows equipped to be a writer:

One does not always need to know a subject very well in order to teach it: what one does need to know is How to Teach Anything. I went to a very good school (which no longer exists) in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was well taught in Latin, Greek, French and elementary Mathematics. Those are the chief subjects worth learning at school; and I am glad that I was well taught in these subjects, instead of having to study such subjects as T.S. Eliot. At the University I studied too many subjects, and mastered none. If you study Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics, and the essentials of the Christian Faith, that is the right beginning.

I like living in London, because it is my City, and I am happier there than anywhere else.

With best wishes,

T.S. Eliot

Complement this particular portion Hockney’s Alphabet, which is out of print but well worth the hunt, with T.S. Eliot on the nature of time, Lewis Carroll’s advice to a young woman on how to overcome creative block, and Beethoven’s touching letter of advice on being an artist, sent in reply to a fan letter from a little girl, then revisit other timeless advice on writing from Susan Sontag, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Umberto Eco, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

BP

Go the Way Your Blood Beats: James Baldwin on Love, the Trap of Labels, and His Liberating Advice on Coming Out

“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”

Go the Way Your Blood Beats: James Baldwin on Love, the Trap of Labels, and His Liberating Advice on Coming Out

“Every person of ordinary sex endowment has a capacity for diffuse ‘homosexual’ sex expression … according to the temperamental situation,” the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in a visionary 1933 letter that framed human sexuality as a matter of fluid attraction to temperaments, not a fixed attraction to genders, eight decades before the modern plight for marriage equality ushered in the universal dignity of love.

This conviction made Mead the perfect conversation partner for James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) when they sat down for their remarkable dialogue about identity four decades later. By then one of the most celebrated writers and thinkers in the world, Baldwin was among the era’s handful of openly gay public intellectuals and someone whom the legendary interviewer Studs Terkel aptly described as “one of the rare men in the world who seems to know who he is today.”

No book since Virginia Woolf’s Orlando would do more to enlist art as a force of empathic insight into same-sex desire than Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin wrote in his early thirties against enormous resistance from American publishers, at a time when the DSM — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s Bible — classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” But although Baldwin had devoted his entire life to defending human dignity in all its guises, it was only in his final years that he addressed the question of sexuality and the dark specter of homophobia directly, thanks to Village Voice journalist Richard Goldstein — one of the generation of gay people who had found in Giovanni’s Room what Goldstein considered “an early vector of self-discovery.”

Appalled that a lengthy interview with Baldwin in the New York Times Book Review had swept its subject’s sexuality under the rug, Goldstein decided to take matters into his own hands. He persuaded the beloved writer, “a man who traced much of his acuity and pain to the nexus of racism and homophobia,” to meet with him for a conversation that would become Baldwin’s most personal interview, eventually included in James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library).

jamesbaldwin
James Baldwin

From the very beginning of the conversation, Baldwin exerts a lively resistance to all the labels within which we confine the expansiveness of human love. He tells Goldstein:

Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality… It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is much more interesting than the question of homosexuality.

[…]

The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality. Sexuality is only a part of it. I don’t know even if it’s the most important part. But it’s indispensable.

Reflecting on what gave him the courage to release the novel in Europe despite American publishers’ vehement refusal to publish it, Baldwin considers the deepest societal seedbed of the malady of homophobia, symptoms of which we’ve begun to see anew all these decades later. Echoing Rilke’s assertion that “for one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,” he tells Goldstein:

It’s very frightening. But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility. Loving of children, raising of children. The terrors homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.

Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer

Three decades after Hannah Arendt’s incisive treatise on how tyrannical regimes use isolation as a weapon of terror and oppression, Baldwin considers the wielding of homophobia as a cultural control mechanism by political propagandists, “a way of exerting control over the universe, by terrifying people.” The consequence, he suggests, is a fragmentation of unity on the basis of a rather arbitrary point of difference:

BALDWIN: I know a great many white people, men and women, straight and gay, whatever, who are unlike the majority of their countrymen. On what basis we could form a coalition is still an open question. The idea of basing it on sexual preference strikes me as somewhat dubious, strikes me as being less than a firm foundation. It seems to me that a coalition has to be based on the grounds of human dignity. Anyway, what connects us, speaking about the private life, is mainly unspoken.

GOLDSTEIN: I sometimes think gay people look to black people as healing them…

BALDWIN: Not only gay people.

GOLDSTEIN: …healing their alienation.

BALDWIN: That has to be done, first of all, by the person and then you will find your company.

Art by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, one of history’s greatest LGBT children’s books

When Goldstein remarks, three decades before this became a reality, that he imagines the election of a black president would be better for gay people, Baldwin considers the cross-pollinatory empowerment of the disenfranchised:

There is a capacity in black people for experience, simply. And that capacity makes other things possible. It dictates the depth of one’s acceptance of other people. The capacity for experience is what burns out fear. Because the homophobia we’re talking about really is a kind of fear.

Photograph by Sage Sohier from At Home with Themselves, a portrait series of gay couples in the 1980s

Affirming the notion that homosexuality is universal, Baldwin considers how language can be both the prison bars of our identity and the crowbar for breaking out of that prison:

There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me. We’re trapped in language, of course. But “homosexual” is not a noun. At least not in my book… Perhaps a verb. You see, I can only talk about my own life. I loved a few people and they loved me. It had nothing to do with these labels. Of course, the world has all kinds of words for us. But that’s the world’s problem.

Envisioning the future for gay people, Baldwin offers:

No one will have to call themselves gay. Maybe that’s at the bottom of my impatience with the term. It answers a false argument, a false accusation … that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me.

When Goldstein asks what advice he might have for people about to come out, Baldwin answers:

Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations with literary history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters and the real-life story behind “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s responsibility to society, what it means to be truly empowered, and his increasingly timely conversation with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art.

BP

Living and Loving Through Loss: Beautiful Letters of Consolation from Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists

Words of comfort and compassion from Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Johannes Brahms, and Charles Dickens.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her classic memoir of loss. But however uncertain its guise may be, its arrival is one of the central certainties of existence — no human life is unplundered by loss, in one form or another, at one time or another. And when grief does come, when its tidal force anneals us to the rawest axis of our being, it seems like nothing at all can unmoor us from its all-consuming gravity. Consolation of the bereaved is therefore an immensely difficult art and one of the most generous human gestures, perhaps even the most acutely life-saving.

Gathered here are several such masterworks of consolation, beautiful and heartbreaking and aglow with the resilience that is the hallmark of life, from some of humanity’s greatest minds and largest spirits.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.

But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein offered thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library), the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.

Albert Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

Shortly before his fifty-fifth birthday, Einstein writes:

Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.

And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.

Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.

RACHEL CARSON

Undoubtedly the most unusual and the hardest kind of consolation is that whose subject is one’s own imminent death and whose object is a loved one about to be left bereaved, for it requires one to simultaneously face the anguish of one’s own looming nonexistence and to rise above it in order to soften the loved one’s impending loss. To grieve one’s own death while consoling from the grave-to-be is therefore a supreme act of generosity and self-transcendence.

That is precisely what trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), crowning figure of Figuring, did as she lay dying from breast cancer shortly after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her courageous refusal to keep silent about the government’s assault on nature. Even as she faced her own death, Carson was most concerned about her best friend and beloved, Dorothy Freeman.

Rachel Carson

In September of 1963, several months before her death and shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, Carson sent Freeman a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes in a letter found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):

Dear One,

This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.

Rachel

In her final letter, written as Freeman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Carson’s death, she writes:

My darling,

You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.

[…]

Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.

Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.

Rachel

ALAN TURING

In addition to pioneering modern computing, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) remains the greatest code-breaker of all time. His decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have saved anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives in shortening WWII by two to four years. But despite his humanitarian heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.

Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.

When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.

Young Alan Turing

All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely. That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library).

Turing writes to Christopher’s mother in a letter from April 20, 1933:

My dear Mrs. Morcom,

I was so pleased to be at the Clockhouse for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.

Turing visited Clock House again in July, for what would have been Christopher’s twenty-second birthday. Seeking to reconcile the irrepressible spiritual aliveness felt in grief with the undeniable definitiveness of physical death, as much for himself as for Christopher’s mother, he wrote in another letter to her under the heading “Nature of Spirit”:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale. This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are pre-destined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.

[…]

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.

In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”

That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi. A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to rise from the depths of his or her personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter, later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library).

abrahamlincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

CHARLES DICKENS

Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812–June 9, 1870) was a man of multitudes, brilliant and flawed, but among the strongest and most unambivalent animating forces of his life was the love he had for his younger sister, Letitia.

In 1862, Letitia lost her husband of twenty-five years, the architect and artist Henry Austin. In a letter from early October of that year, found in The Letters of Charles Dickens (public library | free ebook), Dickens envelops his sister in equal parts compassionate consolation and a call to psychoemotional arms.

Charles Dickens

Dickens writes:

I do not preach consolation because I am unwilling to preach at any time, and know my own weakness too well. But in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth. Heaven speed the time, and do you try hard to help it on! It is impossible to say but that our prolonged grief for the beloved dead may grieve them in their unknown abiding-place, and give them trouble. The one influencing consideration in all you do as to your disposition of yourself (coupled, of course, with a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit) is, that you think and feel you can do… I rather hope it is likely that through such restlessness you will come to a far quieter frame of mind. The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.

But nothing is to be attained without striving. In a determined effort to settle the thoughts, to parcel out the day, to find occupation regularly or to make it, to be up and doing something, are chiefly to be found the mere mechanical means which must come to the aid of the best mental efforts.

JOHANNES BRAHMS

The beautiful and unclassifiable relationship between the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896) and the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) blessed both with a lifetime of love, but it began with the heartache of death. When the composer Robert Schumann — Clara’s beloved husband and Johannes’s revered mentor — succumbed to mental illness and died in the asylum where he was committed, Clara was left to raise their three sons and four daughters as a single mother and a working artist who provided for them through her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to put them through school. Johannes, fourteen years her junior, became her closest confidante, her most steadfast source of affection, and her sturdiest pillar of support through the grief.

In a letter from the autumn of 1857, Brahms sets out to remind her of the wider, longer view of life, which grief so swiftly narrows and blunts. While such perspective may not be the most helpful in the immediate aftermath of loss, and may in fact compound the pain of the bereaved by making him or her feel rushed through the process of grief, here Brahms is offering it after more than a year of bereavement, as a gentle and loving invitation to reawaken to life’s fullness against the backdrop of somnolent hollowness that grief casts.

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, 1853

He writes:

My dear Clara, you really must try hard to keep your melancholy within bounds and see that it does not last too long. Life is precious and such moods as the one you are in consume us body and soul. Do not imagine that life has little more in store for you. It is not true… The more you endeavor to go through times of sorrow calmly and accustom yourself to do so, the more you will enjoy the happier times that are sure to follow. Why do you suppose that man was given the divine gift of hope? And you do not even need to be anxious in your hope, for you know perfectly well that pleasant months will follow your present unpleasant ones, just as they do every period of unhappiness.

CHARLES DARWIN

After he weighed the pros and cons of marriage, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) decided in favor of matrimony and was wedded to his beloved, Emma Wedgwood. They went on to have a long and loving marriage, made all the stronger by their devotion to the ten children they had together. Darwin’s letters reveal that while he loved all of his children intensely, he especially cherished his eldest daughter, Annie — a sensitive and unselfconsciously awkward girl, kindhearted and voraciously curious about the world, in whom he saw much of himself.

In 1850, Annie fell ill with what was most likely a type of tuberculosis. Despite the Darwins’ frantic efforts in every direction of a cure, she died on April 23, 1851, at the Malvern spa where she’d been taken for treatment. She was ten. Her father was at her dying bedside and her mother home at Down House, caring for the other nine children.

Charles Darwin

Although the loss plunged Darwin into a depth of misery from which he never fully surfaced, his first priority was to console his bereaved beloved. In a letter included in Adam Gopnik’s magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library), Darwin writes to Emma the day of Annie’s death:

My dear dearest Emma

I pray God Fanny’s note may have prepared you. She went to her final sleep most tranquilly, most sweetly at 12 oclock today. Our poor dear dear child has had a very short life but I trust happy, & God only knows what miseries might have been in store for her. She expired without a sigh. How desolate it makes one to think of her frank cordial manners. I am so thankful for the daguerreotype. I cannot remember ever seeing the dear child naughty. God bless her. We must be more & more to each other my dear wife — Do what you can to bear up & think how invariably kind & tender you have been to her… My own poor dear dear wife.

C. Darwin

Daguerrotype of Annie Darwin, 1849

Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on learning to live with loss, a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief, and these uncommon children’s books that guide kids through the messiness of mourning.

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