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Jun 16, 2019

Keats on depression and the mightiest consolation for a heavy heart, a 101-year-old Holocaust survivor reads Whitman's most buoyant verse, and more

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Welcome Dear Tee, welcome to this week's edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's digest — planting trees as resistance and empowerment: the illustrated story of the first African woman to win a Nobel; the love letters of Emerson and Fuller — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Keats on Depression and the Mightiest Consolation for a Heavy Heart

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"One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless," Van Gogh described depression in a stirring letter to his brother. "The gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain," William Styron wrote a century later in his classic masterwork giving voice to the soul-malady so many of us have suffered silently.

Before Styron, even before Van Gogh, the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) painted an uncommonly lifelike portrait of the malady throughout his Selected Letters (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Keats on what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne.

Keats's brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression, for which he found a salve in creative work. "Life must be undergone," he wrote to his closest friend, "and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases."

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Life mask of John Keats by Benjamin Haydon, 1816 (National Portrait Gallery)

In May 1817, Keats confides in the artist Benjamin Haydon, who had just cast the young poet's life mask and who would later succumb to depression himself, taking his own life at the age of sixty, having outlived Keats by a quarter century:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAt this moment I am in no enviable Situation — I feel that I am not in a Mood to write any to day; and it appears that the loss of it is the beginning of all sorts of irregularities… You tell me never to despair — I wish it was as easy for me to observe the saying — truth is I have a horrid Morbidity of Temperament which has shown itself at intervals — it is I have no doubt the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear — I may even say that it is likely to be the cause of my disappointment. How ever every ill has its share of good — this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself… I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine.

The following spring, an even darker cloud of despair enveloped the poet. His now-iconic poem Endymion — which opens with the famous, buoyant line "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever" — was published to scathing reviews. One of his brothers suffered a violent hemorrhage. Another announced his abrupt plan to marry and emigrate to America. This swarm of instability and the attacks upon his primary psychological survival mechanism plunged Keats into a deep depression. Long before the clinical profession and the modern memoirist made the illness their material, Keats describes it exquisitely in a letter to his closest confidante, Benjamin Bailey:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI have this morning such a Lethargy that I cannot write — the reason of my delaying is oftentimes from this feeling — I wait for a proper temper — Now you ask for an immediate answer I do not like to wait even till tomorrow — However I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence —

johnkeats1.jpg?zoom=2&w=680

John Keats by William Hilton, 1822 (National Portrait Gallery)

Nearly two centuries before scientists began illuminating how body and mind intertwine in mental health, Keats adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMy intellect must be in a degenerating state — it must be for when I should be writing about god knows what I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body — for Mind there is none.

With the cool, helpless lucidity of the depressed, he recognizes that the darkness is temporary — that when it finally lifts, one is left asking oneself, in the words of another great poet, "What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?" — and yet the recognition, in depression's cruelest twist, fails to serve relief:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI am in that temper that if I were under Water I would scarcely kick to come to the top — I know very well 't is all nonsense. In a short time I hope I shall be in a temper to feel sensibly your mention of my Book — in vain have I waited till Monday to have any interest in that or in any thing else. I feel no spur at my Brothers going to America and am almost stony-hearted about his wedding. All this will blow over — all I am sorry for is having to write to you in such a time — but I cannot force my letters in a hot bed…

One beam of lucid light punctures the inky fog of inner desolation — one point of recognition does bring relief:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThere is a comfort in throwing oneself on the charity of ones friends — 't is like the albatross sleeping on its wings —

"I could not live without the love of my friends," Keats writes in another letter. And indeed, it is in a letter to his dearest friend that he articulates the mightiest — perhaps the only — antidote to depression. More than a century before Styron himself, at Keats's age, located happiness and the respite from despair in the capacity for presence, the despairing poet writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngYou perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.

Complement this fragment of Keats's thoroughly rewarding Selected Letters with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, Nietzsche on depression and the rehabilitation of hope, and Jane Kenyon's transcendent poem about life with and after depression, then revisit pioneering sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright on how REM sleep mitigates our negative moods.

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101-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin Reads Walt Whitman

leavesofgrass.jpg?zoom=2&w=680"Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world," the great naturalist and essayist John Burroughs wrote of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his more-than-biography of this titanic poet whose verses continue to stir the hearts and minds of readers two centuries hence. Their sublimest, most enduring gift springs from Whitman's resolute insistence on embracing our variegated, inconstant, polyphonous selves — on harmonizing the individualistic and the egalitarian, nature and culture, the body and the soul. "Do I contradict myself?" he asked unselfconsciously. "Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" His poems bellow the bold, countercultural assurance that in acknowledging the contradictions within us, we collapse the contradictions between us; that only by exploring the myriad facets of selfhood, from its brightest summits to its darkest recesses, can we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and the antagonisms of otherness that divide us from one another.

Nowhere is Whitman's unflinching belief in the indivisibility of the human spirit distilled more exquisitely than in the opening verse of the twenty-first section of his poem "Song of Myself," included in the self-published 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) and read here by 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a young woman, having embodied the most powerful testament to how literature saves lives. After arriving in America without speaking a word of English, this impassioned and devoted reader went on to earn a Ph.D. and to teach literature for decades, remaining to this day an ardent lover of poetry in general and of Whitman in particular. To hear Whitman's humanistic and humanizing words channeled through a voice that has lived through humanity's darkest hour, through a century of incalculable trials and triumphs of the spirit, is to be reminded of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a pulsing, breathing, beautifully contradictory multitude.

1beb0de7-df1f-43e7-849b-eb8f36f411c8.png

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.

Couple with Fagin's cousin Neil Gaiman reading to her Ursula K. Le Guin's poem about timelessness on the eve of her 101st birthday, then revisit Whitman's timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, his wisdom on democracy, and his serenade to the universe.

Alexander Chee's Lovely Letter to Children About How Books Save Us

avelocityofbeing_cover-1.jpg?fit=320%2C427

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us," Franz Kafka wrote to his childhood best friend. For Alexander Chee, another writer of titanic talent, Kafka's metaphor came alive in his own childhood when his family moved from Guam to America, relinquishing the warm seas of the South Pacific for the frozen seas of Maine in search of a better life. Reading became a portal to places in the outside world he missed, places in his inner world he was only just beginning to discover.

Chee tells the story of the singular role books played in his self-creation in his lovely contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, philosophers.

YooTaeeun-AlexanderChee.jpg?resize=680%2C914

Art by Taeeun Yoo for a letter by Alexander Chee from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Chee writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDear Reader of Tomorrow (and Today),

When I was your age I had an agreement with my mother: Whenever she went shopping, she left me at a bookstore or a library. Wherever we were in the world, that was our arrangement, and it made us both happy. As a result, I didn't complain about how long it took her to shop, ever. If anything, when she came to get me, even though I loved her, I was a little sad.

They called me a bookworm when I was your age. I taught myself to read and walk at the same time so I could read more while I walked to school. My mother was always telling me I was going to ruin my eyes by reading so much but I am still the only one in my family who doesn't need glasses — it may be I even strengthened my eyes.

I started reading so much back then because we had just moved to Maine and I had wanted us to stay in Guam. Maine seemed hard, cold and hopeless compared to the beautiful South Pacific island with warm seas and colorful fish that we had left behind. And while there was no way for me to return, in books I found doors to other worlds besides the one around me — and many other lives. Pretty soon, I was sneaking away to read, and it was because each of these books I loved felt like a present left behind for me by a stranger who somehow knew exactly how I felt.

I learned, gradually, to love Maine as much as Guam. But I read now for the same I reasons I read then — to feel less alone. But I read for more than that: Reading teaches me the answers to problems I haven't had yet, or to problems I didn't even know how to describe. And when I feel less alone with what troubles me, it is easier to find solutions. A book to me is like a friend, a shelter, advice, an argument with someone who cares enough to argue with me for a better answer than the one we both already have. Books aren't just a door to another world — each book is part of a door to the whole world, a door that always has more behind it. Which is why I still can't think of anything I'd rather do more than read.

Yours truly,

Alexander Chee

For more excerpts from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, savor Rebecca Solnit's beautiful letter about how books solace, empower, and transform us, Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding, Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a book saved actual lives.

A selection of the original art from the book is available as prints, also benefiting the public library system.

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I pour tremendous time, thought, heart, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free, and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy, stimulation, and consolation in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
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Jun 13, 2019

Fw: New in theaters


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