This is the brainpickings.org weekly digest by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Thoreau on nature as prayer, James Baldwin’s prophetic insight into race and reality, Benjamin Franklin on how to make difficult decisions — you can catch up right here. And if you’re enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
Simone Weil considered it the highest existential discipline to “make use of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us.”George Bernard Shaw saw suffering as our supreme conduit to empathy. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality,” Seneca observed before offering his millennia-old, timeless antidote to anxiety. And yet we do suffer and the pain incurred, whatever the suffering is grounded in, is real. How we orient ourselves to our suffering — or to thesuffering, as Buddhist might correct the ego-illusion and reaffirm our shared reality — may be the single most significant predictor of our happiness, wellbeing, and capacity for joy. “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life, “and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
That indelible relationship between suffering and life is what Ursula K. Le Guin(October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — the superb 1974 novel, part science fiction and part philosophy, that gave us Le Guin’s insight into time, loyalty, and the root of human responsibility.
The novel’s protagonist — the idealistic prodigy physicist Shevek, visiting a beautiful earth-like world from a society inhabiting the world’s barren moon, where a colony had seceded long ago, disenchanted with the profiteering and “propertarian” values of an increasingly materialistic and selfish human society — channels Le Guin’s philosophical insight into the paradoxes of existence and the pitfalls of human society:
Suffering is a misunderstanding.
It exists… It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years… And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain… If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could… get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality — the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness — that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.
Defining freedom as “that recognition of each person’s solitude which alone transcends it,” Le Guin pits her idealistic protagonist against an imperfect society, which he addresses in a public speech at the climax of the novel — a speech he delivers before an enormous crowd of his compatriots, who have taken to the streets in furious desperation, struggling to remember and retain their nation’s founding egalitarian ideals in the face of growing privation and inequity on the barren moon-world:
It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.
In the privacy of his mind, spawned of Le Guin’s own mind, Shevek reflects on the central paradox of suffering:
If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home… Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal… It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell… The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.
The Dispossessed is a thoroughly magnificent read, exploring themes of staggeringly timely resonance to our socially confused and politically troubled world. Complement this particular fragment with the brilliant and underappreciated Rebecca West on survival and the redemption of suffering, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. “It is strange the way ideas come when they are needed,” the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote nearly two centuries later in his account of the “flash of illumination” by which creative breakthrough occurs. It is a chaotic strangeness familiar to every creative person, be she poet or physicist or composer, and yet we have expended millennia of thought and divination on trying to locate its source and foment its springing.
Again and again, we have arrived at one elemental aspect of it: the necessary period of unconscious incubation by which any creative achievement is hatched. “We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on,” T.S. Eliot wrote of this incubation period. Oliver Sacks enumerated it among the three essential elements of creativity. E.B. White attributed Charlotte’s Web to it.
A beautiful articulation of both the conscious preparation and the unconscious incubation of creativity comes from Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), as relayed by Johann Aloys Schlösser — a composer about twenty years Beethoven’s junior, who would go on to write the first biography of him. The slim book, published just after Beethoven’s death, was more a work of celebration and commemoration than one of scholarship. Schlösser himself considered it an offering of “love and esteem” for “the master of immortal sound.” But Schlösser had one insurmountable advantage over later biographers — he intersected with Beethoven in time and space, which granted him singular access and insight into the great composer’s character and creative process. The essence of the latter comes alive in one particularly revealing exchange between the two composers, later cited in Life of Beethoven (public library) by the American librarian and journalist Alexander Wheelock Thayer — the first full, scholarly biography of Beethoven, published at the end of the nineteenth century, which set out to fact-check and clear the many romantic myths about the composer that had been circulating in the decades since his death.
Schlösser recounts bringing “a new, somewhat complicated composition” to Beethoven as a young man and asking the master for constructive feedback. After reading it, Beethoven responded with an insightful remark on the art of editing and the life-cycle of creativity:
You give too much, less would have been better; but that lies in the nature of heaven-scaling youth, which never thinks it possible to do enough. It is a fault maturer years will correct, however, and I still prefer a superfluity to a paucity of ideas.
When Schlösser inquired how Beethoven himself managed this intricate dance of calibrating ideas, the elder composer outlined the process of incubation, ideation, and editing by which a great work of art is birthed:
I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. At the same time my memory is so faithful to me that I am sure not to forget a theme which I have once conceived, even after five years have passed. I make many changes, reject and reattempt until I am satisfied. Then the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and se the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all that is left is the work of writing it down.
And yet Beethoven — who did most of his composing outdoors, jotting down ideas as they occurred to him there, then writing them into scores upon returning to his quarters — acknowledges the essential mystery at the heart of creative work, which no framework or discipline or routine can manufacture. In a sentiment evocative of Charles Bukowski’s ferocious poem “so you want to be a writer,” he writes:
Whence I take my ideas… I cannot say with any degree of certainty; they come to me uninvited, directly, or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands, out in nature’s open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at earliest dawn. They are roused by moods which in the poet’s case are transmuted into words, and in mine into tones, that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes.
Complement with Rilke on the combinatorial nature of creativity and Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on inspiration, then revisit Beethoven on the crucial difference between talent and genius, creative vitality and resilience in the face of suffering, and his advice on being an artist in a touching letter to a little girl who sent him fan mail.
George Sand’s Only Children’s Book: A Touching Parable of Choosing Kindness and Generosity Over Cynicism and Greed, with Stunning Illustrations by Russian Artist Gennady Spirin
“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. Sometimes, evil comes in one of its deceptively benignant guises — everyday smallnesses of spirit like cynicism and the particularly virulent strain of unkindness disguised as cleverizing, which the golden age of social media has so readily and recklessly fomented.
In youth, when our solidity of soul is most precarious, when we most hunger for peer approval and are most susceptible to cultural reinforcement, we are most vulnerable to the easy payoff of being cynical or clever over the deep, often difficult rewards of being kind.
The great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand (July 1, 1804–June 8, 1876), set out to model a prescient antidote to a culture that rewards cynicism and selfishness over kindness and largeness of heart in her only children’s book, originally composed in 1851 but published in English for the first time in 1988, with stunning illustrations by the then-Soviet artist Gennady Spirin.
The author of some eighty novels and numerous plays, stories, and essays animated by her love of nature and her devotion to social change, Sand supported herself and her children by her pen in an era when women were rarely financially independent by their own work and hardly any were professional writers. During the 1848 uprising in France, she started her own liberal newspaper. She attracted great controversy with her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights, her habit of wearing men’s clothing and smoking large cigars, and her passionate convention-defying relationships with both men and women, most famously with the composer Frédéric Chopin. Dostoyevsky revered her as “one of the most clairvoyant foreseers” and one of his greatest influences. Margaret Fuller — who catalyzed American feminism and who appears as a central figure in Figuring — greatly admired Sand’s writing and the way she lived her values, and when they finally met in Paris, Fuller found in her “goodness, nobleness, and power that pervaded the whole — the truly human heart and nature that shone in the eyes.”
Sand’s forgotten children’s novel, The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee (public library), joins the canon of little-known and lovely children’s books by celebrated authors of literature for grownups, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree, and James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man.
We meet Gentle Jack — the youngest of seven children, born to unkind, unscrupulously, and greedy parents who have managed to convert all the other children to their cynical worldview, except him. Instead, Gentle Jack has become the laughingstock of the family — his parents scorn him as too stupid, for he wouldn’t follow in their wicked ways, and his siblings tease and bully him, taking his boundless kindness for weakness.
Gentle Jack bears the abuse stoically. But he wishes from the bottom of his large, aching heart that his parents would love him as much as he loves them. Often, he takes his great sadness into the forest to find refuge by his favorite tree — an old, hollow oak hidden away by rocks and brambles.
One day, after particularly brutal abuse at home, Gentle Jack lies weeping beneath his oak when something stings his arm. Sand writes:
He looked up and saw a huge bumblebee, which sat there without moving and stared at him in a most insolent fashion.
Jack took hold of the bee by its wings and gently placed it on the palm of his hand.
“Why did you hurt me, when I have done nothing to hurt you?” he asked. “Go on, fly away and be happy.”
After releasing the bee, Jack tends to his sting with some forest herbs and dozes off, only to awaken and discover in astonishment “a tall, fat gentleman dressed in black from head to toe, standing in front of him.”
The gentleman stared at Jack with enormous round eyes and said in a loud booming voice, “You have done me a service I shall never forget. Come, child, ask for whatever you most desire.”
When Gentle Jack responds that there is nothing he longs for more than for his parents to love him, the mysterious man replies that it is “a very difficult wish to grant” but that he would do his best. He declares that Gentle Jack is kind, but he must become clever in order for his parents to love him, and he will make him clever. The boy responds true to his nature:
“Oh, Sir!” exclaimed Jack. “If, in order to become clever, I must also become wicked, then please don’t make me clever. I would rather remain stupid and continue to be kind.”
“And what do you expect to achieve by being kind in a world full of wicked people?” asked the gentleman.
“Alas, Sir, I don’t know how to answer your question,” said Jack, who was becoming more and more frightened. “I’m not clever enough for that. But I have never done anyone any harm. Please don’t make me want to, or give me the means of doing so.”
After proclaiming him a fool, the fat man sweeps his great black velvet cloak and disappears into the forest, promising to make the boy clever the next time they meet. Still jolted by the encounter, Gentle Jack reluctantly heads home, dreading another beating for being out so long. Upon his return, his mother scolds him, then tells him that he is the luckiest boy in the world, for a nobleman by the name of Lord Bumblebee had just stopped by the house. After eating an enormous jar of honey, for which he had paid handsomely, he had asked after the family’s youngest child. Upon hearing Gentle Jack’s name, he had exclaimed that this was the very child he had been looking for and that he would make his fortune. Then he had vanished without another word.
Gentle Jack’s mother, greedy for the nobleman’s riches, promptly shoves her son out the door, instructing him to find Lord Bumblebee’s castle.
And so the two meet again. This time, in addition to all his riches, Lord Bumblebee offers to make him clever by teaching him the “sciences” of magic and witchcraft if he would be his son. But Gentle Jack remains true to his nature:
“You are most kind, Sir,” said Jack, “but I have parents already, and although they have other children they love more than me, they might need me some day and it would be wrong of me to leave them.”
When Gentle Jack returns home, convinced that his loving loyalty would make his parents love him in turn, his mother roughly jilts his embrace, asking instead what bounty he has brought back from the nobleman’s castle. Upon discovering that not only has Gentle Jack brought nothing back, but he had refused to become “the heir of a man who was richer than the king himself,” his parents begin to beat him, then dress him in rags and send him back to the nobleman.
Woven of equal measures sweetness and severity, the story builds into an ever-accelerating test of character.
When Jack turns fifteen and Lord Bumblebee comes to terms with the disappointment that he would not have children from his own marriage, he offers once again to adopt the boy, but at a Faustian cost — Jack would inherit all the Lord’s riches, but he would have to fight endless, ruthless battles to keep them.
The evil nobleman sets out to instill in the boy his own cynical and selfish credo. After showing him the merciless combat and cunning by which those in power maintain their position, he tells him:
In this world, you must rob or be robbed, murder or be murdered, be a tyrant or a slave. It is up to you to choose: Do you wish to conserve wealth like the bees, amass it like the ants, or steal it like the hornets? The surest way, I believe, is to let others do the work and then take from them. Take, take, my boy, by force or by cunning; it’s the only way to achieve happiness.
If Jack were to choose to be a bumblebee like him, he too would be inducted into the order of magicians like Lord Bumblebee, but he would have to swear a terrible oath: “to abandon compassion and that virtue which men call honesty.” Incredulous of the proposition, the gentle boy inquires whether all magicians must take this oath.
“There are those,” replied Lord Bumblebee, “who swear to exactly the opposite and who make it their business to serve, protect, and love all living creatures. But they are just fools.”
“Well, Lord Bumblebee,” replied Jack, “you haven’t succeeded in making me clever, because I prefer those spirits to yours, and I have no desire whatsoever to learn how to plunder and to kill. I thank you for your good intentions, but I request your permission to return home to my parents.”
“Fool,” replied Lord Bumblebee. “Your parents are hornets who have forgotten their origins.”
“Well, then,” replied Jack, “I will go into the wilderness and join the good spirits.”
Enraged by the boy’s unrelenting goodness, Lord Bumblebee declares that he would not let him — he would sting him to death. At this utterance, he transforms into a hideous insect and begins chasing Gentle Jack through the forest. The terrified boy, leaping headlong into a brook for cover, begins calling on the “good spirits” for help.
Suddenly, a great blue dragonfly appears and, flying in front of him, beckons the boy to follow her. The skies open into a heavy downpour, impeding Lord Bumblebee’s pursuit.
But this is not salvation. Part II of the story, titled “How Gentle Jack Reached the Enchanted Island at Last and Why He Could Not Stay There,” presents the ultimate test of character.
Gentle Jack finds himself in a heavenly, sweet-scented fairyland — an idyllic world where “there were children, as sweet as cherubs, who chased each other and turned somersaults, and lovely maidens who sat plaiting flowers into each other’s hair,” a place where “young folk made music and danced while old folk sat and watched.”
He discovers that the blue dragonfly had been his fairy godmother in disguise — the queen of the good spirits. She had happened to be passing through the land of his birth — “a land like any other, a mixture of goodness and evil, of good and bad people” — at the very moment he was born and she had blessed him at birth with gentleness, honesty, and kindness.
Long ago, she tells him, Lord Bumblebee had ruled and ravaged Gentle Jack’s homeland by corrupting its inhabitants with greed. In punishment for his evil deeds, the godmother-queen had turned him into a common bumblebee, “condemned to crawling, hiding himself away, and buzzing around an old oak tree in the forest which he had originally planted with his own hands when he was master and tyrant of the country” — a punishment that could only be lifted by Gentle Jack’s hand, on the day he says to the bumblebee, “Fly away and be happy.” Only then would Lord Bumblebee regain his human incarnation, and only if he promised to make Jack very happy.
Jack also learns that one day on the enchanted island is equivalent to a hundred years in his homeland, and in the day since his arrival, Lord Bumblebee had once again corrupted his compatriots, turning them into thieves and hoarders — affirmation for the real-world sentiment John Steinbeck would articulate from the peak of World War II two centuries later: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” The queen tells her godson:
The spirit of greed and theft has stifled the spirit of kindness and generosity in every heart and has driven into oblivion the great knowledge which you alone, of all who were born on this unhappy earth, now possess.
Upon hearing this, Gentle Jack realizes that he is not stupid after all and that his loving kindness is the only cure for the small-spirited suffering of his people. (“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy — who also admired and was influenced by Sand — would write to Gandhi half a century later.) But when the queen tells him that he must not worry about it any longer, for on the enchanted island he is immortal, impervious to sorrow, and protected from all evil, Gentle Jack can’t find contentment in this privileged comfort. He throws his arms around his godmother and speaks from his large heart:
Smile on me, dear godmother, so that I may not die of grief when I leave you — because leave you I must. No matter that I have neither parents nor friends left in my homeland, I feel that I am the child of that country and must serve it. Since I am the possessor of the most beautiful secret in the world, I must share it with those poor people who hate each other and who are to be pitied. No matter, also, that I’m as happy as the good spirits, thanks to your kindness. I am, nonetheless, a mere mortal, and I want to share my knowledge with other mortals. You have taught me how to love. Well, I feel that I love those evil, mad people who will probably hate me, and I ask you to lead me back among them.
With a kiss, the queen tells Jack that while her heart is breaking to see him go, she loves him all the more for having understood his duty:
The knowledge I have given you has borne fruit in your soul. I will give you neither a lucky charm, nor a magic wand to protect you against the wiles of the evil bumblebees, because it is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.
Instead, she allows him to pick as many flowers from her meadow as he wishes — magical flowers that make every person who inhales their scent gentler, kinder, and more beneficent, flowers he could hand out in his country to aid him in what the queen knows will be “a terrible and dangerous struggle” against evil.
And so, stepping onto a rose petal boat, Gentle Jack returns to his land as a prophet of love, goodness, generosity, and beauty. When he is assaulted by angry, avaricious mobs, he waves his fragrant flowers at them until the entire population is “miraculously calmed.”
Lord Bumblebee eventually gets wind of Gentle Jack’s miracles and sends an ambassador to invite him to his court. Despite his new friends’ admonitions that the tyrant could be up to no good, Gentle Jack accepts the invitation, eager to convert even the evilest man in the land.
There is no sugary happy ending to the story, no lulling assurance that good always prevails over evil. Perhaps because Sand’s own country was still haunted by the grim specter of the French Revolution, she composes a sad, beautiful, cautionary ending — a realist’s reminder that good only prevails when we put all of our might and our ethic of love and our unflinching commitment to kindness behind it, for, as Zadie Smith would write nearly two centuries later in her spectacular meditation on optimism and despair, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee is out of print but well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Voltaire’s trailblazing sci-fi philosophical meditation on the human condition, adapted in a lovely illustrated vintage children’s book, then revisit other works by great writers scrumptiously illustrated by great artists: Tolstoy illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Mark Twain illustrated by Norman Rockwell, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti, George Orwell’s Animal Farm illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dalí, and Goethe’s Faust illustrated by Harry Clarke.