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This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — the decades-old classic is suddenly the ultimate pandemic poem, Jeanette Winterson on how storytelling transforms us, and a love story of science — you can catch up right here. And if you missed the annual review of the best of Brain Pickings 2020, that is here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – for fourteen years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World

spellofthesensuous.jpg?fit=320%2C489

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” The geologist Hans Cloos, a contemporary of Beston’s, complemented the sentiment beautifully in reflecting on our conversations with the planet: “We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.”

As we learn to translate the language of nature, there is more than mere astonishment at what we uncover; at the knowledge — nascent to science, ancient to native cultures the world over — of what trees feel and how they communicate, or of how other animal consciousnesses experience the world. There is magic — the realest, rawest form of magic we can access in an unsuperstitious world grounded in science but willing to soar beyond it, into other, non-materialist modes of perception.

That is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores with equal parts scientific curiosity and reverence for native wisdom in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library).thelostwords7.jpg?zoom=2&w=1200

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming nature’s language

Abram writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMagic… in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives — from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself — is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.

[…]

Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

arthurrackham_grimm5.jpg

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Art available as a print.)

And yet a defining feature of what makes us human — our imagination — is predicated on a recognition of this sensorial interrelation. Two centuries after William Blake wrote in his searing defense of the imagination that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way, [for] as a man is, so he sees,” Abram writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThat which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.

Echoing naturalist John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and philosopher Alan Watts’s admonition that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Abram considers the relationship between perception, sensation, and reality beyond our isolated experience:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe “real world” in which we find ourselves, then — the very world our sciences strive to fathom — is not a sheer “object,” not a fixed and finished “datum” from which all subjects and subjective qualities could be pared away, but is rather an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles. The mutual inscription of others in my experience, and (as I must assume) of myself in their experiences, effects the interweaving of our individual phenomenal fields into a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or “reality.”

And yet, as we know from our everyday experience, the phenomenal world is remarkably stable and solid; we are able to count on it in so many ways, and we take for granted much of its structure and character. This experienced solidity is precisely sustained by the continual encounter with others, with other embodied subjects, other centers of experience. The encounter with other perceivers continually assures me that there is more to any thing, or to the world, than I myself can perceive at any moment. Besides that which I directly see of a particular oak tree or building, I know or intuit that there are also those facets of the oak or building that are visible to the other perceivers that I see. I sense that that tree is much more than what I directly see of it, since it is also what the others whom I see perceive of it; I sense that as a perceivable presence it already existed before I came to look at it, and indeed that it will not dissipate when I turn away from it, since it remains an experience for others — not just for other persons, but… for other sentient organisms, for the birds that nest in its branches and for the insects that move along its bark, and even, finally, for the sensitive cells and tissues of the oak itself, quietly drinking sunlight through its leaves. It is this informing of my perceptions by the evident perceptions and sensations of other bodily entities that establishes, for me, the relative solidity and stability of the world.

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Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

This recognition of the reality of other experiences calls to mind the distinction philosopher Martin Buber drew nearly a century earlier between the I-It and I-Thou orientations toward what is other than oneself. And this recognition, Abram argues, is the key to redeeming our connection to the rest of nature and the more-than-human world, so artificially severed in modern Western culture. “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov captured this modern hijacking of our essence in her exquisite poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.” Abram considers what it takes for us to heal the artificial severance into parallels and re-intersect our own experience with the manifold realities of that “other” world:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDirect, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies. And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky.

[…]

We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and to experience, once again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world… This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.

In the remainder of the altogether enchanting The Spell of the Sensuous, Abrams visits with various native cultures to learn from their wisdom and mirror it back through the lens of a more-than-scientific understanding of the world. Complement it with a lovely illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature, then revisit the great marine biologist and poetic science writer Rachel Carson, who awakened the modern ecological conscience, on science and our spiritual bond with nature.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/
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Love, Loss, and the Banality of Survival: Charles Darwin, His Beloved Daughter, and How We Find Meaning in Mortality

This essay is excerpted from the thirteenth chapter of Figuring, titled “The Banality of Survival.”

In the spring of 1849, ten years before On the Origin of Species shook the foundation of humanity’s understanding of life, the polymathic astronomer John Herschel — coiner of the word photography, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional female astronomer — invited the forty-year-old Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) to contribute the section on geology to an ambitious manual on ten major branches of science, commissioned by the Royal Navy. Darwin produced a primer that promised to make good geologists even of readers with no prior knowledge of the discipline, so that they might “enjoy the high satisfaction of contributing to the perfection of the history of this wonderful world.”

In submitting his manuscript, Darwin wrote to Herschel:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI much fear, from what you say of size of type that it will be too long; but I do not see how I could shorten it, except by rewriting it, & that is a labour which would make me groan. I do not much like it, but I have in vain thought how to make it better. I should be grateful for any corrections or erasures on your part.

A perfectionist prone to debilitating anxiety, Darwin was vexed by the editorial process. But in the autumn of 1850, just as the manual was about to go to press, trouble of a wholly different order eclipsed the professional irritation: The Darwins’ beloved nine-year-old daughter, Annie — the second of their ten children and Charles’s favorite, fount of curiosity, sunshine of the household — fell ill with a mysterious ailment.darwin_emma.jpg?zoom=2&w=680

Emma and Charles Darwin

When Charles and Emma first realized that their daughter’s condition was more than a fleeting sickness, they turned to what the era’s medical authorities prescribe for sickly children: sea-bathing, believed to be a reliable cure-all for symptoms ranging from “languor and weakness of circulation,” per one medical encyclopedia, to cases of “listless and indolent state of the mind.” A natural history and travel guide from the era describes the craze for sea-bathing at Ramsgate, a coastal resort in Kent: “A sudden plunge into the ocean causes the blood to circulate briskly, and promotes the heat of the body.” It was to Ramsgate that the Darwins first sent Annie, hoping for maritime recovery. But her illness only escalated into fever and headaches.

A year earlier, the Darwins had traveled to the spa village of Malvern, where Charles was to try a new “cold water cure” devised by a Dr. James Gully. Darwin’s chronic illness at times manifested as insomnia, at other times as “dreadful vomiting every week.” It was never accurately diagnosed nor treated, and he was desperate for relief. One contemporary theory holds that he suffered from an acute anxiety disorder. Having read Dr. Gully’s The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, Darwin set his scientific skepticism aside and wrote to the physician, willing to try his treatment — he worried that the constant vomiting was getting in the way of his work. “If once half-well,” he wrote to his best friend, “I could do more in six months than I now do in two years.”

Dr. Gully’s treatment, developed in response to his two-year-old daughter’s death, included the vehement disavowal of medication. The little girl had been treated with every known drug at the time — including heavy metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic — and had died convulsed with harrowing pain. The bereaved father had set out to devise a course of alternative medicine. His hydropathy drew such famous patients as Lord Tennyson and Florence Nightingale — and now Charles Darwin.DrGully.jpg?resize=680%2C1164

Vanity Fair caricature of Dr. Gully by the famed English portrait artist and caricaturist Spy. (Wellcome Collection.)

In Darwin’s defense, this was a time when medical science was so rudimentary that it bled into the same metaphysical manipulation techniques that religious rhetoric used to keep belief systems and power structures in place. Such manipulation was only possible because the line between science and pseudoscience was blurred again and again as modern medicine was finding its footing. Because the body — especially woman’s body — was so poorly understood and the paradigm of clinical trials was generations away, most medical treatments in Darwin’s day were based on some combination of speculation, common lore, and anecdotal trial and error. This was an era when bloodletting was the primary treatment of a vast array of sickness and the majority of early childhood illnesses — from diarrhea and colic to fever and restlessness — were attributed to teething. The all-inclusive malady was the most commonly listed cause of infant death in local registers and was treated with a litany of allegedly curative barbarisms — blistering, bloodletting, and massive doses of dubious medication. Parents would lance the inflamed gums of their infants using unsterilized kitchen utensils, which often inflicted infections that ended up as the true cause of fatality. One of the most common medications was a solution of calomel powder — mercury — given to the child until he or she began to salivate, now a recognized symptom of acute mercury poisoning. With their tongues swollen to manyfold the usual size, children often died of dehydration following calomel treatment, but neither parents nor physicians implicated the drug in causality for half a century. It took many more decades to uncover the permanent neurological damage — from seizures to tremors to chronic fatigue — on those who survived the treatment, with mercury lodged in their bodies for life.

Because it bears repeating again and again that even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, Darwin was trapped between the medical lore of his day and the ineradicable human hope for miracles. Although Dr. Gully’s belief in clairvoyance and general susceptibility to unscientific thought sat uncomfortably with Darwin, he came to like the hydropath a great deal and readily submitted to his methods — which included “cold feet baths and compress on the stomach,” as well as a proprietary “sweating process.”

The Darwins left Malvern after three months. In a letter to John Herschel penned in June 1849, Charles set aside his discontentment over the editorial tensions with the manual and instead enthused about the treatment’s “astonishingly renovating action” on his health:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngBefore coming here I was almost quite broken down, head swimming, hands tremulous & never a week without violent vomiting, all this is gone, & I can now walk between two & three miles. Physiologically it is most curious how the violent excitement of the skin, produced by simple water, has acted on all my internal organs.

I mention all this out of gratitude to a process which I thought quackery a year since, but which now I most deeply lament I had not heard of some few years ago.

watercure_malvern2.jpg?resize=680%2C835

1855 caricature of one of Dr. Gully’s water cures.

Despite Darwin’s elation over the effect of the “cold water treatment” on his own health, when Annie fell gravely ill, he couldn’t set aside his scientific doubts about Dr. Gully’s dubious beliefs in clairvoyance, homeopathy, and other pseudoscience. He scoffed in a letter:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png[Homœopathy] is a subject which makes me more wroth, even than does Clairvoyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy common sense & common observation come into play, & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever… No one knows in disease what is the simple result of nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare Homœopathy & all other such things.

Such things were out of the question when it came to Darwin’s most beloved child — he entrusted her health to traditional medicine. In November 1850, the Darwins took their daughter to London to be seen by the prominent physician who had supervised her birth. After a second futile visit the following month — Annie had added a barking cough to her swelling chest of symptoms — Darwin was once again desperate, betrayed by medical science. He finally gave in and wrote to Dr. Gully for advice, then commenced a water treatment at home under the doctor’s instruction, planning to take Annie back to Malvern in the spring for a proper “water cure.” But even this home remedy Darwin approached with scientific rigor. In a medical diary of sorts, he meticulously recorded Annie’s changing condition as he applied the six-part method, which included Dr. Gully’s proprietary “spinal wash” (a towel repeatedly drenched in icy water is swept up and down the patient’s spine) and “sweating by the lamp” (the patient is draped with a tent of sheets, under which a lamp containing alcohol is lit, producing nearly unbearable heat).malvern_treatments.jpg?resize=680%2C1103

Some of the water treatments offered at Malvern.

Although Annie would show intermittent signs of improvement — enough to give the anxious parents hope that what they were doing was effective — her health declined over the longer span of weeks. In the first days of spring, Darwin gave up on his home treatment, ended the medical diary, and braved the two-day passage to Malvern with Annie and two of her siblings, leaving Emma at home, seven months pregnant with the ninth of their ten children.

As Annie was lying mortally ill, Charles Dickens and his wife were also at Malvern, where Catherine Dickens was undergoing hydropathy to improve her shaky health. Dickens, who had just lost his father, left Kate at Malvern just after Darwin arrived with Annie and returned home, where he was given harrowing news: His youngest daughter, Dora — named after David Copperfield’s child bride — had died, not yet one, after a sudden and inexplicable series of seizures. A decade later, in a letter of consolation to his sister upon the loss of her husband, Dickens would write that while grief never fully leaves, “a real earnest strenuous endeavour to recover the lost tone of spirit” is necessary if one is to go on with life — observing that 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.” The strategy seems almost banal. But anyone who has lived through loss will recognize in it the essential banality of survival — we come unmoored, then buoy ourselves up with the flimsiest of lifeboats, cobbled together out of any plank and rope we can grasp.AnnieDarwin.jpg?resize=680%2C850

Annie Darwin (Cambridge University Libraries)

On April 23, 1851, Annie Darwin dies in her father’s arms. Eight years later, On the Origin of Species would subvert the elemental human instinct with its argument for natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Death, Darwin would imply, is not unjust but inherently natural — part of the impartial laws holding the universe together, mortality unshackled from morality and metaphysics, leaving no room for charges of blame and pleas for mercy. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin would write, speaking perhaps to himself. Across the Atlantic, Emily Dickinson would ponder this cycle — “circuit,” she called it — of life and death:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngSeed, summer, tomb.
Who’s doom —
To whom?

With Annie’s body still warm beside him, Darwin drags the pen across the letter paper, across the British archipelago, across his lacerated consciousness, to deliver to Emma the most undeliverable news in the universe.

“I am so thankful for the daguerreotype,” he writes.

For other excerpts from Figuring, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert; the striking story of how Kepler invented science fiction and revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial; wisdom on middle age and the art of self-renewal from the remarkable forgotten pioneer who in her ninety years translated the first American edition of Buddhist teachings, founded the first English-language kindergarten in the United States, and coined the word “Transcendentalism”; the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his greatest heartbreak into one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time; a lesson in tenacity and perseverance from the polymathic woman for whom the word “scientist” was coined; and the lost story of the nineteenth-century sculptor who blazed the path for women of color in art.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/

Frida Kahlo’s Passionate Love Letter to Photographer Nickolas Muray, Who Took Her Most Famous Portrait

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In the hottest month of 1913, the Stockinger Printing Company in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hired as a colorist and engraver a twenty-one-year-old Hungarian artist who had just arrived in America as a refugee with $25 and an Esperanto dictionary in his pocket. Having grown up looking in on the fencing academy in his neighborhood that only the privileged could attend — a separation the boy saw as emblematic of the antisemitism that swarmed his childhood — he had escaped into beauty, into dreams of seeing “all the paintings in the world.” In pursuit of that dream, he studied color separation and photochemistry in Germany and wandered the hallways of the great European art museums, absorbing the classics in the marrow of his imagination and growing especially enchanted by the seventeenth-century Dutch painters’ mastery of color and light. Like other visionary artists of his ancestry and generation, he fled across the Atlantic when the situation of European Jews grew grim on the cusp of the world’s first global war.

Born Miklós Mandl, he became Nickolas Muray (February 15, 1892–November 2, 1965) upon landing at Ellis Island with an English vocabulary of four dozen words and the unassailable determination to become an artist. Within a decade, he became one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of all time, doing for color photography what Julia Margaret Cameron had done a century earlier just after the invention of photography, turning a new technology regarded as a crude tool of chemistry into a medium of fine art and a portal to beauty. The soirees at his Greenwich Village studio drew such dignitaries of creative culture as Langston Hughes, Martha Graham, Eugene O’Neill, and Jean Cocteau. He would live into his seventies and die a triumphant artist and a fencing champion, having competed for the U.S. Olympic team twice and having photographed some of the most recognizable faces of the twentieth century.

But none of his work would be more significant, to Muray or to the world, than his portrait of one of the most original and influential artists our civilization has produced — the great unexpected love of Muray’s life.FridaKahlo_NicholasMurray_BrooklynMuseum.jpg?resize=600%2C884

Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray (Brooklyn Museum)

Nickolas Muray met Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) in 1931, while visiting the prominent painter, caricaturist, and art historian Miguel Covarrubias in Mexico. Muray had befriended him fifteen years earlier when the nineteen-year-old former student of Diego Rivera’s arrived in New York on a six-month stipend from the Mexican government and instantly captivated the art world with his singular caricatures; Covarrubias had used the platform of his own visibility to lift his friend up, becoming instrumental in Muray’s ascent to recognition.

Shortly after Covarrubias married another Mexican friend of Muray’s, the photographer traveled to visit the enamored couple, partly to restore his own faith in love after his bitter divorce from an advertising executive he had married a year earlier. That year, shortly after their own wedding, Frida and Diego had moved to San Francisco, attracting the attention of the city’s vibrant creative community as much with their art as with their vivacious and devoted open marriage. It as there that Kahlo and Muray first crossed orbits, but it was only when she returned to Mexico alone and ahead of Diego that they connected and commenced the decade-long romantic relationship that would eventually become a lifelong friendship.Muray_Covarrubias.jpg?resize=550%2C768

Nickolas Muray by Miguel Covarrubias

Whatever transpired between Frida and Nick that spring in 1931, unwitnessed and unrecorded like all the great atomic passions, it imprinted them both deeply. What does survive from their first encounter are two parting gifts she gave him — items as curious for their intimacy as they are for their orthogonal messages. The first was a paper dolly, the kind used for serving sweets, inscribed with a dictionary-assisted attempt at Hungarian, broken and touching:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngNick,

I love you like I would love an angel
You are a Lillie of the valley my love.
I will never forget you, never, never.
You are my whole life
I hope you will never forget this.

Beneath the date — the last day of May, 1931 — she added in English a passionate insistence that he return to Mexico that summer as he had promised he would, then sealed the note with the lipstick print of a kiss, beneath which she wrote:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThis is specifically for the back of your neck.

The second parting gift was a small self-portrait, almost a line drawing, in which Frida depicted herself holding Diego’s hand, with the faint outline of a fetus drawn over her dress. It foreshadowed the great heartbreak of Nick’s life — the abyssal mismatch between his longing to be her husband and her wish that he be only her lover. But at the elated outset of infatuation, we see only what we wish to see, turning a willfully blind eye to the very signs that would eventually spell the end of love. Nick could not have known it then, nor would he have wished to believe it, but Frida’s otherworldly bond to Diego — to whom she wrote her most soulful and passionate love letters — would survive their multiple sidewise passions and even their divorce, eclipsing their multiple respective affairs with its unparalleled totality of devotion. Nick knew none of this at the dawn of their love, and perhaps nor did Frida. We hardly know where our hearts will go in the future, or where they will return. He would come to terms with this sadness only a decade into the relationship and only in facing the stark fact of Frida’s remarriage to Diego after their divorce. They would remain close friends for the remainder of Frida’s life. He would take more portraits of her than of any other person beyond his children. She would give him, straight from the easel, one of her most arresting and disquieting self-portraits, which would hang in his family living room for the remainder of his life.frida_self-portrait_thornnecklace.jpg?resize=680%2C870

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940. (Harry Ransom Center)

Nearly a decade into the relationship, Frida’s love for Nick was as aglow with tenderness and passion as it had been that ecstatic first May. In February 1939, just after the centennial of the science-driven invention of the artistic medium that brought Nick into Frida’s life, she sent him a long and beautiful outpouring of heart, found in Salomón Grimberg’s altogether wonderful I Will Never Forget You: Frida Kahlo and Nickolas Muray (public library).

Affectionately calling Nick her “child” despite his being fifteen years her senior, she writes to him in New York from Mexico:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMy beloved Nick,

This morning I received your letter after so many days of waiting. I felt such happiness that I started crying even before I read it. My child, I really should not complain about anything that happens to me in life, so long as you love me and I love you. [This love] is so real and beautiful that it makes me forget all my pain and problems; it makes me forget even distance. Through your words I feel so close to you that I can feel your laughter, so clean and honest, that only you have. I’m counting the days until my return. One more month! Then we’ll be together again.

In a passage bespeaking the boundless sweetness between them, she adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDarling, I must tell you that you’ve misbehaved. Why did you send that check for 400 dollars? Your friend “Smith” is imaginary. It was a very nice gesture, but tell him that I will keep his check untouched until I come back to New York; we’ll discuss this matter then. My nick, you’re the sweetest person I’ve ever met. But listen, my love, I really don’t need the money now. I still have a little bit from Mexico; plus I’m a very rich bitch, did you know that? I have enough to stay one more month. I already have my return ticket. Everything is under control; it’s true, my love, it’s not fair that you spend extra money… I any event, you don’t know how thankful I am for your willingness to help me. I don’t have the words to describe how happy I am, knowing that you tried to make me happy and that you are so good and adorable… My lover, my heaven, my Nick, my life, my child, I adore you.

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Nick and Frida. (Catalina Island Museum)

With a playful petulance, she proceeds to give him a winking list of instructions on his conduct until her return to New York, invoking objects in his home she had given him over the years as tokens of her love:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngListen, my child, do you touch every day that thing for fires that hangs on the stair landing? Don’t forget to do it every day. Also, don’t forget to sleep on your little cushion, because I really like it. Don’t kiss anyone while you read the signs and names on the street. Don’t take anyone else to our Central Park. It belongs to Nick and Xóchitl [Frida’s nickname for herself, Aztec for flower] exclusively… Don’t kiss anyone on the couch in your office. Blanche Heys is the only one who may massage your neck. You can only kiss Mam as much as you want. Don’t make love to anyone, if you can help it. Do it only in case you find a real F.W. [fucking wonder], but don’t fall in love. Play with the electric train every once in a while if you aren’t too tired after work.

In an expression of tenderly touching selflessness, in light of her own lifelong bodily devastation after the accident on an actual electric tram that had nearly killed her as a teenager and sent her into a series of brutalizing spinal surgeries, she adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDarling, don’t work so hard if you can help it, since it makes your neck and back tired. Tell Mam to take care of you and make you rest when you’re tired. Tell her that I’m much more in love with you, that you are my darling and lover, and that when I’m not around she has to love you more than ever to make you happy.

Is your neck bothering you a lot? I am sending you millions of kisses for your beautiful neck, so it will feel better, and all my tenderness and all my caresses for your body, from head to toe. I kiss each inch from far away.

In consonance with her contemporary and admirer Susan Sontag’s insistence that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Frida ends the letter with one final instruction:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngPlay the Maxine Sullivan record on the gramophone very often. I’ll be there with you listening to her voice. I can imagine you lying on the blue couch with your white cape on… and I hear your laughter — a child’s laughter… Oh, my dear Nick, I adore you so much. I need you so much that my heart hurts.

Complement with Kahlo on the meaning of the colors and her searing protest letter to the President of Mexico about art and the freedom of expression, then revisit other masterpieces from the canon of great love letters by luminaries of creative culture: Emily Dickinson to Susan GilbertVladimir Nabokov to Véra NabokovaTove Jansson to Tuulikki PietiläIris Murdoch to Brigit BrophyHannah Arendt to Martin HeideggerJohn Cage to Merce CunninghamKahlil Gibran to Mary HaskellRobert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Oscar Wilde to Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

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