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Willa Cather on happiness, a breathtaking anatomy of sadness illustrated by Quentin Blake, Borges on success, and more

Willa Cather on happiness, a breathtaking anatomy of sadness illustrated by Quentin Blake, Borges on success, and more.
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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – in praise of missing out, Louise Bourgeois on art and the key to creative confidence, Simone Weil on attention and grace, Amin Maalouf on belonging and how we build our identity, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.

Willa Cather on Happiness: A Soulful and Deeply Alive Account of True Bliss

The history of recorded thought it strewn with evidence that happiness lives in the most ordinary of moments. And yet no matter how universal a human aspiration it may be, articulating happiness in those rare moments when it is perfectly attained remains an elusive art. For Albert Camus, it was a moral obligation; for Mary Oliver, a kind of seizure; for Kurt Vonnegut, a sense of enoughness. But nowhere have I encountered an account of happiness more soulful and deeply alive than in a passage from Willa Cather’s first masterwork, the 1918 novel My Ántonia (public library) – the story of a spirited pioneer named Ántonia Shimerda, who settles as in Nebraska as a child and grows with the land, told through the loving and wakeful eyes of her childhood friend Jim Burden.

In this passage, Cather's narrator is lying in his grandmother’s garden, drowsy and drunk with life under the warm autumn sun:

The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

The truth and beauty of this vignette never left the soul from which it sprang. Cather requested that her grave site, which she shared with her partner, bear the inscription: "...that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

Complement with Cather's moving letter to her brother about keeping one's decency through difficult times and her only surviving letter to her partner, Edith Lewis, then revisit Gaston Bachelard on reverie and happiness.



Borges on Public Opinion, Literature vs. the Other Arts, and the True Measure of Success

Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14 1986) is among humanity's most beloved and influential writers. His work has inspired mathematical revelations, philosophical children's books, and a universe of literature. After his death, Susan Sontag commemorated him in the most beautiful homage in the history of letters.

In 1972, in his seventies and already completely blind, Borges agreed to meet with a young Argentinian writer and passionate reader named Fernando Sorrentino for a series of conversations. On seven afternoons, the two men, separated by more than forty years and united by a profound love of literature, sat down in a secluded room at the National Library of Argentina and conversed candidly about literature and life. The record of these revelatory encounters, offering the most direct glimpse of the beloved author's mind, was published as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library) in 1974 – the same magnificent volume that gave us Borges's enduring wisdom on writing.

In one of the most timeless yet intensely timely portions of the conversation, Borges examines the question of success and its true measures through the lens of his extraordinary artistic integrity and cultural insight. When asked whether he cares about the opinions of readers and spectators, he considers the difference between literature and other arts:

It’s possible that a book won’t attract any attention when it’s published; it may be discovered afterward. On the other hand, in the case of a film (and this makes everything more dramatic; the same thing happens, let’s say, with the dancer’s or performer’s art), the failure or success has to be immediate... I think the circumstance of a hall filled with people in itself creates a special atmosphere.

Literature and fine art seem to share this time-scale of success, quite different from that of the popular and performance arts. One wonders whether Borges thought of his younger sister, Norah, in contemplating this question of latent recognition – while she was an enormously prolific graphic artist during her life, it was only after her death that she came to be celebrated as a pioneer of modern art.

Art by Norah Borges. Click here for more.

With an eye to the psychology of crowds, he adds:

When people join in a group they react in a more exaggerated way; this is something you must have noticed very often. For instance, if someone tells a joke in a small group, people laugh, but they don’t laugh in the same way that five hundred or a thousand people laugh when they hear a joke in a play or a movie. That is, there’s a tendency to greater exaggeration, a tendency for everything to happen in a more emphatic manner. And it’s strange, the fact that people let themselves go more when they’re in a group. On the other hand, a solitary reader, a solitary spectator, seems to have less of a reaction or to react more modestly than when with other people.


The solitary reading of a work is best for its true evaluation. But at any rate, it’s a different kind of evaluation.

Art by Norah Borges. Click here for more.

Returning to the travesty of evaluation by popular opinion – something Kierkegaard lamented and Georgia O'Keeffe admonished against – Borges observes:

When you come right down to it, opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.

In a sentiment triply poignant today, nearly half a century of commercialism later, Borges considers how the commodification of literature has warped its metrics of success:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

Art by Norah Borges. Click here for more.

This resonates with Borges's earlier remark about the different time-scales of appreciation for literature versus more commercial arts like film and popular music. The notion of the "bestseller" shares cultural genes with the "blockbuster" and the "hit" – notice how very violent our laudatory language tends to be – and yet the success of literature, Borges suggests and countless other writers have corroborated, is measured by an entirely different metric of inner light.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with more of the beloved writer's wisdom on writing and a marvelous children's book inspired by his ideas about memory, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success.


Simone Weil on the Paradox of Friendship and Separation

Friendship is one of life's greatest graces, and yet we hardly understand the gossamer threads of sympathy and love by which it binds us together. C.S. Lewis likened it to philosophy, art, and the universe itself in that "it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival." Aristotle saw it as a mirror we hold up to one another. For Emerson, it was the product of truth and tenderness. John O'Donohue found its essence in the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara. For David Whyte, it is "a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness."

One of the most profound meditations on friendship comes from French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a woman of immense insight on such complexities as how to make use of our suffering and what it takes to be a complete human being.

In the indispensable Gravity and Grace (public library) – which also gave us Weil on attention as a form of prayer – she writes:

It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.


To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace. It is one of those things which are added unto us. Every dream of friendship deserves to be shattered… Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).


Friendship cannot be separated from reality any more than the beautiful. It is a miracle, like the beautiful. And the miracle consists simply in the fact that it exists.

In keeping with this Zen-like notion, Weil argues that the sympathetic communion of friendship is a complement, not a counterpoint, to our essential capacity for solitude:

Keep your solitude… When you are given true affection there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse.

But Weil's most striking stance of friendship bridged the philosophical with the practical – the very survival of her ideas is the direct product of friendship.

In June of 1941, when the antisemitic laws of the Nazi administration barred her from teaching philosophy at the University, Weil decided to work on a farm in the country for the same reason she had labored incognito at a car factory some years earlier – to better understand the human experience and its most trying dimensions. A friend of Weil's introduced her to a farmer named Gustave Thibon, six years her senior, who she hoped would take her on as a worker. (“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are,” young Sylvia Plath wrote just a few years later.)

Gustave Thibon

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon – who eventually became a philosopher himself and lived to be ninety-seven, outliving Weil by nearly six decades – recounts his initial skepticism:

I am a little suspicious of graduates in philosophy, and so for intellectuals who want to return to the land, I am well enough acquainted with them to know that, with a few rare exceptions, they belong to that order of ranks whose undertakings generally come to a bad end. My first impulse was therefore to refuse.

Still, he relented and took a chance on this earnest young woman. The relationship, Thibon writes, was "friendly but uncomfortable" at first and the two "disagreed on practically everything." But he soon came to see that Weil was indeed one of those rare exceptions – her combination of sincerity, goodwill, and genius won him over and the two developed a deep friendship that outlasted Weil's weeks on the farm.

In 1942, as the Nazi occupation drove Weil out of her homeland and she reluctantly headed to New York, Thibon met her at the train station. She handed him a giant portfolio of her papers with the instruction of taking care of them during her exile. And so he did, binding them with the thread of friendship into a lasting volume of ideas that continue to ennoble and illuminate long after Weil's untimely death – Thibon curated her writings for posterity, in the truest sense of the word, which has its roots in the Latin cura, "to care for."

In a letter to Thibon, included in his book Simone Weil as We Knew Her, Weil writes from America:

The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation … we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be. Meeting and separation are two forms of friendship that contain the same good, in the one case through pleasure and in the other through sorrow… Soon there will be distance between us. Let us love this distance which is wholly woven of friendship, for those who do not love each other are not separated.

In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon shares another 1942 letter from Weil, which further speaks to her idealism about friendship:

Dear Friend,

It seems as though the time has now really come for us to say goodbye to each other... Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.


I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow ... and that if you should sometimes happen to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book one read in childhood. I do not want ever to occupy a different place from that in the hearts of those I love, because then I can be sure of never causing them any unhappiness.

A few months later, Weil left for England, where she died on August 24, 1943, at the age of only thirty-four. Her ideas, collected in Gravity and Grace, endure as the book one is always reading in childhood – that is, in the sincerest, truest, most ennobled part of the psyche.



Hegel on Knowledge, Impatience, the Peril of Fixed Opinions, and the True Task of the Human Mind

I frequently lament a particularly prevalent pathology of our time – our extreme impatience with the dynamic process of attaining knowledge and transmuting it into wisdom. We want to have the knowledge, as if it were a static object, but we don't want to do the work of claiming it – and so we reach for simulacra that compress complex ideas into listicles and two-minute animated explainers.

Two centuries before our era of informational impatience, the great German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (August 27, 1770–November 14, 1831), who influenced such fertile minds as Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvoir, addressed the elements of this pathology in a section of his masterwork The Phenomenology of Mind (public library).

Hegel writes:

The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary; and again we must halt at every stage, for each is itself a complete individual form, and is fully and finally considered only so far as its determinate character is taken and dealt with as a rounded and concrete whole, or only so far as the whole is looked at in the light of the special and peculiar character which this determination gives it. Because the substance of individual mind, nay, more, because the universal mind at work in the world (Weltgeist), has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time’s extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world’s history, where it bodied forth in each form the entire content of itself, as each is capable of presenting it; and because by nothing less could that all-pervading mind ever manage to become conscious of what itself is – for that reason, the individual mind ... cannot expect by less toil to grasp what its own substance contains.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves's little-known children's book

Our mistaken conception of knowledge as a static object is also the root of our perilous self-righteousness and the tyranny of opinions. ("When you come right down to it," Borges observed, "opinions are the most superficial things about anyone.") Knowledge, Hegel argues, isn't a matter of owning a truth by making it familiar and then asserting its ideal presentation, but quite the opposite – an eternal tango with the unfamiliar:

The form of an ideal presentation ... is something familiar to us, something "well-known,' something which the existent mind has finished and done with, and hence takes no more to do with and no further interest in. While [this] is itself merely the process of the particular mind, of mind which is not comprehending itself, on the other hand, knowledge is directed against this ideal presentation which has hereby arisen, against this "being familiar" and "well-known;" it is an action of universal mind, the concern of thought.

What is "familiarly known" is not properly known, just for the reason that it is "familiar." When engaged in the process of knowledge, it is the commonest form of self-deception, and a deception of other people as well, to assume something to be familiar, to give assent to it on that very account.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Errol Morris's magnificent New York Times essay series on the anosognostic's dilemma, Hegel adds:

Knowledge of that sort, with all its talk, never gets from the spot but has no idea that this is the case. Subject and object, and so on, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are uncritically presupposed as familiar and something valid, and become fixed points from which to start and to which to return. The process of knowing flits between these secure points, and in consequence goes merely along the surface. Apprehending and proving consist similarly in seeing whether everyone finds what is said corresponding to his idea too, whether it is familiar and seems to him so and so or not.

True understanding, Hegel argues, requires that we demolish the familiar, overcome what psychologists have since termed the "backfire effect," and cease clinging to the fixed points of our opinions:

The force of Understanding [is] the most astonishing and great of all powers, or rather the absolute power.


The life of the mind is not one that shuns death, and keeps clear of destruction; it endures death and in death maintains its being. It only wins to its truth when it finds itself utterly torn asunder.

The Phenomenology of Mind remains one of the most mind-stretching treatises ever written. Complement this particular passage with E.F. Schumacher on the art of adaequatio and how we now what we know and Hannah Arendt, who was heavily influenced by Hegel, on the life of the mind.



Michael Rosen's Sad Book: A Beautiful Anatomy of Loss, Illustrated by Quentin Blake

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote after losing the love of her life. “The people we most love do become a physical part of us," Meghan O'Rourke observed in her magnificent memoir of loss, "ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created." Those wildly unexpected dimensions of grief and the synaptic traces of love are what celebrated British children's book writer and poet Michael Rosen confronted when his eighteen-year-old son Eddie died suddenly of meningitis. Never-ending though the process of mourning may be, Rosen set out to exorcise its hardest edges and subtlest shapes five years later in Michael Rosen's Sad Book (public library) – an immensely moving addition to the finest children's books about loss, illustrated by none other than the great Quentin Blake.

With extraordinary emotional elegance, Rosen welcomes the layers of grief, each unmasking a different shade of sadness – sadness that sneaks up on you mid-stride in the street; sadness that lurks as a backdrop to the happiest of moments; sadness that wraps around you like a shawl you don't take off even in the shower.

What emerges is a breathtaking bow before the central paradox of the human experience – the awareness that the heart's enormous capacity for love is matched with an equal capacity for pain, and yet we love anyway and somehow find fragments of that love even amid the ruins of loss.

This is me being sad.

Maybe you think I'm happy in this picture.

Really I'm sad but pretending I'm happy.

I'm doing this because I think people won't like me if I look sad.

Sometimes sad is very big.

It's everywhere. All over me.

Then I look like this.

And there's nothing I can do about it.

What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. I loved him very, very much but he died anyway.

With exquisite nuance, Rosen captures the contradictory feelings undergirding mourning – affection and anger, self-conscious introspection and longing for communion – and the way loss lodges itself in the psyche so that the vestiges of a particular loss always awaken the sadness of the all loss, that perennial heartbreak of beholding the absurdity of our longing for permanence in a universe of constant change.

Sometimes this makes me really angry.

I say to myself, "How dare he go and die like that?

How dare he make me sad?"

Eddie doesn't say anything,

because he's not here anymore.

Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone.

Like my mum. But she's not here anymore, either. So I can't.

I find someone else. And I tell them all about it.

Sometimes I don't want to talk about it.

Not to anyone. No one at all.

I just want to think about it on my own.

Because it's mine. And no one else's.

But what makes the story most singular and rewarding is that it refuses to indulge the cultural cliché of cushioning tragedy with the promise of a silver lining. It is redemptive not in manufacturing redemption but in being true to the human experience – intensely, beautifully, tragically true.

Sometimes because I'm sad I do crazy things – like shouting in the shower...

Sometimes I'm sad and I don't know why.

It's just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.

It's not because Eddie's gone.

It's not because my mum's gone. It's just because.

Blake, who has previously illustrated Sylvia Plath's little-known children's book and many of Roald Dahl's stories, brings his unmistakably expressive sensibility to the book, here and there concretizing Rosen's abstract words into visual vignettes that make you wonder what losses of his own he is holding in the mind's eye as he draws.

Where is sad?

Sad is everywhere.

It comes along and finds you.

When is sad?

Sad is anytime.

It comes along and finds you.

Who is sad?

Sad is anyone.

It comes along and finds you.

Complement the absolutely breath-stopping Michael Rosen's Sad Book with Oliver Jeffers's The Heart and the Bottle and the Japanese masterpiece Little Tree, then revisit Joan Didion on grief.


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