Kafka’s Remarkable Letter to His Abusive and Narcissistic Father. Franz Kafka was one of history’s most prolific and expressive practitioners of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art.”
Among the hundreds of epistles he penned during his short life were his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters and his magnificent missive to a childhood friend about what books do for the human soul. Although he imbued most with an extraordinary depth of introspective insight and self-revelation, none surpass the 47-page letter he wrote to his father, Hermann, in November of 1919 — the closest thing to an autobiography Kafka ever produced. A translation by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins was posthumously published as Letter to His Father (public library) in 1966. Kafka writes: Dearest Father, You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. Kafka paints the backdrop of his father’s emotional tyranny and lays out what he hopes the letter would accomplish for both of them: But this is where the similarity ends.
He later adds: Turning Trauma into Power: Marina Abramovic on How Her Harrowing Childhood Became the Raw Material for Her Art. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Although creative history is littered with tortured geniuses who survived terrible childhoods full of abuse and violence — take Franz Kafka’s abusive father or Maya Angelou’s rape or Eve Ensler’s trauma — and although my own early years contain elements of these experiences (sans the subsequent genius), I am not one who romanticizes pain, upheaval, and adversity as prerequisites for success.
Abramović was born in Belgrade in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Her formative years, while heartbreaking, are not entirely unusual for those of us raised in Eastern Europe — while Abramović’s experience is undoubtedly a function of her parents’ particular personalities, it also reflects more general cultural pathologies related to discipline and the chronic denial of emotional reality. She recounts: My parents were both partisans and national heroes. It never even crossed my mind to leave. At first, I had trouble adjusting to my newfound freedom. Joan Didion Answers the Proust Questionnaire. By Maria Popova In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions.
Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Rilke on How Great Sadnesses Bring Us Closer to Ourselves. By Maria Popova Rainer Maria Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet (public library) is among those very few texts — alongside Thoreau’s journal, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — that I read like one does scripture.
In the century since its publication, Rilke’s reflections have proven timeless and timely, over and over, in countless human lives — enduring ideas on how to live the questions and what it really means to love. Perhaps his most piercing insight and sagest advice — not only for the recipient, the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, but for every human being with a beating heart and a restless mind — comes from a letter penned on August 12, 1904.
Long before modern psychologists extolled the creative benefits of melancholy, Rilke explores the value of sadness as a clarifying force for our own interior lives. How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently. By Maria Popova “In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent.
So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.
Dostoyevsky on Why There Are No Bad People. Legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) is best known as one of literary history’s titans, but he was also a brilliant entrepreneur and pioneer of self-publishing.
Under the auspices of his enterprising wife Anna, Dostoyevsky overcame his ruinous gambling addiction to become Russia’s first self-published author. But it was the release of A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same collection of his nonfiction and fiction writings that gave us Dostoyevsky’s memorable recollection of how he discovered the meaning of life in a dream — that turned him into a national brand. In February of 1876, reflecting on the unanimous acclaim with which the first volume of the journal had been received, 55-year-old Dostoyevsky contemplates the paradox of people-pleasing and writes in the very diary whose success he is pondering: I am interested only in the question: is it, or is it not, good that I have pleased everybody?
The Science of Stress and How Our Emotions Affect Our Susceptibility to Burnout and Disease. I had lived thirty good years before enduring my first food poisoning — odds quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but miserably unfortunate in the immediate experience of it. I found myself completely incapacitated to erect the pillars of my daily life — too cognitively foggy to read and write, too physically weak to work out or even meditate.
The temporary disability soon elevated the assault on my mind and body to a new height of anguish: an intense experience of stress. Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means. By Maria Popova Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) is one of humanity’s most grounding yet elevating thinkers, his writing at once lucid and luminous.
There is something almost prophetic in the way he bridges timelessness and timeliness in contemplating ideas urgently relevant to modern life a century earlier — from how boredom makes happiness possible to why science is the key to democracy. But nowhere does his genius shine more brilliantly than in What I Believe (public library). Published in 1925, the book is a kind of catalog of hopes — a counterpoint to Russell’s Icarus, a catalog of fears released the previous year — exploring our place in the universe and our “possibilities in the way of achieving the good life.” Russell writes in the preface: Bertrand Russell on Immortality, Why Religion Exists, and What “The Good Life” Really Means.
Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism. “We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come,” Alan Watts observed in 1970, aptly declaring us “a civilization which suffers from chronic disappointment.”
Two millennia earlier, Aristotle asserted: “This is the main question, with what activity one’s leisure is filled.” Today, in our culture of productivity-fetishism, we have succumbed to the tyrannical notion of “work/life balance” and have come to see the very notion of “leisure” not as essential to the human spirit but as self-indulgent luxury reserved for the privileged or deplorable idleness reserved for the lazy.
So how did we end up so conflicted about cultivating a culture of leisure? Pieper traces the origin of the paradigm of the “worker” to the Greek Cynic philosopher Antisthenes, a friend of Plato’s and a disciple of Socrates. What is normal is work, and the normal day is the working day. An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless reflection on presence over productivity — a timely antidote to the central anxiety of our productivity-obsessed age.
Indeed, my own New Year’s resolution has been to stop measuring my days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence. But what, exactly, makes that possible? This concept of presence is rooted in Eastern notions of mindfulness — the ability to go through life with crystalline awareness and fully inhabit our experience — largely popularized in the West by British philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who also gave us this fantastic meditation on the life of purpose.
If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” David Foster Wallace on Why You Should Use a Dictionary, How to Write a Great Opener, and the Measure of Good Writing. By Maria Popova “Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand,” Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker asserted in his indispensable guide to the art-science of beautiful writing, adding that writers who are “too lazy to crack open a dictionary” are “incurious about the logic and history of the English language” and doom themselves to having “a tin ear for its nuances of meaning and emphasis.” But the most ardent case for using a dictionary came more than a decade earlier from none other than David Foster Wallace.
In late 1999, Wallace wrote a lengthy and laudatory profile of writer and dictionary-maker Bryan A. Garner. The 12th-Century Jewish Philosopher Moses Maimonides on Truth, Doubt, and the... “Our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it,” the great French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the rarest and purest form of human thought.
A generation later, Hannah Arendt cautioned that “the basic fallacy … is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.” How to bridge the gap between meaning, which is the human interpretation of truth, and that naked truth itself is perhaps the most abiding challenge in reconciling the human intellect with the human spirit. That’s what the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher and astronomer Moses Maimonides examined centuries before Weil and Arendt in The Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — a masterwork of philosophy and rhetoric, dedicated to those “lost in perplexity and anxiety,” so enduring and influential that it has inspired works as diverse as E.F. Pathways to Bliss: Joseph Campbell on Why Perfectionism Kills Love and How to... “Where the myth fails, human love begins,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941.
“Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love. “Find something more important than you are,” philosopher Dan Dennett once said in discussing the secret of happiness, “and dedicate your life to it.” But how, exactly, do we find that?
Surely, it isn’t by luck. I myself am a firm believer in the power of curiosity and choice as the engine of fulfillment, but precisely how you arrive at your true calling is an intricate and highly individual dance of discovery. Still, there are certain factors — certain choices — that make it easier. Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Friendship with the Poet Thom Gunn Taught Him About Creativity and Originality. By Maria Popova.