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Hello, Terry Travers! If you missed last week's edition – insights on what makes a good life from Harvard's groundbreaking 75-year-study of human happiness, Ursula K. Le Guin on power and storytelling, and more. – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
"I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities," Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary as he turned forty and found himself contemplating the most succulent fruits of existence. But where exactly does the sweetness of friendship reside? How is it synthesized on the tongue of being?
In my recent effort to counter the commodification of the word "friend" and reclaim the meaning of friendship through a taxonomy of platonic relationships, I was led to something rather beautiful and rather forgotten that Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote on the subject in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — a 1991 treasure trove of literature's greatest letters, poems, stories, essays, and other wisdom on friendship, which Welty edited together with her dear friend Ronald A. Sharp.
In her introduction to the anthology, Welty considers one of the central perplexities of friendship — the way in which it weaves itself in and out of what we call love, a word with very particular cultural baggage, and the way in which we, in our effort to disentangle this entwinement into neater and more comprehensible categories, draw a somewhat arbitrary line between the two. She writes:
Friendship and love … know each other and avail themselves of each other. The solidest friendship is that of friends who love one another.
To this I would add that in the fullest and most rewarding of friendships, the two friends are always a little bit in love with one another. We need not classify the type of love as erotic, romantic, creative, intellectual, spiritual, or some other kind, only to know that a great friendship cycles, at one point or another, through each type.
Welty examines the singular magnetism of friendship in our lives and in our art:
"Friendship" is inherently a magnet. As with its own drawing power, it locates and draws to the surface, spreads before our eyes poems, stories, essays, letters, in the widest variety.
Certainly friendship has proved a magnet to literature, an everlasting magnet. History, poetry, drama, letters have been drawn to the subject of friendship, not simply to celebrate it but to discover, perceive, learn from it the nature of ourselves, of humankind, the relationships we share in our world.
Friendship has inherited its literary treasury; it lies in the language… And in that treasury's further stories of pure gold are the works of the imagination, some old as time, some coined only yesterday.
Welty's most salient point has to do with precisely this linguistic dimension of friendship — it might be the basic necessities of friendship, she suggests, that sparked in us the evolutionary need for language. It's a notion both wonderfully poetic and rather plausible — we know that music and language helped us evolve, and what is friendship if not learning the song of another's heart and singing it back to them?
Did friendship between human beings come about in the first place along with — or through — the inspiration of language? It can be safe to say that when we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth processing, for the rest of time. Might it possibly have been the other way round — that the promptings of friendship guided us into learning to express ourselves, teaching ourselves, between us, a language to keep it by? Friendship might have been the first, as well as the best, teacher of communication. Which came first, friendship or the spoken word? They could rise from the same prompting: to draw together, not to pull away, not to threaten any longer.
Friendship lives, as do we ourselves, in an ephemeral world. How much its life depends on the written word. The English language itself is friendship's greatest treasure…. Do we not owe friendship, as we owe Shakespeare, to language?
In 1865, a Victorian mathematician wrote a fairy tale that would go on to live parallel lives as one of the world's most beloved children's books and a modernist masterwork of philosophy that mushrooms its yield of wisdom with each reading — one of humanity's very few works, alongside perhaps Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, which subtly and seamlessly fuse art, science, and philosophy.
Nearly a century later, in a 1961 lecture titled "Where Do We Go from Here," Marcel Duchamp prophecized that tomorrow's emerging artists "like Alice in Wonderland … will be led to pass through the looking-glass of the retina, to reach a more profound expression." He was the first to intuit the conceptual common ground between the story that the mathematician Charles Dodgson had dreamt up on an afternoon boat ride a century earlier, before he became Lewis Carroll, and the budding surrealist art movement, which was just beginning to find its sea legs. Duchamp's insight materialized into concrete form eight years later, when a visionary editor at Random House commissioned surrealist kingpin Salvador Dalí (May 11, 1904–January 23, 1989) to illustrate the Carroll classic for a small, exclusive edition of their book-of-the-month series. Dalí created twelve heliogravures — a frontispiece, which he signed in every copy from the edition, and one illustration for each chapter of the book.
In the introduction, Burstein considers the natural creative confluence between Carroll and the surrealists:
For both Carroll and the surrealists, what some call madness could be perceived by others as wisdom. Even the creative processes of Carroll and the surrealists were similar. The surrealists practiced automatism in their writing and drawing; Carroll called the initial telling of the tale … "effortless," saying that "every such idea and nearly every word of the dialogue, came of itself… when fancies unsought came crowding thick upon [me], or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action more because she had to say something than that she had something to say."
In addition, collages were a serious apparatus in the surrealists' arsenal; Carroll invented the term portmanteau — combining words — and produced "Jabberwocky," the most famous example of pure neologistic nonsense in the English language (or close to it, anyway). His bestiary of mome raths, toves, and Bread-and-butter-flies, also from Through the Looking-Glass, could easily have been products of the surrealists' game of Exquisite Corpse.
Dalí himself applied a number of surrealist techniques to his interpretation of the story. To represent Alice — the sole character who appears in every chapter — he reused an image of a girl skipping rope that he had first painted more than thirty years earlier. He placed this strange, static, mid-motion figure, almost an icon, in each of the twelve illustration — a choice that was part automatism, part cut-up technique, as if echoing Carroll's incantation from the first page: "The rest next time — " "It is next time!"
Salvador Dalí, Landscape with Girl Skipping Rope, 1936
"To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago," Montaigne observed in his sixteenth-century meditation on death and the art of living. "The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it," the late surgeon and bioethicist Sherwin Nuland wrote half a millennium later in his foundational treatise on mortality.
I am yet to encounter a human being who embodied and enacted these difficult truths more wholeheartedly than Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).
He confronted death directly, with courageous curiosity and radiant lucidity, in one of his New York Times essays posthumously collected in the small, enormously life-affirming book Gratitude (public library) — that great parting gift which gave us Dr. Sacks's warm wisdom on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, edited by his partner, the writer and photographer Bill Hayes, and his friend and assistant of thirty years, Kate Edgar.
After learning of his terminal diagnosis, the irreplaceable Dr. Sacks peers into the depths of existence from the bittersweet platform of a long and, suddenly, immediately finite life:
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
"Only an artist can tell … what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it," James Baldwin wrote in contemplating the artist's struggle for integrity. "Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio," Teresita Fernández argued half a century later in her spectacular commencement address on what it means to be an artist. "The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote … will also become the raw material for the art you make."
Few artists have embodied this integration more fully, nor more beautifully, than Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954).
The concise yet lyrical story follows Frida from her polio-scarred childhood in Mexico, to the nearly fatal accident that inflicted on her a lifetime of physical pain but also sparked her foray into painting, to her intense and complicated romance with Diego Rivera, to her spirited politics, to her creative and critical success as one of the most original and influential artists of the twentieth century. The call-and-response of pain and beauty emerges as the constant chorus of her life while she transforms, again and again, trauma into transcendent art.
At six, Frida fell ill with polio. She was confined to her room for nine months and her right leg withered. To help her gain strength, her father encouraged her to take up sports that were usually reserved for boys.
A pivotal moment in Kahlo's life, both physically and psychologically, takes place on September 17, 1925, when 18-year-old Frida is nearly killed in a bus accident that drives a handrail diagonally into her torso, from her left ribs to her uterus. Even the gore of this tragedy has an almost mythic quality to it.
It is during the anguishing and seemingly endless recovery — to be sure, being bedridden for a month is indeed an eternity of torture for a teenager even without the excruciating physical pain — that Frida picks up painting, initially simply to distract herself. With the help of a mirror affixed to the canopy of her bed, she paints her first self-portrait — a gift for Alejandro, her first big love.
It takes Frida almost two years to walk again, and by that point she is already making a living as an artist. Her longing for mentorship and professional guidance leads her to her fateful encounter with Diego Rivera, who would become the great and greatly troubled love of her life, and the recipient of her passionate love letters.
Frida married Diego on August 21, 1929. She was twenty-two, he was forty-two. She looked like a bright, beautiful bird next to the rotund, unattractive Diego. She nicknamed him "Frog-Toad."
Diego was obsessed with his craft and prized it above all else. He encouraged Frida to devote herself to painting and to explore her own artistic style. But the young bride threw herself into being a good wife. She cooked, cleaned, and entertained.
Every lunchtime, she prepared a basket of food blanketed with flowers and delivered it to the scaffold where Diego worked.
Even as the couple arrived in the United States in 1930, Frida continued to dress in vibrant traditional garb inspired by South Mexico's Tehuana matriarchs. Every single morning, she took painstaking care with her outfit in a testament to Virginia Woolf's case for clothing as a vehicle for our identity and values.
But her wardrobe was also dictated by the demands of her battered body and entailed an arsenal of corsets to support her fractured torso.
Frida's life continued to be marked by pain. Her longtime longing for a child was violently severed by two miscarriages, the second of which lasted thirteen days. While still recovering, she was beckoned back home to the dying bedside of her mother, taken by breast cancer. Once again, she turned her trauma into raw material for art — something Marina Abramović articulated beautifully a generation later — and her painting took on new dimensions of expressive depth.
Kahlo's tireless quest for glimmers of joy included a menagerie of exotic pets she loved dearly, perhaps because they spoke to her own sense of creaturely strangeness.
The story follows Frida's life through her increasingly troubled marriage with Diego, their divorce and remarriage, Diego's dalliances, and Frida's eventual affairs with both men (including Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky) and women (including jazz icon Josephine Baker). Kahlo was deeply dispirited by her difficult love life, but this tumult of the heart found symbolic expression in her paintings and continued to shape her art, always so intimately entwined with her vibrant interior life.
Frida's old spark surfaced again in spring 1953 when a one-woman exhibition was arranged in her honor. Unable to walk on the day it opened, Frida sent her four-poster bed ahead of her and arrived in grand style on a stretcher. Her fans adored her, and the internationally celebrated show did much to cement her legacy as an incomparable artist.
In a sense, the bed became the womb in which Kahlo's creative genius and legacy were gestated — she learned to paint in bed, met her greatest critical success in bed, and died in bed, in her sleep, the following summer.
Her death occasioned the kind of collective tragedy of which Borges so memorably wrote — masses of mourners grieved in public, and her final resting place at the Place of Fine Arts was entombed by a bed of red flowers.