|91-year-old Lebanese-American poet, philosopher, and painter Etel Adnan on memory, the universe, and the self, a gorgeous 19th-century guide to watching an eclipse with help from Emily Dickinson, Alice James on how to live fully while dying, and more.||NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program.|
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Hello, michal! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – Sam Shepard on love, a Japanese-inspired illustrated fable about finding your voice and coming home to yourself, Annie Dillard on the otherworldliness of a total solar eclipse – 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.
Oftentimes during meditation, I am visited by flash-memories dislodged from some dusty recess of my unconscious — vignettes and glimpses of people, places, and events from long ago and far away, belonging to what feels like another lifetime. They are entirely banal — the curb of a childhood sidewalk, mid-afternoon light falling on a familiar building in a familiar way, the smell of a leather armchair on a hot summer day — but in their banality they intimate the existence of the former self who inhabited those moments, a self that seems so foreign and so remote, yet one to which I am forever fettered by this half-conscious memory.
Memory, indeed, is the centerpiece of our selfhood and moors our bodies to our minds, as those flashes of the embodied mind unclenched by meditation reveal. Memory endows us with creativity and animates some of our most paradoxical impulses.
A century after Virginia Woolf painted memory as the capricious seamstress that stitches our lives together, Paris-based Lebanese-American poet, essayist, philosopher, and visual artist Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) picks up Woolf’s thread throughout Night (public library) — her slender, powerful collection of prose meditations and poems that, from the fortunate vantage point of Adnan’s ninety-first year on Earth, concretize in luminous language and incisive thought life’s most elusive perplexities: time, memory, love, selfhood, mortality.
Etel Adnan: “The Weight of the World” (Serpentine Galleries)
Adnan, whom the polymathic curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has celebrated as one of the most influential artists of the past century, was born in Beirut to a Greek mother and a Syrian father. She began writing poetry in French at twenty and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne a generation after Simone de Beauvoir, then crossed the Atlantic for graduate studies at Harvard and Berkeley. In the 1960s, Adnan took a teaching position at a small Catholic school in California, where she began painting and transcribing the work of Arab poets. She moved back to Beirut and in the midst of the Lebanese civil war composed politically wakeful poetry and prose that arrested the popular imagination with an uncommon precision of insight. Adnan now lives in Paris with her partner, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal, where she continues to paint and write.
Drawing on the rich span of her life across time and space, Adnan reflects on the role of memory in the continuity of our personal identity:
Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it seems, but is that true? Time seems also buried deep in us, but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit, abandon the head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a sanctuary of infinite patience.
Is memory produced by us, or is it us? Our identity is very likely whatever our memory decides to retain. But let’s not presume that memory is a storage room. It’s not a tool for being able to think, it’s thinking, before thinking. It also makes an (apparently) simple thing like crossing the room, possible. It’s impossible to separate it from what it remembers.
Etel Adnan (Photograph by Simone Fattal)
In stretching between the poles of existence and nonexistence, memory, Adnan suggests, might be the native consciousness of the universe:
We can admit that memory resurrects the dead, but these remain within their world, not ours. The universe covers the whole, a warm blanket.
But this memory is the glue that keeps the universe as one: although immaterial, it makes being possible, it is being. If an idea didn’t remember to think, it wouldn’t be. If a chair wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. If I didn’t remember that I am, I won’t be. We can also say that the universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.
Art by Etel Adnan (Sfeir-Semler Gallery)
In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s unforgettable assertion that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Adnan considers how memory binds us to each other and to our own former selves:
Memory is intelligent. It’s a knowledge seated neither in the senses, nor in the spirit, but in collective memory. It is communal, though deeply personal. Involved with the self, though autonomous. At war with death.
It helps us rampage through the old self, hang on the certitude that it has to be.
Reason and memory move together.
And night and memory mediate each other. We move in them disoriented, for they often reuse to secure our vision. Avaricious, whimsical, they release things bit by bit.
Building upon Woolf’s metaphor, Adnan adds:
Memory sews together events that hadn’t previously met. It reshuffles the past and makes us aware that it is doing so.
Memory is within us and reaches out, sometimes missing the connection with reality, its neighbor, its substance.
Complement this particular fragment of Adnan’s wholly enchanting Night with Sally Mann on the treacheries of memory and Cecilia Ruiz’s poetic illustrated meditation on memory’s imperfections inspired by Borges, then revisit Kahlil Gibran, another Lebanese-American poet and philosopher of uncommon insight, on why artists make art.
“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know,” Annie Dillard wrote in her classic essay on the otherworldliness of totality. Nearly a century earlier, and a quarter century after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s poetic and rhetorically brilliant report on the Great Eclipse of the nineteenth century, an improbable author wrote the world’s first popular book on the science and splendor of eclipses, containing one of the first uses of the word “astro-physicist” and detailing in poetic prose what phenomena to look for during the dramatic sweep of totality.
Best known as Emily Dickinson’s first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd (November 10, 1856–October 14, 1932) — the longtime lover of the poet’s brother — ended up in charge of Dickinson’s surviving papers through a strange swirl of family loyalties and disloyalties. She edited the first volumes of Dickinson’s posthumously published poems and letters, thus becoming the influential — and controversial — primary sculptor of the poet’s public image. But Todd was also highly knowledgeable about astronomy. Married to the prominent astronomer and observatory director David Peck Todd, Mabel, like other scientists’ wives in the epochs before the scientific pantheon opened its doors to women, had become a de facto assistant in many of her husband’s observations, edited his scientific papers, and traveled with him on numerous research trips around the world, including several major eclipse expeditions.
Mabel Loomis Todd and David Peck Todd, 1878
In 1894, the year she released the first volume of Dickinson’s letters, 38-year-old Todd wrote Total Eclipses of the Sun (public library | public domain) — an unprecedented guide to the history, science, and spellbinding surreality of eclipses, in which Todd reasons like a scientist and rhapsodizes like a poet, embodying the “enchanter” level that crowns the hierarchy of great science writing.
Embossed on the cover of the small red fabric-bound book are lines from great poems, which Todd must have chosen as emblematic of the emotional reality of experiencing a total solar eclipse — “Meek, yielding to the occasion’s call / And all things suffering from all / Thy function apostolical / In peace fulfilling” (from Wordsworth’s poem “To the Daisy”), “The constellated flower that never sets” (from Shelley’s “The Question”), “The daisie, or els the eye of the day” (from Milton’s “Sonnet to the Nightingale”).
Todd opens the final chapter of the book with a verse from Emily Dickinson — “Eclipses are predicted, / And science bows them in” — then adds:
Poets usually care little for the modus operandi of scientific phenomena; the lines above embrace the fact, the result, the gist of the whole matter, and that ought to be sufficient.
But many will desire to know more of the detail.
Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings
In her book, penned not for professional astronomers but for those “without technical knowledge, who are yet curious as to these strangely impressive phenomena, — and with the hope, too, of creating farther intelligent interest,” Todd provides that detail with a scientist’s rigor and a poet’s sensibility. She writes:
It matters little whether we regard the point of view of the savage, who is awe-struck because he does not know what terrific happenings such a spectacle may forebode, or that of the astronomer, who by dint of much travelling by sea and by land may many times have observed the Sun entirely obscured, and knows there is nothing to fear, a total solar eclipse is a most imposing natural phenomenon.
She contrasts its profound effect with that of its scientifically interesting but emotionally lackluster counterpart, the partial eclipse:
Partial eclipses, though of little scientific value, have interesting features of their own, sometimes showing all the attendant phenomena of entire obscuration, except the total phase. If the Sun’s disk is more than half covered, there is the same weird light, always wan and unnatural, of a quality quite different from mere twilight, and growing constantly duskier, — crescents underneath dense foliage, — half indifferent spectators gazing sunward through glass smoked to varying degrees of sootiness, — the crescentic Sun growing momentarily narrower, — a curious yet apathetic crowd surrounding the telescope-man in the public park…
Diagram of a solar eclipse from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
After explaining the science behind various curiosities of eclipses — why an eclipse can never last longer than eight minutes and why its path, while thousands of miles long, can rarely exceed 140 miles in width and 167 miles in breadth — Todd offers an arrestingly lyrical account of what it actually feels like to witness a total solar eclipse:
As the dark body of the Moon gradually steals its silent way across the brilliant Sun, little effect is at first noticed. The light hardly diminishes, apparently, and birds and animals detect no change. During the partial phase a curious appearance may be noticed under any shady tree. Ordinarily, without an eclipse, the sunlight filters through the leaves in a series of tiny, overlapping disks on the ground, each of which is an image of the Sun.
As the entire duration of an eclipse, partial phases and all, embraces two or three hours, often for an hour after “first contact” insects still chirp in the grass, birds sing, and animals quietly continue their grazing. But a sense of uneasiness seems gradually to steal over all life. Cows and horses feed intermittently, bird songs diminish, grasshoppers fall quiet, and a suggestion of chill crosses the air. Darker and darker grows the landscape.
Then, with frightful velocity, the actual shadow of the Moon is often seen approaching, a tangible darkness advancing almost like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom. The immensity of nature never comes quite so near as then, and strong must be the nerves not to quiver as this blue-black shadow rushes upon the spectator with incredible speed. A vast, palpable presence seems overwhelming the world. The blue sky changes to gray or dull purple, speedily becoming more dusky, and a death-like trance seizes upon everything earthly. Birds, with terrified cries, fly bewildered for a moment, and then silently seek their night quarters. Bats emerge stealthily. Sensitive flowers, the scarlet pimpernel, the African mimosa, close their delicate petals, and a sense of hushed expectancy deepens with the darkness. An assembled crowd is awed into absolute silence almost invariably… Often the very air seems to hold its breath for sympathy; at other times a lull suddenly awakens into a strange wind, blowing with unnatural effect.
Then out upon the darkness, grewsome but sublime, flashes the glory of the incomparable corona, a silvery, soft, unearthly light, with radiant streamers, stretching at times millions of uncomprehended miles into space, while the rosy, flaming protuberances skirt the black rim of the Moon in ethereal splendor. It becomes curiously cold, dew frequently forms, and the chill is perhaps mental as well as physical.
Suddenly, instantaneous as a lightning flash, an arrow of actual sunlight strikes the landscape, and Earth comes to life again, while corona and protuberances melt into the returning brilliance, and occasionally the receding lunar shadow is glimpsed as it flies away with the tremendous speed of its approach.
Total solar eclipse by Adolf “Papa” Fassbender, as seen from New York City on January 24, 1925
Reading Todd’s dramatic description, I was reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem that captures the scintillating surreality of an eclipse in eight perfect lines — but I was surprised to find that Todd didn’t cite the poem, given she drew on other Dickinson verses and so intently reaped the fertile intersection of astronomy and poetry; nor was it included in her 1896 edition of Dickinson’s poems. Most likely, Todd simply wasn’t aware of its existence — because Dickinson included many of her poems in letters to friends and family, previously unseen verses were gradually discovered in the decades following her death as her correspondents brought them to light. She sent the eclipse poem in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in August of 1877. With the help of a NASA database, I’ve ascertained that only one total solar eclipse swept past Amherst in Dickinson’s lifetime — on September 29, 1875 — which must have provided the raw material for her vivid verses:
It sounded as if the streets were running —
And then — the streets stood still —
Eclipse was all we could see at the Window
And Awe — was all we could feel.
By and by — the boldest stole out of his Covert
To see if Time was there —
Nature was in her Opal Apron —
Mixing fresher Air.
And yet Todd’s own sublime prose portrait of the phenomenon breathes kindred air, as does her evocative description of what an eclipse feels like under cloudy skies, which draws on her own travels to Japan to witness the total solar eclipse of 1887 during a real-life version of one of Dickinson’s most powerful metaphors — a volcanic eruption. Todd writes:
The effect of an eclipse shrouded in cloud is quite different. When the sky is overcast, total eclipses very often cause less darkness than in clear skies, because the clouds outside of the totality path — brilliantly illuminated by the Sun — reflect and diffuse their light throughout the shadow… But in the Japan eclipse of 1887 the sepulchral darkness was increased by the dense body of cloud which silently massed as totality approached. Clear and burning skies characterized the noon of “the great, the important day.” Twenty or thirty native guards in snowy uniforms watched the castle where we lived, carefully reserving the entrances for specially invited guests. The instruments were adjusted for instant use, rehearsals of twenty observers, each with his telescope or other apparatus, having been daily conducted until the programme was safely familiar, and, in spite of the torrid heat, all were astir with eager anticipation.
But Nasu-take, a volcano to the west, whose most inopportune eruption had suddenly begun the night before, was still sending up volumes of white steam, inviting clouds, apparently, from every quarter. Quiedy and simultaneously our “massive enemies” collected, east and south and west. Finding that my drawing of the outer corona would be impossible, from the rapidly thickening sky, I left my appointed station behind the disk, and hastened to the upper castle wall to watch the changed landscape under its gray shroud. Even inanimate things are at times endowed with a terrible life of their own, and this deliberate, slow-moving pall of cloud seemed a malignant power not to be eluded.
Now and then a flood of sunlight fell upon the smoking and disastrous crater of Nasu-take, — a spectacle both aggravating and sublime.
Totality was announced, and, as if by two or three jerks, the darkness fell. Silence like death filled castle and town and all the country round. Except the feeble glimmer of a few lanterns in the town, eighty feet below, a streak of strange, sulphurous yellow in the southeast seemed to give out the only light in the world.
Not a word was spoken. Even the air was motionless, as if all nature sympathized with our pain and suspense. The useless instruments outlined their fantastic shapes dimly against the massing clouds, and a weird chill fell upon the earth. Mountains and rice fields became indistinguishable, the clouds above us turned nearly black, and a low roll of thunder muttered ominously on the horizon toward Kuroiso.
All trace of color fled from the world. Cold, dull, ashen gray covered the face of nature.
She captures the resigned disappointment of a failed totality:
We had trusted Nature; she had failed us, and the prevailing mood was a sense of overwhelming helplessness. The crowd of friends, Japanese, English, and American, breathed one mighty sigh, as from a universal heart just relieved of tension near to breaking. Then some one spoke, and so we faced common life again.
“Four Views of the Solar Eclipse, August 1869″ by John Adams Whipple
For those hungry to know what to look for while watching a solar eclipse, Todd goes on to describe some of the most interesting phenomena that accompany totality:
A few seconds before totality, when the narrowing crescent of the Sun is about to disappear, the slender curve of light is often seen to break into a number of rounded spots of brightness, now known as Baily’s Beads… According to descriptions by different writers, the beads are like drops of water drying up under a hot sun… or a string of brilliants disappearing like snow under a white heat.
Phenomena perhaps not so obvious are the swiftly flying shadow bands. Seen by Goldschmidt in 1820, later observers have frequently identified them as rapidly moving (sometimes wavy) lines of light and shade, resembling sunlight reflected upon some adjacent wall from the rippling surface of water.
Thin, parallel lines of shadowy waves, they flit silently over the landscape, sometimes faster after totality than before, and indescribably light, airy, and evanescent. Apparently all the elements pertaining to the shadow bands vary from one eclipse to another, thus adding greatly to the intricacy of the puzzle. Perhaps at one time eight inches broad and two or three feet apart, at another only one or two inches broad and ten or twelve inches apart, they travel at one time about as fast as a man can run, and again with the velocity of an express-train. While visible at eclipses generally, just after totality as well as before, occasionally an
eclipse occurs without any exhibition of shadow bands.
Diagram from Mabel Loomis Todd’s Total Eclipses of the Sun, 1894
She describes the most dramatic element of an eclipse:
The coming of the lunar shadow in all its startling velocity … is universally described as perhaps the most impressive feature of an eclipse… To several observers the shadow seen in the distance resembled a dark storm upon the horizon. Some saw the shadow “visible in the air”; one speaks of its “gliding swiftly up over the heavens”; while another likens its passage to “the lifting of a dark curtain.”
Those who have taken pains to note its color do not generally call it black, but deep violet or dark brown. One describes it as a “wall of fog,” another as a “vaporous shadow,” a third says it was “like neither shadow nor vapor,” while no less careful observers than [German astronomer Friedrich] Winnecke and Lady Airy [wife of Greenwich Observatory director George Airy] speak of the shadow as “appearing like smoke.” … President Hill of Harvard, in Illinois in 1869, found the transit of the shadow much slower and more majestic and beautiful than he had been led to expect. “A sweeping upward and eastward of a dense violet shadow” are his words.
Both before and after total obscurity the whole contour of the lunar disk is sometimes seen, and there are faint brushes of light raying out from the solar crescent. Occasionally there is a double observation of both beginning and end of totality, and the Moon has even appeared to jump forward at these critical instants “as if it had made a jerk (stumbled against something).” The changing tints of the dark Moon while obscuration lasts, colors on the frequent clouds, the arcs of prismatic color and iridescent clouds, the pulsation of light as totality comes on, and the tremulous motion of the thin crescent, — these are not the half of the interesting phenomena accompanying a total eclipse of the Sun.
Solar protuberances by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot
Another spectacular phenomenon Todd highlights are the red solar prominences roiling above the white of the corona:
When totality is imminent, and expectation is becoming breathless, — when, though not yet visible, the noble corona seems all but hovering in the air, — suddenly at the edge of the dark Moon, flashing out into the gathering darkness, appear vivid, blood-red flames. Visible on one occasion so long as five minutes before the total obscuration, and again for six minutes after, they glow against the pure white of the corona with singular lustre.
Some protuberances are quiet and cloud-like; others resemble sudden eruptions from some vast and inconceivable solar volcano, a whirlwind of fire.
Corona of the July 29, 1879 total solar eclipse, observed by Professor Langley from the Summit of Pike’s Peak, 14,000 feet elevation
She then turns to the crowning curio of the eclipse: the Sun’s corona — the aura of plasma that encircles stars, only visible with the naked eye during an eclipse, the composition and structure of which wouldn’t be discerned until the advent of technologies and theories devised long after Todd’s death. She writes:
No one has yet entirely explained or analyzed this marvellous silvery halo surrounding the totally darkened Sun. Nature’s most imposing phenomenon is perhaps the most mysterious. A suggestion of its general appearance may be gained by looking at the full Moon through a new wire window-screen, although the rays of light which then appear to point outward from the bright Moon are much more regular than the true corona, which varies greatly from one eclipse to another.
Todd draws from the corona a point of existential humility in the face of the impermanence and decay that govern our lives even on the vastest cosmic scale:
Whatever its cause and meaning, the corona must always continue to absorb the deepest attention during eclipses. At some remote epoch, however, — perhaps millions of years hence, though really but a step astronomically, — our great Sun, already on his decline, will have so shrunken that there will be no corona.
More than a century after its publication, Mabel Loomis Todd’s Total Eclipses of the Sun stands as a stunning and illuminating guide to one of the most moving creaturely experiences to be had on Earth. For more transcendence at the intersection of astronomy and poetry, see The Universe in Verse, then revisit Maria Mitchell’s timeless tips on how to view a total solar eclipse, drawn from the trailblazing 1878 all-women eclipse expedition she led.
Thanks, Annie Nero
“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” wrote the poet Mark Strand in his stunning ode to what Emily Dickinson termed “the drift called ‘the infinite.'”
Hardly any writer has chronicled their own drift toward death with more dignified composure and attentive aliveness than Alice James (August 7, 1848–March 6, 1892) — sister of pioneering psychologist William James and novelist Henry James — in The Diary of Alice James (public library).
Alice was a woman who considered herself “simply born a few years too soon.” She was also an exquisite writer from whose pen seemed to flow the best of her brothers’ aptitudes — William’s insight into human psychology and Henry’s novelistic splendor of style — along with a sublimity of sentiment entirely her own. In a letter to William penned two years after their sister’s death, Henry extolled Alice’s diary as an embodiment of her “extraordinary force of mind and character, her whole way of taking life — and death — in very much the manner in which the book does… It is heroic in its individuality, its independence — its face-to-face with the universe for-and-by herself — and the beauty and eloquence with which she often expresses this, let alone the rich irony and humour.”
Alice James, age 11, in 1857 (Harvard Houghton Library)
An awareness of mortality had haunted Alice since her youth — her body was assailed by a mysterious ailment that kept her bedridden, with only intermittent relief from disability. For years, physicians failed to find an organic cause and diagnose her illness. (This, lest we forget, was the heyday of such “therapies” as blistering, leeches, cold water treatments, and medication with mercury — rudimentary medicine’s blind shots in the dark of the body.)
In Alice’s thirtieth year, her physical pain exploded into a severe mental breakdown. Her father wrote that she was “half the time, indeed much more than half, on the verge of insanity and suicide” — a wish for self-annihilation she had confided in him directly, asking whether he thought it was a sin. Subverting the dogma of his era, he responded that there is nothing sinful in wishing to end one’s extreme suffering, and gave her his fatherly permission to take her own life if the physical and psychological pain became too unbearable, asking her only to do it in a gentle way.
Alice James circa 1873 (Harvard Houghton Library)
But to Alice, there was something liberating about this surprising permission to take charge of her own death, which had the paradoxical effect of giving her a sense of agency in her own life. Half a century before Albert Camus posed the most important question of existence, Alice answered it in the affirmative — she chose to live. Still, the specter of death remained always near and animated her days for decades.
Alice James in 1891 (Harvard Houghton Library)
Just before her forty-third birthday, Alice received a diagnosis that was likely unrelated to the neurological nightmare of the preceding decades but was as devastatingly unambiguous as can be: late-stage breast cancer. Writing on the last day of May in 1891, in an era before the combined influence of Darwin and Freud shaped our relationship to mortality, Alice records the strange relief of her terminal diagnosis — the comforting concretization of death’s amorphous presence, which had haunted her many hears of undiagnosed suffering. A century before modern doctors treated Rosanne Cash in much the same way, Alice writes:
Ever since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease, no matter how conventionally dreadful a label it might have, but I was always driven back to stagger alone under the monstrous mass of subjective sensations, which that sympathetic being “the medical man” had no higher inspiration than to assure me I was personally responsible for, washing his hands of me with a graceful complacency under my very nose. Dr. Torry [James’s final physician] was the only man who ever treated me like a rational being, who did not assume, because I was victim to many pains, that I was, of necessity, an arrested mental development too.
The following day, she writes:
To any one who has not been there, it will be hard to understand the enormous relief of [the doctor’s] uncompromising verdict, lifting us out of the formless vague and setting us within the very heart of the sustaining concrete. One would naturally not choose such an ugly and gruesome method of progression down the dark Valley of the Shadow of Death, and of course many of the moral sinews will snap by the way, but we shall gird up our loins and the blessed peace of the end will have no shadow cast upon it.
What allowed Alice to meet her mortality with such serenity was not a physical fact but the single most important psychological and emotional event of her life, which had taken place a decade earlier. When she was thirty-two, Alice had met Katharine Peabody Loring — an energetic young education reformer and activist, whom she described as having “all the mere brute superiority which distinguishes man from woman, combined with all the distinctive feminine virtues.” Alice marveled that “there is nothing [Katharine] cannot do from hewing wood and drawing water to driving runaway horses and educating all the women in North America.” In short, she was in love, and so was Katharine, who proved to be the most loyal and loving partner one could wish for.
Katharine Peabody Loring
The two women shared the remainder of the Alice’s life, and her family came to accept Katharine as one of them. Henry James admired her “strength of wind and limbs, to say nothing of her nobler qualities,” recognized that she and his sister were bonded by “a permanency,” and came to love the devotion with which Katharine simply loved Alice. (His novel The Bostonians, published four years after Alice’s death, would popularize the term “Boston marriage” — a domestic partnership between two women, financially independent of any man, likely modeled on his sister’s relationship with his sister-outside-law.) Katharine, for her part, assured Henry of her own desire “quite as strongly as Alice’s, to be with her to the end.”
Alice James and Katharine Peabody Loring in Alice’s sickroom (Harvard Houghton Library)
In an entry from New Year’s Day of 1892, three months before the end, Alice writes:
As the ugliest things go to the making of the fairest, it is not wonderful that this unholy granite substance in my breast should be the soil propitious for the perfect flowering of Katharine’s unexampled genius for friendship and devotion. The story of her watchfulness, patience and untiring resource cannot be told by my feeble pen, but all the pain and discomfort seem a slender price to pay for all the happiness and peace with which she fills my days.
Despite the interminable rapidity with which death approached, Alice didn’t slip into the ideology of eternal life — her era’s greatest coping mechanism against the prevalence of untimely deaths. Like Emily Dickinson, who renounced the escapist rhetoric of immortality, Alice made her own spiritual path. (She was, in fact, a fan of Dickinson. In the final weeks of her life, she found enough good humor to record this wry observation: “It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle.”) In a journal entry from August of 1890, she writes:
There has come such a change in me. A congenital faith flows thro’ me like a limpid stream, making the arid places green, a spontaneous irrigator of which the snags of doubt have never interrupted [n]or made turbid the easily flowing current. A faith which is my mental and moral respiration which needs no revelation but experience and whose only ritual is daily conduct. Thro’ my childhood and youth and until within the last few years, the thought of the end as an entrance into spiritual existence, where aspirations are a fulfillment, was a perpetual and necessary inspiration, but now, altho’ intellectually nonexistence is more ungraspable and inconceivable than ever, all longing for fulfillment, all passion to achieve has died down within me and whether the great Mystery resolves itself into eternal Death or glorious Life, I contemplate either with equal serenity.
In December of 1891, several months after her terminal diagnosis, she revisits the absurdity of immortality and considers the far greater redemption to be found in life and death:
How little all assurances of one’s own immortality seem to concern one, now, and how little to have gained from the experience of life, if one’s thoughts are lingering still upon personal fulfillments and not rooted in the knowledge that the great Immortalities, Love, Goodness and Truth include all others… References to those whom we shall meet again make me shiver, as such an invasion of their sanctity, gone so far beyond, for ever since the night that Mother died, and the depth of filial tenderness was revealed to me, all personal claim upon her vanished, and she was dwelt in my mind a beautiful illuminated memory, the essence of divine maternity from which I was to learn great things, give all, but ask nothing.
Sketch of Alice James by Henry James, 1872
Writing four weeks before her death, Alice arrives at the perennial question of the nature of the self — or what Walt Whitman considered the paradox of identity — and where it resides. With unsentimental and almost buoyant poignancy, she observes that even as the body fails part by part, we adapt by folding the losses into our consent to reality, the integrity of our deepest sense of self remaining all the while intact:
This long slow dying is no doubt instructive, it it is disappointingly free from excitements: “naturalness” being carried to its supreme expression. One sloughs off the activities one by one, and never knows that they’re gone, until one suddenly finds that the months have slipped away and the sofa will never more be laid upon, the morning paper read, or the loss of the new book regretted; one revolves with equal content within the narrowing circle until the vanishing point is reached, I suppose.
Vanity, however, maintains its undisputed sway, and I take satisfaction in feeling as much myself as ever, perhaps simply a more concentrated essence in this curtailment.
A week before her death, sensing the proximity of the end, she considers the futility of regret:
How wearing to the substance and exasperating to the nerves is the perpetual bewailing, wondering at and wishing to alter things happened, as if all personal concern didn’t vanish as the “happened” crystallizes into history. Of what matter can it be whether pain or pleasure has shaped and stamped the pulp within, as one is absorbed in the supreme interest of watching the outline and the tracery as the lines broaden for eternity.
Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death
In her final journal entry, dictated to Katharine the day before her death, Alice writes with gratitude for her partner’s loving care and caress:
I am being ground slowly on the grim grindstone of physical pain, and on two nights I had almost asked K.’s lethal dose, but one steps hesitantly along such unaccustomed ways and endures from second to second; and I feel sure that it can’t be possible but what the bewildered little hammer that keep some going will very shortly see the decency of ending his distracted career; however this may be, physical pain however great ends in itself and falls away like dry husks from the mind, whilst moral discords and nervous sorrows sear the soul. These last, Katharine has completely under the control of her rhythmic hand, so I go no longer in dread. Oh the wonderful moment when I felt myself floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation, and saw all the dear old mysteries and miracles vanish into vapour!
But Alice’s most profound meditation on life and death was penned in a letter to her brother William a year earlier, after her terminal diagnosis had relieved the decades of uncertainty. Echoing Rilke’s assertion that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” she writes:
It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life, and I count in the greatest good fortune to have these few months so full of interest and instruction in the knowledge of my approaching death. It is as simple in one’s own person as any fact of nature, the fall of a leaf or the blooming of a rose, and I have a delicious consciousness, ever present, of wide spaces close at hand, and whisperings of release in the air.
Compare this with Oliver Sacks’s stirring farewell to life, written more than a century later after his own terminal diagnosis:
I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life… .
Alice James in 1870 (Harvard Houghton Library)
In a spectacular counterpoint to the disadvantages life had conferred upon her with her particular lifelong infirmity and the general case of her gender in the nineteenth century, Alice adds a proud note of assurance to William:
Don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else… Notwithstanding the poverty of my outside experience, I have always had a significance for myself, and every chance to stumble along my straight and narrow little path, and to worship at the feet of my Deity, and what more can a human soul ask for?
Compare again with Sacks:
I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
The Diary of Alice James is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with an uncommonly tender German illustrated meditation on mortality and a subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then revisit its contemporary counterpart in a young neurosurgeon’s beautiful meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his death.
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