Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Letters


It’s easy to think of Franz Kaf­ka as a celi­bate, even asex­u­al, writer. There is the notable lack of eroti­cism of any rec­og­niz­able sort in so much of his work. There is the promi­nent bio­graph­i­cal detail—integral to so many interpretations—of his out­sized fear of his father, which serves to infan­tilize him in a way. There is the image, writes Spiked, of “a lone­ly seer too saint­ly for this rank, sunken world.” All of this, James Hawes writes in his Exca­vat­ing Kaf­ka, “is pure spin.” Against such idol­a­try, both lit­er­ary and qua­si-reli­gious, Hawes describes “the real Kaf­ka,” includ­ing the fact that he was “far from an infre­quent vis­i­tor to Prague’s broth­els.” Though “tortured”—as his friend, biog­ra­ph­er, and execu­tor Max Brod put it—by guilt over his sex­u­al­i­ty, Kaf­ka nonethe­less did not deny him­self the fre­quent com­pa­ny of pros­ti­tutes and a col­lec­tion of out­ré pornog­ra­phy.

But a part of the myth, Kafka’s extreme dif­fi­dence in roman­tic rela­tion­ships with two women in his life—onetime fiancé Felice Bauer and Czech jour­nal­ist Mile­na Jesen­ská—is not far off the mark. These rela­tion­ships were indeed “tor­tured,” with Kaf­ka “demand­ing com­mit­ment while doing his best to evade it.” His courtship with Felice was con­duct­ed almost entire­ly through let­ters, and his per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence to both women, pub­lished in sep­a­rate vol­umes by Schock­en Books, “has all the ear­marks of his fic­tion: the same ner­vous atten­tion to minute par­tic­u­lars; the same para­noid aware­ness of shift­ing bal­ances of pow­er; the same atmos­phere of emo­tion­al suffocation—combined, sur­pris­ing­ly enough, with moments of boy­ish ardor and delight.” So writes the New York TimesMichiko Kaku­tani in her review of Let­ters to Felice in 1988.

A March 25, 1914 let­ter to Felice exem­pli­fies these qual­i­ties, includ­ing Kafka’s ten­den­cy to “berate” his fiancé and to “backpedal” from the seri­ous pos­si­bil­i­ty of mar­riage. In answer to her seem­ing­ly unasked ques­tion of whether Bauer might find in him “the vital sup­port you undoubt­ed­ly need,” Kaf­ka writes,” there is noth­ing straight­for­ward I can say to that”:

The exact infor­ma­tion you want about me, dear­est F., I can­not give you ; I can give it you, if at all, only when run­ning along behind you in the Tier­garten, you always on the point of van­ish­ing alto­geth­er, and I on the point of pros­trat­ing myself; only when thus humil­i­at­ed, more deeply than any dog, am I able to do it. When you post that ques­tion now I can only say: I love you, F., to the lim­its of my strength, in this respect you can trust me entire­ly. But for the rest, F., I do not know myself com­plete­ly. Sur­pris­es and dis­ap­point­ments about myself fol­low each oth­er in end­less suc­ces­sion.

The frus­trat­ed mys­tery, self-abase­ment, vague and fear­ful hints, and ref­er­ence to dogs are all ele­ments of the so oft-invoked Kafkaesque, though the frank procla­ma­tion of love is not. Not long after his 1917 diag­no­sis of tuber­cu­lo­sis, Kaf­ka would break off the engage­ment. In 1920, he began his—also heav­i­ly scripted—affair with Jesen­ská, his side of which appears in the col­lect­ed Let­ters to Mile­na. In these mis­sives, the same set of per­son­al and lit­er­ary impuls­es alter­nate: ten­der expres­sions of devo­tion give way to dark and cryp­tic state­ments like “writ­ten kiss­es… are drunk on the way by the ghosts” and “I have spent all my life resist­ing the desire to end it.” One let­ter seems to have noth­ing at all to do with Mile­na and every­thing to do with Kafka’s project as a writer:

I am con­stant­ly try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing incom­mu­ni­ca­ble, to explain some­thing inex­plic­a­ble, to tell about some­thing I only feel in my bones and which can only be expe­ri­enced in those bones. Basi­cal­ly it is noth­ing oth­er than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to every­thing, fear of the great­est as of the small­est, fear, par­a­lyz­ing fear of pro­nounc­ing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a long­ing for some­thing greater than all that is fear­ful.

Pas­sages like these war­rant the redu­pli­ca­tion in Kakutani’s review title: “Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters.” It is almost as if he used these let­ters as a test­ing ground for the tan­gled inter­nal con­flicts, doubts, and obses­sions that would make their way into his fic­tion. Or that, in them, we see these Kafkaesque motifs dis­tilled. It is dur­ing his engage­ment to Felice Bauer that Kaf­ka pro­duced “his most sig­nif­i­cant work, includ­ing The Meta­mor­phoses,” and dur­ing his rela­tion­ship with Mile­na Jesen­ská that my per­son­al favorite, The Cas­tle, took shape.

Although it has long been fash­ion­able to resist the “bio­graph­i­cal fal­la­cy,” read­ing an author’s life into his or her work, the exis­tence of hun­dreds of Kafka’s let­ters in pub­li­ca­tion makes this sep­a­ra­tion dif­fi­cult. Elias Canet­ti described Kafka’s let­ters as a dia­logue he was “con­duct­ing with him­self,” one which “provide[s] an index of the emo­tion­al events that would inspire ‘The Tri­al’” and oth­er works. Kafka’s unex­pect­ed bouts of roman­tic pas­sion notwith­stand­ing, these let­ters add a great deal of sup­port to that crit­i­cal assess­ment.

via Michiko Kaku­tani/New York Times

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov Makes Edi­to­r­i­al Tweaks to Franz Kafka’s Novel­la The Meta­mor­pho­sis

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

Four Franz Kaf­ka Ani­ma­tions: Enjoy Cre­ative Ani­mat­ed Shorts from Poland, Japan, Rus­sia & Cana­da

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Joni Mitchell Talks About Life as a Reluctant Star in a New Animated Interview

Yes­ter­day, Blank on Blank dropped its lat­est ani­mat­ed video — this one fea­tur­ing Joni Mitchell in con­ver­sa­tion with record exec­u­tive Joe Smith. In the inter­view orig­i­nal­ly record­ed in 1986, Mitchell declares her­self a reluc­tant star — some­one who loved mak­ing music, but nev­er want­ed fame, and all the lost pri­va­cy and nor­mal­cy that comes along with it. Smith talked with Joni and count­less oth­er musi­cians while research­ing and writ­ing his book Off the Record. You can still stream many of those inter­views (for free) on iTunes and the Library of Con­gress web­site. We have more on that here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vin­tage Video of Joni Mitchell Per­form­ing in 1965 — Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell

James Tay­lor and Joni Mitchell, Live and Togeth­er (1970)

The Music, Art, and Life of Joni Mitchell Pre­sent­ed in a Superb 2003 Doc­u­men­tary

Hear Sun Ra’s 1971 UC Berkeley Lecture “The Power of Words”

Read­ing David Byrne’s How Music Works the oth­er day, I came across a pas­sage where the Talk­ing Heads front­man recalls his for­ma­tive ear­ly expo­sure to the dis­tinc­tive com­po­si­tions and per­sona (not that you can real­ly sep­a­rate the two) of Sun Ra. “When I first moved to New York, I caught Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the 5 Spot, a jazz venue that used to be at St. Mark’s Place and Bow­ery,” Byrne writes. “He moved from instru­ment to instru­ment. At one point there was a bizarre solo on a Moog syn­the­siz­er, an instru­ment not often asso­ci­at­ed with jazz. Here was elec­tron­ic noise sud­den­ly reimag­ined as enter­tain­ment!”

Some might have writ­ten off Sun Ra and his Arkestra as indulging in form­less artis­tic flail­ing, but in these shows, “as if to prove to skep­tics that he and the band real­ly could play, that they real­ly had chops no mat­ter how far out they some­times got, they would occa­sion­al­ly do a tra­di­tion­al big band tune. Then it would be back to out­er space.” As in Sun Ra’s music, so in Sun Ra’s words: as the jazz com­pos­er born Her­man Poole Blount got increas­ing­ly exper­i­men­tal in his com­po­si­tion, the details of his “cos­mic phi­los­o­phy” under­ly­ing it, a kind of sci­ence-fic­tion-inflect­ed Afro-mys­ti­cism, mul­ti­plied.

While many of Sun Ra’s pro­nounce­ments struck (and still strike) lis­ten­ers as a bit odd, he could nev­er­the­less ground them in a vari­ety of intel­lec­tu­al con­texts as a seri­ous thinker. We offered evi­dence of this last year when we post­ed the full lec­ture and read­ing list from the course he taught at UC Berke­ley in 1971, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos.” Now you can hear it straight from the man him­self in the playlist at the top of the post, which con­tains his lec­ture “The Pow­er of Words,” also deliv­ered at Berke­ley in 1971, as part of the school’s Pan-African Stud­ies cur­ricu­lum.

But do heed the warn­ing includ­ed with the videos: “Remem­ber, Sun Ra was a ‘UNIVERSAL BEING’ not of this dimen­sion or of a race cat­e­go­ry. With all his infor­ma­tive author­i­ty, in some cas­es dur­ing these lec­tures, the con­tent will be shock­ing to hear.” Shocked or not, you may well come away from the expe­ri­ence con­vinced that not only did Sun Ra the musi­cian under­stand the pow­er of music, exe­cut­ed cre­ative­ly, to take us to new aes­thet­ic realms, he also under­stood the pow­er of words to take us to new intel­lec­tu­al ones. But you’ve got to be will­ing to take the ride into out­er space with him.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

A Sun Ra Christ­mas: Hear His 1976 Radio Broad­cast of Poet­ry and Music

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s High­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Film on Jazz & Race in Amer­i­ca (With Music by Sun Ra)

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Parvati Saves the World: Watch a Remix of Bollywood Films That Combats Rape in India

Sex­u­al vio­lence in India has been in the spot­light ever since a 23-year-old med­ical stu­dent was gang raped and mur­dered on a bus in New Del­hi in 2012. The crime was so fla­grant and so bru­tal that the coun­try recoiled in shock. Stu­dents and activists descend­ed into the streets of Del­hi to protest.

Film­mak­er Ram Devi­neni real­ized just how entrenched the prob­lem is in Indi­an cul­ture when he spoke with a cop dur­ing one of those protests. As he told the BBC,“I was talk­ing to a police offi­cer when he said some­thing that I found very sur­pris­ing. He said ‘no good girl walks alone at night.’

The Indi­an gov­ern­ment rushed leg­is­la­tion that would increase the prison term for rape along with crim­i­nal­iz­ing oth­er crimes against women like stalk­ing. Yet, a string of oth­er high-pro­file rapes, includ­ing a few against for­eign tourists, show that this is a con­tin­u­ing prob­lem, one that wasn’t going to be solved with a few laws.

“I real­ized that rape and sex­u­al vio­lence in India was a cul­tur­al issue,” said Devi­neni. “And that it was backed by patri­archy, misog­y­ny and peo­ple’s per­cep­tions.”

So Devi­neni decid­ed to try and change India’s cul­ture with one of the most pow­er­ful weapons out there: art.

Inspired by Hin­du mythol­o­gy, Devi­neni and a cou­ple col­lab­o­ra­tors cre­at­ed a graph­ic nov­el about Priya, a rape sur­vivor who appeals for help to Par­vati, the God­dess of pow­er and beau­ty. By the end of the com­ic, Priya con­fronts her attack­ers while rid­ing a tiger.

As a con­tin­u­a­tion of the project, Devi­neni cre­at­ed Par­vati Saves the World, a sim­i­lar sto­ry pieced togeth­er from some amaz­ing­ly kitschy Bol­ly­wood epics from the 1970s. He described the project as being “like DJ Spooky’s remix of Birth of a Nation but this focus­es on sex­u­al vio­lence.”

In the film, Priya once again appeals to Par­vati after get­ting attacked, this time by the friend of a pride­ful king. When Par­vati con­fronts the king, he tries to assault her. This is a bad move. Her hus­band is the God Shi­va, AKA “the Destroy­er,” AKA some­one you real­ly don’t want to tick off. As pun­ish­ment, he brings fire and death on heav­en and earth. Real­iz­ing that vio­lence isn’t the answer, Par­vati goes to Earth to become “a bea­con of hope for oppressed women every­where.”

You can watch Par­vati Saves the World in three parts above. You can learn more about Devi­neni’s mis­sion at The Cre­ator’s Project.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Russell’s Improb­a­ble Appear­ance in a Bol­ly­wood Film (1967)

Ravi Shankar Gives George Har­ri­son a Sitar Les­son … and Oth­er Vin­tage Footage

George Harrison’s Mys­ti­cal, Fish­eye Self-Por­traits Tak­en in India (1966)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

Flannery O’Connor to Grace New U.S. Postage Stamp

flannery stamp

Since 1979, the US Postal Ser­vice has made a prac­tice of issu­ing postage stamps hon­or­ing “skill­ful word­smiths” who have “spun our favorite tales — and Amer­i­can his­to­ry along with them.” Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Wright, Julia De Bur­gos, Mark Twain, O. Hen­ry, and Ralph Elli­son have all been fêt­ed since 2009. And soon we can add the South­ern Goth­ic writer Flan­nery O’Con­nor to the list. Her stamp will make its debut on June 5th. Until then, we’d encour­age you to stream rare record­ings of O’Con­nor read­ing her famous sto­ry, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’, and her wit­ty essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in South­ern Fic­tion.” These are the only known record­ings of O’Con­nor read­ing her work, and they pro­vide a won­der­ful intro­duc­tion to O’Con­nor’s lit­er­ary tal­ents.

via LA Times

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Flan­nery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)

Flan­nery O’Connor to Lit Pro­fes­sor: “My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnox­ious. I’m in a State of Shock”

Flan­nery O’Connor’s Satir­i­cal Car­toons: 1942–1945

Rare Video: Georges Bataille Talks About Literature & Evil in His Only TV Interview (1958)

“Where oth­er trans­gres­sive fig­ures of the past have most­ly been tamed,” wrote Josh Jones in a post here last year, “[Georges] Bataille, I sub­mit, is still quite dan­ger­ous.” You can get a sense of that in the doc­u­men­tary fea­tured there, À perte de vue, which intro­duces the trans­gres­sive French intel­lec­tu­al’s life and thought, which from the 1920s to the 1960s pro­duced books like The Solar AnusThe Hatred of Poet­ry, and The Tears of Eros, all part of a body of work that cap­ti­vat­ed the likes of Susan Son­tag, Michel Fou­cault, and Jacques Der­ri­da.

At the top of this post, you can enjoy anoth­er, straighter shot of Bataille through his 1958 appear­ance oppo­site inter­view­er Pierre Dumayet — the only tele­vi­sion inter­view he ever did. The occa­sion: the pub­li­ca­tion of his book Lit­er­a­ture and Evil, a title that, Bataille says, refers to “two oppo­site kinds of evil: the first one is relat­ed to the neces­si­ty of human activ­i­ty going well and hav­ing the desired results, and the oth­er con­sists of delib­er­ate­ly vio­lat­ing some fun­da­men­tal taboos — like, for exam­ple, the taboo against mur­der, or against some sex­u­al pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

Bataille’s fans expect from him a cer­tain amount of taboo vio­la­tion, though exe­cut­ed in a spe­cif­ic lit­er­ary form — not just prose, but the dis­tinc­tive sort of prose, whether spo­ken or writ­ten, brought to per­fec­tion by mid­cen­tu­ry French intel­lec­tu­als. In this ten-minute clip, Bataille elab­o­rates on his con­vic­tion that we can’t sep­a­rate lit­er­a­ture from evil: if the for­mer stays away from the lat­ter, “it rapid­ly becomes bor­ing.” He also gets into a dis­cus­sion of Baude­laire, Kaf­ka (“both of them knew they were on the side of evil”), Shake­speare, the impor­tance of eroti­cism and child­ish­ness in lit­er­a­ture, and the inher­ent­ly anti-work nature of writ­ing. How­ev­er rel­e­vant you find Bataille’s ideas today, you have to give the man this: he nev­er gets bor­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Georges Bataille: An Intro­duc­tion to The Rad­i­cal Philosopher’s Life & Thought Through Film and eTexts

Michel Fou­cault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Theorist’s Con­tro­ver­sial Life and Phi­los­o­phy

Exten­sive Archive of Avant-Garde & Mod­ernist Mag­a­zines (1890–1939) Now Avail­able Online

Jacques Lacan’s Con­fronta­tion with a Young Rebel: Clas­sic Moment, 1972

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Magical Animated Music Video for the Japanese Pop Song, “On Your Mark”

On this site, we’ve fea­tured music videos by such acclaimed film­mak­ers as David Lynch, David Finch­er, Jim Jar­musch and even Andy Warhol. Now add to this list the leg­endary Japan­ese ani­ma­tor Hayao Miyaza­ki.

Back in 1994, Miyaza­ki was stuck on the script for his next fea­ture Princess Mononoke. So he decid­ed to do a video for the song “On Your Mark” by Japan­ese pop duo Chage & Aska. The result­ing piece is a gor­geous, dense, enig­mat­ic work that not only recalls Miyazaki’s ear­li­est works like Nau­si­caa of the Val­ley of the Wind, but also the edgi­er visions of the future seen in films like Aki­ra or Ghost in the Shell. In fact, the short is such a mag­i­cal, mem­o­rable piece of film­mak­ing that it over­whelms the song.

The video unfolds in a non-lin­ear fash­ion, jump­ing for­ward and back, fork­ing into mul­ti­ple ver­sions of the same scene. Miyaza­ki isn’t con­cerned about you not get­ting the sto­ry. As he said in a 1995 inter­view, you can “inter­pret [the film] any­way you want.”

The piece opens with a giant struc­ture that looms over an oth­er­wise beau­ti­ful, bucol­ic land­scape. Miyaza­ki, who is nev­er espe­cial­ly forth­com­ing when talk­ing about his work, describes the world of “On Your Mark” like this: “There is so much radi­a­tion on the Earth­’s sur­face, humans can no longer live there. But, there is flo­ra, just like there is one around Cher­nobyl. It became a sanc­tu­ary for nature, with the humans liv­ing in the under­ground city.”

The video then shifts abrupt­ly to a scene straight out of Aki­ra. Down in that under­ground city, the police attack the high­rise head­quar­ters of a spooky reli­gious cult and res­cue a young girl with broad, feath­ered wings. An angel? Who knows. A lot of view­ers have not­ed the cult echoes that of Aum Shin­rikyo, the dooms­day cult that released Sarin gas into the sub­ways of Tokyo in March 1995. Of course, the video was made before the attack. Mamoru Oshii’s 1993 ani­mat­ed fea­ture Pat­la­bor 2 also had eerie sim­i­lar­i­ties to Aum, so much so that it was fea­tured in the 1995 Yam­a­ga­ta Doc­u­men­tary Film Fes­ti­val. Both film­mak­ers, it seems, tapped into that ugly under­cur­rent in the zeit­geist of Japan­ese cul­ture at that time.

As Miyazaki’s short pro­gress­es, it shows two cops who decide to do the right thing and break the girl out of the lab­o­ra­to­ry where she is being held. The first time they try, the cops (and pre­sum­ably the angel) plunge to their deaths. The sec­ond time they try – and it’s not real­ly clear how they get this do-over – they man­age to escape. The cops dri­ve to the irra­di­at­ed sur­face of the earth and watch in awe as the angel flies way.

In Miyazaki’s mind, the winged girl rep­re­sents hope:

If you don’t com­plete­ly give up on the sit­u­a­tion and you keep your hope, not let­ting any­one touch it, and then you have to let it go, you let it go where no one can touch it. It’s just that. Maybe there was a bit of exchange in the moment of let­ting her
go. That’s fine, that’s enough. …Prob­a­bly they’ll go back to being the police­men. I don’t know if they could go back, though. [laughs]

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How to Make Instant Ramen Com­pli­ments of Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion Direc­tor Hayao Miyaza­ki

French Stu­dent Sets Inter­net on Fire with Ani­ma­tion Inspired by Moe­bius, Syd Mead & Hayao Miyaza­ki

Japan­ese Car­toons from the 1920s and 30s Reveal the Styl­is­tic Roots of Ani­me

Watch Sher­lock Hound: Hayao Miyazaki’s Ani­mat­ed, Steam­punk Take on Sher­lock Holmes

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

Albert Einstein Tells His Son The Key to Learning & Happiness is Losing Yourself in Creativity (or “Finding Flow”)

einstein creativity

As one par­tic­u­lar­ly astute observ­er of human emo­tions might put it, it is a truth uni­ver­sal­ly acknowl­edged that we can’t all be Albert Ein­stein. In fact, none of us can. That unique expe­ri­ence was denied even Einstein’s son Hans Albert, though he did go on to his own dis­tin­guished career as an engi­neer and pro­fes­sor of hydraulics. Ein­stein father and son had a strained rela­tion­ship, yet the great physi­cist had a hand in his son’s suc­cess, inspir­ing him to pur­sue his sci­en­tif­ic pas­sion. But Einstein’s pater­nal encour­age­ment extend­ed fur­ther, beyond sci­en­tif­ic pur­suits and to a gen­er­al the­o­ry of learn­ing and enjoy­ment that sug­gests we can be hap­pi­est and most pro­duc­tive when being most our­selves.

While liv­ing in Berlin in 1915, Ein­stein wrote a poignant let­ter to his son, just two days after fin­ish­ing his the­o­ry of gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty. His tone swings from buoy­ant to pained—lamenting his family’s “awk­ward” sep­a­ra­tion and propos­ing to spend more time with Albert, as he calls him. His son can “learn many good and beau­ti­ful things from me,” writes Ein­stein, “These days I have com­plet­ed one of the most beau­ti­ful works of my life.”

Ein­stein also writes, “I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and car­pen­try are in my opin­ion for your age the best pur­suits.” An ama­teur musi­cian him­self, Ein­stein under­stood the val­ue of devel­op­ing an infor­mal avo­ca­tion. “Main­ly play the things on the piano which please you,” he tells his son, “even if the teacher does not assign those.” Doing what you love, the way you like to do it, he goes on, “is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing some­thing with such enjoy­ment that you don’t notice that the time pass­es.”

This great theme of total immer­sion in a cre­ative endeav­or sur­faced sev­er­al decades lat­er in anoth­er scientist’s work, that of Hun­gar­i­an psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, described by Mar­tin Selig­man—for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Association—as “the world’s lead­ing researcher” in the field of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy. Pre­sent­ed in his pop­u­lar TED talk above, and at more length in his books on the sub­ject, Csikszentmihalyi’s insights into human flour­ish­ing mir­ror Einstein’s: he calls such cre­ative immer­sion “flow,” or the state of “being com­plete­ly involved in an activ­i­ty for its own sake.”

The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, move­ment, and thought fol­lows inevitably from the pre­vi­ous one, like play­ing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Con­trary to our usu­al con­cep­tions of using one’s “skills to the utmost,” Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi tells us that the reward for enter­ing such a state is not the mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits it gen­er­ates, but the pos­i­tive emo­tions. These, as Ein­stein the­o­rized, not only moti­vate us to become bet­ter, but they also pro­vide a source of mean­ing no amount of finan­cial gain above a min­i­mum lev­el can offer. “The lack of basic mate­r­i­al resources con­tributes to unhap­pi­ness,” Csikszentmihalyi’s data demon­strates, “but the increase in mate­r­i­al resources does not increase hap­pi­ness.” While none of us can be Ein­stein, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi tells us we can all ben­e­fit from Einstein’s advice, by doing what­ev­er we do to the best of our abil­i­ties and with­out any motive oth­er than sheer plea­sure.

via Far­nam Street/Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Musi­cal Mind of Albert Ein­stein: Great Physi­cist, Ama­teur Vio­lin­ist and Devo­tee of Mozart

Albert Ein­stein on Indi­vid­ual Lib­er­ty, With­out Which There Would Be ‘No Shake­speare, No Goethe, No New­ton’

Lis­ten as Albert Ein­stein Calls for Peace and Social Jus­tice in 1945

Albert Ein­stein Reads ‘The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence’ (1941)

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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