Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Richard Feynman's Last Love Letter

Richard and Arline Feynman
Some of you may be familiar with Richard Feynman, but here is a small introduction nonetheless. Richard Feynman, born in 1918, was a Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicist who became one of the best known scientists during his life-time. He worked on the development of the atomic bomb, was a part of Rogers Commission and introduced the concept of nano-technology. What many aspiring physicist but also the larger public know him best for, however, were his efforts towards popularizing physics for the masses. He did this through the publication of lecture series, such as The Feynman Lectures on Physics, and semi-autobiographical books such as Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman?. As such, his writing has been a major part of his career and his legacy. Now another piece of his writing has been released which reveals more about the man behind the physics.

Letters of Note, with the permission of the Richard Feynman Estate, reposted a letter of Richard's which they also featured in their book. In 1845, Richard's wife and high-school sweetheart Arline died. Richard Feynman was desolate and 16 months after her death pickd up the pen one last time to write her a letter, as they so frequently did while she was alive. The result is the heart-breaking love letter below. You see, love letters are a difficult thing to write since they are so torn between two subjects. On the one hand they need to describe the emotions of the writer, how ardently he or she loves the other, whereas it also needs to describe and flatter the one who is loved. They can sink into terrible cliches, sound amateurish or plain unbelievable. What Richard Feynman's love letter shows, however, is the sheer beauty of when a love letter comes from the heart.
October 17, 1946
I adore you, sweetheart. 
I know how much you like to hear that — but I don't only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you. 
It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you'll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing. 
But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.
I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can't I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the "idea-woman" and general instigator of all our wild adventures.
When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don't want to be in my way. I'll bet you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can't help it, darling, nor can I — I don't understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don't want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.
My darling wife, I do adore you. 
I love my wife. My wife is dead.
PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don't know your new address.

This is one of the most beautiful love letters I have ever read, and I include the various love letters in Jane Austen's books in that. The heart-ache and love simply seeps through between the lines and it feels incredibly recognizable for anyone who has ever lost a loved one. What I also love about this letter is that it shows that beautiful, heartfelt writing isn't the prerogative of well-trained, Classic Authors but that anyone has this kind of access to language. Out of tragedy comes beauty and sometimes literary beauty comes from a theoretical physicist.

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