Brain Pickings

The Aesthetics of Silence: Susan Sontag on Art as a Form of Spirituality and the Paradoxical Role of Silence in Creative Culture

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“The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway.”

“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Adrienne Rich asserted in her spectacular 1997 lecture Arts of the Possible. But it was exactly three decades earlier that another of humanity’s most incisive intellects made the finest — and timeliest today — case for the generative function of silence in a creative culture drowning in noise.

In The Aesthetics of Silence, the first essay from her altogether indispensable 1969 collection Styles of Radical Will (public library), Susan Sontag examines how silence mediates the role of art as a form of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

Shortly after she wrote in her diary that “art is a form of consciousness” and shortly before Pablo Neruda penned his beautiful ode to silence and Paul Goodman — who shared a mutual admiration with Sontag — enumerated the nine kinds of silence, she writes:

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)

In the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is “art.” The activities of the painter, the musician, the poet, the dancer, once they were grouped together under that generic name (a relatively recent move), have proved a particularly adaptable site on which to stage the formal dramas besetting consciousness, each individual work of art being a more or less astute paradigm for regulating or reconciling these contradictions. Of course, the site needs continual refurbishing. Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn.

But modern art, Sontag argues, is as much a form of consciousness as an answer to our longing for anti-consciousness, speaking to what she calls “the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement”:

Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within consciousness itself.

As such, art usurps the role religion and mysticism previously held in human life — something to satisfy our “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” The spiritual satiation that arises from this dialogue between art and anti-art, Sontag points out, necessitates the pursuit of silence. For the serious artist, silence becomes “a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.”

In a counterpart to her later admonition that publicity is “a very destructive thing” for any artist, Sontag considers the zeal the artist must have in protecting that zone of silence — a notion of particular urgency in our age of tyrannical expectations regarding artists’ engagement with social media:

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience… Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard’s astute observation that expressing contempt is still a demonstration of dependence, Sontag recognizes that the gesture of silence in abdication from society is still “a highly social gesture.” She writes:

An exemplary decision of this sort can be made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius authoritatively. Once he has surpassed his peers by the standards which he acknowledges, his pride has only one place left to go. For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, and that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.

Silence, then, is exercised not in the absolute but in degrees, mediating between art and anti-art, between consciousness and anti-consciousness:

The exemplary modern artist’s choice of silence is rarely carried to this point of final simplification, so that he becomes literally silent. More typically, he continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can’t hear…

Modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, vicarious participation in the ideal of silence which has been elevated as a major standard of “seriousness” in contemporary aesthetics.

But it is also a contradictory form of participation in the ideal of silence. It is contradictory not only because the artist continues making works of art, but also because the isolation of the work from its audience never lasts… Goethe accused Kleist of having written his plays for an “invisible theatre.” But eventually the invisible theatre becomes “visible.” The ugly and discordant and senseless become “beautiful.” The history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions.

[…]

Committed to the idea that the power of art is located in its power to negate, the ultimate weapon in the artist’s inconsistent war with his audience is to verge closer and closer to silence.

And yet, Sontag points out, silence is relational — while it may be the intention of the artist, it can never be the experience of the audience. (For a supreme example, we need not look further than John Cage, who even during his most forceful imposition of silence was in dynamic dialogue with the audience upon which silence was being imposed.)

Sontag, in fact, shined a sidewise gleam on this notion three years earlier in her masterwork Against Interpretation — for what is interpretation if not the act of filling the artist’s silence with the audience’s noise? She writes:

Silence doesn’t exist in a literal sense, however, as the experience of an audience. It would mean that the spectator was aware of no stimulus or that he was unable to make a response… As long as audiences, by definition, consist of sentient beings in a “situation,” it is impossible for them to have no response at all.

[…]

There is no neutral surface, no neutral discourse, no neutral theme, no neutral form. Something is neutral only with respect to something else — like an intention or an expectation. As a property of the work of art itself, silence can exist only in a cooked or non-literal sense. (Put otherwise: if a work exists at all, its silence is only one element in it.) Instead of raw or achieved silence, one finds various moves in the direction of an ever receding horizon of silence — moves which, by definition, can never be fully consummated.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord from a rare edition of 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for more.

She illustrates this with the classic scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where Alice encounters a shop “full of all manner of curious things,” and yet whenever she looks closely at any one shelf, it appears “quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold.” Silence, similarly, is relational rather than absolute:

“Silence” never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be “up” without “down” or “left” without “right,” so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence…

A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the artwork exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

Silence, Sontag argues, is also a way of steering the attention. In a passage triply timely today, half a century of attention-mauling media later, she writes:

Art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention… Once the artist’s task seemed to be simply that of opening up new areas and objects of attention. That task is still acknowledged, but it has become problematic. The very faculty of attention has come into question, and been subjected to more rigorous standards…

Perhaps the quality of the attention one brings to bear on something will be better (less contaminated, less distracted), the less one is offered. Furnished with impoverished art, purged by silence, one might then be able to begin to transcend the frustrating selectivity of attention, with its inevitable distortions of experience. Ideally, one should be able to pay attention to everything.

Many years later, Sontag would advise aspiring writers to learn to “pay attention to the world” as the most important skill of storytelling. Silence, she argues here, invites us to pay selfless and unselfconscious attention to the world the artist is creating. In a sentiment that explains why there are no comments on Brain Pickings and captures today’s acute spiritual hunger for a space for unreactive contemplation amid a culture of reactive opinion-slinging, Sontag writes:

Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject… In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.

[…]

The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake. Silence, administered by the artist, is part of a program of perceptual and cultural therapy, often on the model of shock therapy rather than of persuasion. Even if the artist’s medium is words, he can share in this task: language can be employed to check language, to express muteness… Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.

Once again, Sontag’s extraordinary prescience shines its brilliant beam upon our time, across half a century of perfectly anticipated cultural shifts. Much like she presaged the downsides of the internet’s photo-fetishism in the 1970s and admonished against treating cultural material as “content” in the 1960s, she captures the entire ethos of our social media in 1967:

The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that.

The Aesthetics of Silence is an immeasurably rewarding read in its entirety, as is the remainder of Styles of Radical Will. Complement it with Sontag on love, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of visual culture, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, her diary meditations on art, and her advice to aspiring writers.

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The Art of Biophilia: Extraordinary Mosaics Incorporating Earth’s Most Colorful Creatures

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A mesmerizing celebration of “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”

In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm popularized the word biophilia as a term for a positive psychological state of being. Literally translated as “love of life,” it is more vibrantly captured in Fromm’s own translation as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive… the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” Many decades later, the great Mary Oliver — whose poetry is among humanity’s highest celebrations of biophilia — would come to call this feeling the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

That passionate love of aliveness and that exulted awareness of the citizenry of all beings is what artist, designer, and photographer Christopher Marley captures in Biophilia (public library) — an exquisite collection of his artwork incorporating various life-forms, from insects to reptiles to marine creatures. A modern-day Ernst Haeckel of photographic art, Marley painstakingly arranges his specimens into mesmerizing patterns and stages them for individual portraits that reveal the dazzling grandeur of these humble creatures, from butterflies that would’ve made Nabokov proud to fish that outshine the greatest natural history illustrations.

Chrysina Prism (France, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Honduras, Australia, Tanzania, Borneo)

Cerulean Butterflies (Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Irian, Sulawesi, France)

Urchin Spheres (Thailand, Philippines, United States, Mexico)

Tropical Fish Mosaic (Worldwide)

Marley, a self-described “chronically afflicted biophiliac,” writes:

It is our biophilia that causes us to find so much beauty and satisfaction in nature. We do not love nature because it is beautiful; we find beauty in nature because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us.

[…]

It is a symbiotic relationship. The more we grow in understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the more we invest in it, the greater the peace, satisfaction, and joy we receive from our association in return, just as we involuntarily develop love for those people we truly understand and serve. As with all ordained goodness, the more we give, the more we receive.

That goodness permeates Marley’s work. After growing up in a family of hunters, he developed an aversion to killing any creature — even an insect — and spent years developing ethical, sustainable ways of collecting and preserving the specimens he uses in his artwork, working with a worldwide network of researchers, citizen scientists, and institutions.

Aesthetica Sphere (Worldwide species)

A century and a half after Emerson contemplated how beauty bewitches the human spirit, asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting,” Marley makes infinitely interesting — or, rather, illuminates the inherent interestingness of — various species with which we share our shimmering world but which we, blinded by the momentum of our prejudices and phobias, ordinarily consider ugly or unremarkable. He uses beauty — “the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world,” per Emerson — as a tool of translation, shifting our frame of reference from one of antipathy or apprehension to one of appreciation and even affection.

Marley writes:

I have found that when my subjects are meticulously composed, it makes the translation more intelligible for the public at large, just as random music notes, once properly orchestrated, can enter the heart and sway it almost against our volition. Once an appreciation for the aesthetics of insects is born, it is amazing how quickly old prejudiced and stereotypes fall away. When people begin to see beauty where they had previously known only a mundane, distasteful, or even frightening world of arcane organisms, positive changes in their perceptions of arthropods as a whole are sure to follow.

[…]

If the work I do provides no other benefit than to kindle a new appreciation of insects (and any other creatures that evoke trepidation in the human heart), that is enough for me. It is the primary reason why I do what I do: because it brings people — myself and others — joy.

The joy his work brings is of the most colorful, ebullient kind — the kind that emanates an exuberant celebration of biodiversity and an invitation for us to belong to this world more fully, calling to mind Mary Oliver’s unforgettable verse: “I know, you never intended to be in this world. / But you’re in it all the same. / So why not get started immediately. / I mean, belonging to it. / There is so much to admire, to weep over.”

Fulgens Prism (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan)

Urchin Spheres Mosaic (Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, United States)

Feather Mosaic (Worldwide)

Cretaceous Ammonite Study (Madagascar)

Green Tree Python (Australia)

Preserved Octopus (Atlantic Ocean)

Elegans Prism (Thailand, Indonesia, Cameroon, Malaysia)

Complement Biophilia with Susan Middleton’s breathtaking photographs of marine invertebrates, then revisit the curious cultural history of thinking with animals.

All images: © 2015 Christopher Marley courtesy of Abrams Books

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A Living Obituary: Faulkner’s Beautiful Epitaph for Himself

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“He made the books and he died.”

By the time 64-year-old William Faulkner took his last breath on July 6, 1962, he had been a little-known Jazz Age artist, a world-famous sage of literature, the author of an obscure children’s book with a curious back-story, the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Nobel laureate whose prize acceptance speech is itself a supreme work of art.

Perhaps because of this prolific and diverse body of work, or perhaps because he was as deliberate about how he lived his life, Faulkner was remarkably deliberate about how he would be remembered after his death.

While working on The Portable Faulkner in 1946, legendary editor Malcolm Cowley had pressed the author for biographical details, but the request was met with resistance. Three years later, Life magazine asked Cowley to write a piece on Faulkner. But after encountering Cowley’s biographical essay on Hemingway for a similar Life assignment, Faulkner grew reaffirmed in his resistance to being the subject of an intrusive biography.

In a 1949 letter to Cowley, penned a few months before Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize and found in Selected Letters of William Faulkner (public library), the 51-year-old author writes his own epitaph in what is essentially a beautiful living obituary:

I am more convinced and determined than ever that this is not for me. I will protest to the last: no photographs, no recorded documents. It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.

Faulkner’s resistance springs from the same source as Anaïs Nin’s refusal to be profiled and our present concerns about privacy — the fear that because no life is really a single and linear story, compressing its ever-evolving complexity into a static set of biographical details or data points does a grave disservice to what Walt Whitman called the multitudes comprising each of us. Any attempt at a neatly packaged public understanding therefore engenders in the private individual a deep sense of being misunderstood.

Assuage Faulkner’s concern with Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Faulkner on the meaning of life, the writer’s responsibility to society, and his little-known children’s book.

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Teenage Sylvia Plath’s First Tragic Poem, with a Touching Remembrance by Her Mother

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“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.”

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things,” Sylvia Plath observed in a BBC interview shortly before she took her own life. But the seed of those dark emotions started sprouting many years earlier, when Plath was still a teenager — quite a common life-stage for the first onset of depression.

In the introduction to Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us teenage Sylvia’s letters on the joy of living — her mother, Aurelia Plath, shares young Sylvia’s first poem marked by tragic undertones. The inspiration for it is a testament to the poet’s universal task of dramatizing the ordinary and transmuting it into the profound: One afternoon, Sylvia had just finished drawing a pastel still-life and was showing it to her grandmother when the doorbell rang; the grandmother took off her apron to greet the guest and tossed it on the table, accidentally sweeping the pastel drawing and blurring part of it.

That evening, Plath penned her first tragic poem. She was fourteen.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD NOT BE HURT

I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering —
immune to mental pain
or agony.

My world was warm with April sun
my thoughts were spangled green and gold;
my soul filled up with joy, yet felt
the sharp, sweet pain that only joy
can hold.

My spirit soared above the gulls
that, swooping breathlessly so high
o’erhead, now seem to brush their whir-
ring wings against the blue roof
of the sky.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to destroy

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, they wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-
ment.

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Plath’s English teacher showed the poem to a colleague, who — unaware of the rather comically benign incident that inspired the poem — exclaimed: “Incredible that one so young could have experienced anything so devastating.” But even more precocious than the emotional richness of the poem was young Sylvia’s response when Aurelia relayed the teacher’s remark to her — the teenage poet “smiled impishly,” as her mother recalls, and said:

Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.

And yet those tragic undertones were more than mere dramatic flair — they would come to dominate both Plath’s poetry and her journals.

But the eclipse of her inner April sun was gradual. In letter to her mother from early 1955, also included in the volume, 23-year-old Plath dangles her feet over the precipice of the abyss that would eventually consume her — she is aware that the abyss exists but still regards it as a curious phenomenon rather than a mortal threat, a challenge that can be overcome with sufficient optimism and discipline:

I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.

But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy.

We now know, of course, that clinical depression is not something one can simply will away “with bravo and philosophy.” But Plath’s letter does intuit much of what scientists have since confirmed about depression: its hereditary nature and the role of rumination — that tendency to “lie awake at nights hating [oneself] for stupidities” — as a major cognitive vulnerability factor in depression.

Above all, Plath’s prolific creative output and her tragic end attest to what is perhaps the finest line in mental health: While ordinary melancholy enriches our capacity for creativity, depression — its severe clinical counterpart — crushes the creative spirit. And yet our cultural narrative about artists who lose their lives to mental illness is woefully devoid of nuance — to romanticize suicide is as fraught as to dismiss an entire body of work on account of the artist’s tragic end. It is possible — nay, necessary — to recognize that while suicide is indeed an unspeakable tragedy, without their creative restlessness, without their capacity for “the sharp, sweet pain that only joy can hold,” artists like Plath and Van Gogh and Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace would have likely succumbed to their tragic neurochemistry much sooner. To celebrate their art, then, is to celebrate not the malady that led to their deaths but the gift that enriched and extended their lives.

Complement the altogether revelatory Letters Home with Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, her little-known children’s book, and her reading of the breath-stopping poem “The Birthday Present” shortly after her last birthday.

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