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22 OCTOBER, 2014

October 22, 1964: Jean-Paul Sartre Becomes the First Person to Decline the Nobel Prize

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“A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own — that is, the written word.”

Despite its surprisingly dark origin, the Nobel Prize is regarded as the highest honor bestowed upon a human being. Among its diverse laureates are a number of meta-outliers — people exceptional not only for the work that merited the prize but also for their atypical position within the Nobel ecosystem itself: Marie Curie became not only the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize but also the first and, for decades, the only person to win a Nobel in two different sciences; Aung San Suu Kyi is the only laureate who received the prize while under house arrest; Ernest Hemingway accepted his with a short and piercing speech that is itself prize-worthy.

But the greatest outlier of all is French philosopher, writer, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre.

In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and became the first person to decline it. (The only other one to date is Lê Ðúc Tho, awarded the 1973 Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Peace Accords seeking to establish peace in Vietnam; he turned it down on the grounds that there was no actual peace in Vietnam — an admirable stance that calls to mind Marie Curie’s famous assertion that “one never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”)

In a statement to the Swedish press published on October 22, 1964, Sartre offered a defiant explanation second only to Adrienne Rich terrific letter of conviction, in which she became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts.

Sartre wrote:

I was not aware at the time that the Nobel Prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient, and I believed there was time to prevent this from happening. But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision it cannot subsequently revoke it.

My reasons for refusing the prize concern neither the Swedish Academy nor the Nobel Prize in itself, as I explained in my letter to the Academy. In it, I alluded to two kinds of reasons: personal and objective.

The personal reasons are these: my refusal is not an impulsive gesture, I have always declined official honors. In 1945, after the war, when I was offered the Legion of Honor, I refused it, although I was sympathetic to the government. Similarly, I have never sought to enter the Collège de France, as several of my friends suggested.

This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own — that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.

But in this short excerpt from BBC’s philosophy documentary Human, All Too Human, Sartre offers a far less politically correct explanation:

Because I was politically involved, the bourgeois establishment wanted to cover up my “past errors.” Now, there’s an admission! And so they gave me the Nobel Prize. They “pardoned” me and said I deserved it. It was monstrous!

And yet one can’t help but wonder whether the publicity stunt was necessary. After all, physicist Richard Feynman — who won the Nobel Prize himself a year after Sartre — put it best in his eloquent denouncement of awards:

I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.

Making a fuss out of declining an award seems not much different from making a fuss over accepting it — both make the award more real than it need be if one were truly interested in breaking free from the system. Why can’t the private pleasure of finding things out be enough, award or no award? Then again, Sartre had a peculiar relationship with the real and the irreal — and that might be what makes his declination all the more interesting. Perhaps what he wrote in his passionate love letters to Simone de Beauvoir applies here as well: “Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things.”

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22 OCTOBER, 2014

You Have Never Seen the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe on the Shimmering Beauty of the Southwest

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“There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her best friend, Anita Pollitzer, the woman who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Indeed, O’Keeffe’s love for the landscape and energy of the Southwest shimmers with growing vibrancy across the lifetime of letters the two women exchanged collected in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library) — the same wonderful volume that gave us O’Keeffe on art, life, and setting priorities. It was there, under the endless skies and fiery sunsets of the Southwest, that O’Keeffe developed not only the remarkable mastery of color and sensuality for which she is known but also the most essential tool of all art — the ability to pay attention, to look and actually see.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Black Mesa Landscape,' 1930 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

In mid-January of 1916, returning to New York from Texas after a visit as she considered a new teaching job there, O’Keeffe writes to Pollitzer:

There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all — mirages people it with all sorts of things at times — sometimes Ive seen the most wonderful sunsets over what seemed to be the ocean — It is great — I would like to go today — Next to New York it is the finest thing I know — here I feel like Im in a shoe that doesn’t fit.

O’Keeffe would eventually trade the ill-fitting shoe for the bigness that would be her home for the last seven decades of her life — but not before her heart fully surrendered to the sunsets of the Southwest. In one particularly evocative letter from September of 1916, O’Keeffe channels the expansive awe of the Southwest sky:

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

[...]

It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful –

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills,' 1935 (Brooklyn Museum)

Despite declaring to Pollitzer that she always has “a hard time finding words for anything,” O’Keeffe blossoms as a spectacular writer in relaying the sensory awe of the landscape to her friend — a testament to Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is a professional observer.” In another gorgeous letter a few days later, O’Keeffe writes:

Last night couldnt sleep till after four in the morning — I had been out to the canyon all afternoon — till late at night — wonderful color — I wish I could tell you how big — and with the night the colors deeper and darker — cattle on the pastures in the bottom looked like little pinheads — I can understand Pa Dow painting his pretty colored canyons — it must have been a great temptation — no wonder he fell

Then the moon rose right up out of the ground after we got out on the plains again — battered a little where he bumped his head but enormous — There was no wind — it was just big and still — so very big and still — long legged jack rabbits hopping across in front of the light as we passed — A great place to see the night time because there is nothing else.

[...]

Im so glad Im out here — I can’t tell you how much I like it. I like the plains — and I like the work — everything is so ridiculously new — and there is something about it that just makes you glad your living here — You understand — there is nothing here — so maybe there is something wrong with me that I am liking it so much.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Storm Cloud,' 1923 (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

There was, of course, nothing “wrong” with O’Keeffe — she was learning a whole new way of looking at the world, directing toward it what Oscar Wilde memorably called “temperament of receptivity,” inhabiting it with the very presence and aliveness from which great art springs. A few more days later, she captures this aliveness beautifully in another letter to Pollitzer:

Really — living is too fine — Last night we had a tremendous thunderstorm — and I’ve never seen such lightning in my life — it was wonderful… Stood out on the porch for a long time watching the whole sky alive.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Deer's Skull with Pedernal,' 1936 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

All of Lovingly, Georgia is a gorgeous read and a rare glimpse into the inner world of one of the most extraordinary artists who ever lived. Complement this particular slice of it with young Sylvia Plath on the transcendence and reverie of nature and Rebecca Solnit on why the sky is blue.

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21 OCTOBER, 2014

My Favorite Things: Maira Kalman’s Illustrated Catalog of Unusual Objects, Memories, and Delight

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“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”

Four decades after Barthes listed his favorite things, which prompted Susan Sontag to list hers, Maira Kalman — one of the most enchanting, influential, and unusual creative voices today, and a woman of piercing insight — does something very similar and very different in her magnificent book My Favorite Things (public library).

Kalman not only lives her one human life with remarkable open-heartedness, but also draws from its private humanity warm and witty wisdom on our shared human experience. There is a spartan sincerity to her work, an elegantly choreographed spontaneity — words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide. She looks at the same world we all look at but sees what no one else sees — that magical stuff of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Here, her many-petaled mind blossoms in its full idiosyncratic whimsy as she catalogs the “personal micro-culture” of her inner life — her personal set of the objects and people and fragments of experience that constitute the ever-shifting assemblage we call a Self.

The book began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. But it is also a kind of visual catalog sandwiched between a memoir, reminding us that our experience of art is laced with the minute details and monumental moments of our personal histories and is invariably shaped by them. Between Kalman’s original paintings and photographs based on her selections from the museum’s sweeping collection — the buttons and bathtubs, dogs and dandies, first editions of Winnie the Pooh and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Proust’s letters — are also her childhood memories, her quirky personal collections, and her beautiful meditations on life.

Kalman writes in the introduction:

The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only — a gasp of DELIGHT.

Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? TO live among things that make you gasp with delight?

And gasp one does, over and over. As Kalman makes her way through the vast Cooper Hewitt collection, her immeasurably lyrical interweavings of private and public expose that special way in which museums not only serve as temples to collective memory but also invite us to reopen the Proustian jars of our own memories with interest and aliveness and a capacity to gasp.

“Whoever invented the bed was a genius,” Kalman writes in her simple homage, inspired by a trading card ad from 1909. “When you get up from bed, get dressed in pants and socks.” The pants: French silk and linen breeches from 1750–1770; the socks: French knitted silk stockings from 1850–1900.

Her painting of a pair of yellow American slippers from the 1830s is really a love letter to walking, something Kalman sees as an existential activity and a creative device:

The ability to walk from one point to the next point, that is half the battle won.

Go out and walk.

That is the glory of life.

Beneath her painting of a quilted and embroidered silk Egyptian cap from the late 13th or early 14th century, Kalman hand-letters the perfect pairing — Pablo Neruda’s 1959 poem “Ode to Things”:

I love crazy things,
crazily.

I enjoy
tongs,
scissors.

I adore
cups,
rings,
soup spoons,
not to mention,
of course,
the hat.

As an enormous lover of Alice in Wonderland, I was particularly bewitched by Kalman’s painting of a photograph by Lewis Carroll, which calls to mind the real-life Alice who inspired his Wonderland:

There is also Kalman’s wink at Darwin’s despondent letter:

Painting a set of dolls made by Mexican nuns, Kalman notes in her singular style of wry awe:

The nuns have sensational fashion sense.

Emanating from the entire project is Kalman’s ability to witness life with equal parts humor and humility, and to always extract find the lyrical — as in her exquisite pairing of this early nineteenth-century European mount and a Lydia Davis poem:

The objects Kalman selects ultimately become a springboard for leaping into the things that move her most — like her great love of books, woven with such gentleness and subtlety into a French lamp shade from 1935:

The book. Calming object. Held in the hand.

Indeed, the screen does no justice to the magnificent object that is My Favorite Things, an object to be held in the hand and the heart. It follows Kalman’s equally enchanting The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), which she has complemented with such wonderful side projects as her illustrations for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.

For a dimensional tour of Kalman’s mind and spirit, see Gael Towey’s wonderful short documentary.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman / HarperCollins; photographs my own

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