Brain Pickings

I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!

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“Boys fix things. Girls need things fixed.”

In 1970, when the second wave of feminism was reaching critical mass and women were raising their voices for equality across the “social media” of the day decades before the internet as we know it, when even Pete Seeger was rallying for a gender-neutral pronoun, an odd children’s book titled I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! (public library) began appearing in bookstores.

It began innocently enough:

Hmm, okay… (But still.):

And then it straddled the gender-normative continuum between the appalling and the absurd:

At first glance, it appears to be the most sexist book ever printed, made all the worse for the fact that it was aimed at the next generation. In fact, many reviewers at the time took it for just that, and cursory commentary across the web even today treats it as a laughable fossil of a bygone era, handling it with equal parts outraged indignation and how-far-we’ve-come relief.

But what many missed, even in 1970, is that the man who wrote and illustrated the book was Whitney Darrow, Jr., whose father founded Princeton University Press and whose satirical cartoons graced the New Yorker for nearly fifty years between 1933 and 1982. When Darrow died in 1999, a New York Times obituary called him “a witty, gently satiric cartoonist” and “one of the last of the early New Yorker cartoonists,” part of the same milieu as James Thurber, Charles Addams, and Peter Arno.

Which is all to say: It’s highly likely, if not almost certainly the case, that Darrow, a man of keen cultural commentary wrapped in unusual humor, intended the book as satire. It came, after all, at a time when girls were beginning to be rather un-glad to be “girls” in the sense of the word burdened by outdated cultural expectations and boggled in an air of second-class citizenry. It’s entirely possible that Darrow wanted to comment on these outdated gender norms by depicting them in absurd cartoonishness precisely so that their absurdity would shine through.

Of course, we can never be certain, as there is no record of Darrow himself ever discussing his intentions with the book. All we have is speculation — but let’s at least make it of the contextually intelligent kind. Sure, he was born in the first decade of the twentieth century — a time when those absurd gender norms were very much alive and well, a time not too long after it was perfectly acceptable for a wholly non-sarcastic Map of Woman’s Heart to exist and a list of don’ts for female bicyclists could be published in complete seriousness. And he came of age in a culture where those same norms very much mandated the rules of love and gender relations. But that’s perhaps all the more reason for a man who dedicated his creative career to our era’s smartest institution of cultural commentary to poke fun at society’s ebb and flow of values the best way he knew how — through his satirical cartoons.

Sadly, I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl! rests in the cemetery of out-of-print gems — but it might well be worth a trip to the local library.

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The Creative Cleft: Joyce Carol Oates on the Divided Self and the “Diamagnetic” Relationship Between Person and Persona

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“No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The ‘artist’ can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to ‘art.’”

“I am more interested in human beings than in writing … more interested in living than in writing,” Anaïs Nin wrote when graciously declining being profiled in Harper’s Bazaar in 1946, an act of resistance against the tendency of such cultural reportage to flatten out a creative person into a static, one-dimensional self rather than a vibrant human being full of conflicting dualities. In fact, we now know, thanks to modern psychology, that the notion of unchanging personality is a myth, just as we know that the left brain vs. right brain divide is scientifically misleading and the cultural polarities we subscribe to are psychologically toxic. But perhaps one of the greatest divides that we humans, woven of inner contradictions as we are, have to grapple with is that between person and persona, our private and public self, the inner world and its outer expression — and hardly any species of human is more chronically bedeviled by this drudging duality than the writer.

In Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library) — the same superb Borges-inspired 1995 volume that gave us famous authors’ hand-drawn self-portraits and the story of Edward Gorey’s pseudonyms — comes a remarkable meditation on the subject from Joyce Carol Oates, in a short essay titled “‘JCO’ and I” and prefaced by her own collaged self-portrait.

'JCO'

Oates begins:

It is a fact that, to that other, nothing ever happens. I, a mortal woman, move through my life with the excited interest of a swimmer in uncharted waters — my predilections are few, but intense — while she, the other, is a mere shadow, a blur, a figure glimpsed in the corner of the eye. Rumors of “JCO” come to me thirdhand and usually unrecognizable, arguing, absurdly, for her historical existence. But while writing exists, writers do not — as all writers know.

Noting that she always beholds photographs of her likeness with “faint bewilderment,” Oates urges the reader not to be deceived about the difference between the likeness and the self, and adds a poignant meditation on the odd cultural tendency to turn a living writer’s persona into taxidermy while the arrow of time carries the person along the trajectory of human life:

“JCO” is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out like pages of print left too long in the sun. … I continue to age year by year, if not hour by hour, while “JCO” the other, remains no fixed age — in spiritual essence, perhaps, forever poised between the fever of idealism and the chill of cynicism, a precocious eighteen years old. Yet, can a process be said to have an age? an impulse, a strategy, an obsessive tracery, like planetary orbits to which planets, “real” planets, must conform?

Oates considers the notion of art as something external to the individual, something that inhabits him or her rather at random, and adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The “artist” can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to “art.” (And what is “art” — a firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality.) “JCO” occasionally mines, and distorts, my personal history; but only because the history is so close at hand, and then only when some idiosyncrasy about it suits her design, or some curious element of the symbolic. If you, a friend of mine, should appear in her work, have no fear — you won’t recognize yourself, any more than I would recognize you.

It would be misleading to describe our relationship as hostile in any emotional sense, for she, being bodiless, having no existence, has no emotions: We are more helpfully defined as diamagnetic, the one repulsing the other as magnetic poles repulse each other, so that “JCO” eclipses me, or, and this is less frequent, I eclipse “JCO,” depending upon the strength of my will.

Oates returns to the central divide between the likeness and the self:

And so my life continues through the decades…not connected in the slightest with that conspicuous other with whom, by accident, I share a name and likeness. The fact seems self-evident that I was but the door through which she entered — “it” entered — but any door would have done as well. Does it matter which entrance you use to enter a walled garden? Once you’re inside, and have closed the door?

For once, not she but I am writing these pages. Or so I believe.

Who’s Writing This? is excellent in its entirety. See more authors’ meditations on the subject here.

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William Blake’s Breathtaking Drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Over Which He Labored Until His Dying Day

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The sinister and sublime, in transcendent watercolors.

It is not uncommon for great artists to bring literary classics to pictorial life, from Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy to Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses to Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975. But among the greatest such cross-pollinations of art and literature come from legendary poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827), celebrated as one of the greatest creative geniuses in history and an inspiration to generations of artists, as well as a lifelong muse to Maurice Sendak.

In 1826, at age 65, Blake received a commission to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy thanks to John Linnell — a young artist he had befriended, who shared with Blake a defiance of modern trends and a belief in a spiritualism as an artistic foundation for the New Age. Blake was drawn to the project because, despite the five centuries that separated them, he resonated with Dante’s contempt for materialism and the way power warps morality — the opportunity to represent these ideas pictorially no doubt sang to him.

Alas, Blake died several months later, leaving the project uncompleted — but he had worked feverishly through his excruciating gallbladder attacks to produce 102 drawings, ranging from basic sketches to fully developed watercolors, literally working on the project on his dying day. Linnell, who had paid £130 for the drawings, lent Blake’s wife money for the artist’s funeral, which took place on their 45th wedding anniversary.

The Divine Comedy drawings were never published, but remained in Linnell’s possession. In 1913, more than thirty years after his death, Linnell’s family lent them to the Tate Gallery in London for a retrospective of Blake’s work. Five years later, they sold the paintings at an auction, inevitably scattering them across galleries in England, Australia, and the United States.

Fortunately, all 102 plates are reproduced and collected in the magnificent volume William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations (public library), where Blake’s transcendent capacity for reconciling the sinister and the sublime springs to luminous life once more.

See more in the impossibly breathtaking William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations, then shift sensibilities with this charming vintage homage to William Blake.

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