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26 AUGUST, 2014

Worn Stories: Playful and Poignant Tales of Clothes That Encode Life’s Most Meaningful Memories

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Wearable emotional memories from John Hodgman, Marina Abramovic, Piper Kerman, Pat Mahoney, Debbie Millman, Paola Antonelli, Kenneth Goldsmith, Meghan O’Rourke, Rosanne Cash, and more.

One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.

For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.

The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.

Spivack writes in the introduction:

The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone — in all of these are encoded the stories of our lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.

Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman selects an outfit she wore at a key moment in the memoir-turned-TV-hit Orange Is the New Black — a vintage suit that was among the three outfits she packed for her final court appearance and sentencing after taking a plea deal (which, she explains, 95% of criminal defendants do):

As your case wends through the system, you barely speak in court; the prosecutor and defense attorney do most of the talking. Unlike 80 percent of criminal defendants, I could afford to hire a lawyer, and I was lucky that he was a very good and experienced one. He had advocated long and hard with the prosecutor on my behalf, and then the day came where his work and my case would be decided by the judge, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.

Most criminal defendants wear whatever they are given by their attorney or family to their sentencing ; a lot of people are too poor to afford bail, and so they have been wearing jailhouse orange for many months before ever getting their day in court. I was much more fortunate; when I flew to Chicago to be sentenced to prison, I had three choices of court attire in my suitcase. A cadet-blue pantsuit, a very severe navy coatdress, and a wild card I had packed at the last minute: a vintage fifties pencil-skirt suit I had bought on eBay, in a coffee and cream tweed with a subtle sky blue check. It looked like something a Hitchcock heroine would have worn.

“That’s the one,” said my lawyer, pointing to the skirt suit. “We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbor when he looks at you.”

For someone standing for judgment, the importance of being seen as a complete human being, someone who is more than just the contents of the file folders that rest on the bench in front of His or Her Honor, cannot be overstated.

Despite the dramatic circumstances, Kerman’s experience captures something central to Spivack’s project — something fundamental about how we use clothing as this paradoxical combination of camouflage and self-revelation, a shield for and a stripping to our basic humanity.

Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan selects a pair of decidedly eighties Lycra cycle tights with orange-and-black graffiti writing and shares the touching story behind the seemingly silly garment:

One by one my roommates, friends, and boyfriends in Los Angeles started getting sick from AIDS. It was very early on in the epidemic and when you went to the doctor, they couldn’t refer you to an expert. They asked you if you were religious, meaning, you were going to die.

I decided to join a gym with a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At least we could be healthy, we thought… I went every day. In an attempt to do “healthy” things, I became addicted to the lights, the music, the endorphins. It was a very showbiz-y way to keep in shape, and many actresses would go to the class, like Madonna when she was starting to become well known.

[...]

The cult of aerobics was waning by the time I moved to New York in 1985, but with so many people getting sick, for a couple of years it was an antidote to this incredible malaise of melancholy that had been blanketing L.A.

Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman recounts the story of a peculiar yellow coat from the era in her life when she was standing on the precipice of her creative journey, long before she was a successful artist, prolific author, and award-winning interviewer. She recounts one July afternoon in her late twenties when she, broke and lusting after a glamorous life, ended up at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue after a months-long quest to track down the mysterious, enchanting perfume she had smelled on an exceptionally elegant woman. A uniformed man opened the gates to an unfamiliar world, “the most elegantly expensive environment” she had ever entered, where people very much unlike her — people “very, very rich” — were browsing $200 scarves.

Just then, a kindly saleslady — one imagines a character like Cinderella’s fairy godmother — took pity on Millman and whispered in her ear a thrilling secret: they were having a sale upstairs. Millman was thrilled, but it didn’t take her long to realize that, even with the markdowns, she couldn’t afford anything — until she spotted “the softest, most luxurious, ultra-bright lemony-yellow cashmere coat ever made.” Certain it would cost thousands of dollars, she apprehensively searched for the price, which revealed itself like a miracle — the original $2,200 was crossed out, and a hopeful $400 was written in its place.

Millman writes:

I calculated what the expense would mean to my budget. Undeterred, I tried the coat on. It was at least one size too big. None of this mattered to me. I felt glamorous and beautiful. As the clerk wrapped up the coat in the biggest orange box I had ever seen, I knew this wasn’t a mistake. I would wear this coat forever.

And wear it I did! I wore it every day from September until March. I wore it to work, I wore it every weekend, I wore it on vacation in Vermont, and I wore it traveling to the West Coast. The only time I wished for a warmer coat was en route to a client’s office on Fifth Avenue one blustery subzero February afternoon. I was chewing a large piece of purple bubble gum and realized I’d have to get rid of it before my meeting. It was so cold I didn’t want to take my gloves off to take the gum out of my mouth. Perhaps the temperature affected my judgment, or perhaps I was lazy, but suddenly I did something I had never, ever done before: I raised my chin, puckered up my lips, and let my gum fly. As it descended onto the sidewalk, I saw that a man walking toward me was about to collide with the arc of its fall. I made eye contact with him as the sticky mass fell at his feet. Horrified, I instantly realized I was face-to-face with Woody Allen. Mercifully, he sidestepped the gum. But his outrage was palpable. He shook his head in disgust and passed me by. I was too embarrassed and frightened to even say I was sorry.

Two days later I went out with my friend Ellen. She had snagged a reservation at the newly reopened Le Cirque and we got all dolled up for the occasion. I, of course, wore my yellow coat. We were seated between the coat check and the front door, and since New York City was still in a deep freeze, I decided to keep my coat wrapped around me.

Then I saw him. He was approaching the coat check with his wife, fumbling for his ticket. Wildly, I looked around for a place to hide. Ellen asked me if I was okay and I hissed, no. I motioned with my eyes. Ellen squealed in delight, and he looked over at us. Once again, in the span of forty-eight hours, I was face-to-face with Woody Allen.

Our eyes locked and I saw him recognize my unmistakable ultra-bright yellow coat and the same frightened face. He grimaced. “You!” he said, as his wife pulled on his arm. I felt myself turn white and then red, as everyone turned to stare.

Two and a half decades later, I still have my beloved coat. It’s lost its belt and much of its lemony sheen, and it hasn’t left its special place in my closet in a long time. Maybe I’ll wear it again one day. As Woody Allen famously said, “Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.” I’ll remind him of that if I ever bump into him again.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli selects a pair of aviator glasses that capture the strange blend of terror and optimism of growing up amidst Milan’s political unrest in the 1970s. Class was often interrupted by bomb threats. Her daily morning walk to school took her, always scared, through a contentious urban borderland that divided the peacoat-clad, anti-authoritarian leftists and the Sanbabilini — the “gun-toting neo-fascists from wealthy Milanese families who shared responsibility for much of the violence around Italy at that time” — whose distinctive look included fitted shirts, trench coats, and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. She tells Spivack:

Sometime in the late 1970s, during this time of upheaval, my father came home from his first trip to the United States with a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators he’d bought for me. He had not thought of the political implications; he had just wanted a gift that embodied “America.” Even though it was only a pair of sunglasses, it was like holding a bomb in my hands. I couldn’t wear them.

Along the way, the first pair of Aviators disappeared, and I decided to buy myself another pair. They never looked good on me, but it was a sort of exorcism. Even then, years later, it felt almost like they were burning in my hands; they transport me to a moment that was formative, but one that I also want to forget.

I compare notes with friends who grew up in Israel or Beirut, for example, and I realize we all went through something similar — living despite the bombs going off, despite the fact that it was almost a war zone. Little details, like scents or sounds or a piece of clothing, bring back the violence, and that’s what these Aviators do for me.

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, a woman of unparalleled creative vision and extraordinary wisdom, selects an apple-green sweater that belonged to her mother. She writes:

It is my lucky sweater because I always need luck. And the feeling of being lucky, which is ridiculous and elusive, is still a pleasant one.

Margaret D. Stetz

Then there are the bunny ears, which turn out to belong not to a Playmate but to Harvard Ph.D. Margaret D. Stetz — a self-described “middle-aged professor of women’s studies and literature” and a Beatrix Potter scholar, who wears the ears while lecturing about Potter’s iconic Peter Rabbit character. Stetz writes:

The notion of dressing women as “Bunnies” was, of course, the invention of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs. When she was a young journalist, Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Bunny in 1963 to expose the harassment and miserable working conditions of women who wore the Clubs’ uniforms. Today, there’s something satisfying about taking these symbols of sexual availability and servility and flipping their meaning. By combining bunny ears with a tailored jacket and skirt on the lecture platform at a university, museum, or other cultural institution, I’m doing something subversive. No longer do they signify that women are merely “Playmates.” Conversely, this is also my way of suggesting that women don’t have to be wholly serious to be feminists.

Emily Spivack

Tucked midway through the book is Spivack’s own story about a pair of cheap black flip-flops her grandmother bought for her nearly twenty years ago off the Delaware boardwalk. In a way, these unassuming essentials capture the essence of the project — a seemingly ordinary object of clothing imbued with immeasurable sentimental value, amplified over a lifetime. Spivack writes:

Over time, these flip-flops — plain, pulled from a rack without a thought, manufactured to be disposable but apparently indestructible — have become such a lasting fixture in my life. Precisely, perhaps, because they are so ordinary: you don’t even notice them casually accumulating the years, like the shops along Rehoboth Avenue, like grandmothers, like everything.

Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean, sage of the written word, recounts her “uniform fixation” — the lifelong quest to find the ideal, and as it turns out mythic, outfit that would capture her personality perfectly and be therefore bought in multiples to be worn forever. She captures this cyclical infatuation elegantly:

It’s a temporary delusion that comes over me with regularity — a belief that by wearing this perfect thing, I will look right and feel good no matter what. Like, “How did I not know that I’m an agnes b. T-shirt and denim skirt kind of person? Now, I’m going to order ten of each and I never have to buy clothes again.” When I’m in it, I totally believe I have found my look, my personal style.

It’s cultish and my own particular mania. Each time I start over again, I think, “those were false gods — I have now found the true God.” I even observe myself doing it. I understand that fashion, by definition, is a changing thing, and so is one’s body. I try to talk myself out of my own crazy conviction that I’ve finally solved the puzzle — and yet I can’t do it.

I guess it’s probably safer to be this way about clothing than men or religion or something that could be really dangerous.

Ross Intelisano

Ross Intelisano picks a tie once made by his beloved immigrant grandmother, Anna, who tailored all of his clothes growing up, worked until she was 78, and lived to be 95. Two weeks after her death, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways, where Intelisano’s family lived. The house was condemned and all access was denied, but a family friend bravely ventured in to retrieve a few surviving valuables, including Anna’s ties. Intelisano writes:

That day, my father came over to my house, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the storm. He proudly presented me with two of Anna’s ties. I wear them all the time. I like handling the silk as I knot the ties.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith turns his penchant for subverting literature to fashion and recounts wearing an over-the-top paisley suit by avant-garde designer Thom Browne to the White House, where Goldsmith was invited to read some of his poetry to President Obama. Browne had designed the suit under his Brooks Brothers-owned Black Fleece label, taking Brooks Brothers’ signature patterns to an intentional extreme. Goldsmith recounts his exchange with the President that night, who was, coincidentally, wearing a conventional Brooks Brothers suit himself:

Upon our introduction, the first thing the President said to me was, “That’s a great suit! You know? I’d wear a suit like that. But my staff would never let me.” To which I replied, “Mr. President, this is one instance where it’s better being an artist than being the President of the United States: artists can wear anything they want.” And then he glanced down at my saddle shoes and exclaimed, “You’re wearing golf shoes!” Which in part was true, that being the genius of Thom Browne, to take something familiar and recontextualize it to the point of it being “wrong.” And that is exactly what I aimed to do with my performance: to straddle tradition and radicality, being both and, at the same time, being neither; to embrace contradiction, keep people guessing.

David Carr

The New York Times’ David Carr reminisces about searching for a cheap t-shirt in a classic New York moment of sweltering need, when you’re forced to choose between suffering your wholly indiscreet sweat stains or buying one of those ubiquitous “I♥NY” touristy shirts. (“You can’t wear a shirt like that ironically,” Carr notes, “unless, say, you hate New York, which I do not.”) Instead, he chanced upon a miraculous find at one of Manhattan’s myriad souvenir shops — a defective t-shirt, with the “New York” script printed upside-down. Noting the kink, Carr offered the shopkeeper $3 for the oddball shirt and gleefully walked off with his find. Except for the occasional compliment from a hipster on the subway, people notice the shirt but say nothing, of which Carr remarks:

I like that about my shirt: it is something that is intuitively understood in the City, as we insufferable locals call it, and is baffling to others, akin to many other aspects of living or working in New York.

Pat Mahoney

Some of the stories remind us that the assumptions we make — in this case, assumptions about what people seek to signal with their clothing choices — are often lightyears away from the truth. Take, for instance, the flesh-colored American Apparel nylon shorts selected by LCD Soundsystem founding member and drummer Pat Mahoney. One might write them off as a hipster or counter-hipster joke, but they actually represent a curious combination of extreme practicality and creative ritualization. Mahoney, who admits to sweating a great deal during his “epic sets” on stage, would regularly end up “drenched to the bone” after a show, his jeans left to dry in the tour bus until they smelled, much to his fellow bandmates’ dismay, “like rotten cotton.” He needed something quick-drying and light to wear onstage, so he bought the shorts on the road, fully aware of their laughable connotations. But over time, they came to serve a deeper psychological function — like a number of famous creators known for maintaining various odd habits and rituals to keep their creative flow flowing, Mahoney overcomes his chronic stage fright by employing “elaborate juju” — a compulsion to have everything just right, from the way he ties his sneakers to how he positions his drums on the rug — to get himself in a more secure mindset. Wearing the shorts became part of that creative ritual — part of the behavioral and environmental cues that psychology suggests help put us in a state of creative flow.

John Hodgman

“I have a dress and I have worn it many times,” comedian John Hodgman opens with a bang. That dress, it turns out, got its start when Hodgman was invited to impersonate Ayn Rand on the Dead Authors podcast. He writes:

I’d been fascinated with Rand since I’d written a story in the New York Times magazine about a competitive championship tournament bridge player who was also an active objectivist and Rand devotee. I had read half of Atlas Shrugged before I got the gist of my role. I really enjoyed the book because of its absurdly reductive philosophy that inadvertently plays on adolescent male narcissism like a jazz saxophone — to draw a connection to the famous Randian saxophonist and economist Alan Greenspan — but it also spoke directly to the adolescent male fantasy of “I’m the only smart one. Everyone is leeching off of me and I’d rather destroy my work than compromise my integrity by being nice to others.” Her moral severity came as a tonic to my cultural relativist upbringing.

The Rand impersonation eventually became a part of his stand-up routine and the dress was worn many times. Hodgman reflects on its allure:

Even though I’m imitating, in a ridiculous fashion, an exaggerated version of Ayn Rand, what precedes the moment of putting on the dress is an utter nudity of self, about as close as I’ll ever get.

Dorthy Finger

But undoubtedly the most moving story comes from Holocaust survivor Dorothy Finger, who was a child when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Her family went into hiding, but inevitably succumbed to the tragic fate of so many Jews at the time. Her father was the first one killed, “almost beaten to death and then sent to an extermination camp.” Soon, her mother was shot. Dorothy herself was sent to a labor camp, where she was subjected to grueling toil and regularly beaten by the Nazis. On July 27, 1943, she escaped into the nearby forest with her aunt and two cousins as machine guns shot after them. They survived for a few months, into the middle of winter, huddling together to keep from freezing. But the Nazis eventually went looking for them, killing Dorothy’s aunt and her 17-year-old male cousin. Finger writes:

I was shot in the ear and I fainted. It just grazed my ear, but the impact of the explosion threw me on the earth and I was unconscious. I swear I saw my soul go to heaven, white angels and things like that. I thought I was dead and that when you’re dead you see yourself go to heaven. Of course, I understand now that I was not conscious. When I came to, I was even more upset. “God, why didn’t you finish me off, why didn’t you kill me, rather than slowly starve me to death? I have nobody. No parents.” I just had my second cousin in the forest with me.

The Nazis came back a second time. We heard shots coming from one side and we ran the other way. I fell through some ice into a body of water that wasn’t very deep. My instinct to live was so great that I could still think about how to survive.

I covered myself up with branches. I could hear the Ukrainians saying to the Nazis, “Somebody must have been running through there. I can see footprints.” And the Nazis said, “I don’t want to go that way or we’ll fall into the ice too. We’ll catch him the next time.” My heart stopped beating. I stopped breathing. I waited until I couldn’t hear their boots on the ice. I came out of the water with everything frozen on me, including the little dress that I wore until the day we were liberated from the forest.

In the forest, Finger got typhus and sank into a delirious fever. She lost all her hair and was so sick that she stayed in the fetal position until she was unable to walk, let alone run. At that point, she knew that if the Nazis came back, she’d be killed. She writes:

I don’t know what was worse — the fear, the hunger, the lice, or the humiliation.

Springtime came, and then summer, and it was warmer—although to this day, I am still cold.

I have not overcome it. The shooting started and it was coming from both sides. I still couldn’t run because I hadn’t completely recovered from the typhus. “I do not want to see the face of the Nazis that will shoot me,” I thought. I slowly moved from my back to my stomach. “Let them just shoot me in my back or my head and then it’ll be over.” The shooting stopped and I heard tanks coming into the forest, and I didn’t know if they were German or Russian. They were Russian tanks and they had come to liberate us, exactly one year from the day I entered the forest, July 27, 1944.

Young Dorothy eventually made it back to her hometown, but her few surviving neighbors had assumed she, like her parents, was dead, so they had discarded the family’s remaining possessions. The only thing she could recover was a piece of wool fabric from her family’s department store. She saved that, then wrote to an aunt and uncle in Delaware, who were eventually able to bring her to the United States. When she moved, her entire luggage — all her earthly possessions — consisted of two dresses, including the one she had worn that gruesome year in the forest, and the wool fabric. She made it to America, enrolled in high school, and graduated a year and a half later. Upon graduation, another uncle gave her $25 — a fortune in 1949 and in the context of her life — which she used to have a suit made from the wool fabric that was her only link to her family and her past life. Finger, now in her eighties, writes:

I always figured I’d be buried in it. But if people can learn from this suit and its history, what difference does it make what I’m buried in?

Worn Stories is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true labor of love that weaves this common thread of intensely personal, courageously vulnerable sartorial memories into a colorful tapestry of the human experience.

Photographs by Ally Lindsay; courtesy of Emily Spivack / Princeton Architectural Press

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25 AUGUST, 2014

My Teacher Is a Monster: A Sweet Modern Fable About Seeing Through the Otherness of Others

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A gentle illustrated reminder that we can’t love what we don’t know.

“Love,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his poignant letters to Gandhi on why we hurt one another, “represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children)…” Tolstoy believed that if only we managed to see through our superficial differences and our fear of the other’s otherness, we’d recognize instantly the universe’s basic “law of love” — something to which we are born attuned, only to forget as we enter adulthood. Kids, of course, can often be especially cruel in their inability to accept otherness — but that’s why it’s especially enchanting to witness, let alone spark, the precise moment in which a child lets go of some learned bias and sees in another person his or her intrinsic goodness, a return to innocence and Tolstoy’s “law of love.”

From children’s book author and illustrator Peter Brown comes My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) (public library) — a sweet contemporary fable about one such moment of seeing through the mask of terrifying otherness the soft heart of our shared humanity.

In vibrant, textured illustrations and simple words, Brown tells the story of little Bobby, who sees his stern teacher, Ms. Kirby, as a scary green ogre — until, one weekend, the two unexpectedly bump into each other at the park.

Suddenly, the leisurely environment strips them of their weekday roles. After the inevitable awkwardness and disorientation — in one particularly sweet exchange, Bobby, who resists his initial instinct to just run away, raises his hand while sitting next to Ms. Kirby on the bench; she gently reminds him that, outside the classroom, he can just ask his question — they have no choice but to first reluctantly, then tacitly, then gladly get to know each other.

Just as Bobby makes the first move with a compliment on Ms. Kirby’s enormous hat, the wind takes over.

The hat, it turns out, is Ms. Kirby’s favorite, so she runs after it distraught as the wind sweeps it toward peril. Right before it drops into the duck pond, Bobby leaps and saves the day. Ms. Kirby, ecstatic, proclaims him her hero and the two set out to feed the ducks side by side. Meanwhile, strangely, some of Ms. Kirby’s greenness seems to have faded and her boar-like nostrils have shrunk ever so slightly.

Bobby decides to show Ms. Kirby his favorite spot in the park and they climb up some big boulders, atop which Ms. Kirby — now with an almost neutral complexion and a hint of rosiness — gets an idea.

She hands Bobby a sheet of paper, which he gleefully folds into a paper plane and releases into the sky — the very act for which the monstrous teacher had scolded the kids in the classroom.

“I think that was the single greatest paper airplane flight in history!” Bobby exclaims. “I think you’re right,” Ms. Kirby — now having lost almost all of her monster teeth — agrees.

By the time they return to the bench at lunchtime, both are glad they had run into each other.

Miraculously, Ms. Kirby has transmogrified from a monster into an ordinary woman. With each shared moment and each small kindness exchanged, her monsterness had dissolved into her simple humanity — a sweet reminder that however much people may be the product of their culture and surrounding context, when one learns to see with “the eye of the heart,” their basic goodness will eventually emanate.

In a way, the story shines a compassionate light on a different facet of the same broader issue Brown explored in his previous book, the equally wonderful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild — a tender tale about authenticity and acceptance. The challenge of understanding others despite their differences and that of feeling accepted ourselves despite our quirks are two sides of the same coin — a coin that is undoubtedly our most valuable currency for human bonds.

In a recent conversation, I asked Brown about his thinking behind My Teacher Is a Monster and his broader philosophy of writing and illustrating for young minds:

MP: All of your work emanates such a sense of optimism. Do you feel that it is our responsibility to cultivate this in children or is it, rather, the other way around — our responsibility to ourselves is to bear witness to this natural human capacity in kids, which we unlearn as we grow up, and to perhaps reawaken it in our grown selves?

PB: The further I get in my career, the more I think about my readers. I see it as my responsibility to create books that will make kids laugh and think and want to pick up another book. The hope is that I might, in some small way, help to grow the number of readers in the world. And the best way to make more readers is to help people fall in love with reading at an early age. So I try to make stories and characters and art that appeal to the excitement and curiosity that occurs naturally in children.

The optimism in my stories is no accident. But I think you’ll find that in addition to positivity there’s always a dose of reality in my stories. Each of my characters face real disappointment, and their story is about them overcoming their disappointment. That’s real, and kids get it.

MP: This particular book explores the rather common experience of seeing someone as both frightening and repulsive until we get to know them — one manifestation of our broader, fundamental fear of the unfamiliar. Did you have such an experience yourself, either with a teacher or with another figure in your life, that inspired the book?

PB: When I was a kid I had several grumpy adults in my life. There were the old neighbors who would actually yell at me to get off their lawn. There was the mysterious family of five who all seemed to be mean and miserable, even the kids. And yes, I did have a few grumpy teachers, too. I was confused and concerned by all of those people, but the grumpy teachers were especially distressing because I had to be in close quarters with them for a whole school year.

To make matters worse, I had a big, uncontrollable imagination, and there was a time when I actually thought those teachers were monsters in disguise. But over time, most of those teachers gradually revealed their softer side — they’d share a personal story, or share my excitement about some little thing — and I’d gradually realize that they weren’t so bad… in fact, they were actually pretty cool.

That seemed like a pretty good premise for a children’s book.

And indeed it is — My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) is an absolute delight. Complement it with The Book of Mean People, Toni Morrison’s similarly-spirited collaboration with her son.

Images courtesy of Peter Brown / Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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21 AUGUST, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Rare, Sensual Illustrations for Herman Melville’s Greatest Commercial Failure and Most Personally Beloved Book

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“The strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.”

Something magical happens when a great artist interprets a great author — one need only look at William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, and Salvador Dalí’s literary illustrations for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne. But one of the most extraordinary such “collaborations” across creative culture’s space-time continuum came in the form of a now-rare 1995 Kraken edition of Herman Melville‘s controversial 1852 novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (public library), illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak.

The story of the book itself — an absolute disaster for Melville both critically and financially, and yet one he considered his “kraken book,” a book eclipsing Moby-Dick in its profound potency like the mythic kraken outshines the whale in might — is at least as scandalous as its plot.

In 1850, Melville wrote in a letter that “a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.” The following year, when Moby-Dick was published, the critical reception validated his fear — reviewers eviscerated the book, which Melville considered his greatest work to date, as irreverent and blasphemous. Though Melville’s style was praised by some for its ingenuity, most critics issued scathing remarks about it, including one prominent British reviewer’s assertion that it was an “ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.”

As the reviews were pouring in, Melville wrote in a letter to his friend and great champion Nathaniel Hawthorne in June of 1851:

Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.

He proved heartbreakingly right: It took more than seventy years after Melville died a penniless customs agent for Moby-Dick to be extolled as one of the greatest books of all time.

So when Melville walked into the Harper & Brothers publishing office on January 2, 1852, with a copy of his Pierre manuscript, he was doubly embittered by how deftly reviewers had validated his prior grim fears about criticism. For their part, the Harper brothers were less than eager to publish a new book by an author whose most recent novel had done so dismally. Too polite and political to give Melville an outright rejection, they instead channeled their reservations by offering him a humiliating contract — instead of their standard author royalty rate of 50 cents on the dollar, they offered him 20 cents. This automatically meant that Pierre would have to sell 2.5 as many copies as his other books in order to yield Melville the share he had previously gotten — a share, no less, with which he had still run into considerable debt to the firm.

Desperate and resigned, Melville decided not to pitch the book to other publishers and signed the Harper & Row contract on February 20, 1852.

But then he did something even crazier — something that would seal the book’s tragic fate: He decided to enlarge the original 360-page manuscript with an additional 150 pages, in which he took the already extravagant plot to preposterous lengths. After book XVI, he inserted a section titled “Young America in Literature,” lacing it with his satirical, thinly veiled personal gripes against the literary establishment. (In one particularly vivid passage, he envisioned “the highly improbable event of the near approach of the Millennium, which might establish a different dynasty of taste, and possibly eject the editors.”)

The book all but perished, both in sales and in critical reception. Critics dismissed it as “perhaps, the craziest fiction extant” (The Boston Post) and “a confused phantasmagoria of distorted fancies and conceits, ghostly abstractions and fitful shadows” (New York Literary World) — the latter being the most burning of the bunch, as it was penned by editor Evert Duyckinck, the very friend with whom Melville had shared his prescient lament about criticism two years earlier.

But in the twentieth century, Pierre found its two greatest champions — Melville scholar Herschel Parker and the great Maurice Sendak, who considered it Melville’s greatest novel and who had previously illustrated another literary titan. So when Parker approached the beloved artist about the Kraken edition, Sendak was thrilled — doubly so because the book’s unabashed blend of sensuality, nightmarishness, and ambiguity mirrored his own aesthetic and paralleled the sensibility of his greatest lifelong influence, William Blake.

In fact, Sendak had independently begun working on drawings for Pierre after attending the 1991 Melville Centennial Conference. He found in this unusual, extravagant, almost ludicrous yet remarkably layered text the perfect canvas for equally over-the-top pictorial representation. The resulting drawings — by far the most sexually expressive of any of his work, featuring 27 discernible nipples and 11 male “packages,” three of which unclothed — are unlike anything Sendak created before or since. Bold, unapologetic, and incredibly sensual, the illustrations are also subtly subversive in their treatment of gender identity and stereotypes, from Pierre’s effeminate body-choreography to Isabel’s scrumptiously muscular back à la Venus with Biceps. This subversion was a subject close to Sendak’s heart, as a gay man who came of age decades before marriage equality and shared the last half-century of his life with his partner, Eugene Glynn, but it was nonetheless a subject he never explored directly.

The Kraken edition, however, is remarkable not only in inviting Sendak’s striking drawings, but also in restoring the Melville text to its original form, before his embittered 150-page addition. It is intended, as Parker notes in the introduction, “to supplement (not to rival) the text Harper published.” He writes:

[This edition] will at last make it feasible for lovers of Melville to comprehend his original design for the book and his original achievements in it.” Equally important, this version of Pierre will illuminate Moby-Dick. Even readers who have long loved Moby-Dick will perceive its psychological stature more clearly in the light shed by the book Melville wrote next — the short version of Pierre, surely the finest psychological novel anyone had yet written in English.

Indeed, Pierre‘s psychoemotional subtlety is perhaps best captured in a meta way, in this exquisite Melville line from Book IV of the novel:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.

The Kraken edition of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities is currently out of print but is oh-so-much worth the hunt. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest, most defining illustrations, his little-known posters celebrating books and the love of reading, and his posthumous love letter to the world.

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