Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

11 NOVEMBER, 2014

Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and What Thoreau Teaches Us about Accepting Love

By:

“You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”

“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,” Lucinda Williams sang from my headphones into my heart one rainy October morning on the train to Hudson. “What seems cynicism is always a sign, always a sign…” I was headed to Hudson for a conversation with a very different but no less brilliant musician, and a longtime kindred spirit — the talented and kind Amanda Palmer. In an abandoned schoolhouse across the street from her host’s home, we sat down to talk about her magnificent and culturally necessary new book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully written inquiry into why we have such a hard time accepting compassion in all of its permutations, from love to what it takes to make a living, what lies behind our cynicism in refusing it, and how learning to accept it makes possible the greatest gifts of our shared humanity.

I am partial, perhaps, because my own sustenance depends on accepting help. But I also deeply believe and actively partake in both the yin and the yang of that vitalizing osmosis of giving and receiving that keeps today’s creative economy alive, binding artists and audiences, writers and readers, musicians and fans, into the shared cause of creative culture. “It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the circles of giving and receiving in 1942, but still seem woefully caught in the paradoxical trap of too much entitlement to what we feel we want and too little capacity to accept what we truly need. The unhinging of that trap is what Amanda explores with equal parts deep personal vulnerability, profound insight into the private and public lives of art, and courageous conviction about the future of creative culture.

The most urgent clarion call echoing throughout the book, which builds on Amanda’s terrific TED talk, is for loosening our harsh and narrow criteria for what it means to be an artist, and, most of all, for undoing our punishing ideas about what renders one a not-artist, or — worse yet — a not-artist-enough. Amanda writes of the anguishing Impostor Syndrome epidemic such limiting notions spawn:

People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis, because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized. When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.

There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.

But in the history of creative genius, this pathology appears to be a rather recent development — the struggle to be an artist, of course, is nothing new, but the struggle to believe being one seems to be a uniquely modern malady. In one of the most revelatory passages in the book, Amanda points out a little-known biographical detail about the life of Henry David Thoreau — he who decided to live the self-reliant life by Walden pond and memorably proclaimed: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.” It is a detail that, today, would undoubtedly render Thoreau the target of that automatic privilege narrative as we point a finger and call him a “poser”:

Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live “by his own means” in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.

The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.

If Thoreau lived today, steeped in a culture that tells him taking the donuts chips away at his credibility, would he have taken them? And why don’t we? Amanda writes:

Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.

It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.

Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.

Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.

To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,

Please, take the donuts.

To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,

Take the donuts.

To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….

Everybody.

Please.

Just take the fucking donuts.

But Thoreau, it turns out, got one thing right in his definition of success, which emanates from Amanda’s words a century and a half later:

The happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums — but more isn’t always better. If feeling the connection between yourself and others is the ultimate goal it can be harder when you are separated from the crowd by a 30-foot barrier. And it can be easier to do — though riskier — when they’re sitting right beside you. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community. In other words, it works best when everybody feels seen.

As artists, and as humans: If your fear is scarcity, the solution isn’t necessarily abundance.

But here is where it gets hairy. The strange and disorienting thing is that even the best-intentioned of us sometimes deploy the donuts dismissal in its various guises. As I took the above photo of Amanda with her new iPhone — the model released mere days earlier — I, a longtime and vocal proponent of undoing the toxic myth that being a true artist necessarily requires being a starving artist, was suddenly gripped with the anguishing sense that some part of me had instantly, almost automatically put on a Fraud Police hat. But why shouldn’t she, an artist supported directly by her audience, have the latest iPhone? Why should this trigger a twinge of questioning authenticity rather than a celebration of all the earned love from fans that makes it possible?

To think that we all do it is at once terrifying and comforting.

In fact, Amanda herself does it. In one of the most poignant passages in the book, she recalls doing this very thing to her own mother — a hardworking and accomplished freelance computer programmer in an era when women in the field frequently got raised eyebrows and rarely got raises. Amanda relays the conversation, which took place after two glasses of wine twenty years later:

You know, Amanda, one thing always bothered me. Something you said when you were a teenager.

Oh, no. I was a terrible teenager, an angst-fest of hormones and nihilism.

Um….what?

She can do this imitation of me as a teenager that makes me want to crawl under a table. She did it now.

You said: ‘MOM, I’m a REAL ARTIST. You’re NOT.’

Then she added, more kindly: You know you, Amanda, you were being a typical teenager.

I winced, and felt my neck tighten and my teeth grit down into mother-fight-or-flight mode.

She continued, But you know. You would say: ‘I’m an ARTIST…fuck you, mom! What do you know?! You’re just a computer programmer.’

[…]

And then my mother said something that absolutely demolished my defensiveness. I don’t think, in all the years I’ve known her, that I’ve ever heard her sound more vulnerable.

You know, Amanda, it always bothered me. You can’t actually see my art, but… I’m one of the best artists I know. It’s just… nobody can ever see the beautiful things I made. Because you can’t hang them in a gallery.

Then there was a pause.

I took in my own deep breath.

God, mom. Sorry.

And she laughed and her voice turned cheerful again.

Oh, don’t worry, sweetie. You were thirteen.

[…]

In all my rock-and-roll years of running around, supporting people,advocating for women, giving all these strangers and fans permission to “embrace their inner fucking artist,” to express themselves fully, to look at their work and lives as beautiful, unique creative acts, I’d somehow excluded my own mother.

[…]

I thought about her work that I couldn’t possibly comprehend, about the actual creative work she had done. All that delicate, handmade lace-like programming she did into the dead of night… and how insanely proud she felt when it worked, and the true… beauty of that. And the sadness, too, because nobody ever, you know, clapped for her at the end of the night.

The kind of work Amanda’s mother had been doing all those years is what so many artists — by the true, soul-bound definition — do every single day, the kind of work David Foster Wallace found at the heart of heroism as he wrote of the “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” That a thirteen-year-old girl would dismiss her brilliant mother’s heroism says less about the girl and more about the culture.

This is what we do — we dismiss. And when we ordain ourselves as the Fraud Police, we are always thirteen — especially on the internet, the vast majority of which is inherently thirteen.

In this excerpt from our conversation, the full footage of which you can watch at the bottom, Amanda and I toss the proverbial donut back and forth as we explore how and why we do this — why we deny others the label “artist” and deny ourselves the donuts in order not to detract from our own artistness:

Amanda learned how to get off the nail during her early days working as a living statue in the streets of Boston to scrape together a living — work that was constantly dismissed by strangers and self-appointed Fraud Police officers as not-work, or not-real-enough work. That experience, which she recounts beautifully in her TED talk, gave her vital insight into the deepest trenches of the impulse that finally drives us to get off the nail and take the donuts:

As I moved through my life as a statue and later as a musician, I started to understand:

There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.

When you are looked at, your eyes can be closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, and you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.

One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.

Not everybody wants to be looked at.

Everybody wants to be seen.

The magical thing that happens when we choose to give and when we let ourselves receive is that we step into a widening circle of seeing. This, indeed, is what makes the book’s closing pages so powerful as Amanda recounts watching a living statue in the streets of Melbourne:

He was crouched in a gargoyle pose; his body was completely purple, in a costume that clung to his skin. His face was covered with an intricate handmade mask, which revealed just his eyes, and whose little glued-on mirrors made his muzzle look like more like a disco-ball. He was majestic, dragon-like, beautiful. When a stranger put money in his cup, he encouraged people to pat him as he made serpentine movements of pleasure. It was nearly dawn, and I wondered how long he’d been working there.

Jetlagged and tired from touring, she leans on a tree across the street and watches him as groups of drunken young people taunt and jeer at him. And then, she dials back the time machine of her own life-experience — for where else does empathy live? — and shares with him an exquisite moment of humanity:

As I crouched down and put in a two-dollar coin, I looked into his eyes. He stopped for a moment. Then he lowered his head.

It was odd. He froze in that position and I stayed there, on my bent knees, waiting to see what would happen.

Then his whole back started slowly shaking.

He raised his head back up and I looked into his eyes, which were brimming with tears.

We crouched there, for a moment, face to face.

I reached my hand out to touch his cheek, before taking him into my arms.

He buried his head in the crook of my neck, shaking and sobbing without a sound.

I closed my eyes. I tightened my arms around him. He tightened, too.

The drunken crowd who had just been tormenting him stared at us, and went silent.

We stayed, attached, on our knees, for what felt like two or three minutes.

I held him. He held me.

He finally raised his head and looked at me, through the slit in his mirrored mask, with his wet, red eyes. I hugged him, chest to chest, and felt his breath slow down.

I whispered in his ear, Get back to work.

The Art of Asking is an immeasurably heartening read from cover to cover. In this long and wide-ranging conversation, filmed by the wonderful Allan Amato, who also took the book cover photograph, Amanda and I meander across various facets of creative culture, the artist’s journey, and the uncomfortable art of accepting help, from what compassion really means to the soundest psychological strategies for handling self-appointed Fraud Police officers and capital-c Critics to the challenges of sharing a life with another human being, however great the love between the two.

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10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Artist Andrea Dezsö’s Enchanting Black-and-White Illustrations for the Little-Known Original Edition of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

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“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully.”

In December of 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, then in their twenties, published the first volume of what would become the world’s most enduring and beloved fairy tales, which have raised generations of children and inspired endless reimaginings, most recently by Neil Gaiman. But what most of us know today — the most commonly known Grimm tales, those most continually reprinted, widely translated, and even more widely celebrated — is the 1857 edition, which has very little to do with the original. Over the forty-five years and six editions in between, the Grimm brothers refined, revised, and wholly rewrote the tales beyond recognition. But in the preface to the magnificent The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), translator and Grimm scholar Jack Zipes argues that “the first edition is just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments.”

The original tales were pioneering examples of elements of creative culture we celebrate today as modern inventions — desk-bound scholars and philologists, the brothers were visionary crowdsourcers and deft remixers of folktales they collected from oral storytelling traditions. To that end, the tales also bespeak the central but unsung role of women in literary traditions — several well-educated young women from two local families played a significant role in gathering the tales and reciting them for the Grimm brothers to record; but the most significant contribution came from a tailor’s wife named Dorothea Viehmann, who lived in a nearby village and told the brothers more than forty tales.

'The Frog King, or Iron Henry'

Most significantly, the tales as originally envisioned were beautifully blunt and unaffected, not moralistic or didactic — as Christian and puritanical ideology would later censor them into being — but celebratory of the ennobling effect of poetry itself. The Grimms capture this beautifully in the preface to the 1812 edition, where they also speak with great elegance to the notion — shared by Tolkien and echoed by Neil Gaiman — that children shouldn’t be shielded from the dark:

In publishing our collection we wanted to do more than just perform a service for the history of [poetry]. We intended at the same time to enable [poetry] itself, which is alive in the collection, to have an effect: it was to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it, and therefore, our collection was also to become an intrinsic educational primer. Some people have complained about this latter intention and asserted that there are things here and there [in our collection] that cause embarrassment and are unsuitable for children or offensive (such as the references to certain incidents and conditions, and they also think children should not hear about the devil and anything evil). Accordingly, parents should not offer the collection to children. In individual cases this concern may be correct, and thus one can easily choose which tales are to be read. On the whole it is certainly not necessary. Nothing can better defend us than nature itself, which has let certain flowers and leaves grow in a particular color and shape. People who do not find them beneficial, suitable for their special needs, which cannot be known, can easily walk right by them. But they cannot demand that the flowers and leaves be colored and cut in another way.

'The Three Sisters'

But what makes this newly released original volume especially enchanting are the breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes — intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known — illuminate scenes from the Grimms’ tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.

'The Wild Man'

'The Elves'

'The Godfather'

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dezsö about her creative process, the enduring enchantment of fairy tales, the singular allure of papercraft, the relationship between horror and whimsy, and the joy of making art at a public library.

MARIA POPOVA: Your artwork is so intricate, so delicately detailed. Where does each piece begin, both in your mind and on the paper?

ANDREA DEZSÖ: Images can arrive fully-formed as I read the text, if it comes this way then it just pops out. Images that don’t come to mind fully-formed begin vague and undetailed, like something seen from a distance at night. In those cases, I sketch on the margins of the text or in a small notebook using a thick, blunt pencil that does not allow for precision. Through the act of drawing the image gets clearer and clearer. I start from marking what I know, what I can already see taking shape.

I made most of the Grimm sketches at a public library in New Jersey that had sturdy tables, great light, lots of books, people reading — a quiet and uplifted environment that made it easy to focus. I love to work outside of the studio — at libraries, in meetings, on the subway, while waiting around. Since you’re not expected to create great artwork in those places, it’s easy to relax and let the mind wander and find unexpected images.

A lot of the creative work and visual thinking happen up front, in the sketch phase. Loose sketch, detailed sketch. I typically show clients only highly detailed sketches that very closely resemble the finished illustrations — that’s the first they see of how I’ve translated the text into imagery.

'The Twelve Brothers'

'Hans My Hedgehog'

MP: How did you choose which fairy tales and which particular scenes to illustrate?

AD: Jack Zipes asked that I illustrate the first and last tales (“The Frog King” and “The Golden Key”), and also suggested a group of other tales to consider, so I started by reading those. If I liked his suggestion, I illustrated it; if not, I picked another one. I chose tales to illustrate that gave me immediate, strong, clear mental images as I read them. The scenes to be illustrated popped into my mind, often fully formed — like the whale rearing from the water with a man sitting in a tiny boat in front of it. I love tales that feature the devil or other nonhuman creatures, so that influenced my choices, too.

'The Devil in the Green Coat'

MP: How long did each piece take, on average — both the mental incubation period and the physical crafting?

AD: This was a fast-paced project — I made the 20 illustrations and the cover over three months, working intensively. Each image took several days to complete. Some images took days just to conceptualize, while others popped into mind ready to be put on paper. Some of the sketch sheets are heavily worked-up, while others contain a single drawing which looks pretty much the same as the final image. Sketching takes hours, sometimes much longer. Once the publisher was happy with the direction of the sketches, I re-drew them from scratch, regardless of how detailed the sketch was, in order to get it perfect.

'Okerlo'

MP: Papercraft seems like a medium particularly well-suited to fairy tales — it is magical in and of itself. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Hans Christian Andersen was a paper-cutter himself.) Do you find that the magic of papercraft comes from the medium itself, or does the quality of immersive, patient attention imbue any medium upon which it is bestowed with magic? Or is it some combination of the two?

AD: I like the tension that arises from using a medium in a way that it’s not typically used. In the case of the Grimm book, these are ink drawings that I made to look like cut paper. This drawing technique presents a unique set of challenges, like solving a puzzle, so I didn’t simply cut paper to make these illustrations.

There’s an instinctive compatibility between folk and fairy tales and paper cutting, as you mention. When I first began cutting paper years ago, I cut and arranged detailed scenes into multi-layered tunnel books — cut paper sculptures of fantastical scenes from my imagination and nightmares in the guise of fairy tales. The initial impression of beauty conveyed by a delicate, lacy cut paper piece is challenged the moment the viewer realizes what’s actually taking place in the scene. The experience moves back and forth between the beauty of the medium and the edginess of the message.

This extends to media beyond paper, too. For example, I like to embroider images and words that subvert the notion of the feminine and domestic. These embroideries are decidedly outside the traditional sense of craft, though a superficial glance might signal quaint samplers.

'The Singing Bone'

MP: What drew you to papercraft in the first place?

AD: To me the perfect situation is when life and work are seamlessly integrated. I love the idea of working with everyday materials like pencils, papers, knives, thread and fabric, because those materials are always available, so nothing can prevent me from working. Paper is also just a perfect material in that way: ubiquitous, affordable and easy to work with. It’s versatile, physical, light yet strong, it folds flat but can also be made to pop up or built into three dimensional environments. It can be used large or small, cut, sewn, used as-is or painted, printed or glued, new or recycled, hand or machine made. A nice piece of paper never fails to inspire me.

My first notion of paper cutting came from Victorian toy theaters. From the start, I was interested in cut paper beyond its conveyance of narrative, and began experimenting with the possibilities of light and shadow and movement. After the initial tunnel book sculptures, I was invited to create gallery-sized cut paper installations and found it necessary to transition to laser-cutting in order to avoid destroying my hand from the repetitious act of cutting thousands of minutely-detailed figures. Making laser cuts involves drawing an image and digitizing it to send to the laser cutter; at that point the whole question of drawing and cutting has come full-circle. I started to play with that challenge.

'Herr Fix-It-Up'

MP: You, like myself, grew up in Eastern Europe, where the Grimm fairy tales weren’t sterilized out of their grimness. Many Western storytellers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Maurice Sendak, Neil Gaiman, and Sophie Blackall, have argued that shielding children from the dark is a selfish act on behalf of grownups and that there isn’t really such a thing as writing “for children.” How do you, both as an artist and as someone with one foot in each culture of fairy tales, feel about the childhood/adulthood polarization and about the element of the dark in “children’s” storytelling?

AD: I don’t believe my grandmother, mother, or aunt left out any of the grimmer elements of the fairy tales they read to us as children. I guess there was a respect for the integrity of a tale — this idea that every story had a wholeness that should not be tampered with when it was told. I thought it entirely normal that scary things happened in fairy tales because scary things happened in the real world as well. Romania had serious food shortages when I was growing up and I remember thinking that my sister and I still had it pretty good compared to all those children in the fairy tales whose parents sent them off to the forest with a stale slice of bread when they could not feed them anymore.

The publishing industry has its conventions, but children like to be taken seriously sometimes. A few years ago I wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Mamushka, that appeared in Hungary. The book is a series of whimsical episodes, but is ultimately about a child working through her grief and finding consolation after the death of her grandmother. The illustrations are black-and-white graphite drawings. It’s an unconventional children’s book for Hungary, both because of the subject matter and the lack of color. Some readers indicated that they were ambivalent about giving the book to their children at first, but when they did the kids really took to the book and wanted it read over and over.

I guess it always depends on the individual child — some children may find some stories or characters disturbing, while others might find them relatable, and we as adults should be sensitive to that. There might be a cultural component at play — children raised in Eastern Europe might be expected to handle emotions provoked by folktales about betrayal and death, whereas in America maybe that’s considered challenging — though these same American kids see plenty of violence and death in popular culture, so there you have it. I think the right tale at the right time can be tremendously helpful, but tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully.

'The Golden Key'

You can see more of Dezsö’s enchanting work on her site. Complement The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition with the best illustrations from two centuries of Grimm tales, then revisit Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti’s illustrations for Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Malady of Middlebrow: Virginia Woolf’s Brilliantly Blistering Response to a Patronizing Reviewer

By:

“If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow’ I will take my pen and stab him, dead.”

Susan Sontag once scoffed that reading criticism is “cultural cholesterol” that “clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas.” Despite her svelte frame, Virginia Woolf, on at least one notable occasion, indulged in such a high-cholesterol gorge of the mind.

On October 13, 1932, the English novelist and critic J. B. Priestley reviewed Woolf’s The Second Common Reader — the source of that superb essay on how to read a book — and hurled her way the patronizing remark that her writing belonged to the ilk of “terrifically sensitive, cultured, invalidish ladies with private means.” (The privilege narrative, it seems, is the perennial low-hanging fruit of criticism.) He also referred to Woolf by a term the writer Arnold Bennett had coined some years earlier — “the High Priestess of Bloomsbury” — which she found loathsome. In a letter to her onetime lover and lifelong literary confidante Vita Sackville-West, Woolf wrote that Priestley’s remarks elicited in her “unadulterated disgust.”

The situation escalated when, four days later, the BBC invited Priestley to give a radio talk under the title “To a Highbrow,” mocking those who reject anything “popular” for the sake of appearing intellectual and urging them instead to “be a broadbrow.” A week later, Sackville-West’s husband, the diarist and author Harold Nicolson — whose book Priestley had eviscerated in the same review as Woolf’s — was invited to give a rebuttal under the title “To a Lowbrow.” The following week, New Statesman reviewed the BBC debate and declared Nicolson victorious.

But Woolf, fifty at the time, remained unsettled by the “battle of the brows.” To address the complex issues at stake, she penned a brilliant, spectacularly scathing letter to New Statesman, in which she argued that the true social malady in need of eradication wasn’t “highbrow” or “lowbrow” but “middlebrow” — that lot of men and women of “middlebred intelligence” concerned not with the lowbrows’ pursuit of living, nor with the highbrows’ pursuit of the life of ideas, but with “betwixt and between” simulacra, “neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.”

The piece stands as proof that literature, at its best, is the original internet — the letter a lace of hypertext, full of elegantly placed “hyperlinks” to a web of external ideas and incidents related to Woolf’s commentary. It is also a masterwork of irony in the true literary sense. She mocks not only Priestley as a stand-in for “middlebrow,” at that point occupying the decidedly middlebrow position of book critic from the Evening Standard, but also the BBC itself, renaming it the “Betwixt and Between Company” — subtly piercing, not to mention astoundingly timely, criticism against the commodification of journalism that happens when media companies package their product for sale to an audience of “middlebred intelligence” and package that audience for sale to advertisers.

Woolf didn’t send the letter — after completing it, she became convinced that it was better-served as an essay and intended to rework it into one. But it was never published in her lifetime. It appears under the title “Middlebrow” in the posthumous collection The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — the same spectacular volume that gave us the record of the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice, aired, ironically, by the BBC.

In the spirit of such irony, Woolf opens with a complaint that she wasn’t called a “highbrow” in the review and writes:

Since the Battle of the Brows troubles, I am told, the evening air, since the finest minds of our age have lately been engaged in debating, not without that passion which befits a noble cause, what a highbrow is and what a lowbrow, which is better and which is worse, may I take this opportunity to express my opinion and at the same time draw attention to certain aspects of the question which seem to me to have been unfortunately overlooked?

Now there can be no two opinions as to what a highbrow is. He is the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea. That is why I have always been so proud to be called highbrow. That is why, if I could be more of a highbrow I would. I honour and respect highbrows. Some of my relations have been highbrows; and some, but by no means all, of my friends. To be a highbrow, a complete and representative highbrow, a highbrow like Shakespeare, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Scott, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Hardy or Henry James — to name a few highbrows from the same profession chosen at random — is of course beyond the wildest dreams of my imagination. And, though I would cheerfully lay myself down in the dust and kiss the print of their feet, no person of sense will deny that this passionate preoccupation of theirs — riding across country in pursuit of ideas — often leads to disaster… Highbrows, for some reason or another, are wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life. That is why, and here I come to a point that is often surprisingly ignored, they honour so wholeheartedly and depend so completely upon those who are called lowbrows. By a lowbrow is meant of course a man or a woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life. That is why I honour and respect lowbrows — and I have never known a highbrow who did not. In so far as I am a highbrow (and my imperfections in that line are well known to me) I love lowbrows; I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like — being a conductor. In whatever company I am I always try to know what it is like — being a conductor, being a woman with ten children and thirty-five shillings a week, being a stockbroker, being an admiral, being a bank clerk, being a dressmaker, being a duchess, being a miner, being a cook, being a prostitute. All that lowbrows do is of surpassing interest and wonder to me, because, in so far as I am a highbrow, I cannot do things myself.

Half a century before Sontag’s lament about the artificial divide between “high” and “low” culture, Woolf offers “another point which is surprisingly overlooked”:

Lowbrows need highbrows and honour them just as much as highbrows need lowbrows and honour them. This too is not a matter that requires much demonstration. You have only to stroll along the Strand on a wet winter’s night and watch the crowds lining up to get into the movies. These lowbrows are waiting, after the day’s work, in the rain, sometimes for hours, to get into the cheap seats and sit in hot theatres in order to see what their lives look like. Since they are lowbrows, engaged magnificently and adventurously in riding full tilt from one end of life to the other in pursuit of a living, they cannot see themselves doing it. Yet nothing interests them more. Nothing matters to them more. It is one of the prime necessities of life to them — to be shown what life looks like. And the highbrows, of course, are the only people who can show them. Since they are the only people who do not do things, they are the only people who can see things being done…

Nevertheless we are told — the air buzzes with it by night, the press booms with it by day, the very donkeys in the fields do nothing but bray it, the very curs in the streets do nothing but bark it — “Highbrows hate lowbrows! Lowbrows hate highbrows!” — when highbrows need lowbrows, when lowbrows need highbrows, when they cannot exist apart, when one is the complement and other side of the other! How has such a lie come into existence? Who has set this malicious gossip afloat?

There can be no doubt about that either. It is the doing of the middlebrows. They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality. They are the go-betweens; they are the busy-bodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief — the middlebrows, I repeat.

Woolf then offers a definition of “middlebrow”:

They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between. The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.

This preoccupation with appearances and approval is a central element in Woolf’s critique of the middlebrow. In a passage that no doubt glares at Priestley’s remark about her “private means,” she writes:

We all have to earn our livings nowadays, my friends the lowbrows remind me. I quite agree. Even those of us whose Aunts came a cropper riding in India and left them an annual income of four hundred and fifty pounds, now reduced, thanks to the war and other luxuries, to little more than two hundred odd, even we have to do that. And we do it, too, by writing about anybody who seems amusing — enough has been written about Shakespeare — Shakespeare hardly pays. We highbrows, I agree, have to earn our livings; but when we have earned enough to live on, then we live. When the middlebrows, on the contrary, have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy.

Woolf paints the middlebrow as perpetually caught on the hedonic treadmill as she describes what they actually buy:

Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers, always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters; houses in what is called “the Georgian style” — but never anything new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.

(In fact, Woolf’s contempt for Priestley as an epitome of such middlebrow repugnancy predated the “Battle of the Brows.” In 1930, writing in her diary, she mocks Priestley’s hypocritical relationship with money and status: “At the age of 50 Priestly will be saying, ‘why don’t the highbrows admire me? It isn’t true that I write only for money.’ He will be enormously rich; but there will be that thorn in his side — or so I hope.”)

In one particularly entertaining passage in the letter, Woolf describes what happens when she is asked to read a middlebrow book — but not without the wonderfully witty remark that the highbrows, among whom she proudly counts herself, “never buy a middlebrow book, or go to a middlebrow lecture, or read, unless we are paid for doing so,” a wink back to the “private means” accusation:

I read a page here, and I read a page there (I am breakfasting, as usual, in bed). And it is not well written; nor is it badly written. It is not proper, nor is it improper — in short it is betwixt and between. Now if there is any sort of book for which I have, perhaps, an imperfect sympathy, it is the betwixt and between. And so, though I suffer from the gout of a morning — but if one’s ancestors for two or three centuries have tumbled into bed dead drunk one has deserved a touch of that malady — I rise. I dress. I proceed weakly to the window. I take that book in my swollen right hand and toss it gently over the hedge into the field. The hungry sheep — did I remember to say that this part of the story takes place in the country? — the hungry sheep look up but are not fed.

Woolf’s letter is laced with perfectly highbrow zingers (the notion of a “highbrow zinger” being, of course, already a thoroughly middlebrow linguistic construct perhaps betraying my own betwixt-and-betweenery) — bemoaning what middlebrows “have the impudence to call real humanity,” she calls their version of culture a “mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly” — but nowhere more so than in her concluding paragraphs:

The true battle in my opinion lies not between highbrow and lowbrow, but between highbrows and lowbrows joined together in blood brotherhood against the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between… If the B.B.C. stood for anything but the Betwixt and Between Company they would use their control of the air not to stir strife between brothers, but to broadcast the fact that highbrows and lowbrows must band together to exterminate a pest which is the bane of all thinking and living.

In closing, Woolf wryly proclaims, with a pun jabbing at Priestley’s name, that she will stay in Bloomsbury — “a place where lowbrows and highbrows live happily together on equal terms and priests are not, nor priestesses, and, to be quite frank, the adjective ‘priestly’ is neither often heard nor held in high esteem” — until the rent is raised “so high that Bloomsbury is safe for middlebrows to live in.” She ends by sarcastically thanking Priestley for his “courteous and interesting review” and returning to the root of her reproach — his chief transgression of not having called her “highbrow”:

I ask nothing better than that all reviewers, for ever, and everywhere, should call me a highbrow. I will do my best to oblige them. If they like to add Bloomsbury, W.C.1, that is the correct postal address, and my telephone number is in the Directory. But if your reviewer, or any other reviewer, dares hint that I live in South Kensington, I will sue him for libel. If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me “middlebrow” I will take my pen and stab him, dead.

Yours etc.,

Virginia Woolf

Woolf makes her point even in her signature — nowhere in the history of the English language has the use of “etc.” connoted so much contempt as Woolf deliberately deploys it in place of all variations on the epistolary etiquette of sign-offs.

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays remains a remarkable glimpse into one of the greatest minds humanity has ever known. Complement it with Woolf on writing and consciousness and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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