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01 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Paris vs. New York, 1939

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“The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), an author of short stories and erotica, remains best-known as a prolific and dedicated diarist, perhaps the most prolific and dedicated diarist in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, speak volumes about the intellectual and creative landscape of 20th-century Europe and America.

Nin first began journaling in 1914 when her mother whisked Anaïs and brother from France to New York. Only months later did Nin find out that her parents had separated permanently and she wasn’t to be reunited with her father, with whom she loved and admired enormously. Tossed into a state of grief and turmoil, she came to project her anxious discomfort on her new non-home, New York — and joined the ranks of the city’s famous diarists. “When a child is uprooted,” she later wrote, “it seeks to make a center from which it cannot be uprooted.” Nin eventually returned from Europe but, with World War II looming menacing on the horizon, she once again fled to New York twenty years after her first exile, where she once again felt like an outsider.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this poignant, articulate description of what Nin experienced as the difference between Parisians and New Yorkers — something recently explored in much lighter, more tongue-in-cheek terms — penned in the winter of 1939:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

[…]

I read over my old diaries. I sit by the fire of my life in Paris and wonder when this life here will start to burn brightly. So far it looks like those electric logs in artificial fireplaces burning with moderate glow and without sparkle or warmth.

Anais Nin portrait

Then, in September of 1940, she revisits the parallel:

Sometimes I think of Paris not as a city but as a home. Enclosed, curtained, sheltered, intimate. The sound of rain outside the window, the spirit and the body turned towards intimacy, to friendships and loves. One more enclosed and intimate day of friendship and love, an alcove. Paris intimate like a room. Everything designed for intimacy. Five to seven was the magic hour of the lovers’ rendezvous. Here it is the cocktail hour.

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

If people knew more about psychology they would have recognized in Hitler a psychotic killer. Nations are neurotic, and leaders can be psychotic.

The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.

Nin’s lament was, of course, filtered through the lens of her painful, forced exile. Whether or not it bespeaks some grand universal truth about the New York way remains a question to be answered privately by each of us. But to deny that New York fosters a kind of Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma would be naive — the key to the city, as it were, is in learning how to unlock the enormity of Gotham’s magnificent humanity.

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01 AUGUST, 2012

Cheating the Impossible: Wire-Walker Philippe Petit on Education, Creativity, and Patience

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The art of self-correction and the value of tenacity in a world obsessed with instant results.

On August 7th, 1974, shortly after the World Trade Center was erected, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit stood in front of the impossible and took it full stride as he walked 200 feet between the Twin Towers, 1,368 feet above ground, on a 55-pound balancing rope. Dubbed “the artistic crime of the century,” the feat — which took place almost exactly a century after the first crossing of the East River on wire — took six years of planning. Petit — who never finished formal education — had to acquaint himself with the most esoteric details of engineering, architecture, and the physics of wind, among other preemptive intricacies. In Cheating The Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, the latest release from TEDBooks, Petit tells his story in a broader context of how to live life with “patience and tenacity” in an age of silver bullets and shortcuts.

A lifelong autodidact, Petit dedicates much of the book to the nature and conditions of learning, and how those relate to concepts like curiosity and discovery, including an emphasis on the role of serendipity in invention and creativity:

Why does problem solving bring me joy? Because it’s a game. The multitude and the diversity in shape and color of the building blocks, the solutions, found in my basket provide me with extensive and entertaining permutations — and the solutions keep multiplying: those lurking as shadows of existing ones; those not yet invented; those that hibernate, awaiting the spring of chance. Among the few things I retained from my brief high school attendance was, ‘Man’s greatest inventions were found by accident.’ At the time, I wondered if there were a point to staying indoors collecting knowledge.

Maybe I have an advantage over the classically educated. Often, students are encouraged to abandon the problem in the cold and to rush to warm themselves at the table of contents of thick books of knowledge. I cannot stress enough the importance of learning to unknot the problem (I’m tempted to say ‘the streetwise way’) as opposed to focusing on acquisition of the right answer — possibly one major flaw of what I would refer to as a ‘formal education.’ Are my street education, my autodidact beginnings, my Luddite inclinations and my disregard for rules what allow me to approach a problem and hear whenever it whispers its solution — which is most of the time? For instance, I delight in the types of quizzes that present a problem related to one element and which can be solved by that same element. Allow me to describe just one among a great variety of clever little bar challenges that are supposed to reward the perpetrator with a free drink: the well-known ‘How can you pick up three matches using only a fourth one?’ Here the problem has to do with fire (matches), and it is solved by fire. Set the three matches into a little tripod, red heads touching on top. Light the fourth match and bring the fire under the match heads, let it burn for a second, then gently blow. You can now lift the ‘welded’ tripod using only the fourth match because fire has fused the three heads together. Is it my unorthodox way of life that permits me, once I assemble a display of clever solutions, to know for sure that the best one is undoubtedly the most pleasing, the one exuding simplicity, elegance and poetry?

Petit echoes Mark Van Doren’s famous aphorism that “the art of teaching is the art of assisted discovery” in this anecdote about the intellectual spark of his early education experience:

I was measuring myself by dint of rejections and invitations while my experiments, mostly foolish, forged my personality. From 6 to 16, the only teachers I listened to were those who hardly talked to me: once a week, the old lady at the Art Institute and the old man at the Horseback Riding Academy. I was the youngest student at both places, and both those masters were miserly with their words, although expert at opening doors — and keeping them ajar — for their students to venture in (I always felt I was sneaking in). These two teachers were masters of instructions by gestures — instead of a verbal compliment, they offered a barely perceptible nod of the head. They favored education to come from within; they wanted their pupils to be overcome by the excitement of discovering. I remember vividly my first class in both establishments.

He argues against the industrialized model of formal education and makes a case for the autodidactic way:

The knowledge I acquired through constant struggle was much more valuable to me than if it had been dispensed by a talkative, didactic professor intending to fill my head. Today’s education, with its crash courses, its CliffsNotes, its how-to videos, its Internet instant answers and its multitude of shortcuts gives the impression of winning the race against time, but what it really does is spread insidiously the frailties of artificialness. I have the certitude that although the sum of my autodidactic discoveries took a long time to crystallize, I did not lose any time. In fact, I won; the result remains solidly anchored inside me, and it will fuel my creativity for the rest of my life.

(An ideal model for education would, of course, incorporate both, making room for “useful useless knowledge” and fostering a new culture of learning that borrows the best of both academia’s structured guidance and the curiosity-driven approach of the autodidact.)

Petit stresses the importance of integrating mind and body — an argument echoing sociologist Howard Gardner’s celebrated theory of multiple intelligences, among which is the bodily-kinetic.

It is by entering the road that leads to perfection that I will amaze and inspire myself, then by extension, inspire others. When the path is steep, I instruct my mind, my soul to pull my body by the sleeve. How could I pursue intellectual challenges were I not to remain awake and working furiously? How can my arts profit from the physical discipline of constant practice if I am not on an intellectual lookout, every second, to understand the reason something escapes my control? I must become my own coach, my own stage director, my own critic and reviewer. My thoughts must balance my actions.

I’ve turned self-correction into an art.

Petit ties this intermeshing of body and mind to the additive nature of creative influence, something we’ve recently discussed:

Definitely, body and mind swim in concert. So when I ‘attack’ (here, by electing this term, I choose to feel how aggressive and harsh a first step can be), when I attack a white sheet of Vergé with graphite to render a rigging knot, I become the rope. I travel backward in time inside the rope’s core, through my own naively truncated history of art: I hold hands for an instant with the vermillion dancers of Henri Matisse; I startle Egon Schiele as he is about to begin the self-portrait with his head bent; I carefully step over the creaky oak floor being scraped, so as not to disturb Gustave Caillebotte; I hide with Georges de La Tour to observe in delight the intricate pickpocketing choreography of three daring Gypsy girls; I help the young assistant of Leonardo da Vinci to tidy up the atelier before the master returns from his study at the morgue, and prior to entering the Lascaux cave to marvel at the freshly painted bison, I always find myself on Easter Island, standing still at the base of a giant Moai rock-smiling at me with all his sacred 30 tons.

Ultimately, Petit’s message is one of self-empowerment:

I make a dream come true via the dual conviction that life is not worth living if I do not dedicate it to the making of the dream and, simultaneously, that I would choose death over not working on making the dream come true!

Empowering, yes, but perhaps a bit extreme — then again, let’s not forget we’re taking advice from a man who walks on wire.

In a refreshing touch, each chapter of Cheating The Impossible — which you can get directly through TEDBooks for the full multimedia experience — is accompanied by Petit’s recommendation for a song and a work of literature that capture the essence of the section’s message — for the chapter titled “Where, why, when?,” for instance, Petit recommends Erik Satie’s Six Gnossiennes performed by pianist Evelyne Crochet and Italo Calvino’s story The Baron in the Trees, and for “In pursuit of the impossible,” he suggests a score of Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird” from The Queen’s Suite and Paul Auster’s Moon Palace.

Sample some of Petit’s singular brand of “holy madness” with his 2012 TED talk:

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31 JULY, 2012

Twenty Beloved New York Writers on the Magic of Central Park

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“You cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.”

New York has had its share of love letters, old and new and famous and private.

In Central Park: An Anthology (public library), Andrew Blauner collects twenty paeans to this one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city by twenty of its most celebrated authors. Adrian Benepe promises in the introduction:

Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions… .
It underscores the fact that Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishments of the nineteenth century. Once you add people and time, it becomes a ever-evolving work of art and performance art. It is central to our thinking, our style, and our magnificence.

And the slim but potent volume lives up to that promise.

In “Through the Children’s Gate,” Adam Gopnik brings a dimensional lens to one of New Yorkers’ most persistent and enduring laments: the city’s inescapable pace of change, with its embedded nostalgia for what once was and never will again be:

Still, croissants and crime are not lifestyle choices, to be taken according to taste; the reduction of fear, as anyone who has spent time in Harlem can attest, is a grace as large as any imaginable. To revise Chesterton slightly: People who refuse to be sentimental about the normal things don’t end up being sentimental about nothing; they end up being sentimental about anything, shedding tears over old muggings and the perfect, glittering shards of the little crack vials, sparkling like diamonds in the gutter. Où sont les neiges d’antan?: Who cares if the snows were all of cocaine? We saw them falling and our hearts were glad.

[…]

It is a strange thing to be the serpent in one’s own garden, the snake in one’s own grass. The suburbanization of New York is a fact, and a worrying one, and everyone has moments of real disappointment and distraction. The Soho where we came of age, with its organic intertwinings of art and food, commerce and cutting edge, is unrecognizable to us now— but then that Soho we knew was unrecognizable to its first émigrés, who by then had moved on to Tribeca. This is only to say that in the larger, inevitable human accounting of New York, there are gains and losses, a zero sum of urbanism: The great gain of civility and peace is offset by a loss of creative kinds of vitality and variety. (There are new horizons of Bohemia in Brooklyn and beyond, of course, but Brooklyn has its bards already, to sing its streets and smoke, as they will and do. My heart lies with the old island of small homes and big buildings, the sounds coming from one resonating against the sounding board of the other.)

But those losses are inevitably specific. There is always a new New York coming into being as the old one disappears. And that city— or cities; there are a lot of different ones on the same map— has its peculiar pleasures and absurdities as keen as any other’s. The one I awakened to, and into— partly by intellectual affinity, and much more by the ringing of an alarm clock every morning at seven— was the civilization of childhood in New York. The phrase is owed to Iona Opie, the great scholar of children’s games and rhymes, whom I got to interview once. “Childhood is a civilization with its own rules and rituals,” she told me, charmingly but flatly, long before I had children of my own. “Children never refer to each other as children. They call themselves, rightly, people, and tell you what it is that people like them— their people— believe and do.” The Children’s Gate exists; you really can go through it.

May pole in the park, May 1912 (Library of Congress)

In “Framed in Silver,” Mark Helprin reflects on the park through the dusty photographs of his own childhood:

My father and I are in Central Park, on the path that leads from the playground at Ninety-third Street toward the Reservoir. I am about two. It is not long after the war, still the first half of the twentieth century. I know nothing of what has passed. You can see in his face that as someone who was born as the century turned, my father knows perhaps too much. I know nothing of what is to come. Having lived through the great wars and the small, he does. We are walking together, he in a double-breasted great coat, I in an absurd snowsuit. He has a Liberty of London scarf, and his hair is still as black as it was in the desert. I come up to his midthigh, a hood surrounds my face, and on top of it, and my head, is a pompom.

We have passed the playground that was the setting of my first dream, in which I flew from one outcropping of granite to another. Unknowing of the nature of dreams, when I awoke I believed that I had actually flown. I’m holding my father’s hand, or, rather, he is holding mine, which disappears quite easily in his. Confident of his absolute protection, I think that as long as I am tethered and close, nothing can ever hurt me. He knows better.

Although I dreamed that I could fly, I would not have dreamed that someday I would look back upon the invisible paths made by those whom I love and who are gone, that the picture in which I am walking in Central Park with my father would darken over time, like a clock about to mark the inevitable moment in which I will rejoin him. And then, perhaps as now I am aware of the invisible paths made by others, still others might feel, like the breeze you cannot see, the invisible paths made by me.

Portrait of Doris Day and Kitty Kallen, Central Park, April 1947 (Library of Congress)

In “The Colossus of New York,” Colson Whitehead paints a mosaic portrait of the archetypes you’re promised to encounter in the park — the hipsters, the socialite ladies, the entitled parents, the photographers, the lovers. And, of course, the runners:

SO MANY PEOPLE running. Is something chasing them. Yes, something different is chasing each of them and gaining slowly. She feels fit and trim. People remove layers one by one the deeper they get into the park. The sweaters keep falling from their waists no matter how they tie them. The matching strides of the jogging pair give no indication that after she tells her secret he will stop and bend and put his palms to his knees. Like some of the trees here, some of today’s miseries are evergreen. Others merely deciduous. This is his tenth attempt to join the jogging culture. This latest outfit will do the trick. Pant and heave. How much farther. Reservoir of what. Small devices keep track of ingrown miles. Unfold these laps from their tight circuit to make marathons. It’s his best time yet, never to be repeated. If he had known, he would have saved it for after a hard day at the office or a marital argument. Instead all he has is sweat stains to commemorate. One convert says, I’m going to come here every day from now on. It’s so refreshing.

In “Some Music in the Park,” Francine Prose traces the history of the park as a stage for music and politics:

There was nothing neutral about Nina Simone’s performance. She sang “Strange Fruit,” which is about the bodies of lynching victims hanging from trees in the South. She sang “Four Women,” which is about the oppression— slavery, rape, prostitution— of African American women. She sang “Mississippi Goddam,” a song inspired by the murder of Medgar Evers and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls. Every time she said Goddam, she spit the word at the audience. I had never seen a performer, let alone a woman, let alone a black woman, be that angry on stage. She was telling us that, to paraphrase a saying popular in those days, we were not part of the solution; we were part of the problem.

Kids coasting in the park, ca. 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

In “The Sixth Borough,” Jonathan Safran Foer (he of Tree of Codes fame) weaves a whimsical alternative mythology, in which a sixth borough mysteriously floats away from the island of Manhattan, but a piece of it is transplanted — literally, lifted off with giant hooks and pulled by the people of New York into its new place — to become what we know as Central Park:

Children were allowed to lie down on the park as it was being moved. This was considered a concession, although no one knew why a concession was necessary, or why it was to children that this concession must be made. The biggest fireworks show in history lighted the skies of New York City that night, and the Philharmonic played its heart out. The children of New York lay on their backs, body to body, filling every inch of the park as if it had been designed for them and that moment. The fireworks sprinkled down, dissolving in the air just before they reached the ground, and the children were pulled, one inch and one second at a time, into Manhattan and adulthood. By the time the park found its current resting place, every single one of the children had fallen asleep, and the park was a mosaic of their dreams. Some hollered out, some smiled unconsciously, some were perfectly still.

Was there really a Sixth Borough?

There’s no irrefutable evidence. There’s nothing that could convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced.

Foer does what he does best, grounding the escapist whimsy back into a brilliantly human reality:

[I]t’s hard for anyone, even the most cynical of cynics, to spend more than a few minutes in Central Park without feeling that he or she is experiencing some tense in addition to just the present. Maybe it’s our own nostalgia for what’s past, or our own hopes for what’s to come. Or maybe it’s the residue of the dreams from that night the park was moved, when all of the children of New York City exercised their subconsciouses at once. Maybe we miss what they had lost, and yearn for what they wanted.

Toy yachts in the pond, 1910 (Library of Congress)

In “Fogg in the Park,” Paul Auster juxtaposes the unspoken behavioral governance of the city with the parallel universe of the park:

To walk among the crowd means never going faster than anyone else, never lagging behind your neighbor, never doing anything to disrupt the flow of human traffic. If you play by the rules of this game, people will tend to ignore you. There is a particular glaze that comes over the eyes of New Yorkers when they walk through the streets, a natural and perhaps necessary form of indifference to others. It doesn’t matter how you look, for example. Outrageous costumes, bizarre hairdos, T-shirts with obscene slogans printed across them— no one pays attention to such things. On the other hand, the way you act inside your clothes is of the utmost importance. Odd gestures of any kind are automatically taken as a threat. Talking out loud to yourself, scratching your body, looking someone directly in the eye: these deviations can trigger off hostile and sometimes violent reactions from those around you. You must not stagger or swoon, you must not clutch the walls, you must not sing, for all forms of spontaneous or involuntary behavior are sure to elicit stares, caustic remarks, and even an occasional shove or kick in the shins. I was not so far gone that I received any treatment of that sort, but I saw it happen to others, and I knew that a day might eventually come when I wouldn’t be able to control myself anymore. By contrast, life in Central Park allowed for a much broader range of variables. No one thought twice if you stretched out on the grass and went to sleep in the middle of the day. No one blinked if you sat under a tree and did nothing, if you played your clarinet, if you howled at the top of your lungs. Except for the office workers who lurked around the fringes of the park at lunch hour, the majority of people who came in there acted as if they were on holiday. The same things that would have alarmed them in the streets were dismissed as casual amusements. People smiled at each other and held hands, bent their bodies into unusual shapes, kissed. It was live and let live, and as long as you did not actively interfere with what others were doing, you were free to do what you liked.

What emerges is a meditation on what it means to be oneself:

In the park, I did not have to carry around this burden of self-consciousness. It gave me a threshold, a boundary, a way to distinguish between the inside and the outside. If the streets forced me to see myself as others saw me, the park gave me a chance to return to my inner life, to hold on to myself purely in terms of what was happening inside me. It is possible to survive without a roof over your head, I discovered, but you cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.

[…]

Perhaps that was all I had set out to prove in the first place: that once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before, things that cannot be learned under any other circumstances.

Auto wreck in Central Park, 1912 (Library of Congress)

Like its subject, Central Park: An Anthology is woven of the kind of magic that summons wildly different multiverses and commands them to fold unto each other with fluidity and grace as a single enchanted world unfolds.

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