Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

30 OCTOBER, 2014

The Hand Through the Fence: Pablo Neruda on What a Childhood Encounter Taught Him About Writing and Why We Make Art

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“To feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know … widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

Since our cave-dwelling days, the question of why we make art and why we enjoy it has haunted us as a perennial specter of the human experience. For Leo Tolstoy, it was about the transference of “emotional infectiousness”; for Jeanette Winterson, about “active surrender”; for Oscar Wilde, about cultivating a “temperament of receptivity.”

That question is what beloved Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda answers with unparalleled elegance in a short essay from the early 1950s titled “Childhood and Poetry,” found in the altogether enchanting collection Neruda and Vallejo (public library).

Neruda relays an anecdote from his childhood that profoundly influenced not only his poetry but also his understanding of art and of life itself:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

He never saw the hand nor the boy it belonged to again. The lamb toy perished in a fire years later. But that boyhood encounter, with the simplicity of its symbolism, impressed upon him a lifelong learning — the second he grasped that faded-wool lamb he grasped a deep truth about the longing for mutuality that impels us to make art:

To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together…

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

Also included in the volume is a 1966 interview by Bly under the title “The Lamb and the Pine Cone,” in which Neruda revisits the formative incident and how it shaped his understanding of the creative experience:

This exchange of gifts — mysterious — settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit.

Neruda and Vallejo is a joy in its entirety. Complement it with Tom O’Bedlam’s beautiful reading of Neruda’s “Ode to the Book” and Robert Henri on how art binds us together.

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30 OCTOBER, 2014

Jazz Legend Bill Evans on the Creative Process, Self-Teaching, and Balancing Clarity with Spontaneity in Problem-Solving

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“The person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time.”

In a 1915 letter to his young son, Albert Einstein advised that the best way to learn anything is “when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” Many decades later, psychologists would give a name to this distinctive, exhilarating state of immersive, self-initiated learning and creative growth: flow. Again and again, artists, writers, scientists, and other creators have described this state as the key to the “spiritual electricity” of creative work.

In 1966, legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980) sat down with his composer brother, Harry Evans, for an intense and deeply insightful conversation later released as Universal Mind of Bill Evans: The Creative Process and Self-Teaching. From filmmaker William Meier comes this gorgeous cinematic adaptation of Evans’s thoughts on the autodidactic quality of creativity and the value of working at the intersection of clarity, complexity, and spontaneity.

Here is a longer excerpt from the documentary, where Evans discusses the step-by-step process of creative problem-solving:

The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play jazz is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense, conscious-concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more.

I don’t consider myself as talented as many people but in some ways that was an advantage because I didn’t have a great facility immediately so I had to be more analytical and in a way — that forced me to build something.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and that he has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure. They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general [that] they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance.

Universal Mind of Bill Evans is revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with the great composer Aaron Copland on the conditions of creativity and Julia Cameron on how to get out of your own way and unblock creative flow.

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29 OCTOBER, 2014

At Home with Themselves: Sage Sohier’s Moving Portraits of Same-Sex Couples in the 1980s

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A tender, thoughtful lens on life and love in the margins.

By the second half of the twentieth century, same-sex love had undergone a tumultuous journey — in the middle ages, widely held male bonding ceremonies condoned the same love that would become punishable by death just a couple of centuries later; and yet in the 19th century, America’s first gay bar appeared, while women engaged in “romantic friendships” and even married each other, all within society’s transparent closet; but by the early twentieth century, the closet had become increasingly opaque — even luminaries like Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and Margaret Mead celebrated their same-sex love only in private and queer couples lived in secret; those who dared not to conceal their lives were persecuted and punished — public tragedies like the fate of computing pioneer Alan Turing were only the tip of a chilling iceberg of injustice.

And yet love being love, perhaps the most remarkably resilient phenomenon the human heart will ever know, it persevered. The 1970s brought the first pride parades and a new era of civil rights for the LGBT community commenced.

The mid-1980s were a time of particular upheaval for the plight of same-sex families — a time when kids were writing Judy Blume endearing and exasperated letters about being gay, a time when the world saw its first children’s book about a two-mom family, a time when today’s inclusive ideas about what makes a family, not to mention the prospect of marriage equality in the eyes of the law, seemed like a radical proposition yet defined the daily reality of those courageous queer families who withstood the bigotry of the mainstream and lived their lives, at once extraordinary and extraordinarily ordinary, with dignity and grace.

Stephanie and Monica, Boston, 1987

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

It was at this peculiar point in history that photographer Sage Sohier began her tenderly thoughtful project At Home with Themselves: Same-Sex Couples in 1980s America — a series of intimate photographs and interviews, documenting the simple human truths behind the cultural complexities of queer love.

Chuck and Jerry, Methuen, MA, 1986

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Sheila and Dorothy, Santa Fe, 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

The project sprang from a deeply personal place — a few years earlier, Sohier had found herself at once startled and unsurprised to learn that her father was gay. Her cousin had spotted him dancing with a young man in a New York City nightclub and the incident instantly made him make sense — Sohier parents had divorced when she and her sister were still toddlers, and despite being a handsome and eligible bachelor, her father had never remarried. Sohier writes in the introduction:

My sister and I began reinterpreting history and realized that somewhere in our teens the beautiful young women he brought out to dine with us were replaced by beautiful young men, each one introduced as “a colleague from my law office.”

Craig and Bob, Provincetown, MA, 1986

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

But despite the discovery, Sohier’s father didn’t come out to her and “it became increasingly clear that he didn’t intend to” — the wall between father and daughter may have suddenly become transparent, but it was still a wall and still a source of anguishing separation. The project became Sohier’s way of knowing her father, of offering him the implicit acceptance for which he was too timid or terrified to ask. She writes:

Some years later, a means of tackling this subject with some degree of indirection presented itself. In the spring of 1988, I was just finishing my same-sex couples project. It had taken me almost halfway into the project to realize that I had been inspired to a great extent by my lifelong curiosity about my father and more recent curiosity about his lifestyle. I was in New York showing the work to galleries and museums, and decided to call and see if my father was in town. He invited me over for lunch the next day; I had my portfolio with me, but figured I would never get up the nerve to show it to him. His partner, Lee, answered the door when I rang…. Lee made sandwiches for us while I chatted with my father. I mentioned my project and, after some urging from Lee, showed them my photographs. My father appeared to be interested, amused, and touched. As we kissed goodbye later, his eyes teared up. His emotion and relief at my coming out for him was palpable.

This compassionate curiosity for her father’s lifestyle and inner life is what Sohier brings to the many couples she photographs in the project — a kind of quiet humility before their love and unconditional celebration of its many dimensions, from the romantic to the sexual to the domestic.

Herb (38) and Dana (29), together almost 2 years. Quincy, MA, March 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

DANA: I didn’t want to grow old and grab somebody out of desperation. I wanted to grow old with somebody.

Pinky (31) and Diane (39), together 8 years. Kenner, Louisiana, April 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

DIANE: If I put on a dress I feel like a drag queen. There’s nothing feminine about me. I’ve given birth 8 times, I’m a good mother, I love my children dearly — I don’t want to be their father, I am their mother — but dresses aren’t my thing you know; make-up’s not my thing, even when I was married to my husband.

Steve (31) and Tom (29), together 4 years. Key West, Florida, March 1987

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

TOM: When I met Steve, I was very rebellious with the church, and it fascinated me that Steven was gay and involved with the church at the same time. I had a very fundamentalist background, so it was very hard for me to come out ’cause I had all these religious friends who told me I was going to hell. [I went to a] Bible college, so I didn’t have a pretty time at first. I was running around with friends that drank and took drugs, and Steven rarely drank, wasn’t into drugs, so that fascinated me. And he was very sweet and gentle.

What makes the project so wonderfully disorienting is that it reminds us, ever so subtly, that we are always a product of our era’s normative biases — cultural, social, political, even technological. It is hard to imagine today, in our age of selfies and the general compulsion to share every sliver of the self on social media, just how much courage it must have taken for these couples to face the camera with their most intimate, private, vulnerable selves as same-sex couples. And yet the act of doing so channels the simple, profound sentiment Andrew Sullivan would come to write in his pioneering essay on the subject a few years later: “Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”

To see and be seen, I continue to believe, are the greatest gifts we can give one another. Sohier’s project is a masterwork of generosity.

Jean (37) and Elaine (67), together 4 months. Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Her choice of black-and-white film also adds an element of timelessness, as if to remind us that love, whatever its permutations, has always been the single most immutable presence in the human journey. Flowing from Sohier’s lens are what Isaac Asimov called “the soft bonds of love” — the same invisible threads of belonging that pulled our cave-dwelling ancestors toward one another and continue to bind every couple who ever lived.

Brian (68) and Hanns (65), together 28 years. Key West, Florida, January 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Sohier reflects on the pioneering bravery of her subjects:

[In some photographs] there’s a tentativeness, in others a kind of not-to-be-taken-for-granted raw tenderness. People in my father’s generation had grown up feeling that being openly gay was just not an acceptable option. In my generation that began to change, and I was grateful to be witness to it.

It’s a wonderful step forward for the civil rights of this country and our collective humanity that same-sex relationships and marriages have become accepted and celebrated. It’s important, though, to recognize that these relationships have always existed, and, in many cases, thrived. They were often discreet, and many lived their lives in the margins. But the success of the same-sex marriage movement would not be possible without the efforts of all those couples who came before and who worked to achieve this goal. Their private love, and their persistence in going public with it, should never be forgotten.

Captivated by “the visual novelty yet total ordinariness of these same-sex relationships,” Sohier decided to complement the photographs with extensive interviews. Echoing Susan Sontag’s unforgettable insight into the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography — Sontag, appropriately, was busy subverting sexual stereotypes at that very moment — Sohier writes:

A photograph derives its strength from the singularity of its assertion, but people’s lives and beliefs are more complex than that.

At Home with Themselves is many layers of beautiful and thoughtful in its entirety. Complement it with The Invisibles, Sébastien Lifshitz’s spectacular portraits of same-sex couples in Europe in the early twentieth century, then revisit Edith Windsor, perhaps the single most important person in the modern marriage equality movement, on what equality really means.

Thanks, Wendy

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