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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

16 MAY, 2014

Artist Matt Freedman’s Courageous Visual Diary of Cancer

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A graphic chronicle emanating honesty and humor — our two greatest weapons in the face of helplessness.

Graphic nonfiction is becoming an increasingly compelling medium for using comics to tackle serious subjects. Meanwhile, the visual arts are being enlisted in exploring the most private nooks of mental health, with projects like Bobby Baker’s visual diary of depression and children’s drawings of living with autism. Now comes Relatively Indolent But Relentless: A Cancer Treatment Journal (public library) — a remarkable visual chronicle by New York-based artist, writer, and curator Matt Freedman, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cystic carcinoma in the fall of 2012, an aggressive cancer that had already spread from his tongue to his throat and lungs by the time it was detected. Before beginning the grueling treatment, Freedman, who teaches in the Visual Studies program at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, received a blank sketchbook as a gift from his colleagues and students. Over the course of his reality-rupturing experience, he proceeded to fill it up with simple sketches that emanate incredible honesty and humor — perhaps our two greatest weapons in the face of helplessness.

Freedman writes in the preface:

I was facing about seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. If I completed just four pages a day, I would fill the entire 240-page book by the time I was done. That looked like a good trade: a notebook filled with words and pictures in exchange for simply living through an unavoidable ordeal…

Completing the process and completing the book took much the same underwhelming commitment: day-to-day incremental progress that led to final results that were impossible to imagine at the beginning.

From trying to figure out what might have caused the cancer (was it the mouthguard he had made, which “sort of worked, but not really, and not for long” and which his dog licked every chance she got?) to grappling with the inevitable why me anger (“I believe I am average and that only average things can happen to me.”) to surrendering to the anguishing anxiety of the uncertain outcome, Freedman rigorously recorded the psychoemotional roller-coaster of his two-month radiation therapy.

He began each of his daily sketches like he did his treatment: with no guarantees, not knowing where things would go. Fittingly, the unpolished rawness of his sketchbook style mirrors the reality of his experience — sometimes frantic, sometimes uneventful, sometimes dark, sometimes hopeful, often messy, always imbued with the courage of simply showing up for life and its unforgiving curveballs. What emerges is not a grand philosophical epiphany but a tapestry of details, reminding us that life often happens in the small moments between the big news, the diagnoses, the traumas and the triumphs.

Relatively Indolent But Relentless is stirring and beautiful in its entirety, and draws as close to delightful as its subject allows. It comes from indie publisher Seven Stories Press, who also gave us graphic artists’ reimaginings of the literary canon.

via Steve Heller

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16 MAY, 2014

Muriel Rukeyser on the Root of Our Resistance to Poetry, What It Shares with Science, and How It Expands our Lives

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“However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.”

One sweltering New York afternoon some years ago, I was sitting across from a dear friend several decades my senior as I mentioned, with the matter-of-factly, arrogant naiveté of someone who does that sort of thing, that I didn’t care for poetry. Without missing a beat, she began reciting e.e. cummings in the middle of that bustling Manhattan café. And just like that, everything changed — this was the beginning.

But even though Joseph Brodsky believed that poetry is the key to developing our taste in culture and James Dickey wrote that it “makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” my reaction that summer Tuesday was far from uncommon — as a society, we seem to harbor a strange resistance to poetry, a stubborn refusal to recognize that it contains what Wordsworth called “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”

It’s a resistance that “has the qualities of fear.” So argues the magnificent Muriel Rukeyser in the 1949 treasure The Life of Poetry (public library) — a wise and wonderful exploration of all the ways in which we keep ourselves from the gift of an art so elemental yet so transcendent, so infinitely soul-stretching, so capable of Truth.

Rukeyser writes in the foreword:

A way to allow people to feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world, to feel the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and to understand, in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities. . . . There is an art which gives us that way; and it is, in our society, an outcast art.

In this book, I have tried to track down the resistances to poetry, with every kind of “boredom” and “impatience,” the name-calling which says that poetry is “intellectual and obscure and confused and sexually suspect.” How much of this is true, and how much can be traced to the corruption of consciousness? We can see what these attitudes mean, in impoverishment of the imagination, to audience and to artist, both of whom are deeply affected.

In seeking to “go behind the resistances,” Rukeyser considers the parallels between poetry and science:

The relations of poetry are … very close to the relations of science. It is not a matter of using the results of science, but of seeing that there is a meeting-place between all the kinds of imagination. Poetry can provide that meeting-place…

A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between individual consciousness and the world. The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions… To accept poetry in these meanings would make it possible for people to use it as an “exercise,” an enjoyment of the possibility of dealing with the meanings in the world and in their lives.

It is curious — and curiously assuring — to note that all the reasons Rukeyser considered poetry timely in 1949 ring with double urgency in the context of today:

In this moment we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.

If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.

Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has — the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge — infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

She returns to poetry’s singular role in relation to science and the other arts:

Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember this other kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these — the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives — the attitude of poetry.

She offers a necessary definition of the nature and purpose of poetry in a sentiment that Alain de Botton would come to echo more than half a century later in asserting that “art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.” Rukeyser writes:

Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling, and what is the use of truth?

[…]

However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.

And yet of all the arts, Rukeyser argues, poetry has been made “the least acceptable” — in large part due to our chronic perplexity in the face of emotions and our clinging to the false divide between emotion and the intellect. In examining the root of our resistance to poetry, a fear that “presents the symptoms of a psychic problem,” Rukeyser writes:

A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better that that: a poem invites a total response.

This response it total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually — that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too — but the way is through emotion, thorough what we call feeling.

(To grasp this roundabout rousing of the intellect via emotion, one need only consider the original 1943 review of The Little Prince — a children’s classic immeasurably poetic in spirit — which captured this beautifully: “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”)

In returning to the various reactionaries who denounce poetry, Rukeyser considers “the roots of communication” in defining poetry:

Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source.

And yet we are cut off from the source early in life. In a sentiment that seems to paraphrase Picasso’s famous assertion that “every child is an artist,” Rukeyser argues that every child is a poet:

The fear that cuts off poetry is profound: it plunges us deep, far back to the edge of childhood. Beyond that it does not go.

Little children do not have this fear, they trust their emotions. But on the threshold of adolescence the walls are built.

[…]

In adults, you know those who put poetry far behind them; not naturally, like children outgrowing toys who forget them (or beat them to pieces), but with a painful shocked awareness that here was something outside their reach.

The same adults, no doubt, sit in cafés and proclaim their disdain for poetry. And that disdain is planted in us as soon as the natural inclination for the poetic is schooled out of us, quite literally — Rukeyser echoes Buckminster Fuller’s lament about the specialization of education and revisits the parallels between poetry and science:

Our education is one of specialization. We become experts in some narrow “field.” That expertness allows us to deal with the limited problems presented to us; it allows us to face emotional reality, symbolic reality, very little… A first-rate scientist, or a fine prose writer, is able to say “How can I know a good poem? I can tell an honest piece of work in my own field from a phony piece of work, but how can I tell a fine poem from a phony poem?” And what has to be said to such a question is that these are people who cannot trust their emotional reactions, their total reactions.

Our mistrust of the emotions, she argues, is a special kind of insecurity — and yet until we are able to embrace the interconnectedness of all pieces of ourselves, to integrate them with grace, we will remain ruptured by our inner incompleteness. The promise of poetry is ultimately one of integration:

This gathering-together of elements so that they move together according to a newly visible system is becoming evident in all our sciences, and it is natural that it should be present in our writing. Wherever it exists, it gives us a clue as to a possible kind of imagination with which to meet the world. It gives us a clue that may lead to a way to deal with any unity which depends on many elements, all inter-dependent.

The Life of Poetry is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry, Edward Hirsch on how to read a poem, and Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry.

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15 MAY, 2014

Writing for the Godless: Flannery O’Connor on Dogma, Belief, and the Difference Between Religion and Faith

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“For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction.”

As humans, we are wired to cling tightly to our beliefs, even the most delusional, and to automatically dismiss conflicting evidence. This is especially true in areas where our beliefs are particularly charged, such as politics and religion. For those of us skeptical of organized religion, who find transcendence in nature and spirituality in science, who fall closer to the atheism end of the belief spectrum, it’s especially challenging to consider perspectives on faith that come from the other end. But something magical happens when we allow the walls of the psyche to soften and become permeable, if only for a moment, to another’s experience of the world — little compares to the self-transcendence that such receptivity invites.

One of the most extraordinary meditations on religion and the role of spirituality in society comes from beloved author Flannery O’Connor, whose writing blended her Catholic faith with strong secular themes of ethics and moral philosophy, and nowhere does her singular spirit shine more luminously than in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (public library).

In July of 1955, when she was thirty, O’Connor received a letter from a young woman, initially unknown to her, who later chose to remain anonymous upon the publication of the letters. Both hungry for conversation and intrigued by the woman’s intensity of conviction, the author felt compelled to reply, and so began a nine-year epistolary friendship that continued until O’Connor’s death in 1964 from complications due to lupus. The letters to “A.” are among the most extraordinary in the collection, exploring with remarkable dignity and dimensionality matters of faith and religion, the difference between the two, and the role of spirituality in O’Connor’s writing and her personhood.

Flannery O'Connor by De Casseres

In her first letter to the young woman, dated July 20, 1955, O’Connor writes:

I am very pleased to have your letter. Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for you to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. The distance is 87 miles but I feel the spiritual distance is shorter.

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It’s to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

Lamenting the triteness of reviews that call A Good Man Is Hard to Find “brutal and sarcastic,” O’Connor wryly notes:

The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

In the next letter, dated August 2, O’Connor apologizes for responding so promptly that it forces a pace beyond her correspondent’s time budget, then arms up the conversation with a similarly sweet and self-deprecating remark about the creative life:

I myself am afflicted with time, as I do not work out on account of an energy-depriving ailment and my work in, being creative, can go on only a few hours a day. I live on a farm and don’t see many people. My avocation is raising peacocks, something that requires everything of the peacock and nothing of me, so time is always at hand.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

She then resumes the question of “Christian realism,” about which her correspondent seems to feel particularly strongly:

I believe too that there is only one Reality and that that is the end of it, but the term, “Christian Realism,” has become necessary for me, perhaps in a purely academic way, because I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs. One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

In considering the misinterpretation and misapplication of dogma, O’Connor makes an allusion that would later inspire the title of the fantastic posthumous collection of her essays and writings, Mystery and Manners:

Dogma can in no way limit a limitless God. The person outside the Church attaches a different meaning to it than the person in. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind. Henry James said the young woman of the future would know nothing of mystery or manners. He had no business to limit it to one sex.

O’Connor has a way of letting her subtle wit slip in through the backdoor of even her most serious convictions:

I won’t ever be able entirely to understand my own work or even my own motivations. It is first of all a gift, but the direction it has taken has been because of the Church in me or the effect of the Church’s teaching, not because of a personal perception or love of God. For you to think this would be possible because of your ignorance of me; for me to think it would be sinful in a high degree. I am not a mystic and I do not lead a holy life. Not that I can claim any interesting or pleasurable sins (my sense of the devil is strong) but I know all about the garden variety, pride, gluttony, envy and sloth, and what is more to the point, my virtues are as timid as my vices. I think sin occasionally brings one closer to God, but not habitual sin and not this petty kind that blocks every small good. A working knowledge of the devil can be very well had from resisting him.

However, the individual in the Church is, no matter how worthless himself, a part of the Body of Christ and a participator in the Redemption. There is no blueprint that the Church gives for understanding this. It is a matter of faith and the Church can force no one to believe it. When I ask myself how I know I believe, I have no satisfactory answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say with Peter, Lord I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God, is, Lord help me in my lack of it. I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth. I try militantly never to be affected by the pious language of the faithful but it is always coming out when you least expect it. In contrast to the pious language of the faithful, the liturgy is beautifully flat.

In another letter from a week later, O’Connor writes:

In the face of anyone’s experience, someone like myself who has had almost no experience, must be humble. I will never have the experience of the convert, or of the one who fails to be converted, or even in all probability of the formidable sinner; but your effort not to be seduced by the Church moves me greatly. God permits it for some reason though it is the devil’s greatest work of hallucination. Fr. [Jean] de Menasce told somebody not to come into the Church until he felt it would be an enlargement of his freedom. This is what you are doing and you are right, but do not make your feeling of the voluptuous seductive powers of the Church into a hard shell to protect yourself from her. I suppose it is like marriage, that when you get into it, you find it is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work.

She adds:

I think most people come to the Church by means the Church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all. However, this is true inside as well, as the operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.

Cartoon by Flannery O'Connor. Click images for details.

O’Connor ends with an intimation that not only bespeaks her lucid, intelligent approach to the subject, but also calls to mind Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of The Lord’s Prayer with a sentiment that would’ve gladdened Carl Sagan:

I have some long and tall thoughts on the subject of God’s working through nature, but I will not inflict them on you now. I find I have a habit of announcing the obvious in pompous and dogmatic periods. I like to forget that I’m only a storyteller.

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor is a gorgeous and revelational read in its totality, emanating the timeless beauty of an inner life cut tragically short by an untimely death. Complement it with O’Connor on why the grotesque appeals to us and her little-known satirical cartoons.

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